Explore Southern Utah on scenic loop drive

Side roads exploring Southern Utah offer a lot of scenery, history and recreation potential without the crowds typically found at the area’s major attractions.

A 45-mile loop route from St. George follows state Route 18 and the Santa Clara River. The scenic, all-season loop accesses two state parks, a private swimming and climbing resort, miles of hiking and biking trails, an outdoor theater and several towns established in frontier times.

St. George is two hours from Las Vegas along Interstate 15. Exit at Bluff Avenue in St. George and turn left. Drive a couple of miles north to connect with Route 18. This highway cuts through dramatic landscapes of lava-capped red sandstone. Hiking and biking trails explore the area from trail heads near the roadway.

Beautiful Snow Canyon State Park is about 10 miles down this route. Pull off at an overlook for a panoramic view of vivid cliffs, canyons and dunes. Open all year, this popular state park offers picnic sites, camping, hiking, horseback riding and a scenic road through the park. This lovely place is definitely worth a return trip.

Continue another 10 miles on Route 18 to the tiny crossroad community of Veyo. It is located on the far side of a bridge over a deep canyon cut by the Santa Clara River.

A private resort sits along the river at the bottom of the gorge, reached by a side road from Veyo. It offers a large swimming pool fed by a natural spring, picnicking and a snack bar that are open from May through the summer and a private climbing park. Crawdad Canyon Rock Climbing Park contains 180 bolted routes among the 80-foot basalt walls and has primitive camp sites.

The loop route leaves Route 18 at Veyo. Turn off on the paved road to Gunlock State Park.

As you negotiate sharp switchbacks on the descent to the river, imagine the perils faced by pioneers controlling teams of animals and wagons when the road once was part of the Old Spanish Trail. The trading route followed trails blazed by indigenous people who had inhabited the area for hundreds of years. Ancient cultures built small villages, farmed plots along the river, hunted, gathered natural foods and left behind a few small ruins and a wealth of rock art.

The depth of the canyon attests to the power of the Santa Clara River. The ancient farmers lived with the river’s occasional tantrums, aided by the work of nature’s builder, the beaver. Beaver dams blunted the river’s force, spread its waters over shallow wetlands and created clearings where the Ansazi and others planted beans, squash and corn. Four or five hundred years later, trappers killed the beavers for their pelts.

When Mormon pioneers settled the area in the mid-1800s, they sought to control the river with dams. Its periodic floods nearly defeated them. Today’s dams and reservoirs better manage the Santa Clara’s flow, but it still occasionally floods, as happened in December 2010.

The town of Gunlock is a few miles south of Veyo. Established in 1857 by “Gunlock” Bill Hamblin, the town had to be moved away from the river in 1862.

Gunlock sponsors a lively rodeo around July Fourth. The town is a mile north of Gunlock Lake State Park, popular for camping, water sports, boating and fishing. Day-use and camping fees apply.

Follow the highway along the Santa Clara past the turnoff to Ivins and the road through Snow Canyon. Tuacahn Theatrical Center backs up to red cliffs near Ivins. It stages outdoor and indoor productions during its five-month summer season.

The loop route returns to St. George through the pioneer-era town of Santa Clara. Despite its growth, the town retains many vintage buildings from its early years, when it was settled by Swiss immigrants, a heritage celebrated during Swiss days in September.

Mormon leader Jacob Hamlin, brother of Gunlock Bill, built a frontier home in 1862 in Santa Clara that is open daily for free guided tours. The log-and-stone structure is furnished with period pieces, some original to the home.

Margo Bartlett Pesek’s Trip of the Week column appears on Sundays.