Southwestern Utah is a land of unique diversity. Here, you can ride in desert canyons painted amber, rose, and orange, then head into mountain forests, laced with cool streams and fringed with peaks rising to 10,000 feet in elevation.
You can ride in high and low desert areas, through slot canyons and red-rock formations, and into the Pine Valley Mountain Wilderness.
We visited the area with Freddy Dunn, an avid rider and member of the local chapter of the Back Country Horsemen of America. She told us that the area around St. George is especially interesting for riders because of the varying landscape.
More than 75 percent of the local county is public land, comprised of Bureau of Land Management land, the Dixie National Forest, and state parks., These public lands are preserved for all of us to treasure and enjoy.
Our good friends, Mike and Kathy Duvall, invited us to stop by and go riding. They live about 11 miles northwest of St. George, Utah, in Dammeron Valley, a planned community with home sites that welcome horses. Locals can ride right from their backyards into the surrounding forests and canyons.
You can access this same ride from the Red Mountain Trailhead, located on State Highway 18 as you travel northwest from St. George. Just after Milepost 15, enter the parking lot on the left. Don't take the trail on the right by the sign; it becomes rough and rocky. Instead, ride out of the south end of the parking lot, through a walk-through gate (which is by a green gate). When the trail forks, bear to the right.
We rode our Missouri Fox Trotter geldings, Cowboy and Nate. Mike rode his Fox Trotter, Sunny, and Kathy a Tennessee Walking Horse, Indy. Accompanying us were the Duvalls’ friends, Steve and Carol Stowers. Steve rode his Quarter Horse, Shadow, and Carol rode one of the Duvalls’ Fox Trotters, Brumby.
From Duvall’s home, we rode into the Red Mountain Wilderness to our first destination, Snow Canyon Overlook. Working our way southeast, we rode by multicolored rock formations and a bounty of plant life: junipers; beavertail cacti; scrub oak; and manzanita.
After riding through washes and across rocks, we finally came an overlook. Snow Canyon stretched out in gorgeous panorama hundreds of feet below. This is a delightful place to pause for lunch and soak up nature’s handiwork.
Long ago, rocks in this area were sand dunes. The sand was whipped by wind and water into fantastic shapes; time cemented them into stone.
Interspersed in these sedimentary rocks are igneous rocks from ancient lava flows. The result is a visual delight of color: white; cream; tan; pink; orange; red; and gray. The afternoon sun created interplays of light and shadow; colors dancing on stones.
Relaxing River Ride
It was our good fortune to then ride with Paul Sloane, president of the southwest chapter of the Backcountry Horsemen of Utah. Paul led the Duvalls, Kristie Bennion, and us on a ride up the Santa Clara River. Paul rode his Fox Trotter, Ty. Kristie rode her Arabian Horse, Legacy.
To find the trailhead, go just past St. George. Turn left off of Highway 18 onto the highway to Santa Clara. Just after Santa Clara, turn left on a road marked Tukupetski Trailhead. A half-mile later, you’ll arrive at the trailhead.
From the parking lot, we took the left-hand trail. This trail winds around a hill for a short distance before dropping down to a dirt road.
We turned right, and a short while later, we ventured into Santa Clara River Canyon. As we rode through the canyon, we were awestruck by nature’s beauty. Rock walls festooned with blooming cacti loomed on our right. The lazy Santa Clara River flowed on our left, caressed with cottonwood trees.
We followed the easy trail along the river until we came to huge boulders dotted with petroglyphs, markings from an ancient civilization.
Into the Mountains
Leaving deserts and rock canyons, we next traveled a short distance to the Pine Valley Recreation Area. Here, forest-covered mountains rise thousands of feet above the valley floor.
To reach the trailhead, continue northwest on Highway 18 to the town of Central. Turn right on Forest Rd. 035. Drive about 11 miles to the Pine Valley Equestrian Campground.
This campground, situated at 6,800 feet elevation, is snuggled in a valley and surrounded by verdant mountains that stretch upward to 10,400 feet. There are 16 campsites. Most have corrals, a fire ring, and a picnic table.
Several rides originate from camp. We decided to do a loop ride that would circle the valley. To do this ride, we rode north, across the road and over to the Gardner Peak Trailhead. Then we rode three-quarters of a mile uphill to a signed junction and turned right.
At this point, we were on the Pine Valley Canal Trail, which offers a pleasant, level ride with sweeping views of the mountains rising across the valley. Some thoughtful soul installed a bench and hitching rails so equestrians can tie up their horses and enjoy a picnic lunch.
The canal trail ends in a campground. To continue the loop, we rode south across the parking lot to a bridge over a creek.
From there, we rode a short way south cross-country to a paved road and followed it a short distance to the left to the Whipple Valley Trailhead. From this trailhead we turned right and followed Equestrian Trail #31036, riding west back toward our starting point.
We were riding on the south side of the valley with views to the north. We passed the Brown’s Point Trail, which offers a more rigorous outing. After about eight miles, we completed the loop by returning to the equestrian campground.
Zion National Park
No trip to southwestern Utah would be complete without a ride through Zion National Park, known for its stunning canyons and breathtaking scenery. We recommend riding to Kolob Arch.
To get there from St. George, go north on Interstate 15. Take Exit 40, and go to the visitor center to register. The park service allows up to 12 heartbeats in a group counting all horses and riders. Drive past the visitor center on the Kolob Canyons Rd., and watch for the Lee Pass Trailhead on the left at the top of the hill.
Drive past this trailhead, and note the turnouts on the left side of the road. You must travel a short distance more to the end of the road where you can make a U-turn, then park in one of the turnouts noted earlier.
The ride to Kolob Arch is considered one of the most beautiful rides in Utah. From the Lee Pass Trailhead, we dropped about 900 feet into two different canyons. The trail was mostly in good shape, easy to follow, and had a number of stream crossings.
Our route took us down into Timber Creek, then left up La Verkin Creek Canyon. We were treated to views of towering red-and-white canyon walls and rock formations. Juniper trees and cottonwoods dotted the canyon floor. Mule deer darted in the shadows.
After 6.6 miles, we came to a hitching rail. We left our horses there and hiked the last half-mile to the arch. This last portion of the trail isn’t suitable for horses and requires some athletic scrambling over boulders. It can be a real challenge in boots and spurs!
Kolob Arch is difficult to see, because it’s high up and against a wall of rock. However, it’s one of nature’s masterpieces.
Kent and Charlene Krone combine their interest in photojournalism with a passion for horses. They’ve sold photographs to magazines, books, calendars, postcards, and video producers for more than 20 years. (For a sampling, visit www.superstock.com, and type “supplier:1314” in the search box.) They enjoy sharing their horseback adventures in the United States and Western Canada. Reach them at email@example.com.
Southwestern Utah Resource Guide
Back Country Horsemen of Utah
Bureau of Land Management, Utah
Dixie National Forest
Utah Travel Industry
Zion National Park