Capitol Reef’s Cathedral District — A little known gem of Capitol Reef National Park

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.

Classic view of Capitol Reef’s domes and rock cliffs

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.

Map of the Cathedral District, Capitol Reef National Park

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). 

The drive

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.

After crossing the Fremont River, we soon were greeted with this view. Hillsides were full of colors. They looked similar to Oregon’s Painted Hills.
And pink canyon
Then while traveling through the North Blue Flats, we came across this truck partially buried in the sand and abandoned in the middle of the desert.
Next to the truck, there was a surprise. A spring and water catchment. There was evidence of cattle in the area (read cow patties), but none was seen on that day.
The stuck truck with Ren in the background
After the spring, we shortly arrived at one of the most surreal places. It was like we were in a different planet. These are Bentonite Hills and we were driving on them.
Everywhere you look there’s bentonite clay. It’s an amazing sight.
A closeup of the ground surface of Bentonite Hills. Bentonite clay becomes sticky or slippery depending on how much water it absorbs. Not a good place to be when it rains.
Sections of the road were pretty much on the creek bed.
Fantastic view of Upper South Desert. Look at the dark clouds on the right side. We were running into some weather, thankfully not a soaking rain, just some sprinkles and light showers.
The first sight of Upper Cathedral Valley from an overlook.
Morrell Cabin, situated on the Cathedral Valley floor
Intricate pattern and details on eroded sandstone of the Cathedral Valley
Some of these cathedral-like formations are massive. For perspective, Ren wasn’t even close to the base of these rock towers.
Taken a short spur road to see Gypsum Sinkhole
That’s me trying not to get too close to the edge as falling into the hole would have been my last official act.
The sandstone butte on the right has some other kind of rocks mixed in, so it appears the process of erosion didn’t result in the cathedral-like formations. It’s just as interesting looking.
One of the main features along the Cathedral Road is a pair of monoliths called Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon. Here, Ren in front of Temple of the Moon with Temple of the Sun in the background. As you might have deduced, Temple of the Sun is actually larger than Temple of the Moon.
Now we have Temple of the Sun in the foreground. These monoliths were formed from the Entrada Sandstone, same rock formation that made up the arches and spires of Arches National Park.
Not on the park map is Glass Mountain. It’s on the same road to Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon. It’s a weird but very cool thing to see. It’s not really a mountain, more like a dome, about 15 feet high. It’s composed of large gypsum (selenite) crystals. It looked a lot like a giant pile of garbage, unfortunately.
A closeup of the gypsum crystals
There was no shortage of beautiful and colorful landscape.
We were close to the end of the drive near the south end of the Cathedral Road, but still not tired of stopping for more photos.

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.

References:

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/

4 thoughts on “Capitol Reef’s Cathedral District — A little known gem of Capitol Reef National Park

  1. Fantastic post, Keng! I have never heard of Capitol Reef, and was so dazzled by your photographs, the scenery, the various natural features and expansive views. So great that you made this one-day super trip, fording a foot of river, finding these outstanding surprises. Loved the bentonite, gypsum, and sandstone formations. I always enjoy your many adventures.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for your kind comments, Jet. Capitol Reef was the last of Utah’s five national parks that we visited, but its beauty is right up there as Zion. As more and more people visit Zion every year, dealing with crowd at Zion has become a nightmare. Capitol Reef is a great alternative to enjoy Utah’s wonders and surprises.

      Liked by 2 people

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