The Southwest Explorer
Explore even deeper into Utah’s desert southwest through fields of rugged sandstone and Joshua trees
The total distance of this drive is approximately 100 miles, depending on which options you choose to follow. As you might expect, this is a warm spot, with summer temperatures often exceeding 100 degrees. All roads on this drive are well maintained and drivable in all vehicles, with the exception of the unpaved Joshua Tree Scenic Backway. The basic St. George to Veyo to Littlefield and back to St. George drive, though relatively short, is packed with enough scenic attractions to warrant spending at least 4 hours. Add a Snow Canyon hike and a short side trip or two, and this can easily be stretched into a full day’s outing. The short diversion into Snow Canyon should not be considered a mere side trip option; the scenery in Snow Canyon is the real must-do highlight of this drive.
This road trip begins in St. George, the regional capital of Dixie. St. George is one of the country’s fastest-growing urban areas, largely due to the popularity of the weather (and nearby Nevada casinos) among retirees. The city’s population grew by about 50 percent between 2000 and 2010 to about 80,000.
Given its attractiveness, this location could evolve into a miniature Phoenix. Fortunately, much of the country in this corner of Utah is public land, which should somewhat limit the coming sprawl. St. George was named, incidentally, not for the British saint who killed dragons but for the Latter-Day Saint (and apostle) George A. Smith, who selected the original families called by the church to settle the region.
Two St. George attractions that really should be seen are the historic (and very beautiful) Mormon temple and Mormon tabernacle. The St. George Temple, completed in 1871, is the oldest Mormon temple still in use and the first built west of Ohio. The brilliant white building is visible from nearly everywhere in the city. The tabernacle, a type of large meeting house, is one of the finest examples of pioneer-era construction in the entire West. It is open daily to visitors from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is located on the corner of Main Street and Tabernacle Avenue.
Location: The extreme southwest corner of Utah.
Overview: A 100-mile loop tour that combines red rock canyon and dry Mojave Desert scenery.
Travel Season: Year-round. Fall and spring are the most comfortable. Summers can be hot; start early in the day and carry plenty of water.
Special Attractions: Snow Canyon sandstone formations, volcanic cinder cones, Mojave Desert/Joshua Tree Scenic Backway, hiking, and rock climbing.
GPS of Start: 37.084807, -113.583324 (St. George)
GPS of End: 36.892531, -113.929959 (Littlefield)
Drive Route Numbers: Highways 18 and 3184, old US 91.
Camping: Snow Canyon and Gunlock State Parks, public campgrounds at Baker Reservoir and Pine Valley, commercial campground at St. George.
Services: All services at St. George; limited services at Veyo, Ivins, and Littlefield, Arizona.
Nearby Attractions: Mountain Meadows, Pine Valley, Lytle Reserve, gaming in Nevada. Mormon pioneers were sent to Utah’s southwest corner by the LDS Church in 1861 to investigate the possibility of growing warm-climate crops. The region’s southern location, its climate, and the temporary success of its cotton industry earned it the nickname “Utah’s Dixie.”
– The Road Trip –
Gem of Sandstone
Highway 18, north from St. George, is signed for Veyo/Enterprise. (From I-15, take the exit signed for Bluff Street, which becomes Highway 18 north of town.) Stay northbound on Highway 18 past the turn for Sunset Boulevard, an artery that heads off to the west and makes its way through sprawling subdivisions toward Snow Canyon State Park’s south entrance. It is a relatively pristine 8-mile desert drive from here to the turnoff (on the left) for the park’s north entrance, with a couple new developments scattered along the hillsides. About 5 miles north of the Sunset Boulevard turnoff, you begin to notice the red walls of Snow Canyon to the west.
Snow Canyon is a real gem, a very impressive mix of red and white Navajo sandstone blanketed with beds of black lava. This is one of the most convenient places to see, in a small and encapsulated area, the landscape that has made southern Utah world-famous. And what of the snow? While the thought of this redrock wonderland covered in a blanket of winter white is certainly appealing, this area seldom receives snow. Instead, Snow Canyon was named for one of the prominent Mormon families that settled this region.
