Along the oft-traveled route of the Great Circle of National Parks in southern Utah is an overlooked and isolated gem: the Cathedrals of Capitol Reef. Anyone traveling from Bryce Canyon to Arches along Scenic Byway Route 24 passes through Capitol Reef National Park, but the park doesn't easily reveal its best secrets. Most visitors see only the few obvious scenic points of the Castle, the historic town of Fruita and its orchards, and the pale form of Capitol Dome. But the most iconic features in the park lie along the 57 mile dirt road of the Cathedral Valley loop, which is barely marked and not highly promoted by the park staff. You'll find the entrance best going eastbound on Route 24; look for a road leading north just past the Notom-Bullfrog road, marked by a street sign and a not-too-visible wooden park sign "advertising" Cathedral Valley.
The loop road starts with an adventurous twist: a ford of the Fremont River - and the exit isn't directly across from the entrance! A short jog downriver leads to the exit and soon into the colorful Bentonite Hills, which make excellent photographic subjects morning (better) or evening. After emerging from the Bentonite, the road wanders through desert sagebrush that teems with jackrabbits, horned larks, nighthawks, and - in some seasons - Loggerhead Shrikes. Eventually a turnoff leads to the South Desert, and it is here that you will find the first significant sandstone monument - Jailhouse Rock - which sits on the floor of the South Desert, a relatively easy walk down an old mining road alongside a few dark brown hoodoos. Further along the road is a pullout for the Lower Cathedral Valley Overlook, which provides a non-standard view that I find inferior to being in the valley itself, and then the South Desert Overlook (a view from the north looking south over the length of the desert from a high bluff) and then the Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook, which provides a grand scenic view of the widespread monuments and bluffs that dot the open landscape of the Upper Valley.
Just past the Upper Valley Overlook is a primitive campground with 6 sites and a vault toilet. Camping here is free if you can find a space, and provides an excellent base camp for a multi-day photographic expedition to this amazing destination. A short trail leads to an overlook similar to the official upper valley overlook, which adds to the value of the site. From the campground, a short but rough and steep drive takes you down into the Upper Cathedral Valley, where a line of cathedrals or monuments in various stages of development leads back into the alcove of the valley walls. A view trail about halfway down the slope is an excellent place to take pictures of the cathedrals; a cattleman's cabin lies a short distance along a second trail on the valley floor, providing another good photographic subject.
Continuing on the main loop leads you past a series of basalt dikes which remain long after the soft sandstone around them eroded away. A famous view along this stretch of road is now unmarked and all but forgotten; the park guide for the loop road is all that reminds visitors of expeditions long past. Slightly further along, a turnoff leads to the impressive if not highly photogenic Gypsum Sinkhole.
But all of this is just a side show for the main attraction of the drive: the monuments of Lower Cathedral Valley. Set in an amphitheater with the east-facing side open to the morning Sun, the Temples of the Sun, Moon and Stars together create one of the most awe-inspiring scenes in the Southwest. A small mound off to the right side of the Lower Valley reveals itself as another interesting feature: Glass Mountain - a hillock of large, translucent gypsum crystals.
After the Lower Valley, the loop road continues on to Caineville Wash, with its own set of Bentonite hills and Mancos Shale badlands. In total, this 57 mile rough dirt loop provides a variety of excellent opportunities for photographic study.
Cathedral Valley is a must-see for photographers in the Utah area, but it remains isolated for a reason. The loop road requires a vehicle with some ground clearance, though not usually a 4WD vehicle; small rounded boulders reach up to 7" on occasion and form long cobblestoned sections of the road. Deep sand can be present as well; check with the park Visitor Center for road conditions and water level of the Fremont River before heading out. Bentonite is a type of clay, and becomes both extremely slippery and bad for your vehicle axles when wet. If you are caught in the valley during a rainstorm, be prepared to stay through the night to allow the ground to dry. It is not uncommon during the off season for there to be no traffic on the road for several days.
More images of Cathedral Valley and Capitol Reef National Park can be seen
Capitol Reef web gallery.
All images and text copyright © Les Barstow