Cathedral Valley Tour - Utah Scenic Drives

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Four Roads To The Valley of Cathedrals, Utah.
Each of the following routes is uniquely different in its scenic offerings. An optimum sightseeing itinerary would occupy two or three days and provide for travel over all four routes. In this way, several route combinations would be possible.

Probably, most visitors will want to take the "loop tour" first, that is, from Highway 24 at River Ford to Highway 24 at Caineville. This is simply a combination of Routes 1 and 2.This guidebook emphasizes River Ford (Route 1) as the favored point of beginning for Cathedral Valley tours. This choice was made for one important reason: if travelers intend to cross River Ford at some point in their journey, it is best that the crossing be made at the beginning rather than the end of their trip. At the very least, they should be certain that the ford can be crossed if they intend to approach it from the north.

While River Ford is passable at most times of year, high water after heavy rains or during spring runoff may prevent fording even by high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicles. It is essential, therefore, that travelers find out in advance if the ford is passable before attempting the River Ford-Hartnet Road in either direction. The most sensible way of doing this is to ford the river at the beginning of the journey rather than risk approaching from the north and finding that the ford is impassable. This would require backtracking many miles. In the event that River Ford is not on the itinerary, then Cathedral Valley can be approached by any of the other routes.

Routes at a glance . . .
Route 1: River Ford (U24) to Hartnet Junction (part of the loop tour): River Ford... Blue Flats... Bentonite Hills... Lower South Desert Overlook... Lower Cathedral Valley Overlooks... The Hartnet... Upper South Desert Overlook... Upper Cathedral Valley Overlook

Route 2: Hartnet Junction to Caineville/U24 (part of the loop tour): Upper Cathedral Valley... Gypsum Sinkhole... Dikes and sills... Lower Cathedral Valley... Middle Desert Wood Bench... Queen of the Wash... Geology Overlooks... Fremont River

Route 3: Thousand Lake Mountain: Hartnet Junction to Fremont/Loa (U24)

Route 4: Last Chance Country: Cathedral Valley Junction to Interstate Highway 70 at Fremont Junction

Routes 1 and 2:
River Ford (U24) to Caineville (U24) -- the Loop Tour

Enter River Ford from Highway 24,11.5 miles east of park Visitor Center. Milepost reading on Highway 24:91.6. Note odometer reading at River Ford for your reference. Mileages to tourstops are rounded to nearest half mile.

River Ford

Miles from River Ford: 0
Miles from U24 at Caineville: 59

The ford is .1 mile from the highway. The Fremont River spreads out in this vicinity over a rocky bed. The water here is rarely more than a foot deep but may be deeper during summer rainstorms or spring runoff. If in doubt, a wise course would be to wade into the stream or probe with a long stick. Check in advance with Visitor Center or park personnel, especially in inclement weather or during times of runoff. Four-wheel-drive, though not always necessary, is advisable if available. Passenger cars with low clearance risk the chance of flooding engines even at low water. The river may be forded at two different spots, several hundred feet apart. One ford may be more suitable than the other at different times, depending on local alterations caused by flooding. Beyond River Ford the unpaved road meanders through varicolored, rounded hills as it climbs to a bench above the river.

Stop 1
Bentonite or Rainbow Hills


Miles from River Ford: 1
Miles from U24 at Caineville: 58

Softly contoured and banded in shades of brownish-red, grayish-green, blue and purple, these rainbow hills resemble the Painted Desert of Arizona and the Badlands of South Dakota. They are similar, also, to the colorful Chinle slopes of Capitol Reef and the Circle Cliffs. However, they are not of the same geological age as those features. These colorful mounds are known variously as the Bentonite, Rainbow, or Painted Hills. They are encountered not only along the River Ford-Hartnet Road but on the Caineville-Middle Desert access road as well. They are among the most visually flamboyant features of the region.

