Cathedral Valley: Bentonite Hills, Temple of the Sun & More

Last Updated on: 23rd December 2023, 01:45 pm

Cathedral Valley may be part of Capitol Reef, but it looks and feels like an entirely different park. The district is most known for two main sections: the Bentonite Hills and the Temples of the Sun and Moon. But as we’ll cover below, there are plenty of additional amazing sites to discover throughout Cathedral Valley.

Before your visit, it’s important to know what you can expect from visiting Cathedral Valley and plan accordingly. Touring the entire loop is a long, full-day excursion, while having the right vehicle is a must.

After a rundown of the basics, we’ll be going over each major landmark you’ll encounter along the main loop route. And at the very end of the guide, you can learn more about where to stay near Capitol Reef National Park and other useful info.

About This Drive

The entire driving route as seen on AllTrails

THE BASICS: Cathedral Valley is located to the northeast of the main section of Capitol Reef National Park. While often described as a loop, it’s perhaps best thought of as a long, giant U, with both ends connecting to Utah State Route 24.

The western half is Hartnet Rd while the eastern half is Cathedral Valley Rd, both of which are completely unpaved. 

The total one-way route through Cathedral Valley is 57.6 miles (92.7 km) long, plus an additional 15 miles or so with detours. Depending on how long you spend at the various landmarks, your total visit could take anywhere from 6-9 hours.

Generally speaking, you’ll want to rent a rugged vehicle for this excursion – ideally a high-clearance 4×4, or at least an AWD SUV. Parts of the road can be very rocky and sandy. And the journey even begins by fording a river (see more below)!

If that sounds a bit much to deal with, you also have the option of taking a private tour. Aside from not having to worry about potentially getting stuck, a guide can take you to various overlooks and landmarks that many visitors might otherwise miss.

That’s what I ended up doing, and I can’t recommend this tour highly enough.

Note that it’s also possible to ignore the loop and do a shorter, direct route to the Temples of the Sun and Moon (see below).

RECOMMENDED MAPS: Most of Cathedral Valley lacks reception. Before your visit, be sure to download the free offline app.

If you already have a subscription to apps like AllTrails or onX Offroad, then you’ll be able to find the driving route on those apps as well.

Buying the official park map by National Geographic would also come in handy as a backup.

WHAT TO BRING: As the following itinerary only involves light hiking, just bring what you ordinarily would for a day out in the desert (water, sunscreen, snacks, etc.).

But if you’re driving yourself, it would be wise to prepare for the worst. If your car breaks down in a remote area, you may be forced to spend the night, in which case you’d definitely want there to be enough food and water in your vehicle.

A Shorter Alternative

The junction for the Temples of the Sun and Moon is just 15 miles down Cathedral Road from the main highway, so it’s possible to ignore the full loop and head straight for Cathedral Valley’s iconic monoliths.

Doing this shorter out-and-back drive has numerous benefits. It would allow you to avoid the river ford, not to mention many of the rougher parts of the loop. This means you could probably attempt the drive in a sedan (but always check conditions beforehand) and save money on a Jeep rental or guide.

On the other hand, doing the shortened route also means you’d miss many of the sights and spectacular overlooks featured below. Hopefully, this guide can help you decide which option works best for you.

Starting the Journey

Beginning our tour around 7:00, we started the day by checking out some dinosaur bones that are trapped in the rock. The fact that these bones – which now appear purple – are embedded so high up in the rock reveals how drastically different this landscape would’ve appeared hundreds of millions of years ago.

Notably, many of the landmarks throughout Cathedral Valley were formed as a result of events that took place during the Jurassic period.

Unfortunately, I can’t recall the exact location of the bones, nor does the spot seem to appear on any maps. But as mentioned, that’s just another reason to hire a local expert, as they can take you to hidden gems you’d otherwise drive right by.

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef
Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef

Next would come one of the most infamous part of Cathedral Valley: the river ford. Most people start with the river ford before proceeding to tour the Cathedral Valley loop clockwise.

This a wise choice, as you want to be sure that you can indeed cross it and get it out of the way early. If you were to start the tour via Cathedral Road and then finish with the river ford, you may end up realizing that the water is too deep to cross!

