Located in southeast Nevada, Cathedral Gorge State Park preserves nearly 2000 acres of beautiful rock formations amid the Great Basin Desert. Made up of lakebed and volcanic ash deposits that accumulated over millions of years, these sediments are now being eroded into intricately sculptured outcrops and slot canyons.
The history of this formation is relatively recent in geologic terms. Beginning around 23 million years ago, volcanism from the Caliente Caldera Complex repeatedly blanketed this area in thick layers of ash.
Starting around 17 million years ago, crustal extension began to form the basin and range province that now extends over much of the southwest. As the crust has been pulled apart, block faulting has resulted in roughly parallel and alternating sequences of low, arid basins bounded by high mountain ranges. Cathedral Gorge is located in one such basin known as Meadow Valley.
Perhaps one to two million years ago, this region was much wetter and enjoyed significantly more rainfall. During that time Meadow Valley filled with water and harbored a freshwater lake. Rainwater worked away at the surrounding land and runoff carried much of the ash from the earlier volcanic eruptions into the lake. This ash mixed with the mud, silt, and gravel that was also being deposited in the lakebed, forming bentonite clay.
Over the last million years this region gradually became more arid. As climate shifted the rains became more infrequent and the lake eventually disappeared.
Once exposed at the surface, this soft ash-rich clay began to be worn away by wind and rain.
Today erosion continues to chisel away at the bentonite, continuously forming and destroying the beautiful formations that exist here.
As the runoff from the occasional rain works its way through the rock, it often carves deep channels that eventually form narrow slot canyons.
Many of these passageways dot the walls of the gorge and they’re fun places to explore.
From deep within the slot canyons only slivers of sunlight can be seen overhead:
The low-light conditions make these crevices in the clay seem almost cave-like:
At the mouths of the slot canyons, the evidence for rainwater erosion is also apparent on the surface of the ground:
The majestic and fascinating landscape of Cathedral Gorge made it a very satisfying place to visit. It’s about two and a half hours north of Las Vegas, providing a convenient and worthwhile escape from the city. The trip up US-93 also leads travelers through parts of the Mojave and Great Basin deserts as well as a sizable Joshua tree woodland west of Caliente. If you’re ever in the Las Vegas area and want to spend a half or full day experiencing some natural wonder, Cathedral Gorge is worth the trip.