This is iconic Capitol Reef, yet neatly tucked almost out of reach.
The 57.6-mile loop through the remote Cathedral district, usually accessible to most cars with high clearance, will take you on a breathtaking tour of the San Rafael Swell and distant mountains, as well as give you close-up looks of giant castle-like sandstone formations.
Start your trip on Hartnet Road at mile marker 91, which is 11.7 miles east from the visitor center on State Route 24. The first thing you’ll have to do is ford the Fremont River — the water is usually no more than a foot deep, but high clearance is still a must. While the loop can be traveled in either direction, it’s a good idea to begin by fording the river so you are sure that you can get through it. Soon after, you will find one of the most difficult stretches of road on the loop, Salt Wash — the unique volcanic clay-based Bentonite Hills are 8.5 miles from the start. From here it’s another mile to exit BLM land and briefly enter the park boundary (2.3 miles later you will re-enter the park). Seventeen miles from the start, you will get to the Lower Cathedral Valley Overlook, which is the starting point for a one mile hike to see the striking Temples of the Sun, Moon, and Stars (which you can see more closely on your way back). At 27 miles, be sure to stop at the Upper South Desert Overlook — a brief walk will give you amazing panoramic desert views.
The Cathedral Valley Campground is located in the park’s northwest corner, 28 miles from the start of Hartnet Road. Staying at one of the six sites here is free and available on a first-come, first-served basis, though it’s rarely full. A night here beneath the brilliant stars, set against the dark skies of the secluded Utah desert, will be truly memorable.
From the campground, the return journey begins on Caineville Wash Road. Start down switchbacks into the Upper Cathedral Valley, where you are treated to views of rock castles and spires. Two miles from the campground, you can go on a 2.2-mile round-trip hike to explore these “cathedrals” up close. Five miles from the campground, take the 1.2-mile spur road to see the Gypsum Sinkhole — a 200-foot deep, 50-foot wide chasm that formed when water dissolved the ground made of gypsum.
Four miles later you will exit the park and drive back into BLM land, but the ride is not over yet. After another 5.5 miles, you’ll have the opportunity to see some of the area’s most awe-inspiring features up close — the Temples of the Sun and of the Moon, which rise 400 feet out of the flat valley floor. These features are especially beautiful in the morning, when the light shining from the east is unobstructed by the surrounding cliff walls. From here it is 15 more miles of interesting sandstone and shale formations, back to S.R. 24.
Driving straight through, the entire loop will take 3.5 to 4 hours, but you should definitely stop to enjoy at least some of the many possible side trips and hikes. If you are a more adventurous hiker, get a free permit at the visitor center and explore the backcountry. While the roads are often accessible to passenger cars with high clearance, conditions vary throughout the year, so sometimes, 4WD will be necessary. Other times, like during or right after a storm, the roads won’t be passable at all. Remember that this is a remote area, without cell phone service and it could take quite a bit of time for help to reach you. Go prepared, and check current weather conditions at the visitor center before heading out.
If you want to stick to the front country, consider either Hickman Bridge or the more strenuous Navajo Knobs trails, right off S.R. 24.
GPS Coordinates: 38.473548, -111.366822