A Jeep Wrangler with glowing headlights parked in front of the Temple of the Sun in Capitol Reef National Park, a red sandstone monolith

A Guide to Driving Cathedral Valley Loop in Capitol Reef National Park

Trying to decide if you should drive the Cathedral Valley Loop in Capitol Reef National Park? Want to know what you'll see along the way and how to prepare? We've got everything you need to know in this guide.

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The vast majority of visitors to Capitol Reef National Park will drive State Route 24, hitting the popular roadside stops, and do the Scenic Drive into the heart of the park. But Capitol Reef, an underrated member of Utah’s “Big Five”, is home to an area of unparalleled landscapes that often go unnoticed.

It’s estimated that only 1% of those who pass through Capitol Reef will see the Cathedral Valley. That’s understandable when you learn that the only way to access it is via a 4x4 dirt road, that begins with a river crossing and leads into desert backcountry.

You may be wondering if you should drive the loop road into Cathedral Valley. We did and we actually spent multiple days exploring this incredibly unique landscape. Now we’ve put together this guide to the Cathedral Valley Loop Scenic Drive with everything you need to know about planning your own adventure and what you’ll see along the way.

A woman's small silhouette can be seen between two massive rock formations during sunrise with the Temple of the Sun monolith in the far distance catching the morning light

Orientation to the Area

The Cathedral Valley Loop is a 57.6 mile route on the northern end of Capitol Reef National Park. It's located about 12 miles east of the visitor center, off Utah State Route 24. The recommended approach is to drive the loop clockwise, meaning you’ll begin on the Hartnet Road junction and exit back onto 24 on Cathedral Road in Caineville.

Including a few short spur roads to visit overlooks and the Temples of the Sun and Moon, the total drive will be about 65.6 miles and takes between 4 and 8 hours on average, but you should plan to dedicate an entire day to the trip.

A topographic map of the Cathedral Valley area of Capitol Reef National Park showing roads and points of interest. Credit: National Park Service
Map of Cathedral Valley Loop. Credit: National Park Service

Preparation and Safety

The road into Cathedral Valley is only one factor when planning your visit. While it is unpaved, sometimes crossing over rocky dry washes, other times through potentially deep patches of soft sand, it’s do-able for just about any capable SUV or other high clearance vehicle.

We read countless descriptions before heading out on our own. Some cautioned drivers against attempting it with anything less than a 4x4 Jeep. Others said that, as long as conditions were dry, it could be done in a van or just about any vehicle.

A Jeep Wrangler sits framed between two dead trees in an otherwise desolate and sandy landscape on the Cathedral Valley Loop in Capitol Reef National ParkA view looking out the front windshield of a Jeep onto the washboard dirt road leading through the Bentonite Hills on Cathedral Valley Loop

Based on our own experience, we wouldn’t try it in anything other than a 4x4 or AWD high clearance vehicle. Not because of the road alone, but because of all the other factors that could combine to put you in a very bad situation.

You see, Cathedral Valley is a place of extremes. Temperatures can dip below freezing depending on the time of year. Highs during the summer can climb above 90F. Storms may appear suddenly. Heavy rains or snowmelt can wash out roads or make them impassable.

In a remote area with no cell phone coverage and no access to potable water, you don’t want to get stuck. The National Park Service warns visitors to be prepared to wait hours or even days for assistance.

What to Bring

So, how can you properly prepare and what should you bring on the drive into Cathedral Valley? Here are a few recommendations:

Plenty of water | At a minimum, bring one gallon per person for each day you expect to be traveling. Then add at least one extra day so you’re covered for an emergency. Again, there is no access to potable water in the valley. Instead of individual bottles, remember to bring a reusable bottle.

Food | Plan for an unexpected overnight stay and have plenty with you. A few high energy snacks we love to have on adventures are Clif bars, some delicious honey waffles, and Solely fruit jerky.

Extra clothing | Even during the summer, temperatures can vary 30F between day and night.

Sun protection | A hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen are a must. You should also consider some SPF clothing to shield you from UV rays. The sun at 7000 ft above sea level is intense and there is little to no shade throughout the drive.

First aid | Make sure you’re prepared for minor injuries along the way, remembering that there is no reliable cell phone coverage and assistance could take a long time to reach you. Toss a basic first aid kit in the car so you have what you need.

Self-rescue equipment | On that note, you should also be prepared to free your vehicle if you do happen to get stuck. A shovel, recovery boards, spare tire, jack, and other tools could prove valuable.

Maps |  Download offline maps for your phone, but make sure you have a paper copy back-up. The Capitol Reef Visitor Center sells a guide specifically for the drive. It includes a detailed map and information on the route broken down by mile markers for each waypoint or stop along the Cathedral Valley loop road. Not only will it keep you oriented to where you are, it provides plenty of insight on the history and geology of the area.

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Close up on a man's hands holding a brochure of the Cathedral Valley loop tour in front of a steering wheel

Vehicle Rental

Not wanting to risk the drive in our RWD Ford Transit we knew we needed to rent a vehicle for the drive. Unfortunately, the area around Capitol Reef is lacking in terms of 4x4 rentals.

