The Times-Independent

Cathedral Valley, Part 2

Tales of Trails: Our (lower) last chance

I left last week’s Tales of Trails under the heavy clouds of an onrushing storm, cocooned in a car amid whipping dust devils.

This sharp, smoothly striped rock stuck out amid the sandstone spires of Cathedral Valley. Photos by Sophia Fisher

It was around sunset on a Saturday, and Ben and I had pulled over about a mile beyond the park boundary of Cathedral Valley. Our visibility was far lower than a mile, however, and we decided to stay put for the night, agreeing to re-evaluate if any rain came.

As we lowered the backseats and began arranging a cozy nest in the back of the car, however, no rain came. The winds, in fact, began to drop and the skies cleared just enough to reveal a star or two and the glow of a still-occluded moon.

By the time we went to bed, that moon was perched alone in the sky. Unimaginably, the tempest had cleared completely.

I had to pose next to the sign, of course. What kind of millennial would I be otherwise?

The next day bloomed sunny and clear, the breeze carrying the fresh scent of a post-storm world. Ben and I retraced our drive a few miles to check out the gypsum sinkhole, another geologic wonder — and 200-foot-deep terror — of Cathedral Valley.

On our way there we passed a volcanic dike, a massive sheet of black rock seemingly thrust into the valley’s sandstone walls. Upon later investigation, I learned the sheet actually forms when lava pours into a vertical joint in rock (did I mention that Fishlake’s Thousand Lake Mountain used to be a volcano?).

We then saw Glass Mountain, a wind-whipped dune of glassy selenite shards, before driving up to the bases of the Temples of the Sun and Moon, two of the valley’s most famous freestanding monoliths. Frankly, after the wonder of the main valley, the temples were a bit underwhelming. Spoiled by Moab yet again.

Three cheers for calf season! This adorable fellow slowly returned to his lowing mama as we entered Lower Last Chance.

At that point, I realized we’d essentially finished sightseeing the valley and it wasn’t even lunchtime yet.

Time for an adventure, anyone?

Ben relinquished the wheel and I routed us onto the Little Black Mountain Spur, a northern route that splits from the Cathedral Valley loop right around the park boundary. We wound north through red dunes, passing what indeed appeared to be a large black outcropping to our right.

As we approached Caineville, the Henry Mountains and buttes of Mancos shale (far left) welcomed us back.

After a few miles, I passed through the dunes and emerged into what seemed to be an open-faced Cathedral Valley — Fishlake, far to our west, was fringed in familiar sandstone monoliths, while the north, east and south were composed of broad grassy plains dotted with grazing cows.

Ben and I had met our last chance.

More specifically, we were entering the Lower Last Chance Wilderness, according to a Bureau of Land Management sign we encountered as the road dead-ended at an intersection.

A foreboding sign by the Temple of the Sun wards off tomfoolery.

There isn’t anything more exciting in the backcountry than a sign, I think; at least for our map-less adventures. I posed for a picture and jumped back into the driver’s seat, eager to bring us farther from the known.

I tore up the gravel road (raising a “decent cloud” behind us, according to Ben), passing hundreds of cows. Their gangly calves often stared at us a few seconds before awkwardly loping toward the comfort of their mothers.

After ascending a broad, arid plain, we began descending again into a labyrinthine wash of house-high hills that shimmered with selenite crystals. At one point, we stared over a plain of white dunes capped in a washed-out red, looking for all its worth like baked Alaska.

Ben brandishes his most formidable weapon: a spatula. (He does make a mean omelet.)

Perhaps it was the thought of baked Alaska, but I was starting to get hungry. We’d been noshing for hours on the weird combination of snacks I’d purchased in a regrettable bout of City Market madness (birthday cake-flavor Oreos and extra-toasty Cheez-Its; sorry, Ben), and we were both ready to turn around and grab dinner in Hanksville.

We never did find the last chance’s upper half.

So we retraced our steps: up the wash, across the plain, left into Cathedral Valley and the final 15 or so miles across candy-striped hills, bright-white outcroppings and finally the familiar greys of the Caineville Wash. Just before reaching Highway 24, Ben and I pulled over at an information kiosk that had — lo! a labeled topographic map of the area we’d just left.

We scoured the thing for several minutes, pointing at the few spots we’d seen and the many intriguing ones we hadn’t: Moroni Slopes, Keesle Country, Horse Heaven.

We’ll be back soon, I’m sure.