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.