The Cathedral Valley Loop in Capitol Reef National Park is a great one-night backpacking adventure. Pedal through the Bentonite Hills, camp under the stars, and descend down into the magical Cathedral Valley floor to explore its towering monoliths.
Capitol Reef National Park is one of Utah’s lesser-known and less visited National Parks. It’s located in the South-Central part of the state and is characterized by its unique rock and land formations that make up the rocky spine of the Waterpocket Fold. There are massive red rock bluffs, white sandstone cliffs, colorful bentonite hills, and a scenic drive through the historic Mormon settlement of Fruita.
One of the most unique attractions in the Park, though, is the Cathedral Valley Loop, a route that traverses through rugged and remote terrain and passes through a valley of towering monolith mountains 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 a friend and I recently 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. So if you’re looking for a quick and relatively casual bikepacking adventure, the Cathedral Valley Loop is a great way to explore some of Utah’s remote and beautiful landscapes.
In this post, learn everything you need to know about bikepacking the 72- mile Cathedral Valley Loop in Capitol Reef National Park.
About the Cathedral Valley Loop
- Miles: 72.74 miles*
- Elevation gain: 4,547ft*
- Number of nights: 1 night
- Rideable time: 100%
- Percent singletrack: 0%
- Start/End: You have several options. We started and ended at Sleepy Hollow Campground (see planning below)
- Water availability: Very limited
* (as measured by my Garmin fenix watch. There are several side attractions you can visit along the Cathedral Valley Loop, most of which are just a mile or two off the main route. The total mileage will differ depending on which sights you visit).
The Cathedral Valley Loop is a 72-mile doubletrack (often sandy) road that traverses through the Northern Cathedral Valley District of Capitol Reef National Park. This 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’. The total elevation gain over the 72 miles is only 4,547 feet, making it a great two-day overnight adventure.
Cathedral Valley Loop: Day 1
- 33 miles | 3,540 feet + | 990 feet – | 5-6 hours
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. There are a few attractions to explore like the Lower Desert Overlook, which is worthwhile, 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.
Cathedral Valley Loop: Day 2
- 39 miles | 1,007 feet + | 3,557 feet – | 4-5 hours
Day 2 is definitely the highlight of the Cathedral Valley Loop. It’s 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.
Tips for planning your Trip
Plan for NO WATER on the Cathedral Valley Loop. You will cross the Fremont River within the first few miles, 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!
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.
How to navigate 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. Paper maps of Capitol Reef National Park are also available.
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.
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
Check out my 3-day bikepacking gear list for a complete guide on what to pack for overnight trips. 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.
- Wide tires: 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.
Are you thinking about bikepacking the Cathedral Valley Loop? What questions do you have about planning your trip? Leave a comment below!