The Bentonite Hills appear to be rounded masses of clay. Actually, they are formed of layers of soft stone of various colors, the surface of which turns to clay when exposed to weathering. What is seen by the eye is a veneer of color-banded, popcorn-like clay, which obscures the basic rock layers beneath the surface. When wet, the clay absorbs water and becomes gummy and very slippery, making vehicle or foot travel difficult or even impossible: hence the warning to avoid areas of clay when wet or when rain or snow threaten.

Technically, the Bentonite Hills are the Brushy Basin shale member (component) of the Morrison Formation (group of rocks). The Brushy Basin shale was formed by mud, silt, fine sand, and volcanic ash, laid down in swamps and lakes about 140 million years ago during Jurassic times. It contains a measure of bentonite, a useful clay consisting of aluminum and other minerals. The impure bentonite of this area has not proven commercially attractive. Also found in the Brushy Basin shale are dinosaur bones and petrified wood.

Stop 2
Dry Wash Canyon


Miles from River Ford: 2
Miles from U24 at Caineville: 57

The road winds along the upper edge of a deep, steep- walled canyon, cut into layered rock of somber hue. The gorge was formed by Dry Wash, an intermittent stream which drains the Blue Flats to the north but rarely carries much water.

The canyon's imposing depth is testament to the powerful erosive force of water even in a dry region where stream flow is dependent on infrequent rain and snow. Its size, however, is probably due more to plentiful waterflow of the distant past than to the reduced flow of recent millennia. Little more than a mile in length, the canyon is about 200 feet deep in this vicinity. It joins the canyon of the Fremont a short distance to the east. Those with an eye for curious geologic phenomena will note that the tilt of rock strata in this vicinity does not conform to the tilt of the Waterpocket Fold to the west or Caineville Reef to the east. Here the rocks have been distorted by the Caineville Anticline, an eroded uplift that extends northward from this area.

Stop 3
Dry Wash Dropoff


Miles from River Ford: 2.5
Miles from U24 at Caineville: 56.5

The road crosses the sandstone bed of Dry Wash. About a hundred feet downstream from the crossing, the water channel drops over the edge of a sheer rock face to a streambed some 50 feet below. This dropoff marks the upper end of the deep gorge described above. However surprising, such dropoffs are not uncommon along stream channels of the Canyonlands region, but rarely are they so convenient to a road.

Stop 4
North Blue Flats


Miles from River Ford: 4-8
Miles from U24 at Caineville: 51-55

The road emerges into the broad, level expanse of North Blue Flats. Sparse vegetation did not prevent the flats from being used as a grazing area, particularly as winter range for cattle. Waterpocket Fold looms as a craggy ridge of bare rock across the western horizon, only a few miles away. Beside the road to the east, the Bentonite Hills flow in smooth undulations, their pastel colors and elegant contours a sensory delight. Not visible is the basin of South Desert; only the uptilted rocks at the western edge of the flats give vague intimation of its sunken presence between the flats and Waterpocket Fold.

Stop 5
Rube's Pond


Miles from River Ford: 5
Miles from U24 at Caineville: 54

A reservoir for livestock, Rube's Pond is marked by a growth of tamarisk near the east side of the road. The pond is a catchbasin, fed by runoff from a network of normally dry washes in the Bentonite Hills.

Red Desert
Hikers desiring a view of uncommon geology and scenery may park in the vicinity of Rube's Pond and climb the white ridge saddle on the north (left) of the high, flat-topped, dark summit to the east. The route passes up sandy washes, across slickrock slopes cluttered with black boulders, to a viewpoint overlooking Red Desert. The hike is fairly easy, very scenic, and about three miles round-trip. Other points along the ridge of Rainbow Hills also offer hiking and scenic overview possibilities. Red Desert, an elliptical basin enclosed by a ring of sculptured cliffs, is the hollowed-out core of the Caineville Anticline. It can be entered on foot from the Caineville-Middle Desert access road

Caineville Anticline-Saleratus Creek Syncline Note that the Bentonite Hills in this vicinity slope upwards toward the east, in contrast to strata of the Waterpocket Fold, which slope up toward the west. This is because rocks to the east of the road in this vicinity form the western slope of the Caineville Anticline.

