Snow Canyon State Park – Hiking Petrified Dunes and Exploring Lava Tubes
Snow Canyon is an incredibly scenic State Park in Utah’s southwest corner. It’s located just north of St. George, the area’s largest city, and offers some great hiking opportunities. I’ve been to St. George many times. Due to its warm climate, this is where many Northern Utahns go for a reprieve from winter. My Dad grew up in the nearby town of Hurricane. So as a kid, we would visit the area often to see family. In fact, my parents and two of my brothers have all recently moved to St. George. I remember going to Snow Canyon once when I was younger. But as is a common theme with my Utah Parks posts, I’d never taken the time to revisit the Park as an adult.
On a recent pandemic road trip to Zion National Park (45 minutes from St. George), I made it a priority to also visit Snow Canyon. Zion NP is usually very crowded, especially on the weekends. So during this early March trip, we visited Zion on Thursday and Friday, avoiding the larger crowds. Then, we spent a crowd-free Sunday morning in Snow Canyon State Park. I think it would take at least two days to see everything Snow Canyon State Park has to offer, but we were able to experience quite a lot in our one morning. I’ll show you…
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An Overlook and An Overview
Our first stop was the Snow Canyon Scenic Overlook. The view here is beautiful and is well worth a stop. The Overlook is accessed from the main highway that leads from St George to the Park’s North Entrance. It’s better marked on Google Maps than it is from the road. Watch closely though and you will see a small sign on the highway’s west side. A dirt road takes you to the Overlook where you will be greeted with spectacular views out across the valley below to the Park’s red and white sandstone cliffs.
Snow Canyon is not named for the white stuff. Snow seldom falls in this part of Utah. Instead, Snow Canyon State Park is named for Lorenzo and Erasmus Snow – two Mormon pioneer leaders that played a major role in settling this part of Utah. In addition to the spectacular sandstone cliffs and canyons, Snow Canyon State Park is known for its Petrified Dunes and for its Volcano Field. From the overlook, both can be seen in the valley below.
The Petrified Dunes were once sand dunes but over the time turned to sandstone. And the Santa Clara Volcano Field is extensive lava flow from two nearby volcanic cones that spewed lava throughout the area a really long time ago. In fact, the Cinder Cone Hike in the north part of the Park, takes you down into one of these extinct cones.
Three Trails, One Parking Lot
After spending some time enjoying the view, we entered Snow Canyon at the Park’s North Entrance ($10 admission fee), and then drove south for a few miles to the Petrified Dunes parking area. From here, we were able to access all three trails I intended on hiking that morning – Petrified Dunes, Butterfly, and Lava Flow. We passed the Lava Flow trailhead parking lot on the way, but the Petrified Dunes lot provides central access to all three trails.
Snow Canyon State Park offers many different hikes, but since we only had one morning to spend in the Park, I was forced to choose just a few. I wanted to hike the Petrified Dunes Trail because, come on, petrified dunes are pretty cool. And I wanted to hike the Lava Flow Trail because it’s known for its explorable lava tubes – and we came prepared with head lamps to go underground. Then, the Butterfly Trail is a short scenic trail that connects the two.
The Petrified Dunes Trail
Yep, that’s a pretty cool picture. That is what a petrified sand dune looks like up close. We hiked the Petrified Dunes Trail first. After taking the only trail from the parking lot, it soon splits in two directions. A trail marker guides you towards either the Petrified Dunes trail to the south or the Butterfly and Lava Flow Trails to the north.
Below is the trail map showing the confluence of the three different trails from my Gaia GPS App, which I used for the first time while in Snow Canyon State Park. I found it very useful for showing me exactly where I was during our hiking, especially on the Petrified Dunes Trail (more on that ahead). I did have an adequate cell signal while in this area of the Park (Verizon)
Here’s some of the amazing sites we saw while hiking the Petrified Dunes Trail:
The Trail starts off flat and sandy. The Dunes can be seen rising up in the distance with Snow Canyon’s red sandstone cliffs behind.
Soon, you will find yourself scampering up and down the sandstone dunes and their beautifully variegated surfaces.
Another geologic feature in abundance along this trail are Moqui Marbles. These are small balls of sandstone that are coated by an iron ore. They are most commonly found in Utah and Arizona….and Mars. Yes, Mars has its own version, though the Martian version is formed exclusively from iron ore. The name Moqui comes from the Hopi tribe of Native Americans. They believed the spirts of the their dead ancestors would come down from the heavens at night and play games with the marbles. The spirits would then leave the marbles behind as a sign that they were doing well in the afterlife. Visitors to Snow Canyon also need to leave them behind. It is illegal to remove Moqui Marbles from Utah’s public lands.
