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Santa Clara Loop packs a punch in a short distance

A rural back country loop from St. George in Southern Utah packs a lot of history and scenery into a 45-mile drive. The route runs past Snow Canyon State Park to Veyo, then down the Santa Clara River past Gunlock State Park to the pioneer-era town of Santa Clara, near neighbor of St. George. The route offers plenty of opportunities for exploration for those with more time to spend.

Interstate 15 makes short work of the 120-mile drive from Las Vegas to St. George. Exit the freeway at Bluff Street. Turn left and drive about three miles to reach Highway 18, a busy secondary route accessing popular recreation sites. On the right hand, the lofty peaks of the Pine Valley Mountains shoulder into a landscape defined by dark volcanic lava flows capping vivid red sandstone. Beautiful vermilion cliffs rise on the left in the distance, forming a dramatic backdrop for outdoor theater productions at Tuacahn.

Development of the area around St. George fills the desert with housing, business centers and a network of new streets. Fortunately, planners included an expanding system of hiking and biking trails and urban parks for open space. Note trails running within sight of the highway as it heads toward Snow Canyon, just 11 miles from the junction. Additionally, thousands of acres of desert and canyons are protected within the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, withdrawn from development to save the iconic landscape and wildlife habitat.

Watch for a highway pullout for a panoramic overview of Snow Canyon State Park. Named for early settlers, the park features 7,400 acres of beautiful red and white sandstone formations, canyons and sand dunes. Popular for recreation since frontier times, Snow Canyon became a state park more than 50 years ago. The site’s scenery may seem familiar, as it has long been popular with filmmakers and photographers.

Today, Snow Canyon offers picnicking, hiking, horseback riding, campgrounds, RV sites and more. A paved park road runs the length of the park with parking areas near trailheads for miles of hiking, biking and horseback trails. A concessionaire operates horseback trail rides. Park users pay a $6 a day use fee. Campers pay $16 to $20 per night, depending upon hookups. Visitors may exit the park at the southern end near Ivins. However, to continue the loop trip, return to Highway 18.

A few miles beyond the park, the highway crosses a deep canyon cut by the Santa Clara River, a short but sometimes cantankerous stream. Watch for a turnoff at little Veyo just beyond the bridge. This scenic side road drops on switchbacks into a rugged canyon to run along the river.

People living in this rural area maintain close ties to ranching, raising livestock grown sleek on pastures near the water. Tiny Gunlock was named in the early days for William “Gunlock Bill” Hamblin, pioneer Mormon rancher and brother to Jacob Hamblin, frontiersman and emissary to native tribes.

The road skirts the shores of nearby Gunlock Reservoir. Impounding some of the Santa Clara’s flow, the lake creates a year-round recreation site popular for boating and fishing. The state park’s developing facilities include picnic areas, primitive campsites and boat launching areas. Regularly stocked with bass and crappie, the desert lake attracts anglers. Fishermen need current Utah licenses.

Pastoral scenery and stands of trees lie around every bend as the highway meanders along the river through the Shivwits Reservation where the road joins old U.S. 91, the main road into the area before I-15 was built. The route continues toward Santa Clara, a town settled in 1854 by Mormon converts from Switzerland.

Modern development leaves only a few pioneer remnants, most notably Jacob Hamblin’s home on what is now Hamblin Boulevard. Carefully restored and furnished in period style, the house welcomes visitors for free tours daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. The 1863 residence offers an excursion into frontier life. Sturdy, functional and unpretentious, the two-story timber, stone and adobe home remains a monument to pioneer determination, as settlers along the Santa Clara persisted despite floods, heat and privation.

Margo Bartlett Pesek’s column appears on Sundays.

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