In the half a dozen trips I’ve previously made to Capital Reef National Park, I was enthralled by descriptions of Cathedral Valley and knew I had to go there. However, until last month, I had never made it. Cathedral Valley is in the northern portion of the park. Park. There is a loop road through the valley, traversing both Park and BLM land. A high clearance vehicle is a must, 4-wheel drive is optional, but nice to have. The road is impassable if wet. In my previous trips to the park, I either had a car without the required clearance, or the weather didn’t cooperate. During my trip last month, I was determined to make it into the valley.
At first, it seemed like fate would prevent me from seeing Cathedral Valley once again, thanks our rental-car company. Tanya and I flew into Salt Lake and met up with our friends, Jim and Kris, who had flown in earlier that day. I had reserved a Jeep Grand Cherokee with Fox Rent-a-Car, picking that vehicle specifically for its high ground clearance. We got the Fox counter about half an hour after the plane landed, and there were two parties in line ahead of me. They gave the person two ahead of me a Grand Cherokee. When I got up to the agent, they said they didn’t have any Grand Cherokee’s left (having just given the last one away). Instead, they offered a Dodge Journey, which they claim was the same class of car (it is not, the Journey is a crossover, not an SUV). I was not happy. Tanya went through their parking lot looking at which cars had the highest ground clearance. We ended up with a Jeep Patriot, which had more ground clearance than the Journey, but not as much as a Grand Cherokee, nor is it as large. With 4 people and luggage, it was a bit of tight fit. But luckily, as I found out, the Patriot worked well on the Cathedral Valley road (later in the trip, but not in Cathedral Valley, we could have used the extra ground clearance, as we bottomed out a couple times).
After securing the car, we drove down to Teasdale, Utah, where we had an Airbnb booked for that night. Teasdale is immediately west of the town of Torrey and about 12 miles from Capital Reef. The next morning the sun was bright and the forecast was for clear skies and no rain – perfect for a Cathedral Valley drive. We drove into the park and stopped at the visitor center. It was a zoo, loaded with tourists from across the globe. But we would leave 99% of them behind by driving to Cathedral Valley. We purchased the road guide ($2.95 and well worth it) and set off. The road guide describes 41 historic, geologic, and/or scenic stops along the 96 mile (from the visitor center back to the visitor center) trip. The Cathedral Valley loop road itself starts at mile 11.7, and the first “stop” is the Fremont River ford at mile 12.2. The river was running at about 12 inches depth that day (according to the ranger at the visitor center), and we had little difficulty driving across the river even though I missed the shallowest part.
From there the road traverses up some hills into a broad valley called Blue Flats. In the middle of the valley is an old, abandoned well drilling rig (next to the last well it apparently drilled; the artesian well providing a flow of several gallons per minute). Jim and I found this most fascinating, as we are both groundwater geologists and often work with drill rigs in our day jobs. From there the road climbs out of the valley through the Bentonite Hills. Bentonite is a form of clay, and here for sure, the road would be impossibly slick to drive if wet. Bentonite also forms lovely rounded, colorful hills and badlands, and it was a delight to the eye to drive through this part of the road.
From there, the road continues climbing and eventually enters the national park, where there are several viewpoints of the lower South Desert, a scenic valley to the southwest of the road. The road continues to an overlook of upper Cathedral Valley, with a great view of a series of monoliths in the valley below. The monoliths are reminiscent, and about the same size as, cathedrals – thus, I believe, the name of the valley. Near this viewpoint is a campground with six primitive sites.
The road then drops down into Cathedral Valley proper. There are a couple trails in this part of the valley, a short trail to a historic cabin and a 1.1-mile trail to provides up close views of the monoliths. Due to the time of day, and a pending dinner reservation at Cafe Diablo (great restaurant) in Torrey, we declined to take the trails and kept going. Here the loop road turns back to the east as it traverses the valley floor, magnificent valley walls all around. After passing some volcanic dikes – black vertical rocks that have cut through the older sedimentary rocks of the valley – there is a short side road to the Gypsum Sinkhole – an unusual, large, deep hole in the ground at the base of cliff where water dissolved away a gypsum dome.
The road leaves the national park, but another short side road takes you back in. This road takes you to Glass Mountain and the Temples of the Sun and Moon. Glass Mountain isn’t really a mountain, but a large mound of selenite crystals. Selenite is a form of gypsum, and the mound is similar to what was formerly at the Gypsum Sinkhole prior to the sinkhole forming. Nearby are the Temples of the Sun and Moon, two large and impressive monoliths in the middle of the valley floor. The road takes you to base of each. We saw several people camping just outside the park boundary on this road – a perfect spot to camp if you want to capture sunrise light on the two Temples. Not such a great spot if you want shade.
The main road continues through BLM land, offering more primitive camping spots with great scenery, including the dramatic Cainville Mesas. At mile 77.3, the road returns to the highway, about 18 miles east of the visitor center.
Cathedral Valley is a landscape photographer’s (and geologist’s) heaven. Photographically, the best way to capture it would be to camp along the loop, either in the small campground in upper Cathedral Valley or off the road in the BLM section, allowing you to be in the area during the golden hours. Even if you cannot camp along the loop, the road is well worth traveling (provided you have a high clearance vehicle and there is no rain in the forecast). Laurent Martries, in his book Photographing the Southwest, Volume 1 – a Guide to the Natural Landmarks of Southern Utah, proclaims Cathedral Valley as “one of the most remarkable spots on the planet.” I have to agree.