Rocks along the Cathedral Valley-Caineville Road (Route No. 2), or the southern few miles of it, form the eastern slope of the anticline and are tilted up toward the west. Blue Flats and the Hartnet region to the north are in a "syncline "or trough between two uplifts: Waterpocket Fold on the west and Caineville Anticline on the east. The trough here is the south end of the Saleratus Creek Syncline, which extends through upper Cathedral Valley into the Last Chance region north of the perk and is about 30 miles in length.

Stop 6
Water Well Oasis


Miles from River Ford: 7
Miles from U24 at Caineville: 52

The arid expanse of North Blue Flats is broken here by an overflowing water tank, marsh, flowing well, and tamarisk bushes.

Stop 7
Bentonite Hills


Miles from River Ford: 9
Miles from U24 at Caineville: 50

The road winds through a spectacular exposure of Brushy Basin shale, an exciting landscape of rainbow color and rounded slopes. From the summit the eye takes in a vast expanse of convoluted rock. The peaks of the Henry Mountains loom in the southern distance behind the Blue Flats and Bentonite Hills. The Waterpocket Fold's jagged spine and Thousand Lake Mountain dominate the western horizon.

Stop 8
The Hartnet


Miles from River Ford: 10 to 26
Miles from U24 at Caineville: 33 to 49

North of the Bentonite Hills the road passes through a maze of 26 low gray cliffs and ledges, shallow canyons, sandy flats and valleys. This is The Hartnet, or Hartnet country, cut mostly in the Salt Wash member of the Morrison formation. The Hartnet is drained by Hartnet Wash, which joins Caineville Wash in a deep gorge to the east (see Stop 27).

The Hartnet is a mesa-like highland, bounded on three sides by the cliffs of South Desert and Middle Desert. In geological jargon it is a synclinal trough, an element of the Saleratus Creek Syncline (see above). Its structure is most apparent from the heights of Thousand Lake Mountain.This rugged area was named for Dave Hartnet, a trailblazing pioneer who is reputed to have driven the first buckboard through the area from Fremont to Caineville. Hartnet's incredibly rough trail became established, at least in part, as a freighting and traffic route between Caineville and settlements in upper Wayne County, Emery County, and Carbon County. The present road south of Hartnet Draw, between the Bentonite Hills and River Ford, did not exist before the mid- 1950s when it was built by the Bureau of Land Management. The Hartnet area and South Desert have been used as a range for cattle and sheep since the late 19th century.

Stop 9
Junction: Lower South Desert
Overlook Spur Road


Miles from River Ford: 14
Miles from U24 at Caineville: 45

Turn west at the junction to Lower South Desert Overlook, 1.2 miles. From the parking area, within Capitol Reef National Park boundaries, a short walk along an old, closed road brings the viewer to the upper edge of a steep dropoff from which the washed-out former road zigzags to the floor of South Desert Valley, about 500 feet below.

In the near distance looms Jailhouse Rock, also known as The Temple, soaring about 500 feet from its base. This enormous butte is one of the park's stateliest cathedrals and largest of numerous monoliths jutting from the valley floor. The Waterpocket Fold, gashed by canyons, sweeps to a ragged crest of domes and ridges, while the 11,000-foot crown of Thousand Lake Mountain overlooks all.

The old road which descends from the overlook and crosses the valley floor was built several decades ago and used during the 1950s as access to a petroleum drillsite at Little Sand Flat on the Waterpocket Fold. A spur road was built to connect with the main Thousand Lake Mountain-Hartnet Road near upper South Desert Overlook (Stop 12 below). These former roads are used by hikers penetrating the park's Deep Creek- Water Canyon-Paradise Flats Wilderness.

South Desert
South Desert is a long, narrow valley, parallel to the strike or axis of the Waterpocket Fold, carved by glacial melt water into rocks that are younger and less resistant than older, harder rocks of the Fold's whaleback spine. The valley extends nearly 20 miles in a southeasterly direction from Upper South Desert Overlook, on the north, to Highway 24 on the south. Lower South Desert Overlook is about halfway along the length of the valley. From the Lower South Desert Overlook, viewers can see every major rock formation from the Morrison (youngest in this vicinity) atop the cliffs on the east, to the Navajo sandstone (oldest rock visible from here), which forms the light-colored pinnacles on the topmost ridge of the Fold. These rocks were originally deposited, in total, over a span of some 40 million years.

