Tom’s Head, Ashdown Gorge
9.8 miles (plus 19 miles by car)
Elevations: 3,460 ft. loss
• Rattlesnake Trailhead (start):10,460 ft.
• Coal Creek: 7,000 ft.
Trail: Trail is poorly maintained, but generally easy to follow. The last 3.4 miles of the hike involve wading through a shallow, rocky creek in the bottom of the Ashdown Gorge, so be sure to wear wettable boots. Sneakers and sandals are not recommended.
Season: Midsummer to mid-fall. The higher elevations are usually covered with snow from mid-November until mid-June, making the trail difficult to follow. For current conditions call the