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef
Fording the Fremont River

And what would you do in that case? You’d either have to drive 58 miles back the way you came, or take a shortcut that cuts through the loop. But the shortcut is a very rocky and completely unmaintained road – the last place you’d want to get stuck.

Fortunately, this part of the Fremont River is normally just a foot or less deep. And we had no issues crossing it in a high-clearance Jeep. But the water level does become higher at some points of the year.

In regards to finding the river crossing, it’s marked on Google Maps (see map above), while the app clearly indicates the correct route across the river.

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef

Making it safely to the other side, it was time to start exploring all the geological oddities that Cathedral Valley has to offer. But first, we stopped by a dilapidated old truck, a relic from the time that this region was used for cattle ranching.

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef
Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef

The Bentonite Hills

Before long, we arrived at the Bentonite Hills, which are quickly becoming known as one of the region’s must-see attractions. 

For what it’s worth, these hills are technically outside of the National Park on Bureau of Land Management land, though a majority of Cathedral Valley is indeed part of Capitol Reef.

Part of the larger Morrison Formation, the Bentonite Hills almost appear artificially painted in various hues like red, blue and pink. But believe it or not, what we see here is completely natural.

Bentonite clay was formed from a mixture of volcanic ash and other types of sediment that were deposited in local lakes during the Jurassic period (160 million years ago). 

While one would never think it by observing the area today, these lands were once submerged in water.

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef

Bentonite is easily able to absorb other minerals, which is why it often appears so colorful. You’ll also notice a complete lack of plants here, which is why bentonite is synonymous with badlands, or areas where nothing can grow.

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef

This is a result of how bentonite frequently expands when wet and then contracts again, which prevents any roots from taking hold. And the lack of vegetation helps keep the clay’s wide array of colors constantly exposed.

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef

Though the particular colors of the Bentonite Hills here are indeed unique, bentonite is abundant throughout Utah. 

You can find more colorful hills at places like Old Paria, Factory Butte, and various spots along the highway to the north of Moab.

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef

Unfortunately, the sun is not in an ideal position for photography here during the morning. Supposedly, a lot of the more impressive images you’ll find online were taken around sunset.

But if you’re doing the full Cathedral Valley loop in a day, you’ll have to make some compromises to fit everything in your itinerary.

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef
Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef

Moving on from the main Bentonite Hills area, we continued to see more colorful striped mounds and buttes along the road – at least in the beginning of the tour. 

As I’d later learn, there are also plenty more bentonite mounds to enjoy near the end of the loop as well.

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef

Jailhouse Rock

Our next stop would be the Lower South Desert Overlook. You can find it by turning left onto Jailhouse Road and driving for about a mile. From there, you’ll have to do an easy hike for a fourth of a mile to reach the overlook itself.

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef
Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef

The Temples of the Sun and Moon aren’t the only giant monoliths in Cathedral Valley. From the Lower South Desert Overlook, visitors can admire Jailhouse Rock which stands at 500 feet (150 m) tall – higher than both ‘temples.’

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef
Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef

To the left, meanwhile, is a long and narrow stretch of sandstone wall. 

While we tend to look at these formations and think that they were gradually formed or ‘built up,’ these walls and monoliths are merely all that remain after much larger formations eroded away.

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef

It’s also possible to hike toward the monolith from this overlook, though if you want to see all the other landmarks mentioned below, you probably wouldn’t have enough time.

Back on Hartnet Road, we continued with our journey, heading further northwest. While much of the road was fairly smooth as far as dirt roads go, Hartnet Road does contain some rough patches, as seen in the accompanying photo. As mentioned, those doing the full Cathedral Valley loop will definitely want an adequate vehicle.

We next made a brief stop at Balancing Rock, which is just as the name suggests. While balancing rocks are rather common at Utah parks, it’s always fun to see them from up close and ponder how they got that way.


Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef

The Upper South Desert Overlook

Near the end of Hartnet Road, we took another short detour to check out the Upper South Desert Overlook. 

From the small parking area, it’s a short but uphill and fairly steep 0.2-mile walk to get there. This is probably the most challenging ‘hike’ of the day.

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef
Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef

While this overlook lacks distinct monoliths or walls, it’s still one of Cathedral Valley’s most impressive, as it allows visitors to admire the vast, open desert. You’ll also have the opportunity to walk along the rim and check out the view from different angles.

