Morning sun through olivescent pines illumines
on distant canyon wall
–like a mirage shimmering in the clear high desert air–
a natural amphitheater
super-saturated with sheer rock spires.
Have all the cathedrals of Europe
into one colossal geode
Few landmarks are recognizable from outer space – among them:
The Grand Canyon,
The Great Wall of China,
The Valles Caldera.
This caldera, one of the largest in the world, measures about 16 miles from rim to rim. On satellite images it appears clearly as a round “bullseye.” The Caldera is a complex, long-lived volcanic field active for the last 13 million years. Its center is seen today as a circular grass-and-elk-filled depression near the center of the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico—approximately seven miles east of Cathedrals Canyon. Indeed, most of the caldera is encompassed in the new Valles Caldera National Preserve. But the privately held 45 acre Cathedrals Canyon Reserve is outside the preserve…a part of the massive caldera wall.
About 1.2 million years ago (very recent in geologic history as earth itself is 4.6 billion years old), a body of molten rock formed about two miles beneath the earth’s surface. This body–some ten miles in diameter–was charged with water vapor, gases, and heat energy trying to escape. The pressure built until there was an eruption in magnitude thousands of times larger than Mount St. Helens in 1980. In both of the separate major eruptions which probably occurred some 400,000 thousand years apart, about two hundred cubic miles of incandescent glassy ash and pumice fountained many thousands of feet into the air and pyroclastic flows cascaded along the ground at up to 100 miles per hour. Some flows traveled a distance of 20 miles; ash made its way into what is now Texas and Oklahoma. As hot deposits up to 600 feet deep formed all around the Jemez Mountains, the caldera collapsed under its own weight forming a large basin. The huge bowl in turn collected ash flow more than 5000 feet deep.
When the flowing, glowing ash stopped, its retained heat caused the material to re-fuse. Tensile stress from later cooling and contracting created deep polygonal fractures. In the subsequent years, water draining from mesa top to valley caused erosion in these fractures. And thus Cathedrals Canyon with its spectacular, sheer-rock spires came into being! Geologists refer to compressed volcanic ash flows as “ignimbrites” and to the specific ignimbritic flows of Cathedrals Canyon as “Bandelier Tuff.”
On local geologic survey maps, such eroded outcrops are termed “tentrocks.” Of these, the tentrocks of Cathedrals Canyon are the most spectacular and complete and have been the subject of intensive study.
Volcanologist Professor Stephen Self writes that the geological history revealed in Cathedrals Canyon is “exceptional—perhaps the single most complete record extant of the great Valles Eruptions.” In 1989, Self led a multinational team of volcanologists through the Jemez Mountains. While at the canyon, Self and forty ignimbrite specialists from thirty-one countries were able to examine evidence that led to a revised theory of the formation of Valles Caldera on the basis of all this Canyon reveals.
Cathedrals Canyon has always been under private ownership. Beginning in 1798 the governor of the province of New Mexico, under Spanish rule, created the royal Cañon de San Diego land grant. In 1860, ten years after the Mexican American War, the United States government under President Chester Arthur confirmed the grant. Through subsequent years the grant was divided up and parcels sold off, sometimes to pay taxes.
In time, a portion of the grant came into the hands of a consortium of Albuquerque businessmen. In 1965 they proposed a land trade with the US Forest Service. The Forest Service wanted additional timber and grazing land, so they accepted the flat mesa-top acreage. But the vertical lands of Cathedrals Canyon and its immediate surrounds – considered inappropriate for logging and grazing—were excluded from the trade. These remaindered lands were later sold to a developer who subdivided the land into over 40 “summer cabin” lots and set aside a part of the canyon to be held under common ownership.
Present stewards chanced on the canyon in 1985. Scouring the mountains of New Mexico for “a quiet place to listen and learn from the land,” they laid camp late one night. The next morning they awoke to see “an ephemeral geologic gem shimmering in the clear high desert air.” Though they had explored the area for years, they had never before seen these awe-inspiring pinacles—for the canyon is visible from only a few vantage points and then only in specific diurnal and seasonal light. They dubbed the canyon “a vessel of light.”
Inside the canyon, the couple was immediately enraptured by how the canyon “fuses spirituality and sensuality” and then equally dismayed at the profusion of Coke and beer cans, candy wrappers and toilet paper. Especially disconcerting was the large quantity of plastic cones disposed of by the US Forest Service when reseeding the mesa above. The couple determined to purchase and protect this sacred site. After three years of continual effort, the 13+ acre canyon-of-spires was reunited under single owner-and-stewardship.
The couple introduced the canyon to their close friend, Jeanne Adams — conservationist, educator, and manager of the Ansel Adams galleries. Adams proposed acquiring buffer land and envisioned a time when canyon and buffer might be combined into a reserve. For the next five years the three identified critical buffer tracts which Adams purchased. In its present configuration, the Canyon-and-buffer lands comprise twelve lots totaling about forty-five acres.
“This project is about demonstrating that private citizens — even those with limited resources — can set about to preserve unique land for posterity,” Adams says. “The Canyon is one of the truly magnificent places in our vast and beautiful country.”
Effective stewardship can require creative solutions. So under a National Endowment for the Arts grant, present owners researched how to build gently on fragile, natural sites. In collaboration with architect Michael McGuire, they designed a structure near the mouth of the canyon–specifically away from the canyon’s pristine recesses. The structure was to “open humans to nature and protect nature from humans.”
To carry out their vision with minimal impact, the couple constructed a tram to haul building materials 90 feet up a 45 degree slope—without touching the ground. Then beam by beam inlaid the structure with a mere 4 inch damage margin.
Renowned photographer, Robert Glenn Ketchum, calls the structure “The Zen of Architecture.”
Access to the site begins at a small, still developable building/parking site outside the canyon mouth. Here we are confronted by, and then invited into, the drama of The Canyon. We walk up the sandy arroyo amidst towering rock formations. As an act of respect–a technique of awareness–we step around and over native plants. Spiraling up a footpath, we pass through a small, enclosed structure—a place to wait out a storm—and then out onto a thousand square foot observation platform hovering among a thousand spires.
Below the platform, an Outdoor Room provides shelter
from summer sun and rains.
Here, enwrapped in a continuous slice of forest
canyon walls protect from wind;
snow and rain fall vertically;
posts appear as tree trunks;
birds fly through eleven-foot high bays.
Forest temple to house the spirit.
The same 2500 square feet of architected horizontal space
that opens this vertical canyon to humans,
simultaneously protects nature:
40 volcanologists from thirty-one countries
climb to observation platform.
Pocket their pitons. Observe. Debate.
Revise complex theories of ignimbritic flows. Leave.
Structure as laboratory; pristine ecosystem untouched.
Uninvited visitors attracted by spires, climb to platform.
Inhale view. Leave.
Structure as decoy; pristine ecosystem untouched.
Several miles distant, the Vallecito award-winning straw bale home and acreage pictured below may be acquired separately for the same price of $675,000, or with Cathedrals Canyon for a combined price of $1,350,000. For more information on this extraordinary home, please click on Vallecito home.