top of page

Hiking to The Vortex, aka "The Bowl" in Southern Utah

Updated: May 8, 2020

If you're not from southwest Utah there is a good chance you have never even heard of Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, which is a real shame, because this national conservation area is packed full of otherworldly hikes. Red Reef trail is undoubtedly the most popular hike in the reserve, but for those willing to take the path less traveled the reward is great. Located in an area known as the Red Mountain Wilderness, Lower Sand Cove trail {better known as "the vortex" or "the bowl" by locals} will have you feeling transported back in time to when dinosaurs ruled the world, it even comes complete with it's own view of a dormant volcano. Seriously though, a Pterodactyl could come swooping down from off a cliff and you'd just be like "Yeah, that seems accurate".

Location: Between Gunlock, Utah and Dammeron Valley

Duration: About 1.3 miles to reach the Vortex, depending on your route. This is more of a "wander at your leisure" type of hike, so total mileage and time will vary. Give yourself 90 minutes, bare minimum

Difficulty: Easy, providing you are good with rocky and sandy surfaces

Cost: None

When to Visit: Spring, fall, & winter will be the most pleasant times to visit, but it is open year round

Good to Know: Dog friendly! Well maintained dirt road to the trail head that any car capable of passing an inspection should be able to navigate with ease. No restrooms, no water source, day use only. Out and back trail

How To Get There

I'm just going to go ahead and assume that 99% of you reading this will be approaching from the St. George area, so I'll just give directions from there, cool? Cool.

Okay, so from I-15 in St. George you will get off of exit 8, St. George Blvd, and head west until it T bones with Bluff street. Turn right onto Bluff street and follow until the intersection with Sunset Blvd. Turn left onto Sunset and continue on this road until it turns into Old Highway 91 and takes you northwest out past the towns of Santa Clara and Ivins. After entering the Shivwits Reservation start looking for Gunlock drive, it'll be on your right. Take Gunlock dr. for several miles, eventually driving past Gunlock State Park. Right before you drive over a small bridge to enter the town of Gunlock, you'll want to hang a right onto Lower Sand Cove road. Should be easy to remember since it's the name of the hike.

Follow this road for 1.2 miles. You'll pass a turn off to a little pond area that will look really inviting, but don't be fooled, that's not the road you want. But super soon after passing the pond you will pass over a creek and the turn off and parking area will be on the right immediately after the crossing.

It's also the year 2020, so you know, google will get you there just fine as well.

The Trail

I'm gonna be real with you, this has been a hard hike to do a write up on because there are about a dozen different trail heads and no real trail to follow once you hit the wash. I've rewritten this sucker several times now, and I still worry my directions are hard to follow. If it is at all possible, I highly recommend going with someone who has been before to ensure you will find the Vortex. However, I know many of you reading this won't have such connections, so if you will bare with me, I will try my best to explain this hike to you. So hold on tight, I'm gonna try keep my instructions as clear and concise as I possibly can with some photos for reference.

From the parking area there are several trails you can pick up and follow, but in my opinion the best one is found at the far end of the parking lot. Look for a thin, brown "wilderness" post, which is pictured below. See that dude hanging a left after the post? You'll wanna do that too.

This trail starts as a sandy path but will soon turn rocky. You'll just be able to make out some semblance of the trail as you descend down lava rocks to the wash below. When in doubt, look for evidence of foot prints between the rocks.

At some point you'll pass by another wilderness post, this will reassure you you are headed in the right direction. If you've managed to stay on the same trail I took, it will spit you out by the dead tree in the photo below.

From this tree, walk directly across the wash. You will be able to pick up the trail again from here. See the pile of lava rock boulders across the way in the photo above? The trail is behind them. This trail will lead you through to where you want to go. Again, look for foot prints if you ever doubt where you are heading.

Regardless of whatever trail you end up on, your goal is to hike between the white cliffs on the left and the red cliffs on the right, which you can see in the following picture. Doesn't make sense looking at this picture, but just trust me. Once you are there you will see the path leading you between them.

Walk through there and you will find yourself between towering cliffs of Navajo Sandstone that soon opens up into a large field, if you will. It's all sandstone, as far as the eye can see, but I'll refer to this open area in front of Camelback Mountain as the "field" from here on out for convenience.

Before the sandstone opens up into the field you will notice little pools of water that have formed in the rock from eons of water run off. There are several of them all over this area and they range in size from tiny little pools your foot would barely fit in to personal sized tubs. These pools are always neat to see and are worth checking out. For those of you who are talented behind the camera, please, for the love, go get a cool picture of these pools because I know there is potential there and I just don't have the talent to capture it. Yet.

Once you've entered the field, you can either roam about at your leisure, or hike to the Vortex, aka "Bowl".

