Dark skies and slot canyons provide an adventure filled with child-like wonder.


“One hundred ninety-eight miles to Panaca,” our GPS announced as my husband and I left Tonopah. The robot voice pronounced it panic-uh, and Google kept autocorrecting it to panacea, and in the end, our four-day trip resulted in both being accurate.

Cathedral Gorge State Park, born of volcanic activity more than 10 million years ago, touts itself a photographer’s dream and I can attest to that being true. For a relatively small state park, it is huge in character, drama, and opportunities to explore. We spent four days and three nights at the Swallow Cove B&B in Panaca, merely 2 miles from the park entrance. If not camping at the park itself, this is the closest lodging and a perfect option for photographers who plan to be there all hours.

Upon arriving, we took inventory of our gear: two Canon cameras, GoPro, Mavic Pro drone, digital audio recorder, and an Insta360 (which shoots 360º photos and video) camera, with all associated chargers, spare batteries, memory cards, special stands and tripods…we had it all. Except the chargers for our two primary cameras. Seven hours from home, two hours from Las Vegas, and we’d forgotten to pack even one of the four chargers we had at home. Panic-uh, indeed. In the end, we had enough spare batteries to last through our stay, and Panaca and Cathedral Gorge quickly skewed toward a panacea.

Night sky from Miller Point


After the long drive from Carson City to Panaca, we shot the sunset from Miller Point and then got a couple hours’ sleep before our 1 a.m. alarm went off. We packed everything and headed for the park, which is open 24 hours. Parking at the day-use picnic area, we set out in the dark along the Miller Point Trail with the intention of capturing some stars from the canyon. Holy moly! Even with a bit of smoke from nearby fires, the astral display was impressive with the Milky Way easily visible to the naked eye. We stayed through sunrise and then did what many photographers do while waiting for the light to provide what is next needed—went back and took naps.

While there is a comprehensive grocery store in Panaca, there aren’t any restaurants so for lunch we drove to Caliente and discovered a gem called The Side Track. After enjoying two excellent burgers and chatting with the friendly staff, we made our way back to Cathedral Gorge to meet with Dawn Andone, park ranger extraordinaire, who took some time to talk with us about the park and her job.

“When this was all a lake,” Dawn explained, gesturing to the park, “eventually this site opened up from seismic activity no doubt, and it created this area where the water could get out and then it all went into the Meadow Valley Wash.”

I asked her what formed the lighter-colored lines that run horizontally along the length of the canyons. “That would have been probably the bottom of the lake at one time, and then as the water precipitated away it left that layer of limestone. That creates a hard cover on top of all of the siltstone which is much softer. As the water and snow and everything comes around that limestone, it has created these cool formations. The interesting thing about the formations is that they erode not just from the outside in, but from the inside out.”

We tried our best to explore those canyons that afternoon but the wind had other plans and, after being sandblasted for a while, we eventually decided to pack it in. “It’s great for you,” Dawn joked about nature’s ‘spa treatment,’ “people pay lots of money for that, and you’re getting it for free!” The sunset was looking a bit lackluster, so we opted to sleep in order to get up early for sunrise (which was to happen around 5:30 a.m.) then take on the slot canyons again.

Canyon Caves
Kippy inside Moon Caves ©Jeremy Spilker


Dawn Andone leads a group of schoolkids into Cathedral Caves, for some hands-on learning about erosion and how the slot canyons are formed.

Our third day was just about perfect. We were given special permission to fly our drone inside the park and got some gorgeous sunrise footage and photos. Afterward we went to the slot canyons again, where my husband found the “secret cave,” squeezed himself through and came out in a larger cavern with a rope you can climb up to a higher cave. There were already two people climbing, so he did not wait around to try it himself, but that will be a fun adventure for another day. Online reviews of these slot canyons time and again highlight how fun this is for kids as a family activity and I can absolutely understand why, as Jeremy and I pretty much became children again, climbing through and exploring among the bentonite spires.

Juniper Draw Loop
Juniper Draw Loop
Needle yucca with Civilian Conservation Corps water tower in the background

In the early afternoon, we set out on the Juniper Draw Loop. It is often windy through that canyon, so be sure to bring good eye protection. A nice level walk, you really get an intimate view of some of the canyons that are hard to see from any other area of the park. We came across people walking with their dogs—welcome on leashes—and others with binoculars looking for birds. As we came closer to the campground, families were enjoying picnics and playing games.

Eagle Point Trail


The skies were dramatic our last night and although we hoped for a great sunset, we were instead treated to an oppressive cold springtime-in-Nevada rainstorm which resulted in fresh snow on the surrounding mountains. Not to be thwarted, we set our alarm for 2 a.m. and made our way the following morning to the Eagle Point Trail for sunrise photos and video. Another gorgeous morning, although my time lapse didn’t work out too well as my lens formed a thin layer of ice on it while shooting.

This last morning, we were celebrating our wedding anniversary, so we made our way back to one of our favorite spots in the slot canyons and took our annual anniversary photo. Afterward, we returned to Swallow Cove, packed up our things and made our way to our first actual sit-down breakfast of the trip. After tasting the great food they served, I wished we’d made more time to partake of the included meals, rather than living on granola bars and cold sandwiches.

Some animal’s lunch spot

There is a fair amount of wildlife in the park, but much of it seems active mostly around sunrise and sunset, or at night when it’s cooler. We had many bat fly-bys, Jeremy spotted a fox one night, and of course there are many birds. If you pay attention, you can find evidence of wildlife even when it’s not around.

Our drive home through Ely and along Highway 50 was filled with typical Nevada spring weather. We took our sweatshirts off as we walked around and looked at the Hickison petroglyphs, and then we were white-knuckling it through snow and hail on the hills around Austin.

©Jeremy Spilker

All told, we spent about two-and-a-half days in the park—and many hours at night—and I felt like we’d seen pretty much everything. However, I looked at a map of Cathedral Gorge State Park when I got home and realized we completely missed the Bullionville Cemetery Trail. I guess we’ll just have to go back!

Click here to take a virtual 360º tour of one of Cathedral Gorge’s slot canyons.

Cathedral Gorge State Park
parks.nv.gov/parks/cathedral-gorge, 775-728-8101
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