Hiking Southern Utah: Johnson Canyon and Scout Cave

Trail name: Johnson Canyon and Scout Cave Trails

Location: Snow Canyon, Red Cliffs Desert Reserve

Difficulty: Easy (Johnson Canyon), strenuous (Scout Cave)

Length: Johnson Canyon only is two miles round-trip; Scout Cave is four miles round-trip, both are five miles round-trip total

Elevation gain: approximately 200′

Average time: Johnson Canyon one hour, Scout Cave one hours

Family-friendly: Yes, especially Johnson Canyon. The hike to Scout Cave might be too far for younger hikers.

Dog-friendly: Since the trail begins in Snow Canyon, it is best to leave Fido at home.

Special consideration: Johnson Canyon opens for hiking Nov. 1. Scout Cave is open all year.

The combined trails of Johnson Canyon and Scout Cave are an excellent way to spend a few hours hiking, with stunning features including a 200-foot-wide arch, a surprisingly lush spring, stunning views of the Ivins area, and a huge, cathedral-like cave. The trails to each of these destinations are relatively easy, although the hike up to the cave gains several hundred feet of elevation en route.

Hiking Southern Utah Johnson Canyon and Scout CaveAccess: The parking area for these trails is at the southern end of Snow Canyon State Park. From the junction of Bluff Street and St. George Boulevard, head north on Bluff Street for 1.7 miles, then turn left on Snow Canyon Parkway. Drive west for 3.2 miles to the second traffic circle. Take the first right onto Snow Canyon Drive. Continue north for one mile to the south entrance station. Pay the fee, make a U-turn, and drive back 0.1 miles to the large parking area on the west side of the road. The trail begins on the east side.

The hike to Johnson Canyon is a short one that packs a lot of features into its one-mile length. Lava flows, a deep gorge, towering sandstone cliffs, a lush spring, a massive arch, and a box canyon all make for a spectacular hike that even the littlest legs can accomplish. From the trailhead, hike east on easy, undulating ground, passing occasional flows of black basalt as it traverses the sagebrush plain. In a little more than a quarter-mile, the trail forks. The right fork heads to Scout Cave. For now, take the left-hand fork.

Hiking Southern Utah Johnson Canyon and Scout CaveIn a few hundred yards, the trail reaches the base of the large sandstone cliffs, and a gorge appears on the right. The trail passes close to the edge of this ravine at times, so keep a close eye on little ones here. After another quarter-mile, the trail turns north and begins to head into Johnson Canyon. Soon a sound that is rare in the desert can often be heard: running water. Looking down into the wash on the right, one can often see a small stream flowing past an oasis of sorts. Continue north for another 0.2 miles, and the surprisingly large Johnson Arch appears on the east side of the canyon. Spanning 200 feet, this bulky arch is easily the largest in the St. George area. A fence deters hikers from scrambling up for a close look, and a sign gives some history on the area.

When finished admiring the arch, continue on the trail for another 0.15 miles, occasionally scrambling up and over some boulders in the trail. The path ends in a stunning box canyon with walls that tower hundreds of feet above the sandy floor. This makes for a pleasant lunch stop, especially if traveling with little ones, that is shaded and cool on hot days. Return to the trail to reach either the trail junction or the car.

Hiking Southern Utah Johnson Canyon and Scout CaveIf continuing to Scout Cave, take the right-hand trail at the junction and hike east, passing through a continuous flow of lava. After a little less than three-quarters of a mile, the path descends from the lava flow to the floor of the broad wash. From here the trail is indistinct, but occasional trail markers appear to keep travelers on the right path. After a quarter mile, a smaller wash heads north. Follow the path into this wash. The trail follows the wash except for where a dense, swampy thicket inhibits travel. Look for the trail to lead out of this thicket briefly, then drop back down into the wash. There are several short rock steps that require easy scrambling to overcome. After 0.3 miles, another smaller wash appears on the right. Head into this wash, and hike for another hundred yards until a set of steep stairs appears. Climb these seemingly endless steps until a sinuous dirt ridge is reached. The cave is now prominent in the cliffs above. Follow the ridge up to the crumbly base of the cliffs for approximately 200 yards, scrambling through steeper section until the cave can be entered.

Hiking Southern Utah Johnson Canyon and Scout CaveIn reality, the cave is not a true cave but rather a hollowed-out slot canyon in the making. It is quite large, big enough to fit a small house in. An opening in the back extends to the top of the cliffs. In fact, there are several more caves in the area that are similar, albeit smaller. These caves also are much more difficult to reach, generally requiring technical rock gear to reach. Views outside of the cave are spectacular, with the million-dollar homes below looking like toy houses and black lava interspersed with red rocks. Red Mountain towers over Ivins to the west. When ready, return on the same path back to the parking area.

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