The right combination of on-trail and off-trail hiking, varying terrain including eroded rock formations and aspen-lined meadows, and light use makes this hike in the Pine Valley Recreation Area a great one for beginner and seasoned hikers alike.
Gardner Peak overlooking Pine Valley, Utah
Location: Dixie National Forest, Pine Valley Ranger District. Trailhead in Pine Valley Recreation Area near town of Pine Valley, north of St. George, Utah.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 9.2 miles round-trip; gain of 2,900' in 4.6 miles to summit. Trailhead elevation = 6,627'. Summit = 9,478'.
Difficulty: Moderate Class 1 on cairned trail, Class 2 off-trail from base of mountain and Class 3 climbing near summit with minimal exposure. Navigation experience necessary through forest leading to peak as there is no trail.
Coordinates: Gardner summit UTM: 12S 282962 E 4141107 N Decimal: 37.391335, -113.451708. Gardner Peak Trail Trailhead: UTM: 0280120 E 4140397N Decimal: 37.38428 -113.48358. WGS84 datum.
Permit: Day hikers parking at trailhead inside Pine Valley Recreation Area do not have to pay a fee at entrance station.
Navigation aids: Trails Illustrated Topo Map - St. George/Pine Valley Mountains #715, AllTrails app, Garmin GPS, USGS 7.5 minute topo - Grass Valley quad.
Date Hiked: September 3, 2021
Considerations: Experience in navigating through forest (no trail) necessary.
Geology: Pine Valley Mountains are remnants of the Pine Valley Laccolith, the largest in the U.S. (See For the Geo-curious below). Radiometric dates show the monzonite porphyry rock was formed 22 million years ago.
History: Robert Gardner, Jr. was one of the original settlers of Pine Valley who helped establish a lumber mill.
Driving Directions: Directions from St. George: Take Highway 18 north for about 24 miles, turn right at the Pine Valley junction (E. Pine Valley Road) and drive 8 miles until you reach a "T" in the road. Turn left and continue for about 1.5 miles. The trailhead is located on the left just after the Pine Valley Recreation Area entrance gate.
For the Geo-curious
A laccolith is a large amount of magma that is injected between layers of rock, causing a dome-shaped mass. In this case, the Pine Valley Laccolith was a final surge of magma that occurred after the initial volcanic vents were shut off, causing the magma to be squeezed and move sideways between the layers of the Claron formation below it and the overlying magma layer. This injection, 22 million years ago, amounted to a 3,000-foot layer of monzonite porphyry, composed mainly of plagioclase and alkali feldspar. This is similar to granite, and when you look at a fresh surface of the rock, you can see the crystals, indicating the rock cooled slowly enough to form large crystals - allowing us to easily see them. The laccolith was uncovered when the volcanic layer above it eroded. The Claron Formation is made of limestone and mudstone; it is the rock that makes the spectacular hoodoos seen in Bryce Canyon National Park.
The Pine Valley Mountain Wilderness, a "sky island" arising among black basalt flows and red sandstone cliffs of southwestern Utah, is the antithesis to the internationally-known Zion National Park seen from its summits. It is a welcome respite for adventurers that have witnessed crowded Zion trails. It doesn't have Zion's spectacular sandstone towers, but it's beautiful forests offer solitude and a large variety of vegetation, including a large stand of virgin Engelmann spruce and many peaceful meadows.
The Gardner Peak hike begins in a valley of sagebrush and rabbit brush, ascends a rocky section, extends across large flat outcrops of smoothly eroded rock, through a meadow lined by a large stand of aspens, and finally ascends steeply through large pines and deadfall to a pointed peak of spruce and Douglas fir. The terrain on this hike is ever-changing. Gardner Peak sits right on the Pine Valley Mountain Wilderness boundary and although its trail may not be officially in the wilderness, it feels like it is because the trail is narrow and lightly used. We were only the second group to sign the summit register for 2021. The trail treks through a small area burned from the 2020 Gardner fire. You will reach 2 false peaks before you get to the summit - a narrow rock perch with a great view to the east and the summit's register hidden under rocks.
