Cathedral in the Desert
The damming of the Colorado River buried an iconic geologic formation before record-breaking drought brought it back.
The construction of the Glen Canyon Dam in 1956 was highly controversial. In damming the Colorado River, the project supplied a booming desert population with sufficient water and electricity while creating the endlessly recreational Lake Powell. These primarily human benefits, however, came at the cost of drowning important archaeological sites, plant and animal habitats, and unique geological formations upstream—a corridor of natural beauty so enchanting that one novelist called it “a portion of earth’s original paradise”—under hundreds of feet of water. The Cathedral in the Desert is one such geological formation that, as a result of aridification, has returned from the artificial depths.
Tucked into an unsuspecting creek along the Escalante River segment of Lake Powell is a stunning natural amphitheater that spent the back half of the 20th century underwater. The narrow canyon—church-like in its elongated, slender shape with soaring walls that reveal only a sliver of sky—was a tourist attraction first named in 1954, only years before it was put in “liquid storage,” to quote one environmentalist at the time. The cathedral’s “podium” is an enigmatic, 60-foot waterfall from which a canyon river spills over a sandstone shelf into a placid pool. It’s a reborn marvel of natural forces first snatched from, and then reintroduced to, visitors in need of some geological sanctuary.
The Cathedral is one of many natural icons re-emerging as Lake Powell recedes. Gregory Natural Bridge, for example, one of the largest natural bridges in the country, is now not only visible but can be safely passed under. Submerged in 1963, Cathedral in the Desert first reemerged briefly in 2005 when lake levels dropped 150 feet from its peak height. Later, in 2019, lake levels again dropped such that the Cathedral had reemerged for good. Comparing photos from its pre-dam days, the waterfall boasts the same dark, desert varnish, though the walls of the cathedral now exhibit the distinct “bathtub ring” markings seen elsewhere throughout Lake Powell.
For now, the site can only be visited by boat or kayak. If boating, rentals launched from Bullfrog Marina or Wahweap are suitable; if kayaking, Halls Crossing, Stanton Creek, and Bullfrog Ramp are your best bets.
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