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef
Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef

And according to our guide, the platform itself is unique for being volcanic rock trapped in between layers of sandstone. Next, it was time to get back in the car and admire the views on the opposite side of the valley.

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef

The Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook

We next drove to the spectacular Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook. This time, you’ll want to turn right off of Hartnet Road. From here, you can see a series of monoliths known as the Walls of Jericho.

But as we’ll cover shortly, you’ll soon get to see them from up close as well.

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef
Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef
Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef

The Lee Morell Cabin

Back on Hartnet Road, you’ll soon reach a junction. Be sure to turn right onto Cathedral Valley Road here, leaving Hartnet Road behind.

Before long, you’ll drive past a turnoff for the Cathedral Valley Campground. It’s here that you’ll find the only public restroom in all of Cathedral Valley, so don’t miss the chance to use it.

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef

Cathedral Valley Rd will eventually take you down to the valley floor. And the first landmark in this area is the Lesley Morrell Line Cabin. It’s accessible via a short and flat trail of about a quarter of a mile each way.

The cabin was originally located further west near Thousand Lake Mountain but was taken apart and reconstructed here in 1935.

It would mainly be used by Lesley Morrell and his ranchers between 1935-1970. Notably, it was always stocked with food and open for anyone who was passing by during their journey through these remote and barren lands.

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef

Around the Walls of Jericho

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef

Next, we came up close to the Walls of Jericho that we’d previously seen from above. As was common in those times, early settlers frequently named geological landmarks after places from the Bible.

Our guide took us to various viewpoints – many of which are unmarked – to appreciate the various monoliths from up close.

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef
Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef

We were also driven to another area from which to view the Walls from afar. In a place like Cathedral Valley, you could stop just about anywhere to admire the incredible scenery.

If you have both time and energy, you might want to consider hiking the Cathedrals Trail which begins in this area. It’s a 2.5-mile out-and-back hike that should take you about an hour to complete. You can find it listed on AllTrails, but be sure to download it in advance!

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef
Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef
Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef

The Gypsum Sinkhole

We kept on moving, next arriving at the Gypsum Sinkhole, which is accessible by taking a detour down Gypsum Sinkhole Rd. 

This large sinkhole was once the location of a buried gypsum plug. As gypsum is highly soluble, it was eventually dissolved by groundwater, resulting in this giant cavity.

It’s around 200 ft (61 m) deep and nearly 50 ft (15 m) in diameter. Interestingly, our next landmark gives one an idea of what this spot would’ve looked like when the gypsum was still there.

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef
Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef

Glass Mountain

Back on the main road, continue heading east. And eventually, you’ll want to make a right onto Temple of the Moon Rd. But before driving right up to the iconic monoliths, be sure to check out Glass Mountain located right nearby.

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef
Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef
Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef

Glass Mountain is entirely comprised of large gypsum crystals and it stands at 15 ft above the ground. 

The mineral was originally deposited here by evaporated seawater during the Jurassic period. And over time, gypsum can accumulate and form small domes like this one.

Geologists believe, however, that the mound will gradually dissolve over time due to precipitation.

Amazingly, one can clearly see the Temple of the Sun from Glass Mountain. While many come to Cathedral Valley with the intention of seeing the ‘temples,’ few are aware that a unique crystal hill sits just nearby.

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef

The Temples of the Sun & Moon

When admiring the Temples of the Sun and Moon, it becomes more clear why this area was named Cathedral Valley. With a bit of imagination, they do indeed resemble towering Gothic cathedrals.

The monoliths were named in 1945 by Charles Kelly, the first superintendent of Capitol Reef National Park. And it was also Kelly who campaigned for Cathedral Valley to be included within Capitol Reef’s official boundaries. 

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef

The Temple of the Sun stands at 400 feet (120 m), while the adjacent Temple of the Moon is 300 ft (91 m) high. As you explore the area, you’ll notice how they appear to drastically change in size and shape based on where you’re standing.

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef
Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef

The monoliths are comprised of Entrada Sandstone – the same type of sandstone that makes up Arches National Park’s arches and Goblin Valley State Park’s hoodoos.

