ST. GEORGE — Explore ancient landscapes and bask in picturesque views on this accessible trail approximately 15 minutes from the heart of St. George.

Clouds gather over sandstone cliffs at Snow Canyon State Park, Utah, Jan. 23, 2024 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

The best part? It’s free.

In this episode of “Discover the Desert,” presented by Findlay Subaru St. George, host Sydnee Imlay is joined by Planet 105.1’s Mikey Foley of “Mikey & the Mrs.” for a scenic journey along this paved trail at the top of Snow Canyon.

“It’s pretty neat and quiet,” Imlay said.

The SR 18 trail runs about 7 miles from the junction of state Route 18 and Snow Canyon Parkway. Southern Utahns can access it via a parking lot near Snow Canyon State Park’s north entrance, according to the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve.

The trail can accommodate hikers and bikers but not motorized vehicles or horses. The route can be challenging for those heading north, with an elevation gain of approximately 1,500 feet. Those heading south could be in for an “exhilarating” ride. However, the reserve cautions visitors to control their speed downhill.

Plenty of options

L-R: Sydnee Imlay and Mikey Foley walk the SR 18 trail above Snow Canyon State Park, Utah, Jan. 19, 2024 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

The SR 18 trail connects to various others, including the Chuckwalla, Snow Canyon Parkway and Red Hills Parkway trails, as well as the Black Rocks and Cougar Cliffs climbing areas.

Hikers can also access the Gila trail from the same parking lot, Snow Canyon State Park naturalist Phenix Johnson said. Areas of the unpaved trail are suitable for horseback riding and dog-friendly if pups are kept on a leash. Bicycles are not allowed.

“It’s Gila fun,” Foley said.

The path extends from the White Rocks area to the Chuckwalla trail, Johnson said. While those accessing it from inside Snow Canyon should expect to pay an entrance fee, much of the trail can be accessed outside the park, so it’s free.

A sign guides hikers along the Gila trail above Snow Canyon State Park, Utah, Jan. 23, 2024 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

Visitors can follow the trail for nearly 10 miles, with some segments that are more difficult than others, the reserve states.

Johnson said that compared with the SR 18 trail, Gila allows hikers to get “up close and personal” with the native species and the area’s geology. Following the path will give visitors a “hands-on” example of an ecotone, where two ecosystems overlap.

The south side typically has Mojave Desert characteristics, and visitors are more likely to see Mojave desert tortoises, Gila monsters and sand sage.

Moving north, walkers will see more species stereotypical of the Great Basin Desert, like banana yucca and big sage, Johnson said.

Communities of plants and animals

A glowy cholla cactus grows Snow Canyon State Park, Utah, Jan. 23, 2024 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

Growing along the SR 18 and Gila trails, cholla cactuses are often home to nesting birds like cactus wrens, rock wrens or black-throated sparrows. Their needles have paper-like sheaths, appearing to glow at sunrise and sunset, Johnson said.

Visitors may also see Brigham tea plants, Utah agaves and prickly pear cactuses, among others. Friends of Snow Canyon created this guide to the area’s “core plants” to help visitors identify various species.

Because many desert plants have shallow root systems, walking over them could damage or kill them, Johnson said, adding that visitors should stay on the designated trails.

“If you’re taking a couple of steps off trail, you’re crushing plant roots,” she said. “And if you do it, someone’s going to see your footprints, and someone’s going do it after you. And (while) it might seem like a really small thing, when we step off the trail, that can make a really big impact.”

In this illustrative photo, a seedling takes root in biological soil crust, Canyonlands National Park, Oct. 16, 2012 | Public domain photo, St. George News

Wandering off-trail can harm or kill biological soil crust — an essential part of the desert ecosystem, Johnson said. When young, the crust looks like termite mounds and becomes black and crusty as it ages.

It is comprised of living microorganisms, like algae, cyanobacteria and fungi. The fungi’s mycelium, a network of threads that make up the organisms’ main body, can partner with local plant species and share nutrients, Johnson said.

“That is sort of like a community of plants taking care of each other,” she said.

