Timelessness of Cathedral Valley
A light wind buffets as I walk toward the edge of the cliff and the scents of pinyon and juniper come together in the dry, clear desert air of Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park. Below spreads a large valley filled with seemingly impossible natural formations: huge formations of hard sandstone shaped by millennia of unimaginable forces into fantastical structures of dark cream, dusty brick red and pale apricot. As the valley’s name implies, they do indeed resemble great cathedrals soaring toward the sky. It is a name conjured up by fanciful human imagination, yet it fits these graceful monoliths with startling accuracy.
I was camped just outside the national park boundaries and the next day I slipped away from my companions and made a beeline for the temples of the Lower Cathedral Valley. The tepid late November sun takes away the previous night’s chill as I walk to Glass Mountain, a small pile of exposed gypsum that seems to strive for the grandiosity of the eroding temples just to its south. Lying flat on my back in a little hollow I make out of the sand, I watch the temples. Their outlines first look like a crooked staircase, then the faded remains of once-glorious paeans to the sky, then simply the slowly crumbling Entrada sandstone they are. I am fascinated by the silence—it is so deep I think I can hear my blood thrumming in my ears.
When I slowly, reluctantly make my way back to the camp, I feel immense appreciation settle into my bones. There is no one out here but me, and for the moment that becomes ever so peaceful. In 1949, custodian Charles Kelly of what was then called Capitol Reef National
Monument ventured into a mostly unknown, unnamed valley just outside the boundaries of the area he managed. Traveling with Utah newspaper editor Frank Beckwith, Kelly remarked on the valleys “beautifully sculptured… architectural forms—pillars, columns, spires, and decorative statuary— resembling the ruins of a thousand Greek temples.” Beckwith simply replied, “The buttes certainly look like great cathedrals.”
It is a cool late July day and the vehicle I drive carries three tourists, eager to witness the monoliths of Cathedral Valley. They grow quiet as we crawl up the dirt road through hills striped with bands of light tangerine, hearty chestnut, palest mauve, soft grayblue that matches the clouds overhead. “Stop”, one of the tourists fumbles with the handle to roll down the window. We are halfway up the hill , which is pure bentonite: dry, dusty clay. This is not a good place to stop.
“I’ll stop at the top. There’s a little pullout. You’ll like the views there.” My voice carries the easy assurance of one who has been here dozens of times and knows just the spots for an unforgettable picture. The people ready their cameras and toy with seat belts, as if they mean to tear them off and leap from the car the moment we stop. This is exactly what they do when we halt at the rise of the alien-like Bentonite Hills on our way to the valley. The guests pick their way through the granulated surface of the land, pose for their cameras and examine closely the hills made from ancient volcanic ash that lift and roll and fold all about us. Their
faces light with smiles as they survey the fathomless distances and so does mine. Today’s Superintendent of Capitol Reef National Park, Al Hendricks, notes Cathedral Valley is still a place where “visitors can expect a remote park experience with an emphasis on relative
solitude.” He adds, “[I]t is just that sense of slight uncertainty and stepping outside of one’s normal comfort zone, that makes the rewards of a trip to see the exquisite towers and temples and cliffs of Cathedral Valley so highly appreciated and prized.” Most visitors want to see in person those features they first glimpsed on a post card or in a film: great and jumbled piles of sandstone layers—Entrada, Curtis, and Morrison—with spectacular names like Temple of the Sun, Temple of the Moon, Glass Mountain, Jailhouse Rock and Queen of the Wash.
Flowers carpet Cathedral Valley as I stop the car often, so we can wonder through the explosion of color. The land here usually seems sere, gray and muted, quietly stunning even in its monochrome palette. On this late May morning, the colors take our breath with their showy presence.
The ground bursts with red claret cup cacti blossoms, prickly pear flowers ranging from delicate pink-peach to silky fuchsia, the cheerful yellow of rough mule’s ears the small clusters of orange globe-mallow and the richly purple nodding heads of scorpion-weed.
I stand in a small field of prickly pear, careful to place my steps away from the fragile cryptobiotic soil, and close my eyes under the warm sunshine. A day like this demonstrates why Cathedral Valley is protected, wild and remote. This is why I return here, again and again, and savor the extremes of different seasons, and introduce others to this place in the hope that they too, will understand.
Of all the sections of this 241,904-acre national park, Cathedral Valley sees the fewest visitors. Rather than a lack of beauty or adventure, two other reasons dissuade the casual visitor: 1) its roads are rough, minimally maintained, and prone to absolute impassibility during the intense seasonal storms, and 2) park management ensures Cathedral Valley remains remote so visitors can experience its profound sense of solitude. Dave Worthington, Chief of Resource Management and Science at Capitol Reef, says, “I have taken a lot of friends and colleagues around the Park in the last 14 years, and it’s Cathedral Valley that blows them away every time.” We bump over the rough road, a caravan of five vehicles filled with journalists and photographers from varied corners of the globe. The calendar reads early October, but the frigid wind and heavy skies mimic late December.
A daguerreotype finally correctly interpreted in 1995 depicts the first known modern record of humans crossing through Cathedral Valley. Explorer John C. Fremont led an 1853- 1854 party past the swooping cathedrals, down the sliced-out washes, past what must have seemed strange, serpent like dark rock formations leaping and twisting from the earth. Those black volcanic sills still exist, there for people to stare at and imagine the tremendous force of the earth that squeezed out hot magma, which then cooled and hardened into what I always think of as a desert dragon plunging along a solitary path. When I closely examine the Fremont daguerreotype I notice it seems like a windy cold day, to judge from the overly grand billows of dark clouds and the whipping mane and tail of a horse. My lips curve up with rueful understanding as I gather my jacket closer and drive on in the storm-blustered day, heading deep into the heart of Cathedral Valley as I ferry new adventurers. Perhaps I only imagine their sense of unflinching amazement as they gaze at the beautiful, fierce wilderness that encircles them from every side. But I hope not.
This article was written by Julie K. Trevelyan, and if you enjoyed it, please check out her site at http://www.wildgirlwriting.com/