'Gorge' is a slightly inappropriate term as nowhere do the branched ravines formed by the creek exceed a depth of much more than 50 feet - the uniqueness of this place is a result of the many narrow water-created passageways and caves at the edges of the valley, which is half a mile wide at the entrance but tapers towards the north end, and has several side canyons which become quite narrow and enclosed. Besides rainwater, erosion is accelerated by climatic extremes; freeze-thawing cycles occur in winter when temperatures are often below zero, while the baking heat of summer, sometimes over 100°F, dries and cracks the rocks.
The scenic drive passes a self-pay fee station, information boards and a 22-site campground, and ends at a parking/picnic area near some of the main formations. A short side road leads to another picnic area, closer to the edge of the gorge; brightly-colored cliffs and spires rise quite steeply ahead, with many narrow crevices at the edge; these are often only 2 or 3 feet wide but extend inwards for up to 100 yards, usually quite winding and with many side-branches. The walls tower high overhead and the effect is very much like being underground. Most passages end abruptly, a characteristic feature of the rock, in a circular shaft with daylight visible far above; these mini canyons are formed when rainwater runs off the nearby land and is channeled down the shaft, and the 'caves' gradually erode further back into the cliffs.
Canyons and Trails
Several parts of the cliffs in Cathedral Gorge State Park have particularly fine formations but the north end is even more unusual. This area is reached by an easy one mile trail which links with an alternative northern entrance road to the park at Miller Point
, an overlook with a fine view southwards over the canyons. Here the streamway branches and several forks flow through deep, narrow ravines, very much like slot canyons
except that the softness of the rock often results in the flood waters eroding several passageways on different levels, forming short caves, abrupt elevation changes and strange surface textures. There is no trail this far up the canyons and some climbing is necessary to progress. A torch would be useful as some of the caves are sufficiently long and deep as to be completely dark. The only other trail in the park is a 3 mile route that forks off westwards and leads towards more remote formations along the edge of the main gorge, which continues another 2 miles to the north.
Map of Cathedral Gorge State Park and Panaca