Want to see lava formations in Snow Canyon? Here’s where to start

From easy-to-reach views to miles-long trails, there’s something for every age and experience level

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A runner makes her way up the popular Whiptail Trail in Snow Canyon State Park. Popular with cyclists, hikers and runners, the 6-mile roundtrip trail follows the bottom of the park gaining just under 500 feet in elevation.

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Much of southern Utah’s extraordinary natural beauty can be credited to the region’s ancient volcanic activity.

Perhaps nowhere is this more clear than in Snow Canyon State Park.

This 7,400-acre scenic park features hiking, biking, camping and climbing options (see the park’s website for more information), but even a simple drive through to take in its majestic, sweeping lava flows is worth the admittance fee ($10 per car for Utah residents, $15 per car for non-Utah residents).

The park was formed, in part, by nearby cinder cones that erupted from around 1.4 million years ago to as recently as 27,000 years ago, according to the park’s website.

Snow Canyon Park Assistant Manager Jordan Perez added that deposition and erosion also had roles in shaping the landscape.

Around 180 million years ago, sand from ancient mountains and rivers were deposited and formed into a massive region of sand dunes, Perez said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kids explore their surroundings as black volcanic rock rises in stark contrast to the vibrant red and pink hues of the petrified sandstone dunes in Snow Canyon State Park.

Later, as the continents broke apart and drifted towards their current locations, a shallow sea covered the Snow Canyon region and cemented the dunes into the Navajo sandstone.

From there, wind and water slowly eroded the sandstone to form the steep canyon walls that are visible today.

Most recently, cinder cone volcanoes — the same type as the nearby Veyo Volcano and Santa Clara Volcano — erupted, resulting in a river of lava through the canyon bottom that covered the low-lying areas and formed features like the park’s lava tubes.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A young visitor walks the rim of an ancient lava tube at Snow Canyon State Park, the gnarly remains of a long-ago volcanic eruption.

“Our volcanic features… seem to capture visitors’ attention the most,” Perez said. “Sandstone formations such as domes, arches and narrow canyons can be found all across southern Utah, but the contrasting black lava fields that flow for over seven miles [through Snow Canyon State Park] set us apart.”

Perez said these lava flows can be seen through the entire canyon bottom, and most trails cross them, but the Lava Flow Overlook Trail (2.5 miles round trip) allows visitors to explore the park’s lava tubes up close.

Erin Alberty | The Salt Lake Tribune Jenny's Canyon, pictured here on March 9, 2017, is a quick hike to a short slot canyon in Snow Canyon State Park.

Other popular attractions include Jenny’s Canyon (a half-mile round-trip hike into a slot canyon), Hidden Pinyon (a 1.5 mile round-trip nature trail with educational posts along the way) and the Petrified Dunes (a 1.2 round-trip hike across rolling mounds of petrified Navajo sandstone).

Lesser known trails include Padre Canyon (a steep, 2.5 mile round trip hike) and Gila Trail (a 15.8 mile round trip hike that includes varied terrain and a view of the park). These trails offer longer distances, opportunities to experience solitude and allow visitors to see interesting cultural sites and unique views, Perez said.

He also said it’s important to protect places like Snow Canyon because they provide benefits to visitors’ mental and physical health, enhance cultural connections to the local area and provide economic benefits to surrounding communities.

Perez said the most challenging part of working at Snow Canyon is keeping on top of maintenance issues and resource damages as visitation has increased over the last 10 years.

“Luckily, we have an awesome staff and highly dedicated volunteers from the local community that work around the clock to keep the park in top shape,” he said.

And the best part of working at Snow Canyon, Perez said, is meeting visitors, hearing about their experiences and working every day at “arguably the most beautiful office location in southern Utah.”

For those who want to support Snow Canyon State Park, Perez said they can volunteer at the park office or on trails, choose Snow Canyon as a site for an organized group service project or join Friends of Snow Canyon State Park at friendsofsnowcanyon.org.

Snow Canyon will also be hosting several events in the fall, including the Huntsman World Senior Games, the Snow Canyon Half Marathon and the cycling portion of IRONMAN 70.3 St. George, he said, “so be sure to check the webpage for updates on park closure information.”

Editor’s note • 150 Things To Do is a reporting project and weekly newsletter made possible by the generous support of the Utah Office of Tourism. Sign up for the 150 Things newsletter here.

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