Easy? I Say Moderate
AllTrails rates the Petrified Dunes trail as easy. I disagree. It’s easy for some of its length, but there are several spots where climbing steep sandstone surfaces with very irregular surfaces is required. Sure-footedness is a necessity. Consequently, I would rate the trail as moderate.
Also, the trail itself is not particularly well marked. That doesn’t mean you will get lost. It’s basically a straight north-south trail across irregular sandstone surfaces. But it’s easy to wander along from one dune to the next, chasing views and cool rock formations, and then find yourself scrambling up and down a bunch of steep surfaces, trying rejoin your perceived vision of where the trail should be. We wandered off the trail almost immediately after arriving at the first dunes, lost in the natural wonder. On our way back though, we found that there are small brown metal trail markers attached to the sandstone indicating the official trail.
Hidden Pinyon Overlook
The Petrified Dunes Trail is 0.6 miles in length (one-direction), though we added to that distance with our off-trail wandering. At its end, the trail joins the Hidden Pinyon Overlook Trail. Definitely follow this. It only adds a quarter mile to the hike and takes you up a small volcanic hill for amazing 360 degree view across the canyon.
The Butterfly Trail
After finishing the Petrified Dunes Trail, next up was the Butterfly Trail. Butterfly would take us to our ultimate destination – the lava tubes on the Lava Flow Trail. The Butterfly trail is 0.5 mile in length and ends by connecting to the Lava Flow Trail. It’s not a unique hike in and of itself. It’s basically just a connector trail. But it does skirt past the northern edge of the petrified dunes, and like all trails in the Park, offers great views of the surrounding beauty. AllTrails rates it as moderate, but I thought it was much easier than the Petrified Dunes trail.
Lava Flow Trail
As I mentioned earlier, lava rock is prominent in Snow Canyon State Park due to past volcanic eruptions in the area. The Lava Flow trail takes you through a lava field where you can explore three different underground lava tubes. The trail does have its own parking lot, and from there, the hike to the final and biggest lava tube (#3) is 1.3 miles round trip. Instead, we arrived via the Butterfly trail and joined Lava Flow as it headed north to south. From this crossroads, Lava Tube #3 was only a few hundred feet to the left and Lava Tube #2 was only a few hundred feet to the right.
The name Lava Flow Trail accurately describes the trail’s terrain. The trail itself is covered in jutting lava rock. Watch your step – it’s easy to trip.
The Lava Tubes
Lava tubes are underground channels that were formed by flowing lava. Exploring the tubes is this trail’s highlight. We came prepared with headlamps, and I’m glad we did. A flashlight or phone light would have been difficult to use – both hands were required for scrambling through narrow spaces and over irregular surfaces. Note: those irregular surfaces scratched up Mrs TT’s Apple Watch face – it’s probably best to remove yours before entering.
Lava Tube #1
In my pre-trip research, I had mistakenly read that Lava tube #1 was the easiest to enter. So we headed to #1 first. It’s located north of Lava Tube #2. But note- it is not the easiest to access. It’s the hardest! It has two different possible entrances, but both are very narrow and curved. My height made it difficult for me to enter. Mrs. TT was able to wiggle down into the entrance for a bit.
We were quite disappointed at this point, thinking if this Tube was the easiest, we had no chance at the others. But gratefully, as we soon discovered, our sadness was for naught. Lava Tube #3 is the easiest….
Lava Tube #2
But, next up was Lava Tube #2. Its entrance was bigger than #1, but I still had to shimmy to get in and out. It’s definitely not for the claustrophobic.
Lava Tube #3
Finally, on to Lava Tube #3. This is the Lava Tube to really explore. There are two big openings into this tube – one on the east and one on the west. We chose the east side since most hikers seemed to be entering there. I could walk in standing up and it’s very much like a cave rather than a narrow tube. Inside there were several chambers and we were able to walk in at least 70 feet. The surface of the tube floor is very irregular with large lava rocks, so good lighting and caution is an absolute must.
Final Thoughts and Tips
We spent 3 hours at Snow Canyon State Park, including 1 hour hiking Petrified Dunes (1.8 miles) and 1.5 hours exploring the Butterfly/Lava Flow Trails (also 1.8 miles).
Snow Canyon State Park is located within the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. This 45,000 acre reserve was created to protect the endangered Mojave Desert Tortoise and other indigenous desert species. If you happen to see a tortoise, it’s illegal to even pick it up.
You can find many additional hiking trails in the St. George area outside of Snow Canyon. HikeStGeorge.com is a great resource.
For a look at some other trails in the Park, check out this Snow Canyon post by my friend Jen at LensofJen.org, or my own summary of the Cinder Cone Trail from a different visit.