The biological crust also helps control erosion, retain water and convert nitrogen from the air into a form usable for plants, St. George News previously reported.

“It takes hundreds of years to grow,” Johnson said. “So crushing it can set it back way older than whoever is stepping on it. That’s your whole lifetime … It’s going to need to work a whole nother lifetime to get back to where it is.”

A red-tailed hawk flies over Snow Canyon State Park, Utah, Jan. 23, 2024 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

Not all the plants seen from these trails are native, however. Goatheads and Russian thistles are invasive and can harm feet and bicycle tires, Johnson said.

“They’re pokey,” she said. “It’s because they get into your shoes or your animal’s fur — something like that … You can help prevent the spread of invasive species by cleaning your shoes and your pants.”

In wintertime, wildlife viewers are most likely to see birds, like peregrine falcons, red-tailed hawks or Woodhouse’s scrub jays. But the park is also home to various other species, such as canyon bats, raccoons, kit foxes and ring-tailed cats. Many of the park’s animals are most active at dawn or dusk, Johnson said.

Snow Canyon Scenic Overlook

Visitors can take in a view of carved cliffs and petrified dunes from the Snow Canyon Scenic Overlook, Snow Canyon State Park, Utah, Jan. 19, 2024 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

Snow Canyon Scenic Overlook is about a mile from the parking lot on the SR 18 or Gila trails. It’s also accessible by vehicle.

“This is a great spot to get married,” Foley said. “As a wedding officiant, I have married several couples right here. It’s awesome because it looks just like Zion, but way less hassle.”

The overlook offers a 360-degree view of the canyon’s carved sandstone cliffs and black basalt, which are the area’s most common rock types.

The Navajo sandstone was deposited approximately 180 million years ago during the Jurassic period when the area was covered in a “giant” sand dune desert. The sand likely originated from the Appalachian Mountains as they eroded. The grains were transported via rivers and picked up by wind before being deposited in Utah, said Casey Webb, assistant geology professor at Southern Utah University.

“You have sand stacking upon sand stacking on sand, and there’s just thousands and thousands of feet of sand that’s collecting,” he told St. George News.

L-R: Sydnee Imlay and Mikey Foley talk about the Snow Canyon Scenic Overlook above Snow Canyon State Park, Utah, Jan. 19, 2024 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

While the petrified dunes may appear to have hardened in their original shape, they were actually shaped by erosion. The rock’s texture is relatively consistent, causing exposed areas to erode somewhat uniformly, Webb said.

Due to various chemical reactions that occurred underground, Snow Canyon’s sandstone is a mixture of colors, Webb said. For instance, oxidized iron can create red stone. Or fluids, like acidic groundwater, can strip oxidized material from the porous rock, making it white.

The canyon itself was formed over millions of years by stream erosion and controlled by volcanic rock, Webb said. Basalt was deposited by cinder cones and is harder than sandstone, causing it to erode more slowly.

Dark basalt covers colorful layers of Navajo sandstone at Snow Canyon State Park, Utah, Jan. 23, 2024 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

Because of this, the water would “prefer” to erode softer sandstone, cutting into it and forming low points. Lava would flow into the water’s path after newer eruptions and harden.

This caused the stream to take a new route at the edge of the harder stone, Webb said. Over time, the stream’s path was pushed westward, creating terraces as it carved into the earth, forming the canyon.

The deepest part of the canyon is on the west side, where the sandstone is continually eroded by seasonal drainage and floods at the edge of the youngest lava rock, Webb said. The oldest basalt is at a higher elevation east of the canyon on the opposite side of SR 18, where ancient streams once flowed.

Stopping by Snow Canyon?

Low clouds hang over Snow Canyon State Park, Utah, Jan. 23, 2024 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

Those adding Snow Canyon State Park to their itinerary should expect a day-use fee of $10 for residents and $15 for nonresidents. From January to June, the park hosts regular weekend programming, like guided hikes and star parties that are free to the public, Johnson said. Some events may require registration.

Visitors can visit the park’s website for a full schedule and to access a map of available trails and facilities.

As always, remember to take plenty of water, protect yourself from the sun and enjoy public spaces responsibly.

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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