For beautiful sculpted rock, dramatic mountains, and excellent hiking trails in southwestern Utah, Zion National Park isn’t the only game in town. You can find a beautiful place to get outdoors, right in St. George’s backyard, at Snow Canyon State Park. As the name suggests, this park consists mostly of a wide canyon, filled with volcanic rock and frozen sand dunes. It’s a nice alternative to the other abundant natural features in southern Utah.
Snow Canyon State Park is located about 11 miles north of St. George, Utah, along Utah Route 18. For faster access to the southern end of the park, take Route 18 to Snow Canyon Parkway, then Snow Canyon Drive. There are plenty of signs to point you in the right direction.
I had started my day in Zion, but needed to finish it in St. George, so I decided to get a burger from In-n-out and then enjoy the rest of my afternoon in a place I had visited before: Snow Canyon State Park. It’s an interesting place with numerous hiking options, and I figured I could probably hike some trails that I hadn’t hiked before. Instead, I ended up hiking some of the same trails as in my 2009 visit to Snow Canyon — but they were still great a second time.
I parked at the Upper Galoot parking area, which is about halfway through the canyon. This spot provides access to the Petrified Dunes trail, which then connects to Butterfly, Lava Flow, and Whiterocks trails. Starting at Petrified Dunes…
… there is an official trail, but it’s mostly a free-for-all, find-your-own-way trail up and over numerous petrified sand dunes. Just find a slope that’s not too steep, and you can go wherever you want.
This is the desert, but if you’re lucky, you’ll arrive after a rainfall to discover numerous potholes on the dunes filled with water. These puddles have to evaporate, so they might stick around for a while.
The best thing about these tiny ponds is the reflection they provide, creating some great photographic opportunities. That’s something I didn’t get to see on my previous visit to Snow Canyon.
Even though it looks warm and sunny in these pictures, I was visiting in January, and it was still quite cold. You might be able to tell, the surface of some of these puddles was frozen — which takes away the mirror-like reflection.
I went down and up several of the dunes, then tried to figure out where to go next.
The canyon is dominated on the north end with a distinctive white peak. Behind it is the Whiterocks Amphitheater. I remembered some beautifully colored rocks between here and there, over to the left, so I decided to head in that direction.
The network of trails eventually led to the Lava Flow area of the park…
… where you’ll find some lava tubes — essentially long caves where lava once flowed. You can climb down into them, assuming you have the right equipment. I’d strongly suggest a couple of good flashlights, plus some sturdy shoes and thick jeans. Those volcanic rocks are jagged and sharp. A hat or a helmet might be a good idea too — you will probably bump your head.
Even if you don’t go underground, you’ll have to hike across some jagged volcanic rock for a while. Eventually, I reached the spot that I remembered:
Just southwest from the Amphitheater area, there’s a patch of petrified dunes that are mostly white, with a few streaks of pink running through the frozen sand.
Once again, you’re free to leave the trail and run around on the dunes, looking for the best photo.
I took a few nice shots, but I never found the picture I was hoping for. I think this area might be better in the morning, when the sun is coming from the east. Many of the canyon’s most interesting features are on the west side, and by late afternoon, it’s too shady for good photography.
Still, though, that’s an impressive peak!
By this point, it was getting late, and after a solid week of hiking, my feet were hurting. I decided it was time to quit for the day, but I did find one more interesting place, and it was just a few blocks from my hotel, back in St. George.
Here’s a look at the drive into, and out of, Snow Canyon State Park, Utah:
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The Bottom Line
You will have a lot of options for outdoor fun in southern Utah. I’m not sure that Snow Canyon should be at the top of your list, but if you have an extra day outside of places like Zion National Park, and you want to see something different, it’s worth checking out. This area should be especially fun for kids – they’ll love running around on petrified sand dunes and (maybe) exploring lava tubes.