Cathedral Valley, Capital Reef National Park

July 9, 2020

50 degrees in the morning. 92 degrees in afternoon, sunny all day

At 6:00 AM I drove The Scenic Drive to take pictures. I stopped for coffee at a place whose name I can’t remember not, but It’s east of the Phillips 66 station, and they have meat pies. I was too early for the meat pies, but the coffee was excellent.

At the end The Scenic Drive, there is a dirt and gravel road called Pleasant Creek Road, and I took it. There are some great views on this road. One road goes off to a farm, while another goes to an impressive-looking ranger station sitting on a bluff. 

Around the turn was the remains of an old farm. Rabbits scattered everywhere. Driving further, I came to a parking area with a bathroom. High clearance vehicles were required to go further. Although my truck has 4-wheel drive, its clearance is 9”. I parked and walked across the creek with an appropriate name – Pleasant Creek. Yes, it is cold enough for trout. I didn’t walk far, but it would be an interesting drive. It was 10:30 and getting into the heat of the day, and I didn’t want to make the same mistake as my previous hike. The truck would have made it on this part of the road, but who knows what’s ahead.

From this spot, it’s about an hour drive back to the little town of Torrey. I stopped at what was now becoming my favorite store. I just needed bread, some fruit and coffee. It’s so nice and convenient to have this on the way to the campground. The Chuckwagon General Store. The people are very nice. There is a deli, where they make a variety of sandwiches. They bake breads, donuts, cookies and brownies every day. Yesterday’s go on sale every day. They have a small, but nice produce section, and pretty much everything you need in a small store. Yesterday, when I bought a whole list of things, Beth helped me carry them to the car. Now when does that happen?

My afternoon plan was to drive to Cathedral Valley in Capital Reef National Park. It’s an hour and a half drive from this side of the park to Cathedral Valley overlook, then a winding gravel road down the mountain to Cathedral Valley Road. I knew I needed to be prepared for a long afternoon in the high desert. Little did I know what an expedition it would be. 

Sand Creek RV Resort has an ice freezer on the front porch that works on the honor system. I got two bags of block ice and put them in the cooler along with Gatorade, water and a couple of sandwiches. I saw Harry watering the grass and asked him for advice on the trip. He looked at my truck and said I should be OK. He said it’s 40 minutes to the gravel road, then 13 miles on a washboard, gravel road up the mountain. “Don’t miss the overlook at the top. There is a tiny sign that is easily missed, and you can’t turn around. There are two roads in the valley, and the only issue is how much water is in the stream, but you should be fine. I’ve not heard any reports of anyone getting stuck.” As he talked, Harry pointed to the mesa or mountain right behind us, and in fact, that’s right where it is. As Dan said, “In Virginia, you drive over mountains. In Utah, we drive around them.”

I waited until 3:00, setting the Garmin GPS to Cathedral Valley Overlook. One wrong turn and my day would be shot. I took Rt. 24 north to Lyman, then 72 to Fremont. It’s a pretty drive with beautiful hay fields on both sides of the road. In order to get hay, every field is watered with those huge, rolling pipes. One wonders how long the water will last. It is so dry here (16% humidity), the water will seep into the ground or quickly evaporate. 

Then I took a right on Polk Creek Road, the gravel, washboard road going up the mountain. A sign recommended 4-wheel drive to help preserve the road. Pickup trucks are light in the back, and just using 2-wheel, rear drive the vehicle bumps up and down making ruts. Even in 4-wheel drive, I was doing plenty of bouncing. I passed Elkhorn Campground, which was very nice, but no one was there. I thought it would be a bad idea to pull the Airstream up this road, although I have done two roads similar to this, and they were both worth it. .

As the road finally leveled out, there were trees, birches, grass and cows. People with big campers were parked in designated areas of the National Forest. I won’t say they were everywhere, and they were very spread far apart, but there were a lot of them. I mean big campers with slide-outs. I think the attractions are to get away, into the mountains where it is cool and to ride 4-wheelers all over the place. Elevation was 9-10,000’. There were a few lakes; Fish Lake, Raft Lake and another, even a mountain called called Thousand Lake Mountain . There were some very pretty areas to camp, obviously well-managed. Rocks were expertly arranged for fires, and it looked like someone patrols and cleans up. Some were marked with numbers, but some were not. This is a narrow, winding gravel road. I was happy to not have passed anyone, but the landscape is very pretty with trees, grass and rolling hills on top of these big mountains.

From a campsite

The Garmin GPS put me right on the mark for South Desert Overlook, or South Cathedral Valley Overlook. A trail led over a hill and down to a picnic table on a flat area overlooking one of the most spectacular sights I have ever seen. Before me lay Cathedral Valley, and it is appropriately named. It was 4:45, and the sun was still high in the sky, not a great time to get the best pictures, but still impressive.

Driving back up the road, I came to the crest of the mountain before the road wound its way down. Calling it a pullover is a stretch. There was a wide spot in the one-lane gravel road. There were some big rocks defining the edge of the cliff. I pulled over and took more pictures before making the descent. 