The entrance fee is $6 per vehicle, payable at kiosks near each entrance. There are plenty of scenic pull-outs, and several moderate trails leading to overlooks and other canyon features make this an ideal spot to get out of the car to stretch your legs. The Lava Flow Lookout trail leads to several viewpoints and a couple lava tubes formed during and after volcanic flows, while the short and easy Jenny’s Canyon walk includes a slot canyon (a deep and extremely narrow canyon formed by water flowing through and wearing away rock). A few of the trails are accessible for wheelchair users, making this a great recreation sport for a wide range of abilities.
It is 2 miles from Snow Canyon’s north entrance to the park campground and visitor center. The visitor center has a useful booklet on Snow Canyon geology, as well as guides to some of its popular hiking trails and rock climbs. The modern campground has 35 sites, including 14 trailer sites with electrical hookups and showers. It’s very popular with RV travelers, so book in advance if you’re bringing a trailer.
Keep an eye open for a distinctive species of heavily built bipeds that roam freely along the roadside in the park. Ivins, the town at Snow Canyon’s southwest entrance, is home to the Red Mountain Spa (a major-league “weight-loss ranch”), which has an arrangement for its clients to use the park as an exercise ground. Do be careful of the fitness walkers.
Hardcore Western history buffs might want to make a quick side trip from the Ivins end of Snow Canyon down to Santa Clara to visit the Jacob Hamblin House. Hamblin was one of the most interesting and dynamic figures in Utah’s early pioneer era. He was a missionary, a colonizer, and one of the most effective and respected Indian agents in the entire West. His Santa Clara house is a classic example of a substantial pioneer home of the 1860s. Located at the north end of town (on the left), the house is fascinating—and tours are free!
With or without the Santa Clara diversion, retrace your route through Snow Canyon back to the highway. The route to the park is a little harder to find from this direction; look for small brown government signs amid all the brightly colored signage leading to various developments and the Tuacahn Amphitheatre, which must be one of the world’s warmest musical-theater venues.
A final note as you retrace the canyon drive: Snow Canyon was the location for some of the filming of Robert Redford’s Jeremiah Johnson.
Black Mark in Mormon History
Leaving the state park, continue north on Highway 18 for 8 miles to Veyo. Approximately 5 miles north of the Snow Canyon turnoff, notice a prominent steep butte on your left, clearly an extinct cinder cone. Veyo features a couple mom-and-pop restaurants and is your last chance for gas and provisions until Santa Clara; Enterprise; or Littlefield, Arizona (depending on your choice of route). This drive hooks to the south and west on Highway 3184 at the only intersection in town, well-marked for Gunlock.
A short side trip north from Veyo takes you to the site of the infamous Mountain Meadows Massacre, the blackest mark against Utah’s Mormon settlers—a wound that, generations later, is still healing. This northern diversion also presents a nice glimpse of the lovely forested hill country of the Pine Valley and Bull Valley mountains.
You can reach this now-peaceful site by driving about 12 miles north from Veyo. Watch on the left for the road to the monument, erected in 1990 by descendants of both the victims and their murderers as an expression of closure to an incident painful to both sides. Another monument, placed at the site where US army agents buried the massacre victims in 1859, is at the end of a short gravel road into the valley.
From Mountain Meadows you might continue this attractive hill-country drive another 8.5 miles north to the community of Enterprise, or else return to Veyo. The mountains between Mountain Meadows and Enterprise are rough and wild, with occasional vistas across lovely green valleys. Beyond Enterprise, the Legacy Loop Highway, which loops east to Cedar City, is fairly uninspiring unless you are into alfalfa farms and ranches. But it’s an easy and pleasant jaunt if you’re headed north or east anyway.
On your return to Veyo from Enterprise, you may want to take a 7-mile side trip up to the forest hamlet of Pine Valley, with its very pretty old LDS chapel. Campsites just east of Pine Valley and at Baker Dam Reservoir, just off Highway 18, provide cooler camping opportunities than you’ll find near St. George.
From Veyo, continue the loop by heading southwest on Highway 3184. A steep descent 2.5 miles from town brings the road down into the lush, narrow gorge cut by the Santa Clara River. A few miles farther is the picturesque Eagle Mountain Ranch, with what seems like miles of perfect white fences.
