Also a great auto trip
The scenic loop through Cathedral Valley, in the northern part of Capitol Reef National Park, is "the finest multi-day mountain bike outing in the Milky Way galaxy, if not the entire universe," according to Michael McCoy, author of Mountain Biking Adventures In The Four Corners Region. With praises like that, we decided it was time to get down there ourselves and see if it deserves that kind of hype.
Michael's book is great - we recommend it. But, in this case we have to disagree with his conclusion. The ride is fun, and long (65 miles), and cuts through an amazing variety of scenic geological formations. It's up there near the top on our list, but there are several other rides in Utah which are just as good, perhaps better.
The loop follows a graded road which can easily be traveled in a high clearance vehicle (four-wheel drive is not usually needed, but comes in handy in spots). The road crosses steep hill after steep hill, so it is a physically demanding ride. The road is sandy in many areas, and rocky in others, but this is not a technically difficult ride.
The scenery is remarkable, particularly if you are into rock hounding or geology. You cross formations like the Bentonite Rainbow Hills, enchanted playgrounds which are almost impossible to pass without stopping to explore. You go by lookout points which offer breathtaking views of the Park's South Desert, the Waterpocket Fold, the Henry Mountains to the southeast, and Thousand Lake Mountain to the west. Cathedral Valley itself is spectacular, but it is almost upstaged by these supporting cast members.
On this loop there are long stretches of barren desert between the scenic wonders. In our opinion, the loop is most enjoyable when explored as a combination vehicle/bike trip. Drive the long stretches, then bring out the bikes to play in fun spots, and to explore side roads. About half of the loop is within Capitol Reef, the other half is on adjacent BLM land. Vehicles (including bikes) are restricted to established roads inside the park, but that still allows plenty of opportunity to play.
People who want to ride the entire loop, and want to spend a little time playing, need to plan for a three day trip. If you do a combination vehicle/bike outing, it will take at least two days to explore the area. It's possible to have an enjoyable outing, and do a little exploring in one full day, but you will only have time for the highlights. If you just want to drive straight through, it takes most of a half-day to make the loop.
The Bentonite Hills are clay, which becomes very gooey when wet. When the clay is wet, it is almost impossible to drive or ride the roads. Even walking becomes extremely difficult. The area is arid - it receives very little rain and even less snow, so it is usually accessible year-round. But don't venture in if rain is expected. If you have any question, check current conditions by stopping at the information desk in the visitor center at Capitol Reef.
Spring and fall are the best seasons to explore the area. Days are often mild during winter, and hiking or biking can be enjoyable at those times, but winter nights are usually downright cold. Temperatures often climb up to 100 on summer days.
Regardless of when you go, carry plenty of water and emergency supplies. There is no drinkable water along the route. The loop is becoming more popular, but many days you will not see any other people. Stone bruises can cause flat tires, so go prepared.
Most people choose to begin the loop at the Fremont River ford, just east of the park along Highway 24. The ford is usually not a problem for high clearance vehicles, but it can become treacherous during spring runoff or when flash floods come down the river. Check at the visitor center for current conditions.
An enjoyable alternate route would start on Thousand Lake Mountain and end at the river ford, or at Caineville. The road drops 3,000 vertical feet between Pole Creek on the mountain and Upper Cathedral Valley. It's mostly a straight shot down, which makes for an exciting bike ride. Be sure you have good brakes on your bike or vehicle before attempting this route.
We strongly recommend you stop at the park visitor center and buy the publication, "The Valley of Cathedrals," published by the Capitol Reef History Association. It is an excellent guide, one of the best we've seen. It describes the routes and attractions, which are identified by markers along the way. People who have an interest in geological formations will really enjoy this guide. It provides a well written introduction to the geology of the area, which is interesting and easy to understand.
Rockhounds will be tempted to scoop up buckets of rocks along the route. Collecting is allowed on BLM land, but is prohibited inside the park. The Brushy Basin shale which makes up the Bentonite Hills was laid down during the Jurassic period, and contains dinosaur fossils in some areas. Sharp-edged pieces of chert litter hillsides . Large gypsum crystals stick up through the clay.
There is a large sinkhole just off the route where gypsum has dissolved out of the underlying formation and allowed the surface to collapse. For years it was thought the pit was created by a meteorite smashing into the earth, but study has proved that theory wrong. The sinkhole is a dangerous area which has not been explored extensively. It may contain caverns which penetrate deep into the earthÕs surface. The sinkhole is hazardous, and people are not allowed to explore there without written permission from the National Park Service.
Another interesting spot is Glass Mountain, where gypsum crystals glitter everywhere. Gypsum is common in the area, but the crystals here are particularly large. Since the mountain is within the park boundaries, collecting is forbidden.
You can easily collect oyster shell fossils from a spot along Highway 12, just west of Caineville. From the Fremont River bridge two miles west of Caineville, drive east for a half mile and park alongside the road. Walk north about 300 feet, to the base of the hill, and start looking. The fossils are numerous there.
Good deposits of collectible red and yellow agate can found on the side of Factory Butte, a short distance NE of Caineville. Follow the spur out of Caineville Wash, as shown on the map, for 2.2 miles, then turn right onto a Jeep trail and follow it for about seven miles. You will come to an old uranium mine. Park there and hike west to the head of a canyon, about .5 miles. Agates are found in the greenish gray clay in this area.
This is an area to enjoy. We could spend days exploring there.