As you return to the junction at Stop 9, note that a symmetrical natural arch has been formed near the top edge of a low bluff about 200 feet south of the sideroad. The arch measures about 30 or 40 feet between abutments and can be seen from the sideroad.

Two miles north of the Overlook Junction (Stop 9), the main road crosses the boundary of Capitol Reef National Park. Routes 1 and 2 remain within park boundaries from this point to Stop 20.

Stop 10
Lower Cathedral Valley Overlook


Miles from River Ford: 17.5
Miles from U24 at Caineville: 41.4

A roadside marker calls attention to the fact that Lower Cathedral Valley can be seen in overview from the lowest saddle in the ridge to the north. There is no improved trail; hikers must walk cross-country through sand and low brush, or follow a sandy wash bottom. Distance, about one mile. A fairly easy climb up a slope is required, The rim provides a splendid, high-level view of the deep basin in which Temple of the Sun, Temple of the Moon, and other cathedral buttes are situated (Stop 22). Exercise caution: keep back from the edge! Loose shale may be dangerous. Also see Stop 11 below.

Stop 11
Ackland Spring & Ackland Rim Overlooks


Miles from River Ford: 20
Miles from U24 at Caineville: 39

Ackland Spring, in the narrows of Hartnet Draw, is an important watering spot for livestock but is not suitable for human use. The spring was named for an early homesteader named Ackland whose cabin stood at the site for years.

Ackland Rim Overlooks
From the high rim about one mile northeast of Ackland Spring, Lower Cathedral valley and some of its great buttes can be seen in aerial panorama. In the distance, Temples of the Sun and Moon protrude like fangs from the valley floor. Beyond them loom the blocky masses of Factory Butte and North Caineville Mesa. A hundred miles away, against the eastern horizon, the LaSal Mountains float as a mirage when visible on a clear day. On an intermediate terrace is a cathedral, sculptured in exquisite detail. Isolated from roads, it is little known despite its beauty.

There is no formal trail. Hikers may follow the wash northeast from the spring to the lowest rim. Distance, about one mile. Or they may choose to drive the road .4 mile in the direction of Thousand Lake Mountain, to where Hartnet Draw opens out into a flat. From there, on foot, they can cross the main Hartnet wash and follow a small valley or the bottom of its wash northward, then east, heading toward a low saddle at its head. Distance, about one mile In the latter case it is advisable to follow the right-hand fork of the wash, since the left-hand fork requires a steep climb from its head to the rim. Energetic hikers can find their way to other worthwhile viewpoints on the rim of this delightful cove.

Northwest of Ackland Spring. Hartnet Draw alternately widens and narrows. About four miles from the spring, beside the road where it passes through a narrow draw, a large block of stone balances precariously on a fragile base. Nearby, on the same side of the road, a natural window can be seen above on a ridge. Note the colorful exposures of evenly bedded strata along the walls of this draw. Another mile brings the first tantalizing glimpses of South Desert.

Stop 12
Junction: Upper South Desert Overlook


Miles from River Ford: 27
Miles from U24 at Caineville: 32

Turn south .2 mile to a parking area on a peninsula overlooking the basin of South Desert. Here is a soul-stirring panorama, one of the park's premier offerings. The overlook is on the top edge of a line of high cliffs, 400 feet or more above the valley floor. It is an eyrie from which the view encompasses nearly the whole of South Desert, a basin formed by a palisade of superb cliffs on the east and the tremendous rounded slope of Waterpocket Fold on the west (see Stop 9).

