Hiking Southern Utah: the mysterious Winchester Hills
Trail Name: Unofficial
Location: Near the Winchester Hills Subdivision located just east of Snow Canyon State Park
Length: Anywhere from 0.8 miles to several miles
Elevation Gain: 100 to 500 feet or more
Average time: 1/2 hour to several hours
Family-friendly: The risk of unexploded ordinance (see below) and scrambling the peaks makes this a less family-friendly place
Dog-friendly: Dogs are allowed, but again, the risk of unexploded ordinance might make this a less-than-ideal place for pooches
Winchester Hills, while better known as a quiet subdivision off State Route 18 and east of Snow Canyon State Park, is also an interesting, slightly mysterious area of land owned by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) that is open to exploration. The first thing visitors need to know is this: The area owned by SITLA is a former training ground for the Army National Guard and was a bombing area many decades ago. As such, when entering the area, hikers will most likely encounter warning signs.
However, despite the ominous sounding nature of the post, it should be stated that the Winchester Hills area is an extremely popular spot for the local neighbors, who use it for everything from horseback riding, target practice, and ATV and motorcycle riding to hunting. There was an incident many years ago in which a young man did find an unexploded shell, and the area was shut down for a period of several months until public outcry reopened the area. The National Guard now does periodic sweeps to keep it as safe as possible for the public. All the same, be careful when exploring this area, and if any kind of ordinance is seen, leave it where it is and immediately call 911.
Intrigued? Despite the warnings, this is a unique and enjoyable place to visit, with peaks to climb, a secret slot canyon with petroglyphs (the location of which I will not reveal here), sand dunes, and trails criss-crossing the area.
One further word of warning: The biggest danger here is most likely from the ATV and motorcycle riders, so pay attention while exploring here. If riders approach, step off the trail and let them pass.
Access: From the junction of St. George Boulevard and Bluff Street, head north on Bluff St. for 8.3 miles, going past the exit for Winchester Hills. Look for a gravel pullout on the east side of the highway. Park here if driving a low-clearance vehicle, but those with trucks or SUVs can drive down the dirt road leading into the area. Follow this for approximately 1/2 mile, staying straight at all junctions, until reaching the base of a small sandstone crag. This is the main target shooting area. Park here.
Option 1: Crag No. 1
The small sandstone crag immediately east of the shooting range/parking area is a fun, easy scramble to its summit. Walk east along ATV trails to reach the rock and scramble up to the either the North or South ridge to the summit. Total distance is just a few hundred yards.
Option 2: Big Peak #1
Due north of Crag #1 is an impressive, towering sandstone peak (in reality, it is just a pointed end of the plateau behind). From the summit of the crag, drop down the north ridge (or if coming from the car park, head north on ATV trails and contour around the crag to the base of the north ridge). Due north is another crag, bigger than No. 1. Head northeast to intersect the south ridge and follow it to the summit of this peak. Traverse over the top and down the north ridge to a saddle. Keep heading north. Aim for a broad gully on the big peak. Climb this gully to a saddle between the peak and some smaller peaks to its west. Once at the saddle, climb the west ridge face to the summit.
Option 3: Vulcan Peak
At the far eastern end of the Winchester Hills area are the two most interesting peaks in the area. From the parking area, head east, following well-established ATV trails for approximately a little less than a mile to where the trail comes close to the boundaries of the Winchester Hills subdivision and the path turns towards the southeast. Continue hiking for another quarter mile or so until the first impressive peak appears (I called it “Vulcan Peak” for the singular “eye” on it’s face). As the path gets closer to the peak, veer cross-country in an easterly direction, aiming for the backside of the mountain. Scramble up black basalt to gain the saddle between the peak and the blackrock mesa behind it. Climb south, picking the path of least resistance to gain the summit.
After enjoying the views, descend back to the saddle and begin hiking east again, towards the bigger, even more impressive peak (Big Peak #3) a short distance away. Peak #3 is slightly intimidating looking, especially its west face, which plunges vertically for several hundred feet. Thankfully, an easy scramble exists on its NE side. Again, aim for the saddle between the peak and the mesa. Once the saddle is reached, climb up the NE quadrant. The ascent here is steep in spots, but not overly difficult.
From either peak, return whence you came and head back northwest and then west back to the parking area.
There is a really nice slot canyon in this area with spectacular petroglyphs in it, but due to the fact that some greedy soul apparently chiseled some of the carvings out of the bedrock, it will not be revealed. However, it is worth searching for, and just getting into the slot is a fun but short adventure in itself, with tight squeezes and stemming (the act of climbing when feet are pressed on one side of the canyon wall and the back is pressed against the opposite wall) and a challenging, 15-foot-high ramp. The petroglyphs are just past this ramp. As always, enjoy the carvings, but do not touch. It is unfortunate that so much vandalism has occurred here. In addition to the petroglyphs that were stolen, there are numerous spots where (presumably) teenagers and kids carved their initials and dates, sometimes inches away from the ancient carvings.