Off the beaten path: Cathedral Valley in Capitol Reef National Park

Lower South Desert Overlook with Jailhouse Rock

The highlight of our trip through Southern Utah last month was our day driving through Cathedral Valley in Capitol Reef National Park.  Cathedral Valley is in the very northeast section of the Park and is accessible using a 58 mile dirt road loop that starts at the River Ford on Highway 24 about 11 miles east of the Visitor Center and ends up back on Highway 24 just west of Caineville.  You should go to the Visitor Center and buy the “Self-Guiding Auto Tour Guide to Cathedral Valley” which is a very well done newspaper description of the trip with mile marker data and other useful information.

The River Ford is passable at most times of the year, except during spring runoff or following a thunderstorm, when the river may be flooding.  Check in at the Visitor Center before driving down there.   The ford has a hard packed, rocky bottom and water levels are normally a foot or so deep.  After The River Ford, there is about a half mile of fairly loose and deep sand.  Though they say you do not need a four wheel drive vehicle, you certainly need a nigh clearance vehicle and there were many times during the day that I was glad to have a four wheel drive Jeep.

After crossing the river, there is about a 20 mile drive past the Bentonite Hills.  These are low round hills with purple, blue, red, and gray stripes.  We also came upon an old abandoned truck that made for a great subject at Ackland Spring around mile 20.

The Bentonite Hills at Ackland Spring
Bentonite Hills
Bentonite Hills Close-up

There are three main overlooks you will want to see.  The first is the Lower South Desert Overlook with the main attraction being the Jailhouse Rock.  It is a short walk with a great view.  Though most of our trip had bald skies, this day gave us fantastic high wispy clouds that make middle of the day shooting possible (see cover photo of this blog).

The Upper South Desert Overlook is also spectacular and screamed for a panorama.  Again, this is just a short walk from the parking area and you can hike around to get different angles on the valley.  The Waterpocket Fold is the slope on the southwest (right side of photo).

Upper South Desert Overlook (with Mark McDermott)
Upper South Desert Overlook

The Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook is  your first look at the “monoliths.”  I had done some research, so I knew what they looked like, but seeing them in person was fantastic.  There was a little difficulty in getting a “clean” shot here as there were numerous foreground objects that did not add to the photograph.  I ended up cropping to get a panorama look.  There is a two mile round trip hike that gets you closer to these monoliths, but we did not do it.

View from Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook

The climax of the trip was our final stop at the Temple of the Sun and the Temple of the Moon.  We were there in the late afternoon and got some nice side lighting.  Again, these are really impressive structures that are even more so in-person.  We spent an hour or so here and then made it back to Panorama Point for sunset.  Another option is to enter the loop through Caineville and shoot these with morning light.  I think if we go again, we will do that.

Temple of the Moon with Temple of the Sun (background)
Infrared Photo converted to Black and White Temples of the Moon and Sun

It was a long day with some sketchy sections of the road.  Again, I was glad we had a Jeep.  I am also glad we had the three of us – me, Mary, and our friend from Alaska, Mark McDermott.  It is pretty desolate out there and they say that if you break down, do not expect to be rescued for 24-48 hours.  We saw two other cars all day long and some local ranchers driving their herd in the  Caineville Wash.

Our Trusted Jeep in front of the Temple of the Moon

Again, we used Photographing the Southwest by Laurent Martres as our main guidebook on our trip (see this month’s book review), and as always, Robert Hitchman’s newsletters.  To see more of our photography, please go to


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