The spectacular Cathedral Valley section of Capitol Reef National Park is open all year. Vehicles with good ground clearance, even those without four wheel drive, can usually negotiate the roads without difficulty. However, road conditions can vary greatly depending on recent weather conditions. Spring and summer rains and winter snows can leave the roads muddy, washed out, and impassable to the best four wheel drive vehicle, so check at the visitor center for current road and weather conditions before visiting Cathedral Valley.
Foot and vehicle travel in the Cathedral Valley area is light, so be prepared for the unexpected. If you have problems, help may not arrive for hours or even days, depending on the time of year. Carry plenty of water, food, gas, adequate clothing, a shovel, and emergency supplies. Cool/cold temperatures will accompany sudden storms or an unexpected night out in the backcountry. Daytime temperatures in the summer may reach the upper 90s and winter highs may stay below freezing, so dress accordingly. THE LOOP TOUR Most visitors to Cathedral Valley drive the 60 mile loop: start at the River Ford (11.7 miles east of the visitor center on Hwy 24), follow the Hartnet Road to the Caineville Wash Road and return back to Hwy 24 just west of Caineville (18.6 miles east of the visitor center.)
The River Ford is passable at most times of the year, except during spring runoff or following athunderstorm, when the river may be in flood. The ford has a hard packed, rocky bottom and water levels are normally a foot or less deep. The access road to the River Ford crosses private land. The gate on Hwy 24 may be closed, but is not locked. Please close the gate after you drive through, and honor the posted no trespassing signs along the road near the ford by not parking off road or camping in the vicinity. Distances from the River Ford: 9 mi Bentonite Hills 14 mi Lower South Desert Overlook Spur Road 27 mi Upper South Desert Overlook Spur Road 27.5 mi Junction of the Hartnet/Polk Creek/Caineville Wash Roads 28 mi Cathedral Campground 30 mi Upper Cathedral Valley 33 mi Junction of Caineville Wash and Baker Ranch Roads 33.1 mi Gypsum Sinkhole Spur Road 42.5 mi Lower Cathedral Valley Spur Road (Temples of the Sun and Moon, Glass Mountain) 60 mi Hwy 24 at Caineville Wash Road Thousand Lake Mountain Road
This scenic route is noted for its exceptional, panoramic views of the surrounding Painted Desert country. The unpaved road climbs steeply through evergreen forests, from 6,800 feet at the Hartnet/Caineville Wash/Polk Creek roads junction to 9,500 feet on Thousand Lake Mountain, then drops to 7,000 feet at Hwy 72. The mountain road is normally open from mid-June to late October. The road is closed during the winter and spring due to deep snow and muddy conditions.
Distances from the Hartnet/Caineville Wash/Polk Creek roads junction: 1 mi Boundary between Capitol Reef N.P. and Fishlake N.F. 7 mi Polk Creek and Elkhorn junction 12 mi Hwy 72 19 mi Fremont 24 mi Hwy 24 at Loa Baker Ranch Road to I-70
The graveled, dirt road crosses an extensive expanse of open, level terrain with outstanding views of colored, sculptured cliffs and canyons. The road provides access to several remote ranches and is open year round. The road is normally in good shape, but muddy conditions may exist in low areas following storms or as snow melts in the spring.
Distances from the Caineville Wash and Baker Ranch roads junction: 2 mi North Park Boundary 4 mi Junction with Oil Well Bench Road 5 mi Junction with road to Baker Ranch 19 mi Junction with Mussentuchit Road 27 mi I-70 at Fremont Junction GEOLOGY Cathedral Valley presents another chapter in the story of Capitol Reef's geology. The geologic layers and eroded features found here are different than those seen in other sections of the Waterpocket Fold. The Bentonite Hills along the Hartnet Road and the Painted Desert on the Caineville Wash Road appear as softly contoured, banded hills in varying hues of brown, red, purple, gray, and green. The hills are composed of the Brushy Basin shale member of the Morrison Formation. This layer was formed during Jurassic times when mud, silt, fine sand, and volcanic ash were deposited in swamps and lakes. Bentonite clay (altered volcanic ash) absorbs water and becomes very slick and gummy when wet, making vehicle or foot travel difficult or even impossible.
South Desert is a long, narrow valley that runs parallel to the strike of the Waterpocket Fold monocline. The valley extends 20 miles from the Upper South Desert Overlook southeast to Hwy 24. From Lower South Desert Overlook (located midway through the valley) viewers can see rock layers ranging from the gray, ledgy Morrison atop the cliffs to the east to the white Navajo Sandstone slickrock and domes high on top of the Fold. In the near distance, Jailhouse Rock, composed of Entrada Sandstone, rises 500 feet from the valley floor.
Upper and Lower Cathedral Valley offer exquisite views of sculptured monoliths with intriguing names such as the Walls of Jericho and the Temples of the Sun, Moon, and Stars. The monoliths are composed of the earthy, buff-pink Entrada Sandstone. Deposited 160 million years ago in the Jurassic period, this fine- grained sandstone formed by the deposition of sand and silt in tidal flats. It crumbles easily to a fine sand which is rapidly removed by water; therefore, talus (debris) slopes do not form and Entrada cliffs tend to rise sheer from their base. Above the Entrada, the grayish-green sandstone and siltstone of the Curtis Sandstone forms a hard cap rock on some of the monoliths and higher cliffs and buttes, protecting them from erosion. Above the Curtis is the thinly-bedded, reddish-brown siltstone of the Summerville Formation.
Glass Mountain is a large, exposed mound of selenite crystals. Selenite is a variety of gypsum (CaSO42H2O) in the form of glassy crystals. Gypsum is a common mineral found in the sedimentary rocks of this area. The crystals of glass mountain are somewhat unusual in size and in the massiveness of the deposit.
Glass Mountain formed as a result of groundwater flowing through the Entrada Sandstone. This water had gypsum dissolved in it, which started to crystallize, forming what has been called a "gypsum plug". This plug is now being exposed as the soft Entrada Sandstone is eroded away.
As you visit Glass Mountain, please remember that collecting of any kind is prohibited in all national parks.
The Gypsum Sinkhole is an occurrence formed by the reverse of the process that created Glass Mountain. Here groundwater is dissolving a buried gypsum plug. The cavity left behind has collapsed under the weight of overlying rock layers. This collapse has created a large sinkhole nearly 50 feet in diameter and 200 feet deep.
When visiting the Gypsum Sinkhole, please stay away from the edge. The rocks here are very soft and unstable, and can collapse at any time.
The black boulders strewn across the landscape are remnants of lava flows that capped Boulder and Thousand Lake Mountains about 20 million years ago. Short glacial periods on these peaks broke up the underlying lava. Glacial outwash and mudslides, along with the natural process of erosion, helped move the boulders far from their original location. The dikes and sills seen in Cathedral Valley formed at the same time as the lava flows on the nearby mountain tops. Dikes and sills are the result of molten lava flowing into vertical joints (dikes) or between horizontal layers of sedimentary rocks (sills), then solidifying. Plugs are more massive lava intrusions, and Cathedral Valley has examples of those as well. More resistant to erosion than the surrounding layers, the lava outcrops provide a stark and rugged contrast, forming jagged ridges and pointed outcrops.
Cathedral Valley was named in 1945 by Frank Beckwith and Charles Kelly, the first superintendent of Capitol Reef. The upward-sweeping, tapering lines, and three dimensional surfaces reminded the men of Gothic and Egyptian architecture. Most visitors will agree that theirs was a suitable name choice. Enjoy your visit to this land of grand, free-standing monoliths and extraordinary rock forms!