Overlooking a spectacularly colorful basin in Capitol Reef National Park’s northwest corner, the Cathedral Valley Overlook Trail leads to one of the finest viewpoints in the park. From a vantage point 400 feet above the basin floor, this brief hike affords a bird’s eye look over Upper Cathedral Valley, fluted cliffs, and a line of orange monoliths known as the “Cathedrals.”
The hardest part about this trail is getting there: the Cathedral Valley Overlook is located nearly 28 miles up the rugged, unpaved Hartnet Road—at least an hour’s drive from Utah Highway 24—along which progress is slow-going. Turn right onto a short spur track leading to the overlook parking area. (Note: The Hartnet Road is not suited for all vehicles; high-clearance required, at a minimum. Check with the Visitor Center for latest road conditions.) Most will visit this site as part of a 60-mile loop drive through the Cathedral Valley District.
A peculiarity for a park otherwise relatively dry and barren, the area around the Cathedral Valley Overlook boasts a dense pinyon-juniper forest. Being on the eastern fringe of Thousand Lake Mountain (11,299’), temperatures are generally cooler and quite refreshing on a hot summer day. The trailhead includes a shaded picnic table, though there are no trash bins.
From the parking area—bounded by round, black boulders—a well-built trail weaves up a minor gradient to the north, then switchbacks down to a wash crossing. From here, the trail emerges from the trees just before the precipitous drop-off. A wiry outcrop, narrowing in places to as little as 4-5 feet wide, extends farther north—explore at your own risk. There are a number of terrific vantage points offering panoramic views.
The most scintillating sight is the Cathedrals, a nearly straight line of four buttes and spires in the heart of the valley. Almost the entire basin, however, is lined with colorful, striated cliffs. To the west, forested Thousand Lake Mountain and the Fishlake Mountains tower above the desert.
Digesting the geologic history of the Upper Cathedral Valley requires an understanding of sedimentary rock layers, namely the orange Entrada sandstone and gray-green Curtis formation, both deposited during the late Jurassic period. The final chapters in the story of the Waterpocket Fold, Capitol Reef’s 100-mile long uplift in the Earth’s crust, tell of a dramatic erosion over time, a process that left behind sweeping cliffs, arches, hoodoos, and monoliths.
For the most part, Cathedral Valley has seen the total disintegration of the Entrada sandstone. However, in the presence of a more durable Curtis cap, the Entrada remains exposed to view. Those features lacking a protective cap, such as Needle Mountain (the farthest east of the Cathedrals), are on the geologic fast-track to destruction, as weathering over thousands over years will eventually reduce them to dirt. But for now, they remain picturesque landmarks.
The Cathedral Valley Overlook is an excellent place to stop for a snack—or a moment of reflection—before driving onward to the Cathedral Valley switchbacks and the floor of the basin below.