Jagged projections accent the valley's broad floor, some of them volcanic, others of sedimentary nature. A most interesting igneous plug has intruded the sedimentary cliff near the viewpoint, on the right. and the crumbling remains of an igneous dike (a lava intrusion along a vertical join t) can be seen descending the valley's northern slope. Dominating the southern horizon is Mt. Ellen's landmark peak, 30 miles away. On the west, the hulk of Thousand Lake Mountain is an overwhelming presence.

A short foot trail climbs a nearby knoll, affording a more expansive view for those not fearful of heights. Most visitors are content with the lower level. Caution! Keep back from edge of cliff. Take no chances! The old road that can be seen on the valley floor and climbing the north slope is closed to vehicles but used by hikers and stockmen. The road leads to Lower South Desert Overlook (see Stop 9). To the west, Polk Creek flows into South Desert from the heights of Thousand Lake Mountain.

River Ford is at an elevation of 4,800 feet above sea level. From that altitude the road has climbed to about 6,700 feet at the overlook, passing through desert terrain with sparse vegetation in the Blue Flats area to a higher, wetter region where a greater variety of plants find more favorable growing conditions. Pygmy evergreens (pinyon and juniper) are abundant here.

The main road in this vicinity traverses a high divide connecting Hartnet country with Thousand Lake Mountain and separating South Desert from Upper Cathedral Valley. The divide is several miles long but only half a mile wide. It is a zone of transition between landscapes that differ remarkably in topography and geology and a causeway between two geological worlds.

Stop 13
Junction: Upper Cathedral Valley
Overlook Spur Road


Miles from River Ford: 27.3
Miles from U24 at Caineville: 31.7

Turn north .4 mile to a parking area in a grove of pinyon and juniper. From here a short walk reveals a spectacle of true grandeur, the majestic cathedral buttes and sculptured cliffs of Upper Cathedral Valley. Giant sandstone monoliths rise abruptly from the valley floor, eroded remnants of the same rocks that comprise the encircling cliffs.

From this high rim, the valley is seen in panoramic entirety. The several cathedrals and spires appear in profile--in a long row-and it is more apparent here than at lower levels that they are but separate members of a former ridge in the center of the valley. See also Stop 15 below.

Stop 14
Hartnet Junction, Key Routing Point


Miles from River Ford: 27.5
Miles from U24 at Caineville: 31.5

North to Upper Cathedral Valley, Cathedral Valley Junction, where you link up with Highway I- 70 (Route 4), Lower Cathedral Valley, Caineville on U24--Route 2. Steep switchbacks join Upper Cathedral Valley with the overlook and mountain roads. This section of road may be damaged occasionally by spring runoff and summer rainstorms but normally offers no serious difficulty. Take this north route if you wish to finish your loop tour at Caineville.

East to South Desert Overlooks/Hartnet/River Ford on U24--Route 1. Take this route only if you wish to finish your loop tour at River Ford.

West to Thousand Lake Mountain, Fremont, Loa on Route 24--Route 3. If you decide to take this route, you will terminate the loop tour.

Stop 15
Upper Cathedral Valley


Miles from River Ford: 30
Miles from U24 at Caineville: 29

Three exquisitely sculptured monoliths and several smaller spires form a procession across the center of Upper Cathedral Valley. Carved largely of Entrada sandstone that alternates between buff and pink according to weather or time of day, these graceful forms are, to many visitors, the symbolic archetypes of religious architecture.

Curiously, these superb works of nature's artistry have no official names. Names, however, could hardly suggest the uniqueness of their ever-changing, illusory personalities. For example, the large butte nearest the road is relatively unadorned in structure and decoration, though its upward-sweeping lines are ideally suggestive of sacred architecture. Its apparent simplicity is deceptive. Viewed from different positions, at different times and under different conditions, its appearance changes dramatically.

The westernmost butte, rising 500 feet from its base, is highest and largest of all. This huge monolith, inspirational in beauty and magnitude, flaunts a green dome and an amazing assortment of spires, buttresses, columns, and other adornments that make it one of the most magnificent features of the park.

