Outside the town of Panaca, Nevada lies yet another Southwest hidden gem. Despite having become a Nevada State Park as early as 1935, Cathedral Gorge gets relatively little attention – likely due to its remote location. As with plenty of other spots in the Southwest, it’s home to slot canyons and desert trails. Yet Cathedral Gorge State Park is indeed unique enough to warrant the journey out there.
Originally inhabited by the Paiute Indians, Cathedral Gorge would later be thoroughly explored by the local Edwards family in the early 20th century. And it was they who first called for the need to protect this beautiful and fascinating area.
But how did these formations, which were named after their resemblance to European cathedrals, form? Around 2.5 million years ago, the area was home to a freshwater lake. Numerous rivers flowed into this lake, carrying volcanic ash and silt down from the surrounding mountains. It filled much of the valley before the lake eventually drained away due to uplift.
Ever since, the siltstone and bentonite clay formations have been subject to wind and water erosion, forming narrow slot canyons within what appear to be spiring towers.
In the following guide, we’ll be covering what to expect from a visit to Cathedral Gorge State Park along with a complete rundown of the park’s hiking trails and slot canyons. At the end of the article, you can learn more about reaching Cathedral Gorge and where to stay.
Exploring The Slot Canyons
Arriving at the site, you’ll pass by a self-pay station, where you’ll be asked to place $10 in an envelope (or $5 if you happen to reside in Nevada).
Then, proceeding further along the main road, you’ll encounter a small parking area for the Moon Slots – the first of three slot canyon areas at Cathedral Gorge State Park.
The slot canyons are arguably the park’s top highlight. But as we’ll cover below, there are plenty of trails in wide open spaces as well.
The Moon Slots
Cathedral Gorge’s slot canyons aren’t quite like other slot canyons you’ll find in the Southwest. For example, you won’t be able to hike for hours from one end to the other. Rather, think of areas like the Moon Slots as miniature labyrinths.
Exiting your car and approaching the large cathedral-like formations, you’ll soon encounter an opening. But where does the path lead?
As you’ll soon discover, the path will branch off in multiple directions, and it’s not always clear where you’re supposed to go.
Getting lost here is a big part of the fun. But it’s not nearly as scary as it first sounds, as the slot canyons aren’t as extensive as they first appear. And just about every time I grew concerned that I might be going too far, I eventually reached a dead end.
As far as I could tell based on my own explorations, every possible pathway leads to a dead end before very long.
Some portions of the canyon are extremely narrow, so the larger you are, the more you’re going to struggle. Just remember that you’ll ultimately have to come the same way back.
During your explorations, also be sure to look up, catching the sun shining between the narrow cracks of these towering stone walls.
As with any slot canyons, you’ll want to avoid exploring Cathedral Gorge on a rainy day in order to avoid potential flash floods. But as mentioned you’re unlikely to end up too far from the entrance.
The Canyon Caves
A bit further north up the road are the ‘Canyon Caves.’ This section is a little bit different, as you can actually hike up much of the exterior rock and then turn around for excellent views.
I even discovered a dark cavern at the end, though I had to be careful and mind my step to avoid falling in. While, as mentioned, Cathedral Gorge State Park does indeed have some conventional hiking trails, this section of the park rewards those who enjoy free exploration.
Back near the bottom level, you’ll find some slot canyons reminiscent of the Moon Slots mentioned above, though they’re not quite as extensive. When finished, return to the main road to see one of the park’s most notable manmade landmarks.
The Cathedral Caves
On your way to the Cathedral Caves, you’ll pass by the Water Tower, originally built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s.
It originally pumped well water to the top of the tower before that water flowed via pipes to the nearby campground. But due to the high alkali levels of the water, the well eventually stopped being used.
Again, you’ll find more slot canyons around the Cathedral Caves which take on a similar look and feel to the others. One unique feature that I noticed here, however, was a large surviving window/arch.
Juniper Draw Loop
Past the Cathedral Caves, the paved road ends, culminating at a small picnic area. From here, the park can only be traversed on foot. This section of Cathedral Gorge State Park, in fact, is home to no less than three hiking trails, though none of them are very long.
