Exploring Cathedral Gorge State Park

Back in May, I set out on another mega road trip to regain my Val-ness. After Overland Expo in Arizona, I mozied my way to Great Basin National Park in northeast Nevada. I then headed south to Cathedral Gorge State Park and a vastly different landscape.

Cathedral Gorge State Park…

Cathedral Gorge is a popular Nevada destination for it’s dramatic, colorful, carved cliffs of volcanic rock. The nearly 2,000-acre state park located near Panaca was one of Nevada’s first, designated in 1935.

Open, stark, exposed, and entirely stunning, the park is part of the Great Basin. This particular area is known as Meadow Valley. The gorge was formed by the erosion of an ancient lake bed that once sat on the volcanic soils. The ongoing erosion is happening quickly enough to keep vegetation from gaining a foothold on the canyon walls but the valley floor is rich with desert plants. A variety of wildlife calls this seemingly-harsh landscape home.

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The weather-carved spires and canyon walls of Cathedral Gorge will make you feel small but fill you with wonder.

Juniper Draw Loop…

To explore Cathedral Gorge up close, you have several trail options in the park. All are relatively short and the park offers a very detailed trail guide to help you decide what you’d like to do.

val in real life - cathedral gorge state park
This excellent trail guide will help you decide what adventures to take on at Cathedral Gorge.

I opted for the Juniper Draw Loop which overlaps with the Nature Trail for a short ways. So I got a nice start with some insight into life here as I approached the CCC tower from the campground. Then I continued on to explore the valley floor on Juniper Draw which was in the 3-to-4 mile range with very little elevation change.

It proved not to be as easy as I’d anticipated. Since this is a desert environment and the path not always obvious, the trail was marked by guide poles or stone edging. They were largely effective but there were a couple of points where the path wasn’t clear in spite of those markers and, I could tell by the footprints, many hikers struggled with the same confusion. You aren’t bound to get lost here and regaining the trail is only a momentary lapse, but it’s important to pay attention and do the best you can.

Given the sensitive nature of the soils in this environment, staying on the trail is crucial. Deserts may look like unforgiving, barren, wastelands but they are not. Crushing the cryptobiotic soil destroys the microbial life that creates a hard shell over the desert surface. That shell resists erosion and going off-trail or following social trails creates numerous points of failure in the soils which can take 100 years to heal. Plus, those false trails may also lead other hikers astray.

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The Juniper Draw Loop is easily accessed from the campground.

Another factor to keep in mind is that, while the terrain doesn’t look challenging, it can get extraordinarily slippery in even the slightest wet weather because of the silt and clay in the volcanic soils here. I used to have to work with bentonite clay in my former life as a geologist. That stuff is as slick as it comes and it’s found here in spades.

As set out for my day on the trail, there had been a lot of recent rain in the area. I realized early on that I was going to have to be careful with my footing and that proved to be true throughout the hike. And I did let my guard down briefly towards the end, lost my footing, and fell ram-rod straight down on my knee, jolting Frankenleg quite hard.

Fortunately, the loose soils are soft so my infrared camera was spared even though it took a big hit. As for the leg, it took a few minutes to regain my composure and let the pain subside. The emotional frustration took a little longer.

Having said all that, it is a great trail and suitable for most types of hikers. My intent is not to discourage you, just understand that even the simplest-looking hikes have hazards that can make for a bad day if you’re not attentive. And my personal limitations very much came into play.

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The Nature Loop offers great insight into the environment at Cathedral Gorge. Signs line the path, giving visitors a look at the various features and life that make this landscape what it is.
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Trail markers are often only brown signposts. In this case the path is clear but sometimes it’s more questionable where to tread.
cathedral gorge juniper draw loop - val in real life
The Juniper Draw Loop is often demarcated by stones.
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The CCC Tower in infrared at Cathedral Gorge.
cathedral gorge state park - val in real life
Much of the drama of Cathedral Gorge is within steps of the day-use picnic area that the trails pass through.
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Wildflowers in infrared along the Juniper Draw Loop.
cathedral gorge state park - val in real life
A sampling of the off-trail social paths that have destroyed sensitive cyptobiotic soil. And the the trail was clearly marked and apparent right here, I might add. These are deliberate, not accidental. Stay on the trail, please.

Miller Point…

I spent one evening enjoying the majesty of Miller Point and capturing some time lapses. After a bit of indecision about how to frame the landscape due to the expanse, I ended up shooting with two cameras simultaneously, pointed in different directions. The cloud cover didn’t entirely cooperate. It was too thick at the wrong times to allow much light to play on the canyon walls as the sun set, which is what I was attempting to capture. I think the results are still worthwhile, though, even simply to give you a hint of how dramatic and stunning this landscape can be.

miller point panorama cathedral gorge - val in real life
A quickie iPhone panorama from camera-to-camera at Miller Point as I shot time lapses.

Know before you go…

I spent two nights camping at Cathedral Gorge. With a day-and-a-half of exploring, I got a good feel for the park. Certainly if you are just passing through, a full day is enough to experience what it’s about. Two full days will let you immerse yourself a good bit further by allowing you to take your time and stop to watch light and life unfold in the park.

cathedral gorge state park - val in real life
This grumpy-looking fella isn’t the only wildlife to be seen at Cathedral Gorge but he was certainly the one who made me laugh the most. We had quite a staring match. 🙂
Practical elements to note:

  • Temperatures are highly variable with a spread of 40 degrees possible in summer. It is the high desert, after all. Just know that and be prepared to shed and don layers as necessary.
  • There are a few short trees on the canyon floor but no shade to speak of, practically, for mid-day adventures. Hats, sunscreen, and plenty of water are definitely in order no matter what trail you choose. There are a few benches for rest breaks.
  • There’s very little cell signal in the area and I had none on the canyon floor. Whether at Cathedral Gorge or anywhere, it’s simply good practice to make sure you’re not relying on cell phones for emergencies.
  • While I was enjoying my solo time, this would be an excellent place to bring the kiddos. Mine would have enjoyed it a lot. The Nature Trail is a wonderful way to introduce them to what lives in the park and why. Cathedral Gorge is a dramatic landscape that will capture their attention and grow their appreciation for the outdoors.

Coming up, a look at the campground at Cathedral Gorge. Stay tuned.

Until then, more images can be found in my Cathedral Gorge Flickr album.

And now for your moment of green…

val in real life - cathedral gorge state park
Along the Juniper Draw trail, subtle beauty in a harsh landscape.



  1. Looks awesome! I’m headed here in two weeks with some friends and our dogs. Thanks for posting the video and great photos. – Alicia @ Girlonahike.com

    1. Excellent! Hope you had a great trip.

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