How to Get to The Vortex

Alright, getting to the field and Camelback Mountain is easy enough. Once you are here my instructions will all make more sense and you'll see that there is a natural flow leading you to the field. Getting to the Vortex is a different story. I've twice attempted to find it on my own in the past and failed. You are now exclusively on sandstone, so there is truly no trail to follow. There are supposed to be cairns marking the way, but these are unreliable as they are either frequently knocked over by idiots who assume they were built arbitrarily, or idiots take it upon themselves to arbitrarily build them with no rhyme or reason as to the actual trail. It's a vicious cycle and a real issue, don't even get me started.

Okay, so the easiest way to get to the Vortex is to use the camel humps as guides. The first time I came here we called this mountain Camelback Mountain, not to be confused with Camelback Mountain in Phoenix, Arizona. It's not very hard to guess why. Many locals actually frequently refer to this hike as Camelback Mountain, so for those of you keeping count, yes, that means this hike has 4 different names. It's not confusing at all.

For some depth perception reference as to how large this area actually is, look far right center in the picture above. You see those 5 teeny tiny figures? Yeah, those are people. The Vortex is to the left of the camel humps. To get there, you can either defy gravity and channel Spiderman as you walk/crawl up the unbelievably grippy slickrock sides of Camelback Mountain like the people in the picture opted to, or for those of you not interested in testing out your Spidey senses, you'll have to take the long way and go around.

Most choose to take the long route. It's safer, and while it is longer, it's not nearly as taxing on the body, so it's spades as far as which route is best. I'm no longer a twenty-something adrenaline junkie, so I'm just fine taking the long way.

Basically, you continue walking along the field area and keep Camelback Mountain to your right. The field will gradually incline, as Camelback Mountain slopes down to meld into the field. It reaches a point where you can easily climb up onto Camelback Mountain without fear of certain death. Once you have gotten yourself onto the mountain, start backtracking to the humps. You'll first pass a smaller "bowl" that has a tree/shrub growing out of it. This isn't it, keep going.

As long as you are using those camel humps as guides while singing My Humps {because how can you see such lovely lumps and not have this classic instantly stuck in your head?}, it won't be long before you come to the Vortex!

The Vortex is a deep bowl that has been slowly carved by the ever present wind of this area for centuries upon centuries. It looks as though you'd be trapt forever if you dared venture to the bottom of it, but as mentioned earlier "slickrock" seems to have a supernatural level of grip, so live a little and give it a go! Just please, for the love of God, DO NOT CARVE YOUR NAME INTO THE SANDSTONE!!! It is not 183 BC. We do not need to carve into stone as a way to communicate anymore. We have options.

Seriously though, are you even still together Sam and Kayla? Are you? Your love surviving the quarantine of 2020? Yeah, I didn't think so.

From car to Vortex it should be around 1.3 miles. This is going to vary depending on which path you take, of course, but if you're looking for the Vortex and have traveled much further than that, start being concerned that you are on the wrong track. Another sign that you are headed in the wrong direction is if you stumble upon what I like to call the cairn graveyard.

It's where all good cairns go to die.

I mean, if you're just wandering around aimlessly give the graveyard a stroll. But if you are trying to find the Vortex you've gone too far and you need to turn around and make way towards the camel's back.

Once you are top of Camelback Mountain be sure to take some time to just admire the view. From here you can easily take in the full flow of the sandstone that surrounds you and the valleys beyond. The cinder cone shape of Veyo Volcano is easy to spot in the not so far distance and if you don't feel wholly transported back to prehistoric times at this point you clearly never watched The Land Before Time as a kid, and that's just sad.

When In Rome...

I usually time my hikes to the Vortex with a visit to Gunlock Falls. The Falls and Vortex are mere minutes from one another, so it makes complete sense to combine these two into one trip. The first time I visited The Vortex was on such a trip back in 2008 maybe? It was the last year the falls flowed before they took a 10 year hiatus. I remember being blown away by both, and this is when I finally started to really appreciate the beauty southern Utah had to offer. Imagine my disappointment when I tried to go back and recreate this trip a few years later, only to find the falls are actually a pretty rare occurrence. Face palm.

No Falls flowing? No problem! Go check out the little town of Veyo after your hike instead. Cool down poolside at the infamous Veyo Pool and swing by Veyo Pies for a bite to eat and a slice of one of their legendary pies. They don't mess around with names in Veyo, straight to the point, eh? Both are considered prized southern Utah institutions and a visit to the area would be incomplete without stopping by.

It may appear at first glace as though The Vortex is located in the middle of nowhere, but as you can see there is plenty in the area to keep you busy. Whether you choose to make this an all day outing, just a quick hike, or something in between, this little spot in southwest Utah is sure to impress!

{as always: practice LEAVE NO TRACE. stay hydrated. tell someone where you are going. wear appropriate clothing. be mindful of the weather. be nice to fellow hikers. have fun, make good choices, & hike smart}

3,432 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page