Gorgeous Explorations and Camping at Cathedral Gorge State Park

While Nevada has a number of state parks, when it comes to camping, we have limited options near us. With the logistics of planning a camping trip taken into consideration, the one detail that makes camping at Nevada State Parks a gamble (no pun intended) is the fact that most of the campgrounds are first come first serve. Add to the equation that most of these first come first serve campgrounds are hours away from home, and you can see why these camping trips become a little bit more complex to plan.


Since our initial Eastern Nevada camping trip (with reservations) had been canceled earlier this year due to taking care of our sick pup, we hadn’t had the chance to travel north and check off some of the parks we had hoped to see, which made this last camping trip that much more exciting.


For this trip we loaded up Roxie with all our adventure gear and headed to Cathedral Gorge State Park, where, with any luck, we’d be checking into one of the first come first serve campsites for a simple, overnight weekend adventure. If not, it would mean the day was reserved for a road trip and some destination hiking.

The drive up highway 93 was a nice change from the usual 95 I’ve become so use to over the years. Approximately a three-hour trip from Las Vegas, the first half of our trip was the usual desert drive. Winding around the Desert National Wildlife Range, to the west side of the highway we could see Sheep Peak and Hayford Peak, while the Arrow Canyon Range sat on the eastern side of the highway. After crossing into Lincoln County, the landscape opened up a bit before reaching the Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge which provided a pleasant surprise of lakes and marsh lands fed by the Crystal and Ash Springs. Although we didn’t stop here on this trip, I have noted that this will be a future pitstop for our next road trip. We did, however make a brief stop in the unincorporated town of Alamo to fuel up and grab a snack.


Heading past Crystal Springs, the next 45 miles of highway consisted of more open desert landscape, winding between cliffsides, and a brief, yet impressive, Joshua tree forest before arriving in Caliente. Lined with tall cottonwood trees, the road through this small railroad town provided views of the historical 1920s train depot and a brief look at the community’s quaint houses and amenities. After driving through Caliente, we were on the last leg of the day’s trip and enjoyed a short drive past the 1860s Mormon farming community of Panaca, before heading into the park.


As our typical park routine goes, our first stop was at the visitor’s center where we gathered up park maps for, not only Cathedral Gorge, but also those along the 93. We then patronized the gift shop and purchased park patches for Roxie’s headliner and hiking tacks to add to our collection. Before heading to the campground, we followed the short half-mile trail behind the visitor’s center to the Bullionville cemetery, which has been around since the 1800s. Due to weather and time, most of the original wooden grave markers have broken down, sadly leaving many of the graves unmarked, and leaving a somber realization of our impermanence. The few stone grave markers that remain intact paint a brief picture of the harsh realities of life in the past, as most of the marked graves are for children or younger adults.


Following our cemetery walk, we made our way to the campground and were thrilled to see a handful of empty camp spots open for selection. With our spot claimed and paid for, we began setting up our camping accommodations and as we did, were visited by a park ranger, who, like so many other individuals during our camping trips, wanted to chat about our iKamper setup and discuss the full logistics of the rooftop tent for his own camping considerations. I’m not joking when I say that nearly every camping trip we make includes either a ranger or other camper coming over to learn more about our camping setup. It has been quite the conversation starter.

Once set up and lunch enjoyed, we headed across part of the short sand and gravel nature loop trail that cuts through the park. The trail, though we were only using it as a connector route, runs amongst a variety of desert vegetation including juniper trees, barberry sagebrush, rabbit brush, four-winged saltbush and more; a quintessential desert landscape stroll.


Our first in-park sightseeing stop was the Civilian Conservation Corps Water Tower, which was built over a 1920s well in the 1930s. Although the well water from the tower was shut down in the 1950s, the tower continues to stand as a fun reminder of history and a pretty neat photo opp. From the water tower we explored the highly anticipated set of caves, which are more slot canyons than an actual cave, but were absolutely amazing. If you’ve ever seen photos from Cathedral Gorge, chances are you’ve seen dramatic angles from the three; cathedral, canyon and moon caves.


For me, walking up to these caves felt almost like stepping onto a movie set. Their height, magnified by angles are, though magnificent, amusingly smaller than you’d expect. In addition, the formations seem almost out of place from the lush desert landscape that runs through the middle of the park. The base of these cave formations is made up of hardened, white bentonite clay and lead to textured spired walls that contrast with the smooth ground.

Formed from explosive volcanic activity that deposited layers of ash hundreds of feet thick. The layers of exposed ash and pumice have been eroded over time from the freshwater lake that inhabited this location nearly 5 million years ago, during the Pliocene Era, and continual rains and snow melt. The result: carved-out caves that are fascinating to explore and are unlike any other cave or canyon I’ve ventured into.


