A few miles outside of Pahrump, NV lies the remnants of what was once known as Cathedral Canyon. Twenty years ago, the sight of it would have been awe-inspiring; stained glass windows adorned the natural crevices in the canyon’s walls, small statues blended in with mesquite trees, and the whole place was lit by Victorian style streetlamps. Now, after years of vandalism, looting, and neglect, only a few empty stone alcoves and a horribly desecrated, headless Christ are all that remain.
Cathedral Canyon was the dream of a man named Roland Wiley. Originally from Iowa, Wiley moved to Las Vegas in 1929 after obtaining a law degree two years prior.
In 1936 he bought the 14,000 square foot ranch in Pahrump where the canyon would later be created.
While the area looks flat and featureless, there are numerous small box canyons, mesas, and hills hidden throughout. This inspired him to rename the estate Hidden Hills Ranch.
The sign that used to greet visitors…
…is long gone.
Tires greet you as you pull into the parking area.
The foundation of the 200ft suspension foot bridge…
…that used to span the canyon.
Built so that visitors could view the canyon from above.
It was modeled after the Golden Gate Bridge…
,,,but this is the only trace left of it.
Cathedral Canyon is about one-third of a mile long, from 50-to 200-feet wide, and perhaps 50-to 60-feet deep. Roland graded the canyon floor and built two trails, one up the canyon from its mouth, the other from the rim to the floor.
Then: original stairway down into the canyon.
Now: stairway ruins down into the canyon.
Roland began thinking about something on the order of Cathedral Canyon around 1955.
A visit to Guatemala after an earthquake and the sight of many churches with broken walls and corners still standing with religious figurines sometimes remaining intact, provided the inspiration for the canyon. By the mid-1970s, Cathedral Canyon was fully functional, although Roland continually added to and modified the landmark.
The Christ statue is a smaller replica of Christ the Redeemer of the Andes. The original is on the border of Argentina and Chile, high in the Andes mountains. It is visited by pilgrims from all nearby countries and has been declared a National Historic Monument of Argentina.
This one, however, seems to be used primarily for target practice now…
…its torso is peppered with bullet holes and shotgun pellets. Look ma, no hands.
Beautiful stained glass windows were once set in the canyon walls…
…but empty alcoves are all that remain now.
Small statues and art objects, both religious and secular, sat in niches in the walls along the canyon’s length.
Along the trail that wound its way through the box canyon, Roland hung scores of steel-framed boards featuring quotes and poems expressing his philosophy and advice for living. They were both religious (nondenominational) and secular. One framed message set in large black letters against a white background read, “I expect to pass through this world but once; any good thing therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any fellow creature, let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”
Another read: “Too much blood has run under the bridges, and down the canyons of the world to keep on believing that only one road is right.”
“Be considerate of every man my young fellow, whether he is black, brown, white, red, or yellow. Of all the billions born on earth, Not one child did choose its birth.”
“For what are we all in our high conceit, When Man in the Canyon with God may meet.”
There were quotes from Albert Einstein and Abraham Lincoln, and other famous persons. One stop in the canyon featured a lovely letter from Jesus that someone had composed.
At the east end of the canyon was a man made waterfall.
Wiley installed a water pump to circulate the water from the small pond up to the top of the canyon where it would cascade back down, transforming the dry walls of the box canyon into a lush grotto. The homage to “The Sermon On The Mount” can still be made out (if you squint really hard).
Looking out from where the waterfall once was.
Steps near the old waterfall.
The canyon attracted thousands of visitors every year. There was no admission, and you were on your own when visiting.
People loved it, as proved by the registration book Roland maintained. Visitors from around the world made comments, with many saying the message and serenity found there were better than any church; others said the place was more enjoyable than Las Vegas.
Don’t worry, it looks like guests were provided with proper sanitary facilities.
Hopefully all those wasp nests clinging to the walls weren’t around then.
Interviewed for a newspaper article in 1993, he was asked why he wanted to build it. “I think everyone is possessed, subconsciously, by certain impulses, you know,” he told the reporter. “They think we’re always led by what we see, but we’re pushed from behind sometimes, by instincts that we’re totally unaware of.” Wiley said he first felt these “subconscious instincts” when he was hospitalized with tularemia, aka rabbit fever, and had a near-death experience. He began inviting visitors to the remote Nye County canyon in the early 1970s, the same time nondenominational religious services began there. As many as 4,000 people a month attended.
The entrance gate featured a hanging lamp and a sign…
…of course both are now long gone.
After Wiley’s death in 1994, his surviving family members tried to preserve the canyon, but due to a lack of funds were unable to. A caretaker was employed by the family for a few years, but that was not enough to prevent vandalism.
The family did offer to sell the canyon to the Pahrump Valley Chamber of Commerce, but they didn’t have the funding to make the purchase.
This small canyon was and is a templum in the truest sense of the word, a sacred place cut off from the world in honor of the universal, unnamed Spirit understood by all of humanity. While most of the symbolism was Christian, it was clear that there was no doctrine or specific religion being endorsed. It is a shame that future generations will never experience the wonder that was Cathedral Canyon.
“Lest we forget, the true value of our coming to this place lies not in finding a new landscape but in having new eyes. It is my hope that this cathedral under the skies will give to you a set of new eyes, and a whole new way of seeing things.”
– From a sign at Cathedral Canyon written by Roland Wiley