Explore: Pioneer cemeteries provide link to silver mining past; Silver Reef

Silver Reef Pioneer Cemetery, Leeds, Utah, Feb. 10, 2015 | Photo by Carin Miller, St. George News

SILVER REEF – Just off Interstate 15 in Washington County, nestled among the foothills of the Pine Valley Mountain Range, lies a tiny town called Silver Reef. Home to Oak Grove Campground and several pioneer cemeteries, this hillside playground is often overlooked by travelers heading to better-known parts nearby.

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Oak Grove Campground, Leeds, Utah, Sept. 2012 | Photo by Carin Miller, St. George News

Once known for the copious amounts of silver found in the sandstone, the pioneering mining town of Silver Reef is a ghost town today. Some residents still dwell within the incorporated areas of the forgotten town, but the majority of the population rests in the pioneer cemeteries located on Bonanza Flat Road, which is on the way to Oak Grove Campground in the Dixie National Forest.

Of the many graves that dot the hill next to the old 1800s mine, few bear a headstone to tell visitors who lies beneath the deep, red soil. All that is known of those without names is their path of faith.

Two pioneer cemeteries can be visited in Silver Reef near the old mine, each specific to the religion of those buried there. There is a Catholic cemetery and a Protestant cemetery, both located in the same area.

Silver Reef Pioneer Cemetery, Leeds, Utah, Feb. 10, 2015 | Photo by Carin Miller, St. George News
Silver Reef Pioneer Cemetery, Leeds, Utah, Feb. 10, 2015 | Photo by Carin Miller, St. George News

The cemeteries have since been renamed the Pioneer Cemeteries, but for those who want to know, the first cemetery found on the road is the old Protestant cemetery, and just a little farther down the way is the Catholic cemetery.

Many of the headstones that are still standing, worn from weather and wind, are either difficult to read or are found in pieces near each other. And there are babies there – lots of babies – a sign of the difficulties mothers endured only a little more than a century ago.

Some of the nameless have been honored with simple wooden crosses – indicating someone is buried beneath the cross but leaving the identity of the person a mystery.

Visitors should be careful not to trip over the tiny pieces of rebar and other types of metal jutting out of the ground throughout the cemeteries. There are tiny orange flags set throughout the site, and many of them seem to be located either near a trip hazard or near a metal grave marker that cannot be seen above the sagebrush covering the area.

Oak Grove Campground (before the campground), Leeds, Utah, Feb. 10, 2015 | Photo by Carin Miller, St. George News
Oak Grove Campground, Leeds, Utah, Feb. 10, 2015 | Photo by Carin Miller, St. George News

The Oak Grove campground, located only a few miles west of the cemeteries, is closed from Labor Day weekend until Memorial Day weekend, but there are still quite a few designated campsites along the road that are easy to get to. Access to these sites is free, and campers can stay on them up to 16 days, according to a sign on the side of the road.

Driving through the town of Silver Reef, watch out for the two speed bumps that are set directly in the middle of the town on the main road. They are near a yellow sign that cautions drivers there are children at play, and they can be vicious to a vehicle that hasn’t slowed down in time.

Just beyond town, the paved road turns to dirt and continues west. Campsites run along both sides of the red dirt road, offering a spectacular view no matter which site is chosen. The first few sites to the left side of the road are the best sites for RVers, since about a mile farther there is a sign that recommends no RVs or trailers beyond that point.

About 2 miles onto the dirt, the road forks in two directions. There is a sign indicating those who take the road to the left will end up in St. George, but the fork to the right leads to Oak Grove Campground 6 miles down the way.

Oak Grove Campground (before the campground), Leeds, Utah, Sept. 2012 | Photo by Carin Miller, St. George News
Oak Grove Campground, Leeds, Utah, Sept. 2012 | Photo by Carin Miller, St. George News

Fall, winter and spring campers can travel for about another 2 miles on that road before coming to a closed gate stating Oak Grove Campground is closed for the season. Anywhere up to that point is still open for camping year round.

Running water is accessible from most campsites. Some sites are right by the water; others require some hiking to get down to the water. The water that runs along the side of most campsites is potable but should be boiled for safety before consuming.

Though the weather is typically beautiful, the nights can get quite cold, especially by the water, so be sure to have plenty of extra blankets, just in case. There are a lot of steep, sharp drop-offs, so parents and pet owners be wary.

There have also been warnings of marijuana grows in the area during the past several years, so hikers are advised to be cautious when wandering off the beaten path.

Getting there

Oak Grove Campground (before the campground), Leeds, Utah, Sept. 2012 | Photo by Carin Miller, St. George News
Oak Grove Campground, Leeds, Utah, Sept. 2012 | Photo by Carin Miller, St. George News

Traveling south on I-15, visitors should get off the interstate at Exit 23 to Leeds and Silver Reef. Take a right onto Silver Reef Road and travel west toward the Pine Valley Mountain Range. Visitors traveling north on I-15 should get off the interstate at Exit 22 and travel north through the town of Leeds. Once through the town, make a left onto Silver Reef Road and travel west toward the Pine Valley Mountain Range.

Once on Silver Reef Road, campers should continue through the town until the pavement ends and it becomes a dirt road. Continue west, and campsites will begin to appear to the north and south sides of the road. The turnoff to the Pioneer Cemeteries is found less than 1 mile along Silver Reef Road where there is a sharp bend in the paved road to the right, and the dirt road  Bonanza Flat Road  is forked to the left. Travel to the left, and continue staying left until the cemetery is in view. (See map in the photo gallery at the bottom of this story.)

Click on photo to enlarge it, then use your left-right arrow keys to cycle through the gallery.

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Email: cmiller@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

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1 Comment

  • sagemoon February 19, 2015 at 8:19 am

    This area is one of my favorites to visit. The last time I visited the Pioneer Cemeteries, the one had a creeky, spooky gate at the entrance. It was so cool. There is so much area out there to explore between Silver Reef and Oak Grove.

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