Bikepacking the Cathedral Valley Loop in Capitol Reef National Park
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After convincing a friend to bike across the state of Washington with me despite not having any bikepacking experience, we thought it would be a good idea to do a shake-down trip. We needed to test out our gear and actually see if we enjoyed spending 8+ hours in the saddle (turns out we do!).
The 72-mile Cathedral Valley Loop in Capitol Reef National Park was a one-night trip I’d had my eye on and we decided it would be a great (albeit short) test run for our upcoming big trip.
The route traverses through an area of the already little-visited park and is a great way to see Cathedral Valley, one of the most beautiful and unique sections that not many visitors get to experience.
The area earned its name ‘Cathedral Valley’ because “the eroded sandstone shapes reminded early explorers of ornate, Gothic cathedrals, with fluted walls, alcoves, and pinnacles” (NPS Website).
In addition to the giant monoliths, the route also passes by colorful bentonite hills, sweeping desert overlooks, a gypsum sinkhole, and a really cool glass ‘mountain’.
While the route is pretty straightforward, this guide will help you plan your bikepacking trip out to Cathedral Valley in Capitol Reef National Park.
What & Where is Cathedral Valley?
Cathedral Valley is located within Capitol Reef National Park in southern Utah, a lesser-known and lesser-visited (but no less beautiful!) National Park.
Like many of the parks in southern Utah, Capitol Reef is characterized by its unique desert landscape, red rock bluffs, and white sandstone cliffs.
There are also lush green meadows and even fruit orchards that are the relics of the historic Mormon settlement of Fruita.
Cathedral Valley is a remote portion of the park where towering monoliths, bentonite hills, abandoned mines, and other unique and beautiful attractions dominate the landscape.
There is a 60-mile sandy dirt road that traverses through this rugged and remote area and passes through a valley of towering monolith mountains of Cathedral Valley with names like Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon.
Most people drive this route in a day, but it can also be done as an overnight bikepacking trip, which is what we did.
The loop is about 72-miles total and can easily be done in two days with plenty of time to explore the sights and attractions of Cathedral Valley.
The Cathedral Valley Loop at a glance
Cathedral Valley Loop Map
preparing for your Trip
Plan for NO WATER on the Cathedral Valley Loop. You will cross the Fremont River within the first few miles on day 1, but there is no guarantee of water past the river.
I carried 8L of water for two days. I had about a liter leftover, but I always prefer to overestimate how much water I’ll need, even though it makes my bike heavier!
You can also drive up to the Cathedral Valley Campground to stash water, but a friend of mine did this only to discover a mountain lion had commandeered it.
Where to Camp
The Cathedral Valley Campground is situated about halfway along the Cathedral Valley Loop at 33 miles and it’s also the highest point along the route.
The campground is first-come-first-serve with 6 sites and it’s free. There is a pit toilet (no toilet paper when we were there) and each site has a fire pit and picnic table.
If you need to camp before and/or after the ride, Sleepy Hollow Campground is a great choice because it’s located on the loop and splits up the 10-mile highway section.
The campground is privately owned and has clean bathrooms and showers and potable water. It’s $20/night for tent/car camping. Call Forrest at (435) 456-9130 to reserve a site and let him know that you want to leave your vehicle overnight.
Be prepared for sand
Be prepared for some sandy pedaling. The Cathedral Valley Loop is a mix of hardpacked surface, rock-studded sections, and very sandy sand pits.
I highly recommend wide tires that are at least 2.5 – 2.8. The fast-rolling Maxxis Rekon tires are a great choice – they come in 27.5+ and 29 x 2.6 or you could probably get away with the 2.4s.
Navigating the route
The Cathedral Valley Loop is pretty easy to navigate because most of the intersections are well-marked, but I still recommend bringing something to navigate by.
I downloaded the GPX file from Bikepacking.com to use on my Garmin Edge 830, but you can also download it to your phone if you have a GPX-compatible app like Ride With GPS. However, using your phone will drain your battery much faster.
Paper maps of Capitol Reef National Park are also available.
Garmin Edge 830
I love my Garmin Edge 830 bike computer. I’ve used it on many adventures and it’s never let me down. Read my full review here.
>> Where to Shop:
There is a self-pay station just past the Visitor’s Center and the entrance fee is $20 per vehicle. I’m not sure how (or if?) you pay this if you enter the Park from the other direction, i.e. from Hanksville since the loop is over in that direction.
