Santa Clara River Reserve, Utah

I’d been to the United States quite a few times, but it has always been mainly California or New York, oh and Las Vegas a couple of times too. I’d never really thought about the state of Utah at all until a friend had mentioned that he was doing some work for an ecologist called Jim McMahon, who now designs whole house water filters and air purifying systems via his website  called Clean Air, Pure Water. Jim seemed to have an enviable lifestyle living in a wooden house in a forest overlooking the Santa Clara River. Clean drinking water, fishing and kayaking seemed to be mainly what it was all about for him. How peaceful does that sound? So I decided to take a look at the area that is now called the Santa Clara River Reserve.

Distant, sprawling mountains, expansive blue water, vast brown desert—the Santa Clara River Reserve is not just a quiet place to visit when you need a break from the hectic bustle of every day life; it is a natural sanctuary loaded with ways to connect with nature, be active, and surround yourself with the beauty of the river and the wonder of history.

The city of Santa Clara partnered with the Bureau of Land Management in 1997 to create the reserve, which now contains about 6,500 acres of land.  There are many wonders to be found within the reserve that have been preserved throughout time and connect hikers and amateur archaeologists alike with the history and people of the land.  Some things to keep an eye out for while you explore are:

  • Many threatened and endangered plant species such as the Dwarf Bear Claw Poppy and the Holmgren’s Milkvetch. In addition to plants, there are other surprise animals, including bighorn sheep, which can be spotted from many of the trails.
  • A connection to history through extensive prehistoric rock art sites, numerous Ancestral Puebloan sites, and the remains of Southern Paiute structures. Fans of the pioneering portion of American history will also be thrilled to find pieces of pioneer homes remaining.
  • Riparian habitat at the bottom of the river, which supports the existence of fish, migratory birds and non-game birds, as well as the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher.
  • The Anasazi Ridge Petroglyphs may take a little bit of effort to find, but are one of the most popular sights to see in the reserve.
  • Grazing livestock is allowed on the public land, so fans of those animals may get lucky and catch a glimpse. Being kind to the animals is a must, meaning photography and watching are the only encouraged activities.

Though touching or taking artifacts and other glimpses into the past is illegal, the park rangers highly encourage visitors to look, draw, or photograph the things they’d love to remember forever.  There have been many complaints about the effect of visitors, especially campers using RV’s and those who love paintball because of the destruction it causes to the fragile environment.  There are several areas of the park that have different rules and regulations due to sensitive environments, animal populations, or cultural history.  Before traveling to any part of the reserve, make sure to inquire about anything you may need to know regarding restrictions on what you can and can’t do.

Santa Clara River, Pine Valley, UT - Chan's Way

Santa Clara River, Pine Valley, UT – Chan’s Way

There are many reasons that visitors travel to the Santa Clara Reserve.  Regardless of what an individual came to see, there are plenty of surprising and unexpected things to do and explore while staying in or near the reserve. Some popular activities include:

  • Hiking – There are a lot of great trails to take if seeing some of the beautiful desert is what you’re after. There are a large amount of trails that vary in length and intensity.  Trails are marked and easily accessible—some more popular trails lead to archaeological sites and prehistoric ruins, while others let you enjoy the isolated backcountry.  You can’t beat what you’ll see by walking through the reserve.  Most of the trails are through the sandy washes and lead to certain beloved sites, though there are also several trails that follow along the river for a truly beautiful walk.  One trail in particular will lead you along the rim of one of the canyons—for those taking photos or looking for something to sketch, this trail will be of particular interest.  The only thing to keep in mind is that the trails are fairly exposed, which makes it very difficult for many hikers in the summer months.  Most reviewers have stated that the perfect time to visit these trails is in the late fall and early spring when temperatures have cooled.
  • Mountain Biking – While there are great trails for those who love biking, most of the reserve trails are marked as “more difficult.” Taking your bike to one of these trails is exciting and exhilarating, though requires an intermediate level of skill to complete.  Many bikers find these trails to be some of the best they’ve ever biked on.
  • Horseback Riding – There are some trails set aside for those who favor horses. There aren’t as many trails for riding as there are for traditional hiking and biking, but the trails are impressively beautiful and are guaranteed to relax anyone traveling through.  Trail allowances are clearly marked for a no-stress day regardless of how you’re traveling along.
  • Bird Watching – Seasoned bird watchers and newbies alike will love the chance to see all kinds of birds, including migratory birds, and large birds of prey. The park highly recommends bringing binoculars with you so that you won’t miss some of the more impressive sights you won’t find in many other places, such as the golden eagle and the red-tailed hawk.
  • Camping – Though many frown upon the use of RVs on the reserve because it disrupts many areas, the park is happy to welcome traditional campers in tents. There are many places to stay, and a lot of beauty to live amongst.  Like with many of the activities that happen in the reserve, there are rules regarding noise levels and campfires.  For example, though primitive camping is allowed, it’s only allowed in zone 4 of the reserve.  Campfires are also only allowed in zone 4, though they are discouraged if possible.  Because there is no light pollution, stargazing is a particularly popular nighttime activity, and has been sited as one of the most awe-inspiring moments of people’s visit to the reserve.
  • Photography and Drawing – One set of activities that is most encouraged at the reserve, is photography and other forms of artistic expression, such as drawing, sketching, or painting. This is the best way to truly be mindful of what’s around you without disrupting any of the fragile ecosystems.  The park loves for artists to come and capture the many different sides and beauty of the reserve.  Many artists have found that they came to the reserve with one idea in mind, but discovered an entirely unexpected side of the park, and of themselves in the process.

The zones were created by the park to help make understanding the limitations and rules easy for those coming to enjoy the reserve.  Whenever you’re planning a hike or would like to visit an area, make sure to check the zone and its rules first.  The highly marked trails and open communication of the park rangers have made the Santa Clara River Reserve one of the friendliest and most welcoming to all visitors of various experiences.  For those moments when you find yourself in doubt, remember that this is a shared space filled with irreplaceable history and culture and proceed with respect and care.

Meet the Author

Rosy Wunderlee

I’m Rosy. I’m crazy about art and crazy about travel too. I like to write about amazing places that I have been and wonderful places that have inspired artists.

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