Exploring Cathedral in the Desert
By Dave Webb
I boated to Cathedral in the Desert on April 13-14, 2005, to see for myself the sight that has attracted so much national attention. It was a great trip: the Cathedral is spectacular, the weather was wonderful and it was fun to explore Lake Powell at its current low water level.
The Cathedral has become an icon for people who love Glen Canyon. They describe it as one of the world's great treasures, a place so beautiful and serene it has a spiritual transcendence. A paradise lost beneath the waters of Lake Powell, but now re-emerged because extended drought has drastically lowered the lake's level. The New York Times recently ran a long feature article on the Cathedral. I've also seen reports on ABC TV news, in National Geographic Adventure magazine and in other national and local media.
Often, when you hear extensive hype about something before you see it, the actual experience does not live up to your expectations. In this case I expected it to be great and it was exceptional. I'm glad I had the chance to see it.
Powell's water level is now on the rise, coming up about 2 inches a day. That rate will increase as spring progresses and runoff intensifies. By mid-May the lake water level will probably be above the base of the Cathedral's waterfall. By July the waterfall may be completely covered by lake water.
If you want to see this phenomenon, now is the time.
On April 13 the lake's surface was at 3555.95 feet above sea level, a few feet below the bottom of the waterfall. You can monitor the water level by going to this website, www.wayneswords.com, and clicking on the lake level link on the home page. That website also has current fishing and launch ramp reports.
I've noticed some faulty information in media reports about the Cathedral. Some have described it as a great hiking opportunity. You can boat into the Cathedral, just a few yards from the base of the waterfall, with no hiking involved. Some people have tried to hike down to the Cathedral from Hole In the Rock Road. That is extremely difficult and requires specialized canyoneering skills and equipment.
Some articles have stated that Mother Nature is doing what environmentalists have not been able to do - draining Lake Powell. They imply that it is only a matter of time before the lake will be gone. They ignore the fact that the drought is over. The lake is expected to rise 50 or more feet from this year's runoff, then fall about 20 feet through summer and fall. So the lake will have a net gain of about 30 feet during this water year.
The Cathedral is located at the back of Clear Creek Canyon, on the Escalante Arm, about 23 miles down-lake from Bullfrog. I marked these waypoints on my GPS:
- Mouth of Clear Creek Canyon: N 37 deg 18.050; W 110 Deg 54.464
- Cathedral mouth (closest point where I could get a fix): N 37 deg 17.410'; W 110 Deg 54.860'
The Cathedral's colorful sandstone walls arch upward to form a huge amphitheater with a narrow slit at the top. Hanging gardens grow from seeps in the stone walls. A small stream falls down the cliff face at one end. During the middle of the afternoon a narrow beam of sunlight finds its way into the Cathedral and hits a sand bar, illuminating the entire cavern with a rich, warm golden light.
I've explored most of Powell's 96 named canyons, poking my nose into many beautiful spots. The Cathedral is now my favorite. It's worth the trip.
About Gregory Arch
Info from Jim Brodigan, Glenwood, IA
(37°19'47.1" -110°56'19.6", underside about 3552') Underwater in Fiftymile Creek (previously called Soda Gulch), Escalante. Named for geologist Herbert Gregory.
040520, lake at 3585', snorkeled down to see the edge of the roof on the downstream side and briefly got a hand on it! Read about it here, along with epilogues and pointers to pictures.
040810, lake at 3577.5', snorkeled down again, measured underside of roof (at the outer corner) at 3550.5' plus or minus a foot, but the underside of the span is a bit lower.
http://users.frii.com/ajs/LakePowell-hikes.htm#doneEscalante, link to above info.
Personally, I have witnessed people camped upon the top of the Bridge when it was exposed about 1-2 feet above the water. Seemed that the Bridge was about 15-20 feet across at that time and on the other side was the continuation of Fiftymile Creek water. When I told the people they were camped upon a huge natural bridge, they weren’t too impressed so we moved on and did not get out of the boat to explore further.
On a side note, fishing is really picking up now at Lake Powell and all game fish species are in great condition. Six pound striped bass will be common this year. Stripers, smallmouth bass and largemouth bass are staging in front of spawning areas. Fishing success will be excellent during the next few weeks.
We launched on the temporary ramp at Bullfrog and had no trouble putting a 21-foot boat into the water. With the lake now coming up, launching conditions will get better and better. Good ramps are available at Wahweap, Bullfrog and Halls Crossing.
The water temperature, a chilly 53 degrees during our visit, is now warming fast. By mid-May it will be warm enough for skiing and other sports.
I'll like to see the Cathedral again before it disappears and so I may just have to return to the lake during the next few weeks. It's worth two trips.
Copyright Dave Webb