The brief but wonderful return of Cathedral in the Desert

  • Cathedral in the desert

    James Kay

It looked almost exactly like Phil Hyde’s photograph taken in 1964, a year after Glen Canyon Dam began backing up the Colorado River in a process that would take seven years.

Hyde’s photo revealed a stunning waterfall in a giant amphitheater with a narrow, almost slot-like opening at the top, perfectly named "Cathedral in the Desert." Eventually, the cathedral disappeared, drowned in 150 feet of a brand-new reservoir coyly named Lake Powell. But drought can perform miracles, and we had Ed Abbey’s words to remind us that the cathedral and the rest of the inundated Glen Canyon had not disappeared, after all; they were, he insisted, only in "liquid storage."

He was more right than he knew. Two years ago, when the drought had already pulled the reservoir level down by 90 feet, I traveled to Lake Powell with Rich Ingebretsen, the president of the Glen Canyon Institute, which wants to breach Glen Canyon Dam. We went by boat from Hall’s Crossing to the "Escalante Arm" of Lake Powell, then turned left up a narrow side canyon to the place we thought the cathedral should be. We guessed right.

It was difficult to gauge our location from the old photos, because we were floating 60 feet above the old canyon floor where they were taken. But as we made a tight turn to the left, we spotted the top of the waterfall that had once marked the upstream terminus of the cathedral, now just four or five feet beneath us, still submerged. We were that tantalizingly close. We wondered, as we reluctantly departed later that day, if that was as close as we’d ever come.

This spring, drought brought us an answer. Lake Powell had dropped another 60 feet, and in April, Ingebretsen and I traveled again to the cathedral by motorboat, the very form of transportation that will become obsolete if the reservoir ever runs dry. So there we were, in a $20,000 rented motorboat, in search of one of the most stunning sights on Earth, one that no one had viewed in almost 40 years.

It took an hour to go from Hall’s Crossing to the mouth of the Escalante River, and then up Clear Creek to a point where the canyon appeared to close in. This time, there was a slot at the back of the chamber, and there it was above us, the waterfall, flowing freely as spring runoff cascaded over the sculptured lip of the drop-off and spattered into a pool, 50 feet below. We parked the boat and walked in.

The dark desert varnish around the waterfall had not faded in 40 years. The striations so clearly visible in Hyde’s 1964 images were just as sharply defined for us today. We looked at each other, almost in disbelief, and we found ourselves speaking in whispered tones.

Ingebretsen said softly, "This is where Hyde stood ... this is where (David) Brower stood." And everything was still there, just waiting for Nature to expose the rock, and for us to return to witness it.

We noted the seeps oozing from the canyon walls and a hint of green around those wet places in the Navajo sandstone. Nature was already at work. From time to time, we came upon an old beer can or piece of rope or lost thermos cup, detritus of motorized recreation, left in the holy chamber. But what surprised us was how little garbage there was.

The Cathedral in the Desert, without any help from us, was, in the most tranquil way imaginable, restoring itself. All it needed from us was time. And there’s the rub.

If this year’s heavy snowpack in the Rocky Mountains turns out to be an aberration, and if, as a result, the reservoir continues to shrink, today’s fierce economic and environmental arguments about the dam will become irrelevant. The cathedral will re-emerge without any help from anyone.

But as we motored away from the cathedral, we were already aware that this year’s spring runoff will be massive, and that the reservoir will rise at least 30 feet, perhaps even 50 feet, or more. If the scientists are wrong, or the timing is off by many years, 2005 may have been Cathedral in the Desert’s one brief moment to revisit the light of day.

Already, in early May, houseboats floated above it as the reservoir steadily rose. For now, I take comfort in knowing that a cathedral really is down there, "in liquid storage," waiting for an enlightened future to let her shine again.

Jim Stiles is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He is the editor of the Canyon Country Zephyr, published six times a year in Moab, Utah.

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