The Pine Valley Mountains in southwestern Utah form a high, forested island surrounded by arid landscapes, creating a year-round scenic and historic recreational attraction.
The beautiful area offers picnicking, camping, hiking, horseback riding, fishing, biking and ATV trail riding in summer; splendid color and hunting in autumn; and cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling in winter.
Located about 45 minutes from St. George, Utah, Pine Valley is about a three-hour drive from Southern Nevada. From Las Vegas, follow Interstate 15 north to the Bluff Street exit in St. George. Turn left and drive a few blocks to the state Route 18 junction. Follow this scenic highway 25 miles from St. George past Snow Canyon State Park to the Pine Valley turnoff at Central. Forest Route 035 heads east along the Santa Clara River to the pioneer-era community of Pine Valley, which offers some visitor services. The road continues east from the village about three miles into the Pine Valley Recreation Area, part of the Dixie National Forest.
Ongoing freeway bridge construction on I-15 through the Virgin River Gorge might cause significant travel delays this year. To avoid possible inconvenience, some travelers choose to turn off at Riverside just north of Mesquite to follow old Highway 91 into Utah. This two-lane road has no services, a long uphill climb and a curvy descent to the Santa Clara River. To reach Pine Valley, turn left at the river and follow this scenic side road along the river past Gunlock State Park through Veyo to Central.
After the turn at Central, the route runs through range lands, pastures and fields as it approaches Pine Valley village. Slow down and enjoy the unfolding view of the verdant valley surrounded by forests and streams tumbling out of steep mountains, first seen in 1855 by frontier cattlemen William Hamblin and Isaac Riddle. The road passes a frontier cemetery where weathered headstones and ornate statues and monuments mark graves of many who played a role in the area’s history. Epitaphs hint at the hazards and hardships of pioneer life.
Mormon settlers in Utah needed the resources that Pine Valley offered, and Riddle and his partners quickly set up a lumber mill. Timber cutters and mill hands lived in dugouts the first summer, but by the second year they had built cabins. Pine Valley was soon producing logs, timbers, sawed lumber and barrel staves. The stream powered a grist mill for grain grown locally. Within a few years, wood products from Pine Valley were used all over Utah, including timbers for the enormous pipe organ installed in Salt Lake City’s Mormon Tabernacle.
As the road approaches town, it passes the beautiful Pine Valley Chapel, still the architectural jewel of the area. Elegant in its simplicity, the white-painted structure was built in 1868 of local materials as a school, community center and church. It is the oldest continuously used Mormon chapel in Utah. Listed since 1971 on the National Register of Historic Places, the chapel has daily guided tours as well as Sunday services. Designed by shipbuilder Ebenezer Bryce (whom Bryce Canyon is named for), the building was constructed like an upside-down ship.
The road ends in the Pine Valley Recreation Area, which includes six campgrounds and access to an extensive network of trails for hikers and horsemen in the surrounding high country and a designated wilderness area. Flower-strewn meadows and groves of aspen break up forested expanses of spruce, fir and pine. Popular routes include the 6-mile Whipple Trail and the 18-mile Summit Trail, which follows the rugged mountain crest, topped by Signal Peak at 10,365 feet.
Open in summer, the campgrounds offer nearly 90 sites suited to different kinds of campers. All are located in areas with forest shade. Some have mixed tent and RV sites but no hookups. One has several primitive walk-in tent sites. Another is designed for equestrian use with corrals and space for horse trailers. Since these campgrounds fill up fast, plan for early arrival or reserve a site at www.recreation.gov.
Margo Bartlett Pesek’s column appears on Sundays.