Interactive map of our GPS tracks to Gardner Peak
Gardner Peak Trail to base of Gardner Peak
Rabbit brush blooming at trailhead - forested Gardner Peak on the horizon.
View ahead of crags - we used these as a landmark to descend peak; rock cairns (right) mark the trail.
Finding the trail through the Gardner 2020 fire section just before you reach the flat meadow before the peak ascent was challenging. When we reached the flat, black-charred trees were scattered about - even the ground was black - and we lost sight of the next cairn. With the help of AllTrails app, we found our way. Go straight ahead when you reach this section; we went too high onto the bare rock to the right. The trail then descends steeply to cross a dry run-off stream section and continues to Jodes Flat, the small meadow at the base of Gardner Peak.
Short section burned from the 2020 Gardner fire.
It's hard to get bored on this hike because the terrain is constantly changing. After winding between small rock outcrops and large trees, and on pine needle accumulations, the view suddenly opens as you tread across long spans of bare rock with some interesting eroded formations. On the way back, after looking more closely, I found two water catchments or small pools in the rocks.
A look at the peak ahead.
One of the many meadows in Pine Valley Mountains
Base of Gardner Peak to the summit
At 3.8 miles from the trailhead, after the short fire area, reach the small meadow - Jodes Flat - to see the thick forest on the west side of Gardner Peak. This is where the trail ends. We walked straight up this flank for a 900' gain, aiming toward the peak coordinates. There is a lot of deadfall to crawl over and Class 3 climbing through huge rock outcrops toward the top, as well as 2 false summits. The exposed crags that we had passed on the trail just before Jodes Flat could be seen on the way up; they provided a good landmark for our summit descent. The summit is small - basically a few huge pointed boulders with a register with a few entries hidden under rocks. Ours and a Montana couple's were the only entries for 2021.
The summit is mostly forested, but a view to the east looks over a deep canyon. The ascent was short enough so that we had time to relax in the most perfect weather on the summit, enjoying solitude. A forested summit is not as spectacular as a bare, above-treeline perch overlooking huge expanses of terrain, like Leatherman Peak, which we summited in July. But they are still great and each has its own characteristics that stand out in my memory of them. The reward of finding an unseen summit as you keep on seeing more sky as you climb is extraordinary.
Keeping the bare rock outcrop we had passed on the way up in view, and using my GPS trackback, we found our way back to Jodes Flat. The only other hiker we encountered that day was an elderly man making his way up the loose rocky section. We each acknowledged the beautiful day. I hope I will still be hiking at his age - it is a gift to be able to explore the West. So much to see out here, so little time! Keep on exploring!
"Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world."
Yep, there's lots of rocks and trees to navigate when climbing the off-trail portion to the summit!
(900' elevation gain)
Scenes from the top of Gardner Peak
View from Gardner Peak of Pine Valley Mountain Wilderness to the south
The large outcrop near base of peak we used as landmark to descend; rock cairn marks trail after burned section.
Pine Valley celebrating Labor Day
Our GPS track; note extent of 2020 Gardner fire on map. Gardner Peak is on the boundary of Pine Valley Mountain Wilderness Area.
The last section of hike through rock outcrops to the summit.
Miller, R. Our Geological Wonderland: The Pine Valley Mountain Laccolith. The Independent - A Voice for Southern Utah. Feb. 2018.
Pine Valley Day: The story of how 'the most beautiful sight' went from lumber supplier to summer retreat. By Reuben Wadsworth reporting in the St, George News.
Pine Valley Chapel 1868. Informational flyer about the history of Pine Valley and its chapel, available at the Pine Valley Chapel.
About this blog
Exploration documentaries – "explorumentaries" list trip stats and highlights of each hike or bike ride, often with some interesting history or geology. Years ago, I wrote these for friends and family to let them know what my husband, Fred and I were up to on weekends, and also to showcase the incredible land of the west. I hope to hear about your adventures!
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