Later this month, Tanya and I will be off for a quick trip to Utah with friends. Nahla, unfortunately, gets to stay home with our housesitter. Rather than driving down like we usually do, due to only having a week for the trip, we will fly down to Salt Lake and rent a car. We plan on spending two days at Capital Reef National Park, before heading down to Escalante for two days, and finishing up with two days at Bryce Canyon National Park. This is a great time to go; it is usually sunny and warm, but not yet hot, with fewer thundershowers (than summer) ruining those slot canyon hikes. In anticipation of the trip, I’m posting a few shots from my past trips to the area. The one above is from the Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument. The two below are from Capital Reef and Bryce Canyon. Looking forward to getting more shots like these.
Capital Reef National Park was our last stop on our Southwest trip which ended in October. I love this place. The campground at Fruita is, in my opinion, among the best camping spots in the Southwest. The tent sites are mostly on grass, not dirt like most spots. The campground is very well shaded by trees. And it is situated next to several fruit orchards (apples, pears, cherries, apricots, and peaches), where campers are free to pick fresh fruit (free for “in orchard” eating, a small, reasonable, self-service fee is charged for taking some home). Need an apple for your day hike, stop by the orchards on your way to the trailhead! The Fremont River runs next to the campground, and scenic sandstone cliffs tower above it. And if you like wildlife, Fruita is mule deer central (not surprisingly with lots of green stuff to eat, a reliable water supply, and fruit dropping from the trees). And typically, it is fairly easy to get a camping spot. I’ve camped there four times, and have only been aced out once. You guessed it, that time was this trip.
We went to Capital Reef on the spur of the moment. Our original itinerary called for us to drive to Moab, but as it was a Friday in the prime autumn season, I worried about finding a camping spot. So we opted to go to Capital Reef instead (like I said, I’ve never had a problem there). Well, the park must be becoming more popular, because we arrived before 3 p.m. and it had been full since noon. We had the option of camping anywhere on BLM land outside the park, but we had just done that for the previous three nights (one night at Bisti and two nights outside of Natural Bridges National Monument) and the western sky just outside the park was very dark with rain clouds. So we opted to find a motel in Torrey, about 10 mile west of the park. This worked well. It was nice to get a shower, and we had dinner at the fabulous restaurant Cafe Diablo. (It’s worth a trip to Torrey just to go to this restaurant. We ate there about five years ago and loved it then. At that time, the chef made a special meal for Tanya, who is gluten intolerant. This time, they had a gluten-free menu, and the food was as good as we remembered.)
Capital Reef is an unusual national park. It is only a few miles wide, but many miles long. This is because the park follows the Waterpocket Fold – a nearly 100 mile long monocline (that is a steeply inclined stack of layered rocks). Waterpocket Fold, which generally runs north-south, sticks up dramatically out of the ground, forming a formidable barrier to east-west travel. Thus, early settlers in the area thought of it like a barrier reef (which restricts travel by boat). It is called “capital” because it has some rock domes that resemble the Capital in Washington, DC and other such architectural domes. There are only three east-west roads through Capital Reef, and only one is easily traveled – Highway 24, which follows the Fremont River and goes through Fruita. Fruita was originally a Morman settlement (that’s where the fruit orchards originally came from).
Unfortunately, this trip we only had time to explore the region of the park near Fruita and along the Scenic Drive, a ten-mile paved road extending south of Fruita on the west side of the park. But there more than enough scenery for our two days in the area.
I highly recommend visiting Capital Reef. But be warned, Torrey seems to be growing, there are many more motels there than just five years ago. In a way, it reminds me of Moab before it became “Moab” (if you know what I mean). This park is getting more popular every year; try to get there before Torrey gets too big and Capital Reef gets too overrun.
We finally had a decent summer weekend. It was sure a long time coming this year. And where was I when the weather finally reached over 80 degrees? Up in the mountains photographing wildflowers and snowfields? Photographing tidepools in Olympic National Park at Ruby Beach or Kalaloch? Or even enjoying a family picnic sans camera? No, no, and no. I was stuck inside my studio most the weekend working on processing portrait shots. It’s not that I hate processing photos, in fact I like it; for me, processing is part of the art of photography. I like taking a RAW image and turning it into a thing of beauty (though repeating the same enhancements over and over again on a series of portraits can get a bit tedious). But when the weather is nice, I should be out shooting!
Alas, the portrait work needed doing, regardless of the weather. So I slaved over the computer most the weekend (and am actually happy with the amount of work I got done). However, I couldn’t help be dream of being outside, taking photographs in a beautiful landscape. With that, my day dreams turned to my pending vacation. Late next month Tanya and I hope to drive down to southern Utah and northern New Mexico. We are planning to go to some spots I’ve never been before, and I’m excited about the photographic opportunities.
I love the American Southwest. In part, I think, it is due to my formal training as a geologist. I like seeing all the bare rocks – no soil, trees or other vegetation covering their colors and patterns. And as a travel and landscape photographer, I can’t think of a more photogenic area. I like the American Southwest so much I named my photography company after a character, Seldom Seen Smith, in the Edward Abbey novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. For awhile, I had been visiting southern Utah about every other year. But now it’s been about four years and I’m itching to go again. Seeing some of New Mexico will be great too. I haven’t been there in over 25 years, not since my Texas A&M grad school days when I was a teaching assistant on a geology field camp. I imagine it has changed much in that quarter century.
Now on Monday, the rain has returned to Tacoma, and dreaming of a vacation in the Southwest has only gotten stronger. In support of my vacation dreams, I’m posting these shots from some of my previous trips to Utah. These are images I haven’t much shown before. I hope you enjoy them.