As we approached our first randomly selected cave to walk in, a group of kids were laughing and playing in a nearby turnout (this is important to note to describe the experience). Stepping only a few feet into the narrow cave, we were both left taken aback at the sudden temperature drop and instant silence. It was as though we had stepped into a noise canceling chamber, no echoes, no background noise, and no kids’ voices. I felt like I was suddenly transported into some sci-fi horror film expecting some alien creature to make their way out from the back of the opening at any moment. While the cooler temperature was welcome, I was not anticipating how significant the drop would be. Although the floor of the caves remained relatively smooth and almost white in color, the walls were a hard popcorn or insulation foam type of texture that was vibrant red and coral in color.


With each amused step, we laughed and shared words of shock and awe as we headed further into the chasm that narrowed and opened sporadically ahead of us with each new turn. All the while, the narrow lengths not only unfolded in front of us, but also reached upward overhead to touch the sky.


Once at the furthest point the cave, we retraced our steps to where we first entered only to take a few steps out and then right back in to explore the next cave opening. The moon caves in particular offered slightly wider canyon paths and included small and large burrows and holes in the rocky walls, that were a bit intimidating to pass. Each dark hole stepped over or passed sent my mind providing me comforting assurance that there was, indeed, likely something creepy and terrifying living within each one. It’s times like these my love for horror movies and active imagination tend to amplify the creepy factor more than necessary. That and the fact that our trip was taking place during peak tarantula migrating season didn’t help. I’m not certain if tarantulas are common in this park, but I was still nervous about finding out for myself; something I am happy to report never came to fruition. One after another, each new cave slightly different from the last, these narrow slot canyons of beautiful wonder were simultaneously magnificent and eerie.


Exploring from one cave to the next I found my amazement unfazed. As I took in the excitement of discovering what waited for us around each corner of rock I hoped that a day never comes when I grow bored of exploring new parks and landscape formations like this. As exciting as each step was, I was also fascinated by the views above us. Seeing the narrow slits of sky framed by the curved and jagged patterns of the spires, the shadows casting through the canyons; it made for some GORGEous lighting. (And yes, for those curious…I was making GORGEous comments and quoting Taylor Swift lyrics throughout the trip.)


After finishing up our exploration of the three caves, we continued on the Miller Point Trail which winds through a large gorge and up to the namesake Miller Point. Roughly 2 miles out and back, we got to enjoy trekking through the badlands and rock formations of the gorge.

Established in 1935 and one of Nevada’s four original state parks, Cathedral Gorge includes an intricate landscape throughout the park. Where we had initially hiked through lush desert vegetation, like at the caves, here the exposed sediment continues to erode rapidly from weather, prohibiting many plants from gaining a foothold, leaving only stone and sand along the trail.


Enjoying the new views, we continued our hike up some reinforced stairs and across a short bridge that expands the gap of a smaller break in the rock. At one point heading over the bridge I noticed a perfectly dome-shaped rock formation and pointed out to Jason that it almost looked like a classic cathedral shape. He then immediately reminded me of the park’s name and I begrudgingly accepted that I was indeed, not the first person to think this, and continued with the hike.


We then followed the last bit of the trail up a tall steel staircase to the Miller Point parking lot that overlooked incredible views to the desert and gorge below. It may be on the short side of hikes we’ve done, but nothing beats a hike with a great view, and this one delivered with just under 200-feet of elevation gain to stare out on. If ever you find yourself in this part of the state and you are able to do so, do yourself a favor: skip the scenic drive, throw on some hiking boots and explore the land on foot, discovering each rock formation and cave to experience.


After making our way back to the lower grounds, we headed back to the campground for a post-hike happy hour and some down time just relaxing and enjoying the views before getting dinner made. From our campsite we could look across the desert to the water tower and caves and, planted to provide campground shade options, a number of large trees around us were beginning to turn color for the fall, which provided some beautiful scenery. One of the nice things about Cathedral Gorge is that it is a smaller park, which means you can explore most, if not all, of the park in a single visit. While it was only a little after 2 p.m. and we had already hiked most of the main areas of the park, the little bit of downtime allowed for us to simply relax and enjoy the outdoors. Nothing says camping relaxation more than driving for hours just to sit outside and stare at the landscape. For our next trip to Cathedral Gorge we’re planning on bringing our mountain bikes to enjoy the longer dirt trails that wind through the desert landscape, and see things from a slightly different perspective.


Once evening hit, we boiled water for a simple camp dinner and afterward we headed back to the water tower. With the sun already dipping below the horizon we enjoyed taking some photos to capture the final bits of sunset along the ridgeline. Then, back at the campground, we spent the next hour or so enjoying the night sky and star photography before turning in early for the night.


Once morning came, we packed up our camping setup, made breakfast and then headed back over to the caves, this time driving the route for a chance to enjoy a little bit of dirt road driving. We then spent a little bit of time enjoying some final exploration through the maze of brick-colored cliffs and spires, and snapped the last few photos of the location for the trip. After climbing into the truck, rather than head straight back to the city, we took a short drive north to see the town of Pioche, known as Nevada’s liveliest ghost town. On a little bit of a time crunch we choose to only drive through the old mining town before heading south and making our way to Kershaw Ryan State Park for some afternoon hiking; a short but beautiful hiking adventure to share in another blog post. Until then…time to continue to seek more fall-time adventures.


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