See that formation off in the distance?, asked Lurt Knee. I squinted against the glare of the sun to discern a shaft of sandstone, thrust like a spear point above the raw desert landscape.
"I worked all day to get old Joe Moench (the photographer) to that rock," he continued. "He set up his camera, took one picture, then turned to me and said, `we go!' All that for one picture!" he laughed. I remarked that I had seen the published photograph. It was beautiful.In the late 1950s Lurt and Alice Knee were guest ranch operators inside what was then Capitol Reef National Monument, and they enjoyed nothing more than squiring greenhorns like myself around the high deserts of south-central Utah.
A big, friendly man whose words sometimes came in volleys, Lurt was introducing me to Cathedral Valley, a tumultuous region of weathered rock, free-standing monoliths and painted deserts.
We'd left the paved highway 12 miles east of the campground, turning onto a dirt road that led to the Fremont River. The lumbering Jimmy Travelall plunged into the water up to its axle as muddy water sprayed over the hood. The bottom, however, felt solid enough.
Beyond the river ford, we climbed steadily through rounded clay hills of striking colors. They were the Bentonite or Pinto Hills of russet, greyish-green and purple huesmolded from sand, silt, volcanic ash and mud laid down in primal lakes and swamps 140 million years ago.
Lurt's name for the formation was less cliche, certainly more eloquent. He called it the "Sleeping Rainbow," as the bands of color seemed to emerge from the earth itself.
In his classic series of essays, "Sand Country Almanac," naturalist Otto Leopold advised "never to revisit a wilderness . . . to return not only spoils a trip, but tarnishes a memory. It is only in the mind that shining adventure remains forever bright."
Perhaps. In the ensuing years, I've revisited Cathedral Valley numerous times on my own and each time have found its unworldly beauty as fascinating as ever. There is a primal look to landforms here, as if the cover had been stripped from a sepulcher revealing a landscape frozen in time.
There are four possible routes into Cathedral Valley: the aforementioned river crossing; a second access at Caineville, 19 miles east of the visitors center off US 24; a third via Thousand Lake Mountain; and a fourth from Interstate 70.
In fair weather, back-country roads are suitable for high clearance vehicles, i.e. pickups, 4X4's. A short 17 mile drive from Cainville into Lower Cathedral Valley can also be driven by most touring sedans, although be forewarned, the road is rough at best.
In foul weather, especially during the torrential summer downpours, the clay hills turn into gumbo and the river may rise suddenly to flood stage. At these times the area is to be avoided altogether.
The river ford is the preferred access for those who want the full experience of these desert wildlands. Beyond the clay hills, the road curls through a maze of low grey cliffs, shallow canyons and sandy flats.
This is the Harnet Country, a mesa-like highland bordered on three sides by the escarpments of the South and Middle Deserts.
Short spur roads, no more than a mile or two in length, lead to a number of striking viewpoints: among them, the Lower South Desert, Lower Cathedral Valley, Ackland Rim and the Upper South Desert overlooks.
From such vantage points it is possible to gauge the expanse of these wildlands, known only to stockmen and a handful of adventurous tourists.
North and west of Cathedral Valley, the arching headlands of the San Rafael Swell hang on the horizon, while south, an equal immensity, the Water Pocket Fold forms the ragged spine of Capitol Reef.
Brooding over this wreckage of landscape is Thousand Lake Mountain, carpeted by open meadows and thatched by mixed stands of aspen, spruce, fir and pine.
Named by the pathfinder, John C. Fremont, it rises 10,000 feet above sea level. In the summer it is often cloud wreathed and a proper refuge from the scorching temperatures of the high desert. Winters, it is locked in snow and ice.
The formations of Cathedral Valley seem to summon a religious feeling, as if one should approach the place with votive offerings.
Charles Kelley, the colorful first superintendent of Capitol Reef National Monument, named the valley and its principal landmarks - the daunting Temple of the Sun and its satellite, the Temple of the Moon.
The mind's eye may see these monoliths as Kelley did, as Gothic cathedrals, or Egyptian pyramids, or perhaps the pagan temples of Inca or Aztec gods.
The largest of the two, the Temple of the Sun, rises about 400 feet above a floor of rock pavement and dune sand.
Glass Mountain is within sight of the Temple of the Sun and Moon. It is less a mountain, but a low mound of selenite, a form of gypsum which cleaves into large flat crystals.
A sizeable sinkhole in Upper Cathedral Valley is also of gypsum origin. The hole, in an isolated cove at the base of a cliff, is about 50 feet across with sheer and overhanging walls.
Spelunkers have descended into the gypsum sinkhole to a depth of 200 feet and although their probing indicated additional cavities at greater depth, debris blocked the way.
The Wall of Jericho and Great Basilica are part of the knife-edged promontory of layered rock standing between the Hartnet and Upper Cathedral Valley and another major landmark hereabouts.
To Charles Kelley and other early guides (circa 1940) this was Wall Street because of its vertical lines. Its apotheosis did not occur until years later when parts of the escarpment succumbed to gravity.
About 27 miles west of the river ford, at Hartnet Junction, the road turns north and east, descending a series of steep switchbacks to Upper Cathedral Valley. (Should you continue westward you will cross the shoulder of Thousand Lake Mountain and join Utah 72.)
Unlike most landmarks hereabouts, the monoliths at the head of Upper Cathedral are unnamed, although fully as impressive as the Temples of the Sun and the Moon.
At mile 31 from the river ford, the Wall of Jericho rises into view and at mile 33 you reach the turn-off to the gypsum sinkhole.
The soft sediments of Layercake Wall (mile 38) are protected by such a capstone of lava. The variegated cliff towers 1,100 feet above the desert floor, beautifully carved in a series of terraces and palisades.
Although the sediments of Layercake Wall were laid down when the dinosaurs first appeared, it was the melt water of Ice Age glaciers that scoured the valleys, revealing past characters of the earth's history.
In today's arid climate, wind, ice and occasional flash floods continue to rake the valley, though at a subdued rate.
Layercake Wall marks the division between Upper and Lower Cathedral Valley. From there it is five miles to the Temples of the Sun and Moon with numerous creek crossings to be negotiated. From the monoliths it is another 17 miles to the highway.
The entire distance from the river ford to Utah 24, a half mile west of Cainville, is 60 miles. From the visitors center at Capitol Reed it is an 85 mile round trip.
Because of the nature of the roads, you should allow yourself a full day. Take water, more food than you plan to use, a shovel, in the summer insect repellent, and whatever emergency supplies you deem necessary, since off the highway you are on your own.
Except for the Baker Ranch at the north end of the Valley, there are no human inhabitants.
It's non-human denizens include coyotes, bobcats, mule deer, foxes, rabbits and a variety of varmints which you may occasionally glimpse.
A definitive guide to the valley of Cathedrals edited by Ward Roylance is also handy to have along for its safety tips, self guiding numbered stops, and detailed geologic descriptions. One can be obtained at a modest price at the visitors center.
* Frank Jensen lives in Salt Lake City. He is a frequent contributor to the Deseret News Travel Section.