Utah’s Snow Canyon State Park, lying north of St. George and Red Mountain Resort, is a wonderland of sandstone cliffs and canyons. Despite sitting on the edge of civilization, Snow Canyon remains unspoiled and secluded with breathtaking views, skyscraping cliffs, Native American sites, and a raw beauty on par with Zion National Park to the east.
The 4,700-acre parkland, southwestern Utah’s best-kept secret, rivals its famous neighbor with picture-postcard scenery, a variety of wildlife, 38 miles of hiking trails, and a complex geologic story.
The Canyon’s Geological Record
The state park, a capsulated version of the vast Colorado Plateau, is a rough, rocky land with sparse vegetation, even sparser water, and a fierce temperature range. Snow Canyon is sculpted by basic earth elements—the storm of sunlight, quick thunderstorms, and bare sandstone eroded into bizarre shapes, spires, and cliffs. The canyon lies open like a geologic textbook with each colorful rock chapter offering stories of long-vanished worlds.
The orange and white Navajo sandstone was once part of a massive sand dune field that blanketed most of Utah, leaving the petrified forms of the 180-million-year-old windswept dunes. Later volcanic eruptions poured chocolate-colored lava onto the upper sandstone layer, forming erosion-resistant basalt rims.
Snow Canyon’s Colorful History
The Ancestral Puebloan people lived in seasonal hunting camps and gathered edible plants at Snow Canyon more than 1,000 years ago. The Ancient Ones left petroglyphs (engravings) on dark cliffs and boulders that marked their passage across the fragile land, including rock art images at the Sinking Ship boulder and Newspaper Rock. Padres Escalante and Dominguez, the first recorded Anglo explorers, passed near the canyon in 1776 while seeking a trail to California.
In the 1850s, early Mormon pioneers from nearby Santa Clara and St. George discovered the canyon on a search for lost cattle. They named the hidden canyon for prominent settlers Lorenzo and Erastus Snow rather than a blanket of glistening white stuff. Today’s park began as Dixie State Park but became Snow Canyon State Park in 1964 after the Bureau of Land Management transferred much of the area to the State of Utah.
Snow Canyon is a Great Alternative to Zion
Snow Canyon and its iconic desert landscape are simply one of southwestern Utah’s best attractions. The park is a perfect alternative to visiting Zion during the high season when millions of people fill the national park’s roads and trails.
By comparison, Snow Canyon is relatively quiet with few people, yet it offers superb hiking, nature study, wildlife, and jaw-dropping panoramic views. In any other state, Snow Canyon would be a national park. Expect comfortable weather in the off-season from October to April with mild days and little precipitation.
Take a Scenic Drive
The best way to experience Snow Canyon is by both vehicle and foot. Get acquainted with the canyon’s geography by first taking the scenic road through the park. Snow Canyon Drive, beginning near Red Canyon Resort, heads north on the broad canyon floor, passing trailheads, soaring cliffs, and viewpoints. Stop at the visitor center and discover the park’s natural history and geology and get maps and insider tips from a ranger. Higher, the road threads through petrified sand dunes to twisted lava flows on the rim above before ending at Highway 18.
Go For a Hike
After getting the lay of the land, it’s time to get up close to Snow Canyon’s wonders. Red Mountain Resort features a wide variety of guided hikes for visitors looking for everything from a comfortable walk to a challenging scramble.
“We organize dozens of different hikes that are within a 10-minute van ride of the resort,” says Martha Jevsevar, Director of Outdoor Recreation. “Our guides know the area better than anyone, and they are able to link different trails together that really show off what the park has to offer.”
Each morning, visitors can choose from a variety of options, starting with a guided walk with a unique emphasis, whether it’s bird watching or the native plants of the desert. These two-to-three mile walks are appropriate for anyone who is comfortable walking that distance, without any significant climbing or scrambling.
The organized hikes from the resort involve traveling over trail, rocks, and sand, and moving your body over obstacles. Guests can choose from three different categories of hikes every morning.
Explorer: This is the entry-level hike with a moderate pace with modest elevation changes over three-to-five miles. Each day is different, but expect beautiful scenery and stories about the park.
Challenge: This five-mile hike is done at an aerobic pace, and it’s designed to challenge confident and experienced hikers. It will include some rock scrambling, traveling on slickrock, and exposure. These hikes are designed to push participants to try something new, with some significant climbing. “People may think, ‘There’s no way I could do that.’ But with an experienced guide, they’re all of a sudden doing it,” Jevsevar says.
Endurance: This is a fitness hike designed to challenge the most physically fit participants. It’s six miles at an aggressive pace with elevation changes and minimal stopping over all kinds of terrain. “It’s for a small percentage of our guests, but they love it,” Jevsevar says.
Visitors interested in hiking should talk to the recreation department to learn more about the options. Things like full moon hikes, rock climbing, canyoneering, and even an underground hike to explore the Lava Tubes in the park are all available.
“Our job is to get people on the hike that best fits them,” Jevsevar says. “All the hikes have something special to offer. We have 35 guides with unique personalities that make the trip something special. You will love it, guaranteed.”
Evenings at Red Mountain Resort and Tuacahn Amphitheatre
After an exhilarating day of hiking, exploring, and photographing at Snow Canyon, head back to Red Mountain Resort and prepare to be pampered at its earth-toned campus on the southern edge of the state park. Enjoy dinner at the casual Canyon Breeze Restaurant then get a hiker’s massage or take a yoga class and watch the sunlight redden Snow Canyon’s cliffs.
In the evening, head to nearby Tuacahn Amphitheatre and Center for the Arts, one of America’s most gorgeous outdoor venues, for Broadway shows and concerts. The 1,750-seat amphitheater nestles in a cliff-rimmed canyon on the state park’s western border. Every seat offers excellent views of the stage and better views of the starry sky hanging over Snow Canyon.