We were only able to find one company in the immediate area that rents vehicles: Capitol Reef Jeep Rentals. They have two Jeep Wranglers, a two door and a four door. We were able to get the four door during the weekend we visited and had a terrific experience. The Jeep was more than capable enough for the drive and our rental included 150 miles per day.

A woman stands in the open doorway of a Jeep Wrangler with its headlights on in front of the massive Temple of the Sun sandstone monolith at dawn

One point worth noting is that the Jeep does have to be washed and vacuumed out before you return it. The only car wash in the area is in the next town over, Bicknell, about a 10 minute drive one way. We’d suggest bringing plenty of quarters for the car wash as well, because when we got there the credit card machine and coin changer weren’t working.

If you’re making the drive from, for instance, Salt Lake City, then you might have a much easier time renting a 4x4 or AWD vehicle. Keep in mind, however, that your rental agreement from any standard agency probably won’t cover you to drive on unpaved roads.

If you’d rather not swallow the cost of renting a capable vehicle or are thinking that you’d like to have a knowledgeable guide with you, there are some companies in the area who do offer ATV or guided Jeep tours of Cathedral Valley.

Weather and Road Conditions

Before setting out, you’ll want to verify the current road conditions and double check the weather forecast.

A report of the most up-to-date road conditions is available by calling the NPS at 435-425-3791 and following the prompts. You can also listen to a weather report on this line, but a Capitol Reef specific forecast is available online here, for the most accurate weather conditions.

Driving Cathedral Valley Loop

Since it’s recommended that you drive the route clockwise, that’s the order we’ll describe it in. The reason you should normally drive clockwise is because the very first thing you’ll need to do is cross the Fremont River.

If the river is impassable, it’s better to know that right at the beginning, rather than driving the whole loop, only to realize that you need to turn around and drive several hours in the other direction.

River Crossing

At the junction of Utah State Route 24 and Hartnet Road you’ll leave the pavement and turn onto a maintained gravel road. Follow it to the east for half a mile before turning left and arriving at the river crossing.

The Fremont River has a hard packed, rocky bottom and the water typically flows at about 12 inches or less. With a high clearance vehicle this is no sweat, but conditions can vary, especially in the spring or after storms. The approaches on either bank can become soft or turn into sharp drop-offs, so make sure you inspect everything before entering the river.

Because the water is shallowest on the south side of the river, you should stay to the right, then turn sharply to exit, about 100 feet from the entry point.

If the water level is too high and the river becomes impassable, it could still be possible to enter the loop from the Cathedral Road junction in Caineville. From here, you can at least visit the Temples of the Sun and Moon, which are about 20 miles from Route 24. Just be aware that if there has been recent rain and the river is flooded, there’s a good chance that the entire road could be impassable.

A Jeep Wrangler driving through the shallow water of the Fremont River along the Cathedral Valley LoopView out the front windshield of a Jeep as it drives through the water at the Fremont River crossing on the Cathedral Valley Loop

Drilling truck and well

Seven miles into the journey you’ll encounter the first point of interest, an old well drilled by ranchers for their cattle. The water is unsafe to drink, but it’s interesting to have a look around at the rusted out drilling truck that’s been left behind.

An old bullet riddled and rusted well drilling truck from the mid-20th century sits with its tires buried in the sand on the Cathedral Valley Loop in Capitol Reef National Park

Bentonite Hills

A little less than two miles further is one of the most unique areas of the drive. The Bentonite Hills are colorful, layered mounds made up of clay. While they’re an impressive sight during the day, the hours right around sunrise or sunset will really bring out the variations in color.

You can pull off the main road at a small overlook and get a closer look at the hills. They actually have an amazing popcorn texture caused by repeatedly absorbing water and then drying out again.

Take a walk through them, because the views get even better as you venture out. Just remember to stick to paths that have already been traveled, instead of creating your own.

One of the reasons this entire route can become impassable is that, when wet, the Bentonite clay is said to have a consistency similar to sticky peanut butter. Attempting the road in these conditions could easily result in your vehicle becoming stuck or, worse, sliding off the road in this hilly section.

A colorful sunset over the Bentonite Hills on Cathedral Valley Loop with their bands of deep red and purple clays. A woman can just barely be seen standing on one of the hill tops looking into the distance.
An aerial birds eye view looking down on the red and purple banded hills of Bentonite clay on the Cathedral Valley LoopClose up of the popcorn like texture of the Bentonite clay hills on the Cathedral Valley Loop

South Desert

13.7 miles in you’ll encounter a junction. Make a left here to visit the Lower South Desert Overlook. Up to this point the road has actually traveled through private property and BLM land. Now, you enter Capitol Reef National Park proper for an elevated look at the South Desert.

The trailhead opens up to a 0.25 mile walk to the edge of the valley rim. From here you can see the first of several monolithic sandstone structures, ‘Jailhouse Rock’, and what remains of an old road leading down into the valley floor.