As with the Bentonite Hills and other Cathedral Valley landmarks, the minerals were deposited in this area some 160 million years ago during the Jurassic period.

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef

As this type of sandstone is very fine-grained, the eroded portions of the rock are easily swept away by water. The surviving monoliths, therefore, are hardly surrounded by any debris and seem to jut out of the ground like skyscrapers – or tall cathedrals in this case.

The Temples of The Stars

In addition to the Temples of the Sun and Moon, there’s actually another pair of monoliths about a mile away that not everyone knows about.

Known as the Temples of the Stars, they’re considerably smaller. But by standing behind them, you can enjoy an amazing perspective of the Temple of the Moon directly in between the two smaller monoliths.

And as you make your way back towards the Temples of the Sun and Moon, you’ll also observe a distant butte that appears right in between them. Locals know it as Solomon’s Temple.

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef
The Temple of the Moon in between the Temples of the Stars

Towards the Exit

Next, it’s time to start heading toward the main highway and ultimately back to your accommodation in Torrey. While there aren’t any individual landmarks to seek out on your way to the exit, you’ll pass by yet more striped bentonite hills.

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef
Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef

If you’ve done your journey through Cathedral Valley clockwise, the lighting should be ideal by the time you make it to this part of the park. And if you still have some time left over, you’ll want to make plenty of stops for photography.

These bentonite-rich hills are part of the much wider Morrison Formation, a Jurassic-era sequence of sedimentary rock that can be found throughout much of the western United States. But relatively few regions are as colorful as what you’ll find here.

Finally back on paved road, it was already around 15:45 by the time we got back to Torrey, after having departed at 7:00 that morning.

Cathedral Valley Capitol Reef

Additional Info

As mentioned above, I took this tour run by Meridian Photography Tours which I highly recommend. While the tour lasted a whole day, Meridian also offers shorter tours which focus on the Bentonite Hills as well as the Temples of the Sun and Moon.

Capitol Reef National Park is one of the easier Utah parks to plan for in regards to accommodation and transport. The park is just a 15-20 minute drive from the town of Torrey, and that’s pretty much where everyone stays.

Despite being a small town, Torrey thrives on tourism, so there are plenty of options in the area.

While not exactly budget options, Capitol Reef Resort and The Noor Hotel are as close to the park as you can get, being just a 7-minute drive to the Chimney Rock Trailhead.

While I didn’t stay there, I did eat a few times at the Rim Rock restaurant across the street, at the views were fantastic.

Closer to the quaint and charming town center, meanwhile, are the Red Sands Hotel and the Broken Spur Inn, both of which are highly rated. Of course, there are a number of good Airbnb options to choose from as well.

For those interested in camping, the main developed campsite within the park is the Fruita Campground which offers picnic tables, fire pits and a few restrooms.

It’s possible to camp there with either a tent or RV (if you don’t have your own, consider renting one on a site like Outdoorsy). You can learn more about camping at Capitol Reef here.

Given its remote location, most people will be visiting Capitol Reef National Park after seeing other parks in Utah.

For those coming directly from Bryce Canyon National Park, the drive to your accommodation in Torrey should take a little over two hours. But also be sure to check out Kodachrome Basin State Park during the journey.

The drive to or from Moab (the base for both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks), meanwhile, takes around 2.5 hours. But there are plenty of places to stop along the way, such as Goblin Valley State Park, which is about an hour and forty minutes from Torrey.

At the time of writing, Capitol Reef National Park costs $20 to enter (learn more here).

If you’re visiting from abroad, note that in contrast to many other countries, US parks typically charge per vehicle rather than per person. However, if you’re traveling by bicycle instead, they’ll charge you for an individual pass which costs $10, while those on motorcycles will be charged $15.

Considering how many National Parks and National Monuments there are to see in the Southwest alone, the best option for most will be to buy an ‘America the Beautiful’ Annual National Parks Pass.

These cost $80 for the year. In most cases, you’re already saving money by just visiting four National Parks/Monuments anywhere in the country within a full year.

What’s more, is that only one person in your vehicle needs to have the pass. Additionally, seniors can buy the pass for just $20. So if you have someone over 62 in your party, just have them get the annual pass and everyone else will be set.

As for where to get the pass, you can purchase it in person at most National Parks or Monuments. But you can also order it in advance online.

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