THE ULTIMATE GUIDE TO VISITING CATHEDRAL GORGE STATE PARK, NV
I'm so excited to have my good friend Shanti with HIKING MY WAY here today to sharing all the fun we had adventuring at Cathedral Gorge Sate Park, NV. You guys! This state park located just 1 hour 40 minutes from Saint George absolutely blew me away. Read on for all the details and make sure to add Cathedral Gorge State Park to your to your Southwestern Utah bucket list.
My husband is one of those guys who is always looking for a different adventure from what we have already done, which is how we ended up at the little known Cathedral Gorge State Park on the edge of Nevada the first week of December. A little under a two hour drive from St. George, this dramatic landscape of soft bentonite clay spires was formed over a million years ago from a volcanic eruption, leaving behind surreal looking landscape of canvas colored mud spires that are continually eroding and remoulding shape after every rain.
Like much of the Southwest, exploring open spaces like Cathedral Gorge happens in the early spring, late fall and winter. Summer is often scorching, so you want to stick to the shadowed canyons around Zion and watery hikes that keep you cool in the baking 100+ degree sun.
In the cooler months these surreal mud mountains are amazing to visit, as long as there hasn’t been a lot of snow or rain. Like much of the Southwest, after rain or snow touches the ground, you often have thick, gooey, heavy mud to contend with when you try to hike too soon, so pay attention to what the weather is doing in the days leading up to visiting this park.
We went one day after a rain and while there were parts we definitely avoided, we still found plenty of hard concrete like ground to hike on. Bringing an extra pair of shoes, a few towels and wet wipes to clean up post playing around this area is a good idea with kids.
While we didn’t have huge expectations with this 2,000 acre park we are a little spoiled living in between Zion, Snow Canyon and Dixie National Forest, from the moment we drove in we were in awe of what was in front of us. Having visited both Cedar Breaks and Bryce, it was easy to see these spires were different. The lighter colored clay was almost cream colored, and the way the walls looked like melted candles dripping down had a different feel than the iron rich red landscape in the other parks.
Once home to the Fremont, Anasazi and Southern Paiute, this area was first set aside in 1924 by Governor James Scrugham, then became one of Nevada’s first state parks in 1935. Located at around 4,500 feet above sea level, expect cold winters and hot summers. While there is some vegetation in the area, the constantly eroding clay is a harsh landscape to grow in so there is little to no tree cover in this park. Wear your sunscreen, even in the winter!
There are a handful of trails in the park that are mostly 2 miles in length. A good hike if you have little kids is parking at the C.C.C. water tower, take a moment to play on the water tower, then walk south toward the canyon caves and moon caves. Expect to explore this area for a good hour. There are a number of slot canyons to hike into, although be aware of the mud if the ground is at all wet.
What’s interesting is many surfaces from the spires to the ground appeared to be hard, but upon touching or stepping, the surface gave way leaving a fine gritty sticky mud on our hands and feet. Because you don’t want to damage the landscape, best rule of thumb is to explore but if the ground and walls are soft, retreat and just observe from a distances to as to not damage the beautiful formations. When this clay is hardened it’s like concrete and nearly impossible to leave a mark on. The contrast between the hard and soft clay is incredible and even on a slightly wet day, we found plenty of rock hard clay to explore on.
After we had explored the first maze like spires thoroughly, we walked north toward Miller Point trail. There’s a great picnic area you can also park at that has running water from a spigot and a covered picnic table place to eat your lunch. Walk past the tables and there are signs and a clearly defined trail leading into a gorge. Walk left to do the 3-mile juniper draw loop trail (although not advised during rains due to thick mud) and right will take you up the gorge to a look out point and another parking lot. This is about a 2-mile hike out and back and fairly kid friendly, although hold hands when heading up the spine toward the look out pagoda because it can be slippery on parts of the trail.
As you climb up the hill out of the canyon for a better view, there’s a metal staircase which helps protect the spires, but also allows this area to be hiked when the ground is soft and slick. The climb is short and totally worth the view back down the canyon. This is definitely your money shot if you want to really capture the park from above looking down.
SUGGESTED TRAIL - MILLER POINT TRAIL
If you have kids, especially little ones, the Miller Point Trail is a great out and back because it’s easy to complete this one thanks to the lookout point as a fun destinations. The short distance makes it doable and fairly easy to carry kids on shoulders or piggyback when they are done walking.
LENGTH - This is just over 2-miles if you start at the picnic area and walk out. Keep this in mind if you have already been exploring a little while. The other option is to hike up a ways and then turn around and drive up to the top so you still get the view. This trail can be accessed from both the top and bottom. This took us about an hour to walk with a 6-year-old and lots of stops for pictures.
DIFFICULTY - I would call this trail easy to moderate because there is about 130 feet of elevation gain if you start at the bottom and go up. For an easy hike you can walk down from the top and then have one person run back up to get the car and drive it around while the kids are exploring at the bottom in the slot canyons. That makes the trail just 1-mile downhill and doable for most kids.
Cathedral Gorge is about an hour and forty minutes north west of St. George and an hour and twenty minutes north west of Cedar City. If you want a very full day and you are traveling from St. George, consider stopping off at Gunlock Falls in the spring to watch the waterfalls gushing or Snow Canyon for a quick walk on the petrified dunes.
GEAR TO WEAR
Most shoes can be worn on this trail, however, consider that they will get very muddy. Mark wore Merrell MQM Flex, which are a light men’s hiking trail shoe. I wore the Merrell Thermo Cross 2 Waterproof, which was awesome for the mud and the waterproofness. I was able to literally put my feet under a spigot at the picnic area after our hike and wash the bulk of the mud off. We had Mason in Merrell Kid Morphis. Honestly I wish we had put him in rubber boots because his feet were the worst. It’s hard to tell a 6-year-old to stay out of the mud, so keep that in mind. We also failed on bringing an extra change of clothes. Since the mud can take a while to dry in the slot canyons, come prepared with extra clothes. Also, we found even when the terrain was dry and rock hard, it was still dusty and so he was covered in a lot of fine powdery residue. The terrain isn’t challenging, so poles aren’t necessary, but might be nice for dealing with the slippery mud in places. Water can be refilled at the park, so no need to carry a lot of extra.
HOW COOL IS THIS CAMPSITE!
TIPS AND ADDITIONAL INFO
Make sure you bring a few towels that can get really dirty and muddy to wipe kids down just in case you hit an area with some mud.
If you are interested in staying overnight, the park has a small campground with 22 sites and hook ups are available. Campsites are first come, first serve.
Dogs are welcome in the park, but must remain on leash at all times.
While the park doesn’t have a junior ranger program, they do have Nevada stamp booklets and coloring books, so make sure to ask about these.
Park entrance fee is a very affordable $5 per car.
Shanti Hodges is the founder of the national nonprofit Hike it Baby and lives in Southern Utah with her husband and son. She currently operates a guide business and hosts women’s retreats near Zion National Park. Find out more on her website Hiking my Way Retreats. She’s also the author of Hike it Baby: 100 Awesome Adventures with Babies and Toddlers and a contributor to REI and Outside magazine. Follow her adventures on INSTAGRAM and her WEBSITE.