Cathedral Valley

Cathedral Valley

NPS/Tiffany Powers


The Cathedral Valley District of Capitol Reef National Park is open all year. Vehicles with high 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 high-clearance 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 or cold temperatures will accompany sudden storms or an unexpected night out in the backcountry. Daytime temperatures in the summer may reach the upper 90s°F (30s °C) and winter highs may stay below freezing, so prepare accordingly.


Most visitors to Cathedral Valley drive the 59 mile (95.0 km) loop, starting at the River Ford (11.8 miles or 19.0 km east of the visitor center on Hwy 24), following the Hartnet Road to the Cathedral Road (also known as the Caineville Wash Road) and returning back to Hwy 24 just west of Caineville (18.6 miles or 29.9 km east of the visitor center.) There are also hiking routes along the way.

The River Ford is passable at most times of the year, except during spring runoff or following a thunderstorm, 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. Please honor the posted no trespassing signs along the road near the ford by not parking off-road or camping in the vicinity.

The River Ford Map can be downloaded and printed by clicking on the image.


Distances from the River Ford:

  • 9 miles (14.5 km) Bentonite Hills
  • 14 miles (22.5 km) Lower South Desert Overlook Spur Road
  • 27 miles (43.5 km) Upper South Desert Overlook Spur Road
  • 27.5 miles (44.3 km)Junction of the Hartnet/Polk Creek/Cathedral (also known as the Caineville Wash) Roads
  • 28 miles (45.1 km) Cathedral Campground
  • 30 miles (48.3 km) Upper Cathedral Valley
  • 33 miles (53.1 km ) Junction of Caineville Wash and Baker Ranch Roads
  • 33.1 miles (53.3 km)Gypsum Sinkhole Spur Road
  • 42.5 miles (68.4 km) Lower Cathedral Valley Spur Road (Temples of the Sun & Moon, Glass Mountain)
  • 59 miles (95 km) Hwy 24 at Caineville Wash Road

Thousand Lake Mountain Road

This scenic route is noted for its panoramic views of the surrounding painted desert country. The unpaved road climbs steeply through evergreen forests, from 6,800 feet (2,073 m) at the Hartnet/Cathedral (also known as the Caineville Wash)/Polk Creek Roads junction to 9,500 feet (2,896 m) on Thousand Lake Mountain, then drops to 7,000 feet (2,134 m) 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/Cathedral (also known as the Caineville Wash)/Polk Creek Roads junction:

  • 1 mile (1.6 km) Boundary between Capitol Reef N.P. and Fishlake N.F.
  • 7 miles (11.3 km) Polk Creek and Elkhorn junction
  • 12 miles (19.3 km) Hwy 72
  • 19 miles (30.6 km) Fremont
  • 24 miles (38.6 km) Hwy 24 at Loa

Baker Ranch Road to I-70

This graveled, dirt road crosses an extensive expanse of open, level terrain with views of colorful sculpted cliffs and canyons. The road provides access to several remote ranches and is open year round. The road is usually in good shape, but muddy conditions may exist in low areas following storms or as snow melts in the spring.

Distances from the Cathedral (also known as the Caineville Wash) and Baker Ranch Roads junction:

  • 2 miles (3.2km) North Park Boundary
  • 4 miles (6.4 km) Junction with Oil Well Bench Road
  • 5 miles (8.0 km) Junction with Baker Ranch Road
  • 19 miles (30.6 km) Junction with Mussentuchit Road
  • 27 miles (43.5 km) I-70 at Fremont Junction


Cathedral Valley presents another chapter in the story of Capitol Reef's geology. The geologic layers and eroded features here are different than those seen in other sections of the Waterpocket Fold. The Bentonite Hills among the Hartnet Road and the Painted Desert on the Cathedral (also known as the Cainville 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 impossible.

South Desert


South Desert is a long, narrow valley that runs parallel to the strike of the Waterpocket Fold monocline. The valley extends 20 miles (32.2 km) 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 (152 m) from the valley floor.

Temple of the Sun

Temple of the Sun

NPS/Kenny Clarke

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.
Selinite Crystals in Glass Mountain

Selenite crystals from Glass Mountain


Glass Mountain is a large, exposed mound of selenite crystals. Selenite is a variety of gypsum (CaSO4•2H2O) 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 carried dissolved gypsum, which started to crystallize, forming what has been called a "gypsum plug". This plug is now being exposed as the soft Entrada Sandstone erodes away. As you visit Glass Mountain, please remember that collecting of any kind is prohibited in all national parks.
Gypsum Sinkhole

A visitor explores the Gypsum Sinkhole


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 (15 m) in diameter and 200 feet (61 m) deep.

Stay away from the edge of the Gypsum Sinkhole. The rocks here are very soft and unstable, and can collapse at any time.

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 basalt. 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 as recently as 3-6 million years ago. Dikes and sills are the result of molten lava flowing into vertical joints (dikes) or between horizontal layers of sedimentary rocks (sills), then solidifying. More resistant to erosion than the surrounding layers, the lava rock 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.


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