About half of the loop is in the National Park and the money helps keep our beautiful lands beautiful.
My Cathedral Valley Loop Trip Report
Miles: 33 miles
Elevation gain: 3,540 ft
Elevation loss: 990 ft
Time needed: 5-6 hours
Day 1 in detail
We started our Cathedral Valley Loop ride from Sleepy Hollow Campground, which is situated right in the middle of the paved highway section of the loop. There are several places you can start the ride, but we chose Sleepy Hollow Campground because we could leave our car there overnight and there were hot showers waiting for us at the end! (I’m kind of a princess…) For other options on where to start or leave your car, see the planning section below.
From Sleepy Hollow Campground, it’s a short warmup climb on the paved highway before turning off onto Hartnet Road. Shortly after leaving the paved road, you’ll come to a river crossing, which was 2-3 feet deep when we rode the loop in April. You will get your feet wet!
After the river crossing, there’s a short switchbacked climb and then, to be honest, the next few hours of pedaling the Cathedral Valley Loop are a bit monotonous and boring.
You’ll pass through valleys lined with red rock bluffs and sandstone cliffs and while the landscape is pretty, it’s not spectacular. T
here are a few attractions to explore like the Lower Desert Overlook, which is a worthwhile detour, and the Bentonite Hills, which are otherworldly.
But for the most part, day 1 is a slow and sandy pedal up to the Cathedral Valley Campground.
But be consoled by the fact that tomorrow is almost all downhill and the landscape of the actual Cathedral Valley is 10x more impressive!
You’ll spend the night at the no-fee Cathedral Valley Campground, which is first-come-first-serve and has a pit toilet (no toilet paper).
The 6 campsites are studded with Pinyon and juniper trees and each site has a fire pit and picnic table.
The campground is situated at 7,000ft and can be suuuper windy at night, so be sure to pack layers.
Miles: 39 miles
Elevation gain: 1,007 ft
Elevation loss: 3,557 ft
Time needed: 4-5 hours
Day 2 in detail
Day 2 is definitely the highlight of bikepacking the Cathedral Valley Loop. The road is almost all downhill and the views and landscapes of Cathedral Valley are really stunning and beautiful.
From the campground, you’ll start with a steep switchbacked descent into the Valley with views of gigantic sandstone monoliths in the distance.
Throughout day 2, there are several side attractions that are worth checking out. First is the gypsum sinkhole, which is pretty cool and only a mile off the main route.
I also recommend pedaling out to the Temple of the Sun and Temple of the Moon, both of which are giant rock formations that poke straight up out of the ground. On the way back from the temples, check out the Glass Mountain – I’d never seen anything like it!
As you make your way out of Cathedral Valley, the road slowly winds its way back down to the highway where you’ll turn right and pedal a few miles back to the campground.
Best time to Bikepack the Cathedral Valley Loop
The best time to ride the Cathedral Valley Loop is in the spring and fall when both day and night temps are moderate.
Summer is too hot and winter can see snow and freezing rain.
We did our trip in April and the temps were a little chilly (highs of mid-60s and low of low 40s) but still manageable.
The Cathedral Valley Campground is at 7,000ft, so keep that in mind when planning your trip.
One other thing to keep an eye on is rainfall. The roads can get really sloppy and muddy after rain, making them near impossible to bike on, and the Fremont River, which you need to cross, can flood.
Bikepacking gear for the Cathedral Valley Loop
For a complete list of gear, head over to my Bikepacking Gear Checklist.
Here are a few modifications specific to our Cathedral Valley trip:
A bivy sack instead of a tent
I opted to take a bivy sack instead of a tent for this overnight because I wanted to pack lighter.
It ended up being really windy at the Cathedral Valley Campground and I think a tent would have provided more protection from the wind, but it would also have been very noisy.
If I did this loop again, I’d probably still opt for the bivy sack.
As I mentioned above, sections of the Cathedral Valley Loop are really sandy, so I recommend wide tires that still have good traction.
The Maxxis Rekons are a great choice.
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I really enjoyed our overnight trip through Cathedral Valley. The first day is a bit monotonous and not particularly exciting, but the second day is spectacular.
Passing through Cathedral Valley on a bike isn’t something many people get to do, so if you’re looking for a unique adventure, definitely consider adding this to your bike-it list.
Looking for more two-wheeled adventures in the Southwest? Check out these related blog posts:
What questions do you have about bikepacking the Cathedral Valley Loop? Is this a trip you’d like to do? Leave a comment below!
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