Tuesday, July 15, 2008
Gorgeous Cathedral Gorge
It’s easy to understand why Cathedral Gorge was made into one of Nevada’s first state parks in the 1930s. With its tall, deeply grooved, tan-brown, clay spires rising high above a narrow valley, Cathedral Gorge is something truly unique.
Cathedral Gorge is a place with great texture, beauty and mystery. Deep, shadowy crevices in the craggy cliff walls hint at hidden, dark passageways that lead into the unknown.
As you stand admiring the Gorge’s evocative formations, you can’t help but be reminded of the fact that Nevada contains some pretty amazing terrain and landscapes.
Cathedral Gorge is located in remote Eastern Nevada, a few miles from the small ranching and farming community of Panaca. To understand the forces that created this natural wonder, you’ve got to go back more than a million years, to a time when much of this part of the state was underwater.
Natural streams flowed into a large inland lake that covered the entire valley where the gorge is located today. Those streams also brought silt and clay that, over time, eventually filled the lake.
Flash-forward a few hundred thousand years—the lake has dried up and left behind a thick, clay lake bed. Wind and rain erode the clay, shaping it into the marvelous shapes found in the gorge today.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, white settlers established small farms in the region and discovered the unusual formations at Cathedral Gorge, which was originally known as Panaca Gulch.
Later, the gorge’s name was changed to Cathedral Gulch, because of its gothic looking clay spires, and eventually to Cathedral Gorge.
After being designated a state park, the Civilian Conservation Corps, a federal work program that helped employ thousands of Americans during the Great Depression, helped develop the park for use by the public.
Today, a handful of the structures and improvements built by the CCC crews can still be found in the park, including an old stone water tower and the wooden canopy that covers the main picnic area.
The drive into the gorge doesn’t really prepare you for what you find there. After turning off from U.S. 93, you enter a small valley. Along the north side, you first spot the gorge’s dusty, brown clay walls.
A bit farther, the walls grow steeper and more deeply carved. Then, you enter a wide valley surrounded by these immense clay walls and stone alone pillars and columns, each more fantastic than its neighbor.
The formations here almost seem organic in appearance. The elements haven’t so much cut or gouged the clay as they have seemingly molded it into smooth surfaces with rounded edges. It all seems more like it has been flowed into place rather than carved or chiseled.
The gorge contains several interesting self-guided hikes, which are marked. Two trails lead from the park and picnic area at the end of the paved entrance road to places called Moon Cave and Canyon Cave. While both are not really caves but rather, narrow passages that wind through the dramatic clay walls.
A one-mile trail leads into the center of the main section of clay formations. Back in there, far from the parking lot and picnic tables, and deep inside the cool clay, you feel like you’ve been transported to another planet.
At the end of the trail, you can climb a set of wooden steps that lead to the northern entrance to the park and a covered observation area known as the Miller’s Point Overlook.
From the overlook, you can see almost the entire valley and admire the acres of marvelous clay sculptures.
An attractive visitor center at Cathedral Gorge provides information about all of the state parks in Eastern Nevada. The center is a pleasing marriage of modern design and natural materials such as wood, brick and stone that allows the building to blend into its surroundings.
The visitor center also has a small theater that regularly shows videos describing Cathedral Gorge and the five other state parks in the region.
Inside the center, you’ll also find an information desk manned by park staff and displays containing historic artifacts found at Cathedral Gorge, including a large bison skull.
There’s an interesting story behind the skull. In 1975, a family visiting the park spotted bones in a clay wash. Not realizing it was illegal to remove historic artifacts, they picked up the bones and took them home.
The bones’ existence remained unknown until 1993, when a family member contacted the Nevada State Museum to return them. The bones, believed to have been from a two-year-old female bison, have been dated to about 1,200 A.D., and are among the oldest found in the state.
Another unusual item in the visitor center is a weathered paper program for a religious passion play. Like the bison bones, the booklet was discovered buried in the gorge’s mud and date to the early 20th century, when Cathedral Gorge served as the backdrop for annual, locally produced religious plays.
It turns out that the actors would transform the main part of the gorge into a stage, using the clay spires and formations as their sets.
Cathedral Gorge State Park is open throughout the year. The park has 16 developed campsites with shaded picnic tables, RV dump station, toilets, and showers that are open during the summer and fall.
Best time of year to visit is in the spring, particularly following a wet March or April, when wildflowers will bloom throughout the gorge.
For more information about Cathedral Gorge State Park, call 775-687-4370.