by Tom Garrison
© 2016 Tom Garrison
With perhaps no exaggeration Panaca, Nevada could be called the state park capital of the United States (maybe the world). Located within 40 miles of the community, population 963 (2010 census), are five of Nevada’s 23 state parks—Cathedral Gorge, Beaver Dam, Kershaw-Ryan, Echo Canyon, and Spring Valley. My wife Deb and I have explored the first three and Echo Canyon is our destination.
The Dry Valley area where Echo Canyon State Park is sited was first permanently settled by non-Native Americans in the late 1870s. These farmers and ranchers contributed to the agricultural base of Lincoln County that continues to the present. A flood control and water storage dam was built in 1969-70 creating the 65-acre Echo Canyon Reservoir. After completion of campgrounds and group use areas, the Division of State Parks assumed management and the 1,800-acre state park was born in 1970. Although the main attraction is water sports, particularly fishing, Ash Canyon Trail is worth a visit.
Many of the rocky outcroppings visible in the park were formed by volcanic activity 45 to 125 million years ago. Throw in millions of years of erosion and the result is the stunning geology of Ash Canyon.
A variety of animals including squirrels, rabbits, coyotes, skunks, bobcats, and deer inhabit the region. Their reptilian friends include lizards and snakes. We saw a few squirrels, rabbits, and lizards on our hike. The reservoir also attracts waterfowl and you might spot the occasional eagle or hawk.
Our—Deb, me, and our friends Jim and Julie Kuhns—adventure began in mid-June. From the Bluff Street (aka Highway 18)/Sunset Boulevard intersection in St. George we traveled north 48 miles on Highway 18 past Vejo and Enterprise. After a left turn (west) at Beryl Junction onto Highway 56 (which becomes Highway 319 in Nevada), and 46 miles later, we passed through Panaca and then to the intersection with Highway 93. We turned right (north) onto Highway 93 and after 11 miles turned right (east) onto Highway 322. Followed the signs and after 11.5 miles we entered the park.
Or, from Mesquite travel south about 30 miles on Interstate 15 to the Glendale exit (exit 91) and head northwest on Highway 168. At the Highway 168/Highway 93 intersection, proceed north on Highway 93, follow it to Panaca, and then use the directions above.
We arrived at the park about 11:30 am, paid the $7 daily use fee, and drove to the clearly signed trailhead at the northern end of the upper campground. The trailhead elevation is 5,300 feet and the temperature in the high 70s as we began. Throughout the entire hike, thunderstorms were lurking and we got a bit wet toward the end of our trek. The initial section is steep, gaining 300 feet in elevation the first .8 mile. The views from the ridge top stretch many miles in all directions, encompassing the reservoir to the south and rough badlands to the north and east.
After the apex, we began descending and soon entered Ash Canyon. Ash Canyon is aptly named for the volcanic ash flow in its composition with steep orange/grey/brown rock walls towering above the canyon floor. The rocks are weathered, rough, with many pockmarks providing ample opportunity for pareidolia to kick in. (Pareidolia is a psychological phenomenon involving a stimulus, in this case rock formations, where the mind perceives a familiar pattern, often faces or animals, of something where none actually exists.) We walked along admiring the many faces and animal shapes greeting us.
Due to erosion, the relatively soft volcanic ash rock of the main canyon is intersected with several side canyons. We also scampered around a few small dry falls until reaching the end of our Ash Canyon journey—the mother of all dry falls at least 50 feet high with no way down. At this point, the trail enters one of the side canyons on the right and winds down toward and around varied outcroppings.
At about 2.2 miles in, the trail ends by intersecting Echo Dam Road (aka Highway 323). From here we walked 1.2 miles south and then west along the road through Echo Canyon and the northern shore of the reservoir back to the campground.
Ash Canyon Trail is a great 3.4 mile easy hike with an advantage that can’t be beat—solitude. We were on the trail for almost 2 ½ hours and did not see another human. Not that I don’t like my species, but sometimes an adventure with your sweetie/hiking partner and a couple of friends is called for. For those of you who enjoy a little alone time in a gem of weathered volcanic rock, consider this hike.
Tom Garrison is retired and enjoying libertarian life in beautiful St. George, Utah with his wife Deb and two cats. His latest book, Hiking Southwest Utah and Adjacent Areas, Volume One is available at all estores, the Zion National Park Visitor Center, and the Desert Rat store in St. George.