Snow Canyon State Park developing new trail to educate visitors about the desert tortoise

ST. GEORGE — Supported by community fundraising efforts, Snow Canyon State Park is in the process of developing a trail designed to inform visitors about the Mojave desert tortoise. The Tortoise Education Trail is scheduled to be the first new trail built within the park in more than a decade. 

Concept sketch of the new Tortoise Education Trail. | Image courtesy of Snow Canyon State Park, St. George News

The trail will showcase perhaps the most compelling and hotly debated creature found in Snow Canyon. Park naturalist Jenny Dawn Stucki told St. George News that park managers have spent years brainstorming a way to answer visitor questions about the desert tortoise while highlighting the importance of recreating responsibly within its habitat.  

“It’s all tied together,” she said. “Knowing they’re here and understanding more about them helps to enhance appreciation of our landscape across the board.”  

The project is currently in the planning and design process; Stucki said that many components still need to come together before breaking ground. When complete, the trail will feature several informational panels providing visitors with insight on the desert tortoise and its habitat, diet, family life, adaptations, survival and conservation, as well as ways to be mindful and appreciative of its presence in the park. 

“Through learning more about the tortoise’s unique adaptations, hopefully people will gain a deeper appreciation and a connection to Snow Canyon’s unique landscape,” she said.  

Cameron Rognan, administrator of the Washington County Habitat Conservation Plan, highlighted the importance of visitor education in the preservation of vulnerable species like the desert tortoise as the recreational demand on southwest Utah’s public lands continues to rise. By providing both designated trails and learning opportunities, Rognan said that Snow Canyon and other parks can enhance the visitor experience while protecting native wildlife and habitat. 

Concept sketch of the new Tortoise Education Trail. | Image courtesy of Snow Canyon State Park, St. George News

“Those two things we think can go really hand-in-hand, enjoying recreation but also protecting the resources while you’re out there,” he added. 

Rather than disturbing intact native vegetation, the project repurposes land once used as a road to access the campground. The trail will be located just behind the picnic area at the Upper Galoot parking lot and trailhead.  

The Tortoise Education Trail will be 0.14 miles in length, culminating in a seating area centered around a large stone sculpture of a desert tortoise. The estimated completion date for the project is early 2022. 

The overall cost of the project is estimated at between $50,000-$55,000, which includes the sculpture, seating area, wayside exhibits and chat for the trail surface. Most of the funding will come from the park’s donation account. 

Friends of Snow Canyon State Park began fundraising for the Tortoise Education Trail in December 2020. Kathy Edwards, president of the board of directors, said their goal is to raise approximately $20,000 to support the project over the next two years. 

“Many park visitors have questions about the desert tortoise,” she said. “The new Tortoise Education Trail is designed to help visitors learn more about the desert tortoise and gain a better understanding of how their actions within the park can help or hinder conservation of tortoise habitat.” 

Mojave desert tortoise in Snow Canyon State Park, Ivins, Utah, May 20, 2013 | File photo by Ron Olroyd, St. George News

Friends of Snow Canyon is a nonprofit group assembled in 2011 to support the park through fundraising, advocacy and volunteer hours. The organization has funded trail extensions, trail rebuilding, exhibits and the publication of educational materials. Last year, volunteer trail stewards contributed 2,042 hours of service within the park.  

All membership dues go directly to supporting the park. Anyone may join or make a donation to specific projects like the Tortoise Education Trail.  

The Tortoise Education Trail will be the first new addition to Snow Canyon’s mapped and approved trails since 5 miles of the Gila Trail were constructed in 2010; the park completed the Gila Trail with another 2 miles of hiking in 2014. 

Assistant Park Manager Jordan Perez told St. George News that while development of the new trail is underway, Snow Canyon will focus on maintaining existing trails to ensure visitor safety and enjoyment. In response to increased use, hikers can expect to see enhanced signage along the Scout Cave and Gila trails later in 2021. 

The park also plans to move the Whiterocks Trailhead, currently located along state Route 18, to provide safer access for visitors and build a new section of trail that connects to the Whiterocks Amphitheater on the far north end of the park. No timeline has been established for this project yet.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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