I decided to start with the Juniper Draw Loop Trail.
In stark contrast to the narrow, dark and cramped slot canyons, here you’ll find yourself in a wide-open space. The Juniper Draw Loop Trail is entirely flat and accessible for people of all fitness levels.
In total, the trail is three miles long (4.8 km), taking you in a loop along the valley floor. Occasionally, you’ll find small detours leading to openings in the rock, though don’t expect to find any more slot canyons. In one section, however, you’ll find a bench to rest your legs.
All in all, it’s an easy, relatively short and beautiful trail for those who enjoy desert scenery. And in my case, I only encountered a few other people on it.
Just watch out for sandstorms and keep your eye out for rattlesnakes, though I only encountered the former.
Miller Point Overlook
Returning to the picnic area, a path leading straight north will lead you to the Miller Point Overlook.
In total, the trail is about two miles long, and it first takes you through a wash in the middle of a canyon. Erosion is still doing its work in Cathedral Gorge to this day, as evidenced by this portion of the park.
At the end of the wash, you’ll reach a metal staircase which takes you up to a small ramada. This structure was also built nearly a hundred years ago by the CCC, and it’s an excellent place to look out at the canyon below.
According to a nearby plaque, Miller’s Point was ‘named by the Union Pacific Masonic Club on February 22, 1935,’ though it’s not clear who Miller actually was.
Interestingly, the top of Miller’s Point is accessible by vehicle, though not by the same road that goes past the slot canyons. Rather, it’s a different road that branches off the Great Basin Highway to the east.
But unless you or one of your travel companions has serious mobility issues, I’d simply recommend hiking up here and back from the picnic area below.
Eagle Point Trail
Aside from Miller’s Point, this upper level of the park is home to one more trail: Eagle Point. It is yet another flat and easy hike and it stretches out to only 1.6 miles.
Despite the ease of the hike, it offers some of Cathedral Gorge State Park’s very best views. From here, you can overlook the entire canyon, including the whole Juniper Draw Loop trail described above.
You’ll also find some benches if you want to rest your legs before heading back down the Miller Point Trail the way you came.
Nature Loop & Hawk's Ridge
By this point, most visitors to Cathedral Gorge State Park will be calling it a day. And looking back, that’s probably what I should’ve done, too. But loving what I’d seen of the park up to that point, I wanted to squeeze in one more hike before leaving.
Hwak’s Ridge is a four-mile hike that, as the name suggests, has you walking along a ridge for much of it. But first, I walked to the starting point via the short (0.5 miles) Nature Trail Loop.
I then headed north along part of the Juniper Draw Loop before heading back south up a long hill.
While the views were indeed pretty, they couldn’t really compare with what else I’d seen up to that point. I did, at least, get a close-up glimpse of a raven, along with a view of a large sandstorm rolling into the town below.
The main downside of the Hawk’s Ridge Trail is that once you come down the hill, you’ll have to return to the starting point via the park road, which is quite an anticlimactic way to finish a hike. As such, this is the only trail of this fantastic state park that I’d consider skippable.
With no tours available, Cathedral Gorge is only accessible by car, so having or renting your own is a must.
While the park is located in Panaca, eastern Nevada, the best base for visiting is not Las Vegas. While technically possible, the drive from Las Vegas would last about 2.5 hours each way.
A much better base would be St. George, Utah, a popular place to stay for those visiting Bryce Canyon, Zion, and numerous Utah State Parks. From St. George, the ride takes about an hour and forty minutes each way.
Alternatively, visitors can also camp at Cathedral Gorge itself. Campsites are first-come first-served and cost $20 per vehicle (or $10 for local vehicles). You can also pay an extra $10 for utility hookups if you have an RV. (If you don’t have your own, consider renting one on a site like Outdoorsy.)
But with so much else to see around the general area, is a visit to Nevada’s Cathedral Gorge State Park worth it? For me, the answer is an easy ‘yes.’
While there are countless stunning parks to explore in the Southwest, I have yet to come across anything that looks quite like Cathedral Gorge. And as it remains a largely undiscovered gem, it’s a great way to escape the crowds.