St. George is booming. It’s the 7th largest city in Utah with a population nearing 100,000. The nearby towns of Washington and Hurricane are also experiencing expansive growth. The area is very popular for northern Utah snowbirds, so it also abounds with second homes. Therefore, vacation rentals are a popular lodging choice. We usually stay with my parents when visiting the area, but to minimize COVID concerns this trip, we rented a condo through Booking.com. It was an excellent choice. I was offered a Booking.com Genius discount, and at $200/night, this 3-bedroom townhouse (1800 sq ft!) cost less than a room at the SpringHill Suites near my parents house.
I personally feel that the dining options in St. George haven’t kept pace with the growing population yet, so I don’t consider it a culinary mecca. But we have eaten good meals at Red Fort, Viva Chicken, and El Coyote Charro.
To learn about 2 other great Utah State Parks, check out my posts on Dead Horse Point and Kodachrome Basin
And click here to read more about our 2 days in Zion National Park
Chalk and cheese travels
Those petrified sand dunes look awesome 👌 and the hike sounds amazing. The views around are unreal. What a great place to hike
Yeah, I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but it turned out even more amazing than I expected!
What!! How are lava tubes a thing and I’ve never heard of them. And you can go in???? This is so cool!
Exactly what I thought when I first read about it, and then quickly clicked over to Amazon and bought head lamps
Carina | bucketlist2life
It’s crazy how you always hear about the same national parks and others get overlooked… I’ve never heard about Snow Canyon NP before. The petrified dunes look super intrigiung to me as a geologist. I’ve added it to my USA bucketlist, which is becomming increasingly long…
Snow Canyon is certainly a wonderland for a geologist!
I love Snow Canyon State Park SO much. I only got to spend one afternoon in the park before heading on to Zion, but I would absolutely go back for a long weekend here. Of course, my favorite part of the park is Jenny’s Canyon. 🙂
I wish we would have had more time to explore more including Jenny’s Canyon. I think Snow Canyon will be a regular stopping place when we visit my parents
What a great place. You did so much in a short time. I was very impressed by the signs and information as it looks a daunting place to navigate for a first timer. Think i’d give the lava tubes a miss though!
Don’t like enclosed dark places Ross?
I have been wanting to visit Snow Canyon. I would love to see the lava tubes and the petrified dunes. Utah definitely has beautiful state parks!
Yes, I think that both Snow Canyon and Dead Horse Point rank up there with the Utah’s National Parks
How the petrified sandunes, the tectonic folds and above all, the landscape made me feel insecure and diminutive. Nature indeed has a power to overwhelm and conveys an understanding that it should be protected and cherished. Love the pics!
Especially since we were completely by ourselves in several of those spots….
I’ve had other things going on I’ve missed these gorgeous photos of yours. I don’t think I could ever tire of seeing those landscapes! So barren and yet so beautiful! The lava tubes are fascinating. Keep doing those road trips!
Thanks for checking back Linda. Life does get busy sometimes…..
I love all your posts about National Parks and this one is spectacular! The petrified sand dune and lava tubes look so cool and I would definitely love to explore them.
Though smaller than the Utah National Parks, Snow Canyon definitely holds its own!
I’ve never heard of this park but it’s definitely on our list now for a Utah road trip. Snow Canyon has some really cool geological features! We can’t wait to see the petrified sand dunes and I’ve always wanted to go inside a lava tube. Thanks for sharing this park.
You’re welcome Tom. Hope you get a chance to get out here and visit!
Travel for a while
I don’t know much about Utah but your posts make me think it should be on the list for a US trip. Snow NP looks like a great place to explore with all those rock formations. Beautiful photos too!
Utah should really be on that list Anda 🙂
Stefan (Berkeley Square Barbarian)
Nature looks outstanding in these parts of the world, I can’t get enough of this. Also, very sweet legend with the marbles. The proverbial ‘losing your marbles’ comes to mind but gets a positive connotation now.
Or some Ancient could have had quite the mental breakdown on that dune….
This is another real gem Steven. Who knew sand dunes could be petrified? Or that ancestors played with marbles? I don’t know if I’d have the nerve to go into the lava tubes, and I know my mrs c wouldn’t. But it’s great to have gotten the guide nonetheless. I do love your Utah blogs.
Thanks John! But the tubes aren’t very scary. Far less scary than a haunted Irish castle 🙂
Snow Canyon looks like an awesome place to visit. Those petrified sand dunes are so cool – how does that happen?! – and I can see how it would be easy to wander off on your own adventure instead of sticking to the trail. Lava tube #3 would definitely be the one for me as the other two make me claustrophobic just looking at them!
Next time we are heading straight to Lava Tube #3 and spending some more time exploring!
This is quite possibly the best trail write-up I have seen. Our family loves to hike/travel and we scour the internet for information on the best trails and information and this blog checked all the boxes. From trail information (length, difficultly, trail markers, photos) to information on meals, this was great work – thank you for taking the time to share your experience!
Thanks Tracy. I’m glad you found it useful and hope you get a chance to hike in Snow Canyon