CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK Just under 200 years ago, trappers and other trailblazers pushing into the American West began traversing bleak, torturous landscapes mostly barren of vegetation and browse.
They called these places "badlands." Nowadays, often as not, we call them "national parks."
A perfect example can be found in the spectacularly eroded backcountry northeast of Fruita and the Fremont River in southcentral Utah. There, in 1945, Frank Beckwith and Charles Kelly, the first superintendent of what was then Capitol Reef National Monument, christened an area of fantastically eroded cliffs, sandstone monoliths and panoramic views. To them, the scene seemed downright Gothic.
So they called it Cathedral Valley. There you'll find, among many other jaw-dropping formations, the Temples of the Sun, Moon and Stars.
"It's spectacular and remote," observes Al Hendricks, superintendent of today's Capitol Reef National Park.
Cathedral Valley's sometimes atypical Colorado Plateau scenes are often depicted on postcards and in books, but getting there requires heading off the paved U-24 highway that bisects Capitol Reef, often to travel a dusty and in wet weather, potentially treacherous 58-mile loop that crosses the eerie Bentonite Hills, rises over the South Desert and descends into Cathedral Valley and the Caineville Wash . . . or vice versa.
Compared to the more popular Waterpocket Fold area to the south, not many people choose to make this trip.
"Very often, you may be the only one visiting them that day," Hendricks says.
The Cathedral Valley tour is a fascinating passage through the geologic eons, from ancient seas that laid down sandstone layers to not-quite-so-distant volcanic and ice ages that have left big basaltic boulders strewn about as if giants had been playing marbles with them.
"The landscape of South Desert and Cathedral Valley looks eternal," Rose Houk writes in her book "Capitol Reef: Backcountry Eden." ". . . But change is nature's universal theme."
The wonders along this backcountry loop greatly add to Capitol Reef's picturesque inventory. The park's better-known Capitol Dome, Hickman Arch and Grand Wash are familiar to most visitors because of their proximity to historic Fruita, Capitol Reef's headquarters. But the moonscape hills, plateau-top views, shimmering gypsum hillocks and pyramid-like temples in the park's northern sector are certainly worth taking in as well.
Overnight visits are possible, but a minimum of seven hours is usually required to complete the Cathedral Valley loop. The route also passes through some private land, where no trespassing is the rule, and winds in and out of national park boundaries and into Bureau of Land Management territory.
Here are just a few of the sights:
Fremont River Ford:
This one obstacle, 11.7 miles east of Capitol Reef's visitor center on the loop's west end, probably deters many a potential backcountry tourist, even though the road beyond is generally OK for all vehicles with good ground clearance. The river crossing is shallow year-round (about 10 inches deep), except in spring runoff or after a rainstorm, according to the park's $1 "self-guiding auto tour" tabloid. Access to Cathedral Valley itself is possible at the other end of the loop, at Caineville Wash, 18.6 miles east of the visitor center and the road there does not require a splash across a river, if you plan on going out the same way you came in.
Their name sounds like a title for a Western novel: "These Bentonite Hills." From a distance, the mounds, about 8.5 miles from the River Ford, really do look otherworldly like an artist's palette, splashed with gray and white and dark vermillion. Up close, the barren soil "Plants can't take root here," Hendricks says looks equally alien. Crackly when dry, like stepping on popcorn, it becomes gooey and slippery when wet. So this part of the loop is best avoided when the latter seems likely.
South Desert Overlooks:
There are two major overlooks of the colorful South Desert, one about 14 miles from the ford, at the end of a short spur (the "Lower" overlook), another atop a high knoll 27 miles along (the "Upper" overlook), near the loop's summit. The views, high on a rising plateau, are to the south toward the Henry Mountains and the Waterpocket Fold, and they are something to behold.
Cathedral Valley Overlooks:
A 1-mile hike from the loop road, 17 miles from the ford, offers a high view of the Temples of the Sun and the Moon. A spur road 27.2 miles along presents the panorama of Upper Cathedral Valley's monolith complexes.
Thousand Lake Mountain:
A six-site campground is near the loop's highest point, 28 miles from the river ford, near where a Forest Service road heads off to Thousand Lake Mountain.
Mostly hidden by a small bluff in Upper Cathedral Valley, but near the loop road, the Morrell Cabin was used by stockmen, and today remembers the park's cowboy past. It was built in the 1920s by a ranching family.
Upper Cathedral Valley:
Towering above the sloping plain sometimes 500 feet tall the Entrada sandstone monoliths of Upper Cathedral Valley, 30 miles from the ford, rise in spectacular groupings above cracked-mud draws and pinyon-and-juniper lowlands.
A gigantic cliffside maw opens up below some cliffs at the end of a short spur road 33 miles from the ford. Underground gypsum deposits have eroded away, creating a sinkhole some 200 feet deep in places.
A shimmering mound off the Lower Cathedral Valley spur to the Temples of the Sun and Moon, 42.5 miles from the river ford (15.5 miles from the Caineville Wash intersection), has been dubbed "Glass Mountain." It is specked with unusually large flat selenite gypsum crystals, also known as "moonstone," according to the Park Service. The glassy rock adds to the unearthly setting when the Temples of the Sun and Moon are glimpsed in the near distance.
The Temples of the Sun and Moon:
Crafted by powers greater than man, these two monoliths in Lower Cathedral Valley are the mysterious, time-sculpted centerpieces of an intimate "Monument Valley." This is a place where you can drive right up, touch and ponder the layered pyramids in relative solitude. They offer a serene experience that's rare in today's overused national parks. The near-twins stand like sentinels, rising up to 400 feet high above the valley floor, but visitors can see other incipient temples along the cliffs nearby the Temples of the Stars.
Spring and fall are Cathedral Valley's busiest periods, according to Hendricks. Summer, he says, is too hot for most visitors.
If there's a catch to Cathedral Valley, it's that it requires that minimum 15-mile, one-way drive along Caineville Wash's dirt roads to visit the magnetic Temples of the Sun and Moon.
Hendricks stresses that all Cathedral Valley visitors should check conditions at the visitor center first. No fees are charged for that section of the park, and it is open year-round weather permitting. However, the road could be damaged or washed-out. A big rainstorm in early October severely damaged the road and it was closed for about two weeks.
"Our biggest issue here is flashfloods," Hendricks said.
He said the valley and the loop drive that accesses it are places where extra water and provisions are wise, because even the park rangers don't travel the road every day and some days no one may come along to help a stranded traveler.
High-clearance two-wheel drive vehicles can sometimes travel the road safely, but probably can't do so now without a high probability of getting stuck. That's because additional work needs done on the road by the park service and Wayne County. More soil moisture is needed for that work to proceed.
"Four-wheel drive does come in handy here," Hendricks says. He believes deep pockets of dust are a particular hazard currently for two-wheel vehicles. "It's so dry. It's like driving in powdered sugar," he said.