Hiking Southern Utah: Whiterocks Amphitheater to Awesome Chasm Traverse
Trail name: N/A, This is an unofficial route
Location: Northern portion of Snow Canyon State Park
Difficulty: Extremely strenuous
Length: Varies depending on route taken, a minimum of four miles
Elevation Gain: Varies depending on route taken, a minimum of 1000′
Average Time: Anywhere from 4-6 hours
Family-friendly: No, this adventure requires comfort with steep, loose rock, a lot of exposure, and hiking through difficult terrain.
The traverse from the Whiterocks Amphitheater to Awesome Chasm is not a route for the faint of heart. Depending on the route taken, this adventure climbs up and over numerous small peaks en route to the spectacular gap of Awesome Chasm (I climbed at least seven peaks on the route.) This route is essentially trailless and as such requires excellent route-finding ability. Consider yourself warned.
Access: The starting (and ending) point for this route is the Whiterocks Parking area, just 0.5 mile north of the northern entrance to Snow Canyon State Park. From the intersection of Bluff St. and St. George Blvd., drive north on Bluff Street-State Route 18 for 9.5 miles to the Whiterocks Trailhead, which is on the right. Park here.
The route: Begin by hiking west on the Whiterocks Trail. As the path approaches the entrance to the amphitheater, look for a large, aesthetic peak towering above. This is the first major peak you will summit. Instead of heading south into the canyon towards the amphitheater, head north, following narrow washes and rock outcroppings and generally contouring around the base of the rocks to the west until an obvious, low-angle ramp gives easy access to the rocks above. It is necessary to follow slabs and ribs west and then south, following the path of least resistance until a sandy saddle is reached. From here, one has the option of traversing over to a couple of smaller peaks overlooking the Whiterocks Amphitheater (which is certainly a worth endeavor, the views are superb).
From the sandy saddle, begin heading up the south face of the peak, again following the path of least resistance. The route up the peak is loose but rarely steep enough to be dangerous. In short order, the summit will be reached. Views north towards the Cinder Cone and the Pine Valley Mountains (with highway 18 in between) are amazing.
From the summit of this peak, the next objective is to head southwest to reach another peak a few hundred yards away. Follow slabs and a short section of ridge to reach this minor summit. From there, the next big peak north of your position is your objective. Follow the escarpment to the northwest down into a shallow trough between the two peaks, and then pick your way up steep slabs and the low-angle scree to the summit of this second big peak.
From the summit of this peak, the views of Snow Canyon defy description. The otherworldly striped hues of red, orange, and cream are stunning from this mountaintop vista.
From the summit of big peak No. 2, head north and follow a broad ridge down into the next trough between peaks. Once down in the trough, head to the west. Upon reaching the escarpment, head north towards the small rocky peak. Gain the summit of this smaller peak and look to the northeast where the third and final big peak looms above. Descend slightly northwest towards a saddle between the small peak and the larger, and then follow boulder and scree fields northeast towards the summit.
From the summit of this final peak, the route follows undulating terrain to the north-northwest. This is where the routefinding becomes trickier, but heading generally in a northern direction will lead the hiker towards Awesome Chasm. Descending from the summit of the last peak, a spectacular cleft will appear on the left (I started calling it “Pretty Awesome Chasm”).
Follow game trails and bare rock when possible. As always, avoid trampling cryptobiotic soil, the black, crusty patches that cover large portions of earth. Eventually, the undulating terrain will lead the voyager down into a basin of sorts. Just north of this low area is another rugged segment of slickrock. Follow the easiest-looking path through slabs and ribs, and soon the first views of Awesome Chasm appears. Be very careful approaching this deep, steep canyon, the walls of which can be well over 500 feet high. Follow the southern edge of the canyon to the northeast, occasionally diverting well away from the lip until it is possible to reach the very top of the chasm. The view down into the canyon is awe-inspiring.
When done with admiring the canyon, begin heading down in a southeasterly direction, aiming for a notch in a north-south ridge, following gullies and drainages. The main gully actually runs in a east-northeast direction. It may be necessary to head south to intercept the right canyon, but once found, it should be pretty obvious. There are occasional steep steps as the gully snakes its way down. The gully is approximately 0.25 mile in length. The steepest slabs are right at the very end, where the gully reaches the canyon floor.
As soon as the gully ends at the canyon floor, look to the left. On the southeast-facing wall a short distance away, there is a nice petroglyph panel. Head north towards it, scrambling up a ledge to get a closer look. There are images of bighorn sheep, feet, and abstract figures. It is not an extensive panel, but it’s well worth a look.
After examining the petroglyphs, head in a southeasterly direction to intersect with the major wash that runs through the canyon. Follow the sandy watercourse south for approximately one mile until it intersects with the Whiterocks trail, then head east a short distance back to the parking area.