Stop 16
Walls of Jericho/Wall Street/Great Basilica


Miles from River Ford: 31
Miles from U24 at Caineville: 28

Upper Cathedral Valley narrows to the north of the cathedral buttes. Eastward, the road parallels a high, slender, elongated ridge that becomes detached from the wall of Hartnet Mesa in an area of wonderful sculpturing. This cliff-faced peninsula was known as Wall Street by Charles Kelly and tour guides of the 1940's, soon after Cathedral Valley was named, because its soaring vertical lines resemble those of New York skyscrapers. During the years since then, however, it has become known as the Walls of Jericho because it has crumbled in places.

Regardless of formal names and other similarities, the great ridge also bears remarkable likeness--when viewed from the east-to a great basilica of noble proportions, capped by three greenish domes. This marked resemblance to a religious edifice bolsters the appropriateness of Cathedral Valley as an inclusive name for the area. The name "Walls of Jericho" was originally applied, just as appropriately, to the jagged volcanic dike that extends north and south from Cathedral Valley Junction.

Stop 17
Cathedral Valley Junction


Miles from River Ford: 33
Miles from U24 at Caineville: 26

Upper Cathedral Valley, The Hartnet and River Ford (U24)-Route 1. You will have to travel west also to make a linkage with Route 3 over Thousand Lake Mountain to Fremont and Loa.

North to Baker Ranch, Last Chance country and Interstate Highway 70--Route 4.

East to Lower Cathedral Valley, Middle Desert, Wood Bench and Caineville at U24--Route 2.

Stop 18
Gypsum Sinkhole Spur Road


Miles from River Ford: 33.1
Miles from U24 at Caineville: 26

From the main east-west road, .1 mile east of Cathedral Valley Junction, a side-road forks south to Gypsum Sinkhole (1.2 miles), located at the base of a cliff that is rimmed by weird rock images. The sinkhole is a cylindrical pit, about 50 feet in diameter, with sheer or overhanging walls. Danger! Keep back from edge! At one time the pit was thought to have been caused by a meteorite. Later study led to the conclusion that it was created by the dissolving and draining away of gypsum in the underlying Carmel formation, the resultant void permitting collapse of the Entrada sandstone above. Several years ago a party of spelunkers explored the sinkhole with ropes, descending to 200 feet beneath the rim. They conjectured that the overburden might conceal cavities at lower levels. No exploring without National Park Service written permission.

East of Cathedral Valley Junction the main Cathedral Valley-Caineville Road (Route 2) traverses a landscape of exotic and mystic imagery; of cliffs carved into wondrous three-dimensional designs; buttes, mesas and standing rocks of curious shapes; upright ridges and horizontal beds of dark lava; and rare combinations of sensual colors. This is the strange world of the Middle Desert.

Stop 19
Park Boundary


Miles from River Ford: 37.5
Miles from U24 at Caineville: 21.5

East of the boundary, except for Lower Cathedral Valley, the road passes through Bureau of Land Management (public) lands. Black Mountain looms to the north, a flat-topped promontory that exhibits an extraordinary combination of rock types and colors: brown-red sedimentary rock (primarily Entrada sandstone) alternating with layers of dark lava (sills). The effect is strikingly picturesque. Upright walls of lava (dikes) radiate from the mountain's flanks. Bell Butte, to the east of Black Mountain, displays similar combinations, as do uplifts to the north on the slopes of San Rafael Swell.

A side road forks toward Black Mountain from the main road only a short distance north of the park boundary marker. This maintained road passes west of the mountain and leads to Rock Springs Bench, Baker Ranch Junction, and the Cathedral Valley-Interstate 70 road (Route 4). It provides expansive views of the rugged Last Chance-San Rafael country.

Beside the road near the boundary marker, a low bluff displays in small scale an intricate pattern of thin lava sills interlayered with sandstone. To the south, rising from the road, a sloping ridge of sandstone is capped by a sill of volcanic rock. Such a vivid display of lava intrusions of this type, in such varied manifestations, is probably unique in Utah.

