If you visit Capitol Reef National Park in a high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle, this is an area not to be missed.
As one of remote U.S. national parks, Capitol Reef National Park is perhaps the most remote park of Utah’s Mighty Five — Zion, Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef. Despite the location, the park still received over a million visitors in 2017 (more visitors than Canyonlands!). Most visitors come to Capitol Reef National Park to spend their time in the Fruita Area for its well-known domes, canyons, rock cliffs, and pioneer history, for good reasons. The Waterpocket Fold (a geologic monocline) which extends nearly 100 miles and beyond the park boundary, created many phenomenal geological features in such a small area, many of them could be seen right from the Fruita Area and along Utah Highway 24, the main road through the park.
However, there are more to Capitol Reef National Park than the Fruita Historic District. Two other remote districts of Capitol Reef are the northern Cathedral District and the southern Waterpocket District. Neither of these districts has paved roads, but they are just as interesting.
We took a drive to explore the Cathedral District in one afternoon. The Cathedral and Hartnet Roads are two main roads that provide access to the Cathedral District. The south end of these roads connect to Utah-24 outside the park boundary. Note that the Cathedral Road on the park map is indicated as the Caineville Wash Road on my Gaia GPS map. Traveling on both of these roads requires high-clearance vehicles. The park said the roads may occasionally require 4-wheel drive and are not passable when wet. The north end of the Cathedral Road connects to the Hartnet Road at top of the Cathedral Valley near Cathedral Valley Campground. The two roads, therefore, could be driven as a loop, and that’s what we did.
At the south end of the Hartnet Road, just off Utah-24, there is no bridge over the Fremont River and vehicles must ford the river. So, we stopped by the visitor center to ask about the river fording and road conditions before heading out. The park ranger said the current river depth was about 8 inches and that the drive would take about 6 hours. It was about noon. We had about 8 more hours of daylight and lunch with us. Having all the information we needed, we left the visitor center and hit the road.
Although the drive could be done from either direction, we felt more comfortable fording the river at the beginning of the trip than doing it at the end. If river fording turned out to be problematic, it would be a nasty surprise to have found out about it at the end of a 6-hour drive. So, our trip began from the south end of the Hartnet Road, drove toward the northwest corner of the Cathedral Valley, and returned on the Cathedral Road (Caineville Wash Road).
Unfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures of river fording. Despite the information from the visitor center indicating 8 inches of water, David believed the river was closer to a foot deep. Our slightly raised Chevy Colorado made through it without problem.
The Cathedral District of Capitol Reef National Park is full of spectacular landscapes and geologic features. Its remote location and the lack of paved roads make it much less visited than the popular Fruita Area. If you have capable vehicle, it’s well worth your time to visit. It’s one of the best drives we had done.
Tips for planning your drive
After having experienced this drive, I recommend that this loop drive be done in the same clockwise direction as ours for two main reasons. First and more important, the river fording. By starting with river fording, you know at the outset whether it’s passable. If not, the drive can always done as an out-and-back from the Cathedral Road. Second, equally important if you don’t have a 4-wheel drive vehicle. After the junction of the Hartnet Road and the Cathedral Road, the road descends steeply down into Cathedral Valley through switchbacks. This section of the road was very bumpy. If you approach the switchbacks from the Hartnet Road, you can drive downhill in 2-wheel drive and see the obstacles on the road in front of you better. If you come from the Cathedral Road on the valley floor, you will be glad to have 4-wheel drive when ascending that bumpy switchbacks.
The roads were mostly well-marked. However, our Gaia GPS App with offline map was helpful in navigating a few spots and junctions. I found that the beginning of the drive, where we turned off Utah-24 onto a road leading to the Fremont River crossing, was a little obscure. I didn’t think we missed any road signs. Having the offline map on Gaia GPS helped with route finding tremendously. Carry paper map with you as cell service is unreliable in this area and most of Capitol Reef National Park. Having said that when we were at the top of the switchbacks above the Cathedral Valley, we had decent T-Mobile signal, but none for Verizon. It’s nice to have a sip of internet for checking mails but I wouldn’t count on it for obtaining weather and safety-related information during the drive.
With lunch break and lots of photo stops (I’m sure David, who put up with my seemingly excessive photo stop requests, can confirm.), it took us about 6 hours to complete the drive on the unpaved road portion (the Hartnet and Cathedral Roads). We skipped the spur road to the Lower South Desert Overlook. We didn’t walk up to the Upper South Desert Overlook due to the threatening weather. So, I recommend planning about 6-8 hours for the trip. It would be a shame to hurry through such phenomenal scenery.
This is desert country. Bring extra water and supply in case of emergency. Do not attempt this drive during storm season or it has been wet. Several sections of road cross areas of bentonite clay, which becomes impassable when wet. Some sections of the roads also cross desert washes and creeks. Stay on the roads and avoid driving on road shoulders, which may be softer than they look. Do check with park rangers at the visiter center about river fording and road conditions before heading out.
Geosights: The amazing monoliths and “mountain” of gypsum at Lower Cathedral Valley, Capitol Reef National Park, Wayne County, Utah: https://geology.utah.gov/map-pub/survey-notes/geosights/gypsum-mountain/