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By: Zdenko Kahlina
The Santa Clara Loop near St. George
While visiting St. George with our rented car during the stay in Las Vegas last summer, Vera and I decided to explore surrounding area as we heard about some interesting sites near by. We wanted to taste the Southern Utah in only few hours that we had available, because we were returning to Vegas before the end of the day.
St. George is known as “Utah’s Dixie” because of its temperate climate and is only couple of hours drive from Las Vegas. Mild winters make it ideal for golf year-round – 10 of Utah’s best courses are located there! The city is the business and cultural center for SW Utah, and is a major gateway to nearby Zion National Park.
Side roads around St. George offer a lot of scenery, history and recreation potential without the crowds typically found at the area’s major attractions. From the spectacular Mojave Desert to the lush Pine forests of Valley Mountain, Saint George (St. George) guarantees plenty of opportunities for day trips. Take a few moments to travel with us on this short trip and get a taste of Southern Utah.
We choose to explore the Santa Clara Loop, a 70 km long route from St. George, Utah, which accesses two state parks, many kilometers of hiking and biking trails and several towns established in frontier times. This 70 km 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 only two hours from Las Vegas along Interstate 15. Exit at Bluff Avenue in St. George and turn left. Drive a couple of kilometers 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 16 kilometers 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 for another 16 kilometers 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. The loop route leaves Route 18 at Veyo and heads towards Gunlock State Park via old highway 91. I almost missed the left turn onto small paved side road as it came too soon.
Veyo Pool and Crawdad Canyon Rock Climbing Park
Located approximately 27 kilometers north of St. George is the Veyo Pool and Crawdad Canyon Rock Climbing Park. This resort is located along the Santa Clara river in a small steep basalt canyon. Here the Santa Clara River has carved its way through 1 and 2 million year old basalt flows creating Crawdad Canyon.
This 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. The Veyo pool is fed by natural hot spring water flowing from the canyon wall. With a temperature of about 89 degrees Faranheit the Veyo pool is the perfect place to cool off on a hot summer Southern Utah day.
The Crawdad Canyon Rock Climbing Park is one of the largest privately owned outdoor climbing parks in the USA. The park offers 180 bolted sport climbing routes up to 80 feet high. The resort offers camping, picnic areas and a snack bar. Other activities include volleyball, horse shoes, hiking, wildlife viewing and more. The resort opens the first week of April and the pool opens the first week in May.
Santa Clara River and Old Spanish Trail
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 Old Spanish Trail used by horsemen and raiders from Sante Fe, New Mexico to Los Angeles from the 1820 s until the gold fields became the destination after 1849 and a shorter route was taken.
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.
Just before the town of Gunlock, we stopped at the small lake on the right side of the road. It simms to be a nice place for kids to cool off, but it was deserted when we were there except for one curious squarrel that was wondering around.
The town of Gunlock
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. The name Gunlock is the same as the small farming community one mile to the north. William Haynes Hamblin (nicknamed Will or Bill), a Mormon pioneer born in Ohio, settled in the present area of the lake in 1857.
Gunlock Will was a good hunter and sharpshooter, and was skillful in repairing gunlocks, which are the firing mechanisms for muzzleloaders. His brother, Jacob Hamblin, was actually the more well known of the two. He was a Mormon settler and a missionary to the Indians of southern Utah and northern Arizona, particularly the Shivwits tribe of the Paiute Indians, who still live in this area.
Gunlock sponsors a lively rodeo around July Fourth. The town is about 2 kilometers north of Gunlock Lake State Park, popular for camping, water sports, boating and fishing. Day-use and camping fees apply.
Gunlock Reservoir in Gunlock State Park
Short drive after town of Gunlock we spotted beautiful lake on the right side of the road. This was Gunlock Reservoir in Gunlock State Park, which is located in the scenic red rock country of southwestern Utah. A sparkling blue lake is rimmed with ponderosa pines, and a string of campgrounds follows the beginnings of the river to road’s end. Gunlock Reservoir dam was constructed in 1970 for irrigation water and flood control. It is a pretty little reservoir popular for boating and other water sports. It offers good fishing at times, particularly for largemouth bass and channel catfish.
From Gunlock reservoir we followed the highway along the Santa Clara River 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.
Town of Santa Clara
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.
This little town is a quiet community just few kilometers west of St. George. The population of Santa Clara is approximately 5,000. There are very few commercial businesses in Santa Clara City and most of the housing is residential homes. Santa Clara was established by early Mormon pioneers in the 1855. 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.
Swiss immigrants supplemented the population of the community significantly in 1861. Most of these Swiss settlers did not speak English and they found the environment of the Santa Clara area to be far different than that of their homeland.
The Santa Clara River runs near the city and while generally just a small stream it usually runs full and fast during spring snow run-off. At times the Santa Clara River has been known to swell to over 500′ wide when rain and snow melt have combined to over-run the bounds of the river banks.
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