Lava and Crustal Stress
The intriguing layers and walls of dark lava that can be seen from the roads in this vicinity are known as dikes and sills. They occur also in the Last Chance-Cedar Mountain country to the north. This region is a notable showplace for both types of geological curiosities. Dikes and sills are the result of molten rock flowing into vertical joints (dikes) or between horizontal layers of sedimentary rock (sills), then solidifying. Plugs are more massive lava intrusions, and this area displays examples of those as well. It is probable that lava intrusions are common in the earth's crust in many places, but ordinarily they remain buried or have eroded away. Here the erosional processes have exposed but not yet destroyed them. This is the case, also, in the Henry Mountains and other Four Corners ranges formed by volcanic intrusion.

Cathedral Valley is located in a region where crustal rocks have been subjected to severe stress. Through the ages, sedimentary rock layers-originally horizontal--have been warped into alternating highs and lows. Here, in a compact area measuring little more than 50 miles across, are found an amazing assortment of tectonic (crustal) features: the San Rafael Swell, a great dome; numerous anticlines, synclines, and monoclinal folds; myriad faults; the Henry Mountains structural basin; and mountainous uplifts of massive size.

In other words, the erosional forms we see today have been carved from an undulating base of crustal rock that has been severely stressed and fractured. Stress and fracture not only encouraged the intrusion of molten rock into planes and joints of weakness, they also have combined with the forces of erosion in shaping the landscape's multitude of rock forms.

Stop 20
Layercake Wall


Miles from River Ford: 38.5
Miles from U24 at Caineville: 20.5

The road passes beside the clean-cut, vertical edge of a high bluff of Entrada sandstone. The sheer face of the bluff displays numerous evenly bedded, varicolored layers of soft rock. This is a classic example of stratified (layered) deposition of sedimentary material, originally sand and mud that eventually turned to rock. Note how lava sills in this vicinity have sheltered softer, underlying sedimentary rock from weathering.

As the road approaches Lower Cathedral Valley, cliffs to the south become higher and more massive. The great promontory of terraced, beautifully sculptured palisades that loom above the road culminates in a pyramidal ridge towering some 1,100 feet above the desert floor. The promontory is strikingly reminiscent of the pyramid-capped cliffs behind the Valley of the kings in Egypt, and indeed many of the rock images on its carved facade suggest the art and architecture of ancient Egypt.

Stop 21
Lower Cathedral Valley (road junction)


Miles from River Ford: 42.5
Miles from U24 at Caineville: 18.5

Note the remarkable sphinx-shaped butte not far from the junction, to the east of the main road. The sideroad leads one mile to the base of Temple of the Sun, a majestic free-standing butte that rises almost sheer from the valley floor to a height of about 400 feet. Companion buttes to the south, smaller but remarkable in their own right, are known as Temple of the Moon and Temple of the Stars. These buttes, Glass Mountain, and the enclosing cove are within park boundaries.

A short distance from Temple of the Sun is Glass Mountain, a curious mound of large selenite crystals. Selenite is gypsum in the form of glassy crystals; its name means "moonstone." Though gypsum is common in the sedimentary rocks of this area, and selenite particles glitter everywhere in the sand, the crystals of Glass Mountain are unusual for size and massiveness of the deposit. Collecting Is strictly forbidden.

East of Lower Cathedral Valley the landscape is more expansive, less confined by cliff and mountain slope. Horizons stretch away to distant skylines, while shapes and colors change personality. Mounds and ridges of prismatic Brushy Basin clay dominate the view as they do along much of the River Ford route It is a strange landscape of enchanting form and color.

Known traditionally as the Middle Desert, this semiarid region has been used since pioneer days for livestock grazing. Middle Desert extends, roughly from Thousand Lake Mountain on the west to Wood Bench on the east, and from Last Chance country-San Rafael Swell on the north to Hartnet Mesa-Red Desert on the south.

During recent decades, in the mind of the touring public if not in that of all local residents, the name Cathedral Valley more or less has supplanted--or at least has become synonymous with the name Middle Desert.