From State Parks to Joshua Trees
The quiet little village of Gunlock has just about everything a small Mormon ranching community could need: a post office, an LDS church, one of the cutest little tree-shaded rodeo arenas you’ll see anywhere, and not much else. There are no services in Gunlock — not even a gunsmith.
The road south of Gunlock follows closely the Santa Clara River until the valley opens up at Gunlock Reservoir, 2 miles south of town. Gunlock State Beach has picnic areas, camping sites, and outhouses, but no drinking water and very little shade. There are nicer camping spots (undeveloped, with no facilities) another mile or so farther south alongside the river and better protected by trees from the wind that whips across the reservoir. South of Gunlock Beach the road passes through more glorious Utah redrock. Five miles south of Gunlock, you enter the small Shivwits (Paiute) Indian Reservation. Mining-company trucks may be your only companionship on this lonely road.
A little more than 7 miles south of Gunlock, watch for a Dangerous Intersection sign, then a good paved road that angles sharply back to the right. This is old US 91, formerly the main route west from St. George. Though unmarked, the road is unmistakable — the first paved road to intersect Highway 3184. This is the access to the final segment of this drive: the Mojave Desert/Joshua Tree Scenic Backway.
If you choose to skip the Joshua Tree tour and return to St. George, continue south and east on Highway 3184. The road runs through an attractive narrow valley and past several ruined cabins, one or two of which are quite picturesque. Two miles south of the US 91 turnoff is the small cluster of reservation housing that constitutes the community of Shivwits, and 8 miles farther is the turnoff (on the left) well marked for Ivins and Snow Canyon.
For the Joshua Tree Scenic Backway, take the hard right turn on US 91. The old highway climbs out of the Santa Clara River Valley and winds through the desert hills. Just at the top of the first hill, where the road turns back slightly to the left, is a good dirt road on the right, signed for Motoqua. A little more than a mile farther is a paved road on the left that turns to gravel once it passes the hulking Apex Mining operation: This is the northern entrance to the Mojave Desert/ Joshua Tree Scenic Backway.
Named by the early Mormon pioneers, who were reminded of “Joshua in the wilderness” with arms upraised to heaven, these distinctive plants that look like a cross between a cactus and a tree are actually members of the lily family. This is the northernmost point where Joshua trees grow. A number of wildfires over the past 20 years have devastated much of the vegetation along both the highway and the unpaved backway, giving the whole place an even more desolate atmosphere.
The Mojave Desert/Joshua Tree Backway is a 16-mile loop on gravel and dirt road that comes back out on old US 91 about 2 miles north of the Arizona state line. Perhaps because of the fires, which made the place inhospitable if not hostile, the road is not well maintained these days and therefore will probably require a high-clearance vehicle. If you go, views of the Mojave Desert to the south and west are superb, and the Joshua trees finally appear at the southern end.
If you do not care to drive the slow 16 miles of gravel road, the Joshua viewing is fine from the southern section of the paved highway as well. There are also numerous dirt roads down below on the desert floor that pass through denser stands of the plants. Sadly, many of these are burned-out shells of their former selves. Other Joshua Trees are succumbing to attacks by rodents and encroachment of nonnative plants.
If you descend onto the desert floor and continue south on old US 91 for about 10 miles, watch on the left for the BLM sign for Woodbury Desert Study Area. This is also the southern access to the Joshua Tree backway. Here, you get an idea of what things farther north looked like before the fires. A few miles up and back this end of the rough unpaved backway should suffice to get you in the midst of plenty of Joshua trees.
From here you can either retrace old US 91 back to St. George via Santa Clara or continue south for 10 miles on fast, straight road across the flat desert to join I-15 at Littlefield, Arizona. The I-15 option is faster and (though the best part is not in Utah) gives the opportunity to drive through the Virgin River Gorge — some of the most dramatic 8 miles or so of interstate driving in America.
Road trip information adapted from Scenic Driving Utah (Globe Pequot Press), which includes driving directions and maps for 28 of the best auto tours in the state.