A woman's silhouette is out of focus in the foreground with a giant sandstone rock formation taking up the entire frame in the distance

Lower Cathedral Valley Overlook

If you're interested in an elevated preview of the Temples of the Sun and Moon, you can stop and take an easy 1.7 mile hike out to the Lower Cathedral Valley Overlook. We personally chose to skip this hike, but others have described it as a flat walk through the desert, ending abruptly with a short uphill climb to the saddle overlooking the valley for some great views.

Upper South Desert Overlook

Rejoin the main road and continue on for fifteen miles beyond South Desert Overlook or eleven miles from the Lower Overlook. You’ll pass through some rough areas of the road and cross over dry washes, none of which should pose much of a challenge.

Near the Upper South Desert Overlook however, the road does become especially rough, with large boulders. We found that this was the bumpiest section, all the way down into Cathedral Valley.

When you reach the junction on the left, pull into the parking area. A short, but steep climb up the hill reveals another spectacular view of the South Desert.

A man is out of focus in the foreground with his back turned to the camera, overlooking a red rock desert landscape with scrubby bushes on a steep slope down into a valley

Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook

Just a half mile down the road, but on the right side this time, is a spur road for the Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook. This short section was especially rocky, with some ruts and we’d caution you against trying it unless your vehicle has the clearance.

If you choose to stop, you can walk out to the cliff edges for your first view of the upper valley, with its impressive sandstone monoliths, capped with a layer of light gray rock.

A woman stands out on a small rock formation jutting out from the cliffside overlooking the Cathedral Valley in Capitol Reef National Park with its massive red rock monoliths in the distance

Cathedral Valley Campground

Another half mile of jostling down the road and you’ve reached the high point of the entire loop. Make a right at Hartnet Junction to continue onto Cathedral Road. If you were to go straight, you would exit Capitol Reef National Park and head into Fishlake National Forest.

Shortly, you’ll be at the only campground within the park boundaries. The only pit toilet along the loop is also located here. The campground has six free sites on a first-come-first-serve basis. Each site has a picnic table and fire ring, but no water or trash services are available.

A picnic table and fire ring among trees at the Cathedral Valley Campground in Capitol Reef National ParkA brown wooden sign at the Cathedral Valley Campground in Capitol Reef National Park that states 'Pack it in. Pack it out'

Lower Cathedral Valley

Take the switchbacks down into the valley until you see a small area to pull off on the left. This leads you on a 0.2 mile walk to the Morrell Cabin. It was used up until 1970 as a camp for local cowboys who, presumably, had to pinch themselves every time they woke up to the view.

The valley received its name in 1945 from Charles Kelly, first superintendent of Capitol Reef, because the giant, fluted rock formations reminded early explorers of Gothic cathedrals.

A weathered log cabin with its door off the hinges sits in a desert landscape surrounded by small scrubby bushes in Cathedral Valley Utah

Gypsum Sinkhole

The drive here smooths out a bit, going from less boulders back to the jaw rattling washboard surface that you’ll be used to by now. There are also pockets of sand, of which you’ll want to be mindful.

Three and a half miles along you’ll encounter yet another junction. Take the one mile spur road to the right to a turnaround. Walk the short path to reach the 200 foot deep Gypsum Sinkhole. This one is difficult to portray in words or even photos. You’ll just need to see it to believe how massive it is.

A woman stands on the edge of a massive sinkhole in the red earth of Cathedral Valley in Capitol Reef National Park

Temples of the Sun and Moon

About 10 miles later you’ll arrive at one of the biggest highlights of the loop: the Temples. Another spur road leads you back inside the park boundary from the surrounding BLM land.

Boondocking isn’t permitted inside the boundary, but if you have the time, we strongly recommend camping just outside, on the public land, and catching a sunrise at the Temples.

The Temple of the Sun red sandstone monolith catching early morning light with a landscape of sand and scrubby bushes in the foregroundA woman's figure is dwarfed at the base of the Temple of the Moon red sandstone monolith at sunrise

The largest of the two, Temple of the Sun, is a 402 ft tall Entrada sandstone monolith. Its shorter sibling, Temple of the Moon, comes in at 285 ft.

To the northern end of the area, accessed from a spur road, is Glass Mountain. ‘Mountain’ may be a bit of hyperbole, but nevertheless, it’s a mound of unusually large selenite crystals that’s worth the short detour.

Close up on the glimmering selenite rock of 'Glass Mountain' embedded in red sandstone in Capitol Reef National Park

Bentonite Hills

On your way back out toward Route 24, you’ll pass through another area of Bentonite clay. The formations here aren’t quite as impressive as those to the south, but it does make for a scenic drive as you approach the end of the loop.

Once you make it back to the paved road, you’ve officially completed the loop. In our opinion, it’s one of the best things to see and do in Capitol Reef National Park. There are other incredibly impressive sights to see in the Caineville and Hanksville area as well that are outside park boundaries. So, if you’ve set aside the time, we recommend spending several days continuing off the beaten path and exploring.

A wide aerial panorama of the Bentonite Hills area on Cathedral Valley Loop with a Jeep Wrangler navigating the winding dirt road below

Want to do this drive? Pin it for later!

A woman's small silhouette can be seen between two giant rock formations with the Temple of the Sun red sandstone monolith in the distance. Text overlay that says 'A Driving Guide to Cathedral Valley Loop'

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