ST. GEORGE — Less than an hour from St. George, tucked against volcanic mountains, Pine Valley Recreation Area offers Southern Utahns a chance to escape the bustling city and find peace in its vanilla-scented air.
In this episode of “Discover the Desert,” presented by Findlay Subaru St. George, host Sydnee Imlay finds tranquillity along the Santa Clara River, surrounded by towering pine trees.
“Pine Valley is, honestly, so beautiful right now,” she said. “We live in one of the most beautiful places in the world.”
Pine Valley Recreation Area is approximately 40 miles from St. George near Central and the town of Pine Valley, according to Google Maps. Southern Utahns will find the Santa Clara River Walk, a paved trail past a reflective reservoir, through uniquely-scented ponderosa pines and along the Santa Clara River.
Visitors can park near or before Pine Valley’s second gate and walk in. The walk can be accessed at various points, such as near the Gardner Peak trailhead, where individuals can follow it through the heart of the recreation area almost to the Canal trailhead.
The river walk is approximately 3 miles long, according to a sign at the trailhead, or 2.6 out-and-back, according to All Trails. The trail features informational signs and is dog-friendly and accessible, with plenty of benches for resting or enjoying the view.
Imlay parked in the Fisherman parking lot and crossed Pine Valley Road to follow the paved path adjacent to Pine Valley Reservoir. Visitors can follow the signs to the Santa Clara River Walk trailhead, like Imaly, or turn right toward the Gardner Peak trail.
Pine Valley Recreation Area
The recreation area is in its “shoulder season,” which typically lasts from around Labor Day to shortly before Memorial Day, with specific dates varying each year, Pine Valley District Ranger Joseph Rechsteiner told St. George News.
Next year, campsites begin opening on Monday, May 6, according to Recreation.gov. Until then, the U.S. Forest Service won’t collect day-use fees.
The entrance station and campgrounds are closed, as is the road past the second gate, Rechsteiner said, adding that some bathrooms remain open.
However, the cold shouldn’t stop Southern Utahns from exploring Pine Valley, as there is still plenty to do, including photography and hiking, he said.
Visitors can access the 50,000-acre Pine Valley Mountain Wilderness from the recreation area, which boasts a network of over 150 miles of trail, ranging from 6,000 to over 10,000 feet in elevation, according to the Forest Service.
Those still hoping to camp can reserve the Pine Valley Guard Station. The one-bedroom cabin is less expensive to rent in the off-season as it has reduced services and no running water throughout the winter. Visitors can access it by walking, skiing or snowshoeing about 1.5 miles.
“We’ve had people that go there in the wintertime, and they’ll drag a little sled behind them with all their provisions because we don’t plow it,” he said. “When you get a nice snow setting back there, it’s a great place to spend some time to kind of get away from it all.”
Ponderous and reflective
Pine Valley Reservoir is a standout feature in the area, with its still waters flanked on three sides by the Pine Valley Mountains and a thick forest. While visitors can fish from the shoreline, it is a limited-use reservoir, and swimming, boating and other similar activities are not allowed, according to Recreation.gov.
The reservoir is stocked with rainbow trout, but Rechsteiner said some people have reported catching wild brook or brown trout. When the water is clear, the fish can be seen swimming or occasionally breaking the surface when food is abundant.
Home to various plant and animal species, the recreation area is great for wildlife viewing, Rechsteiner said. Visitors might catch a glimpse of coyotes, mule deer, squirrels, chipmunks and yellow-bellied marmots. Or one of the many birds that frequent the area, such as turkeys, woodpeckers, turkey vultures, mountain bluebirds, Northern goshawks and broad-tailed hummingbirds, among others.
While mountain lions call Pine Valley home, the elusive cats are a rare sight, Rechsteiner said.
Ponderosa pines cast large shadows over the trails as one of the Southwest’s largest trees, known to grow over 200 feet tall, with trunks 3-4 feet wide, according to the National Park Service. They can live for over 500 years.
It’s named for its “ponderous” or heavy wood, which consists of layer upon layer of jigsawlike bark. The thick plates make the tree resistant to low-intensity fire by popping off as they burn, reads an informational sign on the trail.
Another hallmark of the species is its smell, emanating hints of vanilla or butterscotch.
While ponderosa pines grab much of the attention, the forest is also lush with Engleman spruce, Douglas fir, gamble oak, sagebrush, ferns and many other plants.
A pimple on Earth’s face
The Pine Valley Mountains are the remnants of one the world’s largest exposed laccoliths. It formed approximately 21 million years ago as molten rock moved upward from deep within the earth, creating a dome “like a volcano that did not quite make it to the surface,” the Forest Service states.
“Think of a laccolith as a boil beneath one’s skin — a zit on the surface of the earth,” writes the Silver Reef Foundation in Leeds.
Magma spread out beneath the surface and crystallized. Over time, the laccolith was uplifted, where the earth slowly rises due to geological processes — and eroded, exposing the granite-like stone called porphyry.
This name indicates “that it contains large crystals set in a finer-grained matrix, sort of like plums in a pudding,” according to the foundation. Unlike true granite, the magma in Pine Valley’s laccolith cooled quickly near the surface, creating these finer grains.
In the quiet shoulder season, visitors may be mostly or entirely on their own and cellphone service is inconsistent. Rechsteiner suggests individuals share their itinerary — where they’re going and when they expect to return.
At 6,900 feet, Pine Valley is much colder than St. George, so Southern Utahns should pack warm winter clothes. Layers are preferable so hikers can remove clothing if they become overheated, Rechsteinder said. Pack plenty of food, water and sun protection, including sunglasses, hats and sunscreen.
For the latest conditions, closures, potential hazards and other essential information, Rechsteiner said visitors should contact the Public Lands Information Center before heading out by calling 435-688-3200 or visiting 345 East Riverside Drive in St. George.
And there’s no better way to end a great hike than with a scoop of Handel’s delicious homemade ice cream. Want free ice cream? Leave a comment on social media and tell the Canyon Media crew where we should hike next for your chance to win.
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