Hiking Southern Utah: Lava Flow Trail
Location: Snow Canyon State Park
Length: 1–2 miles with options
Elevation Gain: 160 feet (all on the return hike) Extra Credit: add 100 feet
Average Time: 1–2 hours
Family-friendly: Due to the nature of the caves, this hike is better suited for adults and older children.
Dog-friendly: No dogs are allowed on this trail.
The lava tubes of Snow Canyon State Park are a series of small caves that have long been a popular spot for exploration. With a dangerous down climb, total darkness, and tight passages, this hike is not for the faint of heart or for those with small children. Yet the exploration of these caves provides a unique experience and an opportunity to escape the broiling heat of southern Utah, if only for a short time.
Access: From the junction of St. George Boulevard and Bluff Street, head north on Bluff for 9.1 miles (going past Snow Canyon Parkway and continuing as Bluff merges with State Route 18) to the north entrance of Snow Canyon State Park. Turn left, pay the entrance fees, and drive for another 0.8 miles until the Lava Flow Trail parking area is reached on the right. Park here.
The hike: The trail begins with a gradual descent onto the jumbled flats of sagebrush, basalt, and sandstone. Several informational signs explain the desert and cave ecosystems and the formation of the lava tubes. The trail curves in a southwesterly direction and meets with the junction of the Whiterocks Trail in a little less than half a mile. Continue south. A short distance past the junction, the first lava tubes are found. These first caves, although they appear small, are actually the most extensive lava tubes. Be warned, however, as the climb down into the southernmost of the pair requires a difficult descent over very slick basalt that could be quite dangerous.
I took my eldest daughter (14) and son (seven at the time) down this route, and my son slipped on the slick basalt and came very close to plunging ten feet down onto the sharp rocks below. It was only by sheer luck or divine intervention that I was able to seize his wrist as he fell, preventing what could have been a very bad accident. Be very careful here.
Both openings lead to the same cave below. Both require scrambling and crawling to get to the main cave below. Once in the cave itself, begin descending through twists and turns and another steep climb down. Headlamps or flashlights are absolutely essential pieces of equipment to have here. Navigate for a hundred yards until the final, large room is entered. Unfortunately, years of teenagers wielding glow sticks has left this chamber in poor shape, with discarded garbage and glow paint splattered on the walls. Explore a bit, then return back to the entrance to the cave, and scramble back out into the daylight.
Continue south on the Lava Flow Trail. In less than a quarter mile, a second lava tube is found. This cave is mostly collapsed. A short distance further south, the biggest lava tube is found. Again, this tube requires another down climb. This cave, despite having a wide opening, is much less extensive than the first but has two big rooms that are fun to explore.
The Lava Flow Trail continues on for another half mile from this final cave, descending down to the canyon floor where it meets with the West Canyon Road. However, the majority of the best aspects of the Lava Flow Trail are concentrated into the first half mile, making the last tube an excellent turnaround point. Either way, when ready, head north on the Lava Flow Trail to the parking area.
Extra Credit: Just a handful of yards to the south of the last lava tube is a small, attractive sandstone peak, which makes for a fun scramble. The easiest route seems to follow ramps up the northeast corner of the formation, then climbing the east face of the rock. It can be steep in places, but the climbing is relatively easy. The views from the diminutive summit are spectacular.