Monday, October 14, 2013

Day hike dinosaur-era desert on Utah’s Hidden Pinyon Trail

Hidden Pinyon Trail
Snow Canyon State Park, Utah
Day hikers can cross ancient black lava flows and dinosaur-era red Navajo sandstone on the Hidden Pinyon Trail at Snow Canyon State Park in St. George, Utah.

The route described here combines the Hidden Pinyon Trial and several segments of three others to form a loop that runs roughly 1.5 miles. The trail runs through the heart of Snow Canyon State Park, which used to be named Dixie State Park, and is part of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve.

Sunrise and sunset mark great times for the hike because of the play of color and shadow on the canyon walls. Avoid the trail during the summer day when desert heat can make it unbearable as well as unsafe. Be sure to wear good shoes as the route heads over sand and rock; extra water also is a necessity.

Located west of Zion National Park, Snow Canyon is a great side trip on a stay in the region. To reach the state park, from Interstate 15 take Utah Route 18 north. Turn left/west onto Snow Canyon Parkway then turn right/north onto Utah Route 300/Snow Canyon Drive. This heads into the park. A parking lot for the trail is about two miles after the park entrance.

From the lot’s west side, take Whiptail Trail right/north. You’ll quickly reach the junction with the actual Hidden Pinyon Trail, which goes right/east to its trailhead near the park campground. Keep heading north on Whiptail Trail, however.

Desert Vegetation and Wildlife
Hidden Pinyon Trail soon splits left/west through red sand punctuated by black lava rock and desert vegetation. Among the many desert plants you’ll spot along the way are blackbrush, narrow leaf yucca, sand sage, and creosote, the last of which is an adapted species. If you come in spring or autumn, you may notice a number of blooming wildflowers.

The trail next crosses a small area of tiny canyons cut into sandstone formations. The earliest sign of inhabitation of this area goes back some 1800 years when the Anasazi hunted and gathered here. They were replaced by Paiute Indians, who Mormon pioneers in turn displaced during the 1850s.

Upon leaving the sandstone area, the trail joins Three Ponds Trail and heads right/north. To the left is a high canyon wall. Watch for a number of wildlife that make use of this section of the trail, particularly leopard lizards and roadrunners. You also may spot paw prints for coyotes, kit foxes and quail in the sand.

The trail then splits to the left/west where it begins to encircle a 150-foot high sandstone formation. This red rock dates to some 183 million years ago, when quartzite sand covered much of Utah. With each subsequent layer, the sand beneath cemented together, forming what is now known as Navajo sandstone. Over the eons, water cut canyons through this red rock.

From about 1.4 million to 27,000 years ago, nearby volcanoes filled the canyons with lava that cooled into black basalt. This redirected the waterflow, causing new canyons to form.

Excellent Park Vista
The route soon rejoins Three Ponds Trail; at this junction, head left/north. This takes you to the Overlook Trail junction where you go left/southwest to the Hidden Pinyon Overlook for a great view of West Canyon below.

Return to your vehicle by following Overlook Trail back to Three Ponds Trail. As heading down the Overlook Trail, you’ll see the Petrified Dunes to the north. At the trail junction, turn right/southwest and follow Three Ponds Trail back to the parking lot. While you’ve walked parts of this trail where Hidden Pinyon merged with it, other segments will be new.

Should you need to use the restroom or want to enjoy a picnic, from the parking lot walk Snow Canyon Drive north to the actual trailhead for amenities.

While pets can be on the Whiptail Trail, they aren’t allowed on other park walking paths, so Queenie and Fido will have to sit out this hike.

Read more about day hiking with children in my Hikes with Tykes guidebooks.