Stop 22
Wood Bench


Miles from River Ford: 45
Miles from U24 at Caineville: 13

The imposing knife-edged promontory north of the road marks the highest and westernmost extremity of Wood Bench. This great sloping point culminates some 1,100 feet above its base. Its flanks are beautifully carved in pleasing colors and the perfect profile of a pyramid appears at its base. This prominent landmark is known to local ranchers as the Black Hill. It appears on maps as Black Mountain.

Wood Bench is the extremely rugged semi-highland that extends about six miles eastward from the Black Hill. Its southern flank is traversed by the road. Occupying an area of about 25 square miles, Wood Bench is a labyrinth of entrenched drainage channels and intriguing rock forms. Its surface, which rises gradually to the north, is composed primarily of Morrison rocks that range the spectrum in color from near-white and gray (Salt Wash member) to vivid shades of red and purple (Brushy Basin). Its north face is a lofty escarpment of cathedral cliffs. The intricately dissected beauty of Wood Bench makes it popular for exploration.

Stop 23
Natural Arch


Miles from River Ford: 47
Miles from U24 at Caineville: 12

Several hundred yards north of the road is a curiously shaped opening or arch, carved into a gray, conglomeratic bluff. The opening is a narrow, vertical slot that extends about 20 feet upwards from the ground.

Stop 24
Willow Seep


Miles from River Ford: 50.5
Miles from U24 at Caineville: 8.5

Normally dry, Caineville Wash receives a small amount of perennial seepage water at Willow Seep. Precious for livestock in this semi-arid region, where streamflow depends on infrequent rain or sparse snowfall, the seep moistens the sandy bottom of the wash for a short distance. Caineville Wash is joined by Hartnet Draw in a deep canyon, about two miles southeast of the seep.

Stop 25
Queen of the Wash


Miles from River Ford: 51
Miles from U24 at Caineville: 8

Park your vehicle and walk a few yards to the edge of a knoll for a full-face view of Queen of the Wash, a symmetrical mound, rounded in exquisite contours and painted in a spectrum of vivid colors. The great mound is about 400 feet high, one arm of an extensive area of Brushy Basin shale that dominates the landscape in this vicinity. As described more fully above (Stop 1), this highly scenic, color-banded rock is commonly known as the Bentonite Hills. The northwest shoulder of the mound displays the clean-cut replicas of a pyramid and a pylon, symbols of ancient Egypt.

Stop 26
Ridge-top Overlook


Miles from River Ford: 53.5
Miles from U24 at Caineville: 5.5

This summit provides a full-circle overview of a weird landscape of tumultuous rock. "Rocky pandemonium," is the apt description of one observer. Only an expert familiar with the area's geology could accurately interpret the complex phenomena that are plainly visible. Though they tell a fascinating story of crustal construction, deformation, and destruction, the untrained eye is likely to see as "through a glass darkly." Nevertheless, even the casual visitor can hardly avoid being enchanted by the unfamiliar forms and colors of the chaotic landscape seen from here.

A ridge to the south of the road provides a more comprehensive and enlightening view of the area's geological personality. From the road it is an easy walk of several hundred yards (keep to the right of the rainbow mound) to the edge of a high bench on the west shoulder of the large ridge. This bench overlooks the deep canyons where Hartnet Draw joins Caineville Wash. Red Desert can be seen in part, and the dramatically tilted edges of strata delineating nearby a hundred million years of earth's history, spread out as the pages of a partially opened book between the Caineville mesas on the east (Cretaceous) and Waterpocket Fold (Jurassic-Triassic) on the west.

East of the Ridge-top Overlook, the road gradually descends into the valley of Caineville Wash, near its confluence with the Fremont River. Enroute, travelers will probably wish to make frequent stops for viewing the maze of deep canyons, painted hills, intricate erosional designs, tilted strata, cliffs and buttes, and intriguing panoramas.

Junction of Route 2
with Utah Highway 24


Miles from River Ford: 59
Miles from U24 at Caineville: 0

Five-tenths of a mile west of Caineville and 19 miles east of the park visitor center, this is the end (or beginning) of the loop tour. If you start at this Junction, note your beginning odometer reading. Mileages from this junction appear above in parentheses.


Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 11 May 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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