During my planning, I had read about this road. One person said you needed a high clearance vehicle. Cathedral Valley campground sits right behind me. There is no way I would get the Airstream there, but I thought about bringing a tent and sleeping bag. The night stars are supposed to be spectacular here, overlooking Cathedral Valley. Check this out:

It’s amazing the gear I bring as it is…..just in case; the kayak and stuff that go with it, cook gear, tools, cooler, clothes for every possibility, stuff for the Middle Fork trip, camera gear and backpacks. I don’t suppose one or two night’s camping gear would add a lot more, but it’s amazing how full my truck is. I do think it is worth bringing camping gear though, and this is the perfect example. This is not an easy place to get to, and as you will see, not an easy place to get out of, so if you are going, prepare to stay a night or two in a tent.

Having read about this road descending the escarpment, I went very slowly. I stopped at a “pullover” on the edge of the cliff to take another picture of these cathedrals surrounded by green, grassy plains. I had seen two vehicles in front of me, but no one behind. You must go slowly, one because of the road and two, because of the views before you. One turn was so sharp, I had to back up to make it. with a sigh of relief, I made it to the bottom, where the road became sunken and feathery-light dust and sand. As the pictures, it isn’t so bad.

With the sun still very high and very hot, it is an unforgiving environment – not a place you want a flat tire or overheated radiator. I thought the trip across the valley might take an hour, then a half hour back to camp, but I was wrong. The sights are spectacular. Such features on such a forbidding landscape are unimaginable. One side valley looked like Petra in Jordan. I would need a horse to get there though, which begs the question; to journey into this valley on horseback years ago is beyond imagination. 

One of the vehicles, a van, returned up the road, passing me as I was taking pictures. I had left the windows open, but too late, he passed with a wave and a cloud of dust. Why was he going back up that road? As I drove on, I got the answer – sand! Like driving on the beach on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, places of deep sand took me by surprise. I thought the valley floor would be a nice, flat gravel road. Wrong. It gets windy here, and it can blow very hard. If it blew like that in Virginia, there would be a big storm coming, but here it can nearly blow you over and then just stop. Like snow blowing across the plains, very light sand blows here, piling up in the road. I put it in 4-wheel drive. Some areas were hidden though. I was too busy looking at the sights and I would be in the middle of deep sand. I was impressed with the torque of the diesel engine to push through the sand, but wondered if I would need to let air out.

At 7:30 I began to worry a little. How far is it? How long would it take to get back? Would I get stuck? The road kept crossing stream beds. Some were washes, but some were for a stream, which I think is the Fremont River, but there was no water on any of the crossings. That would be another problem. There was a crossroad with a sign pointing to “sinkhole”. I did not consider taking that one. 

I could have taken thousands of pictures here. It is so varied: red rocks, cathedrals, fortresses, black mounds, the land littered with black boulders like someone sprinkled huge pepper grains on the landscape. There were white rocks, temple-shaped structures, domes, sentinels, parapets, just so much variety!

But I must get on. Now 8:00 and I was winding up and around huge structures of landscape. I stopped and entered the campground in the GPS. Thankfully, it showed my road, the valley and the route home; an hour and a half! With that I passed the road leading to The Sun and The Moon. I had heard of these, but I did not want to be driving this “road” in the dark. The sun was amazingly still high in the sky.

I drove on, trying to make some time, but the best I could do was 20 mph on this road, and then slow down for a deep sand area or a big dip or a stream bed. But then around the corner would be another dramatic change in the structures and I would have to stop and look. I would come back to see more, coming in the opposite direction. But would I?

They talk of Capital Reef as a 100 mile long barrier to travel. Like a reef in the ocean, it limits where you can go and the speed you go. There is no straight course to anything. I looked ahead of me and walls and mountains surrounded me. How does this road get through this? Thankfully, it did. I finally came out on Rt. 24 north of the park entrance.

I was tired as I drove back to camp. It was dark now at 9:30, and it had been a long day. Tomorrow I will rest, maybe do some laundry and sort through the hundreds of pictures I have taken today. The truck needs a wash and so did I. 

I took a shower, poured a glass of wine and ate a salad. Now the campground was full, every spot taken. It’s Thursday, approaching the weekend, but I wondered if there was some event. Many of these had 4-wheelers, or ATV’s. One group of 10 sat around a fire laughing, but I was quickly asleep.

  4 comments for “Cathedral Valley, Capital Reef National Park

  1. Willy
    July 12, 2020 at 12:40 pm

    The landscape is truly amazing and you’ve captured it so well. Thanks Greg!

    • July 12, 2020 at 10:09 pm

      Thank you Willy. It truly an amazing place. I would love to go back

  2. donaldswheeleryahoocom
    July 13, 2020 at 3:39 pm

    Greg, I am passing along your post to my son, Robert, who lives in Denver. He might try to bring some of his friends out to Capital Reef for some camping and four-wheeling.

    • July 14, 2020 at 9:40 am

      They will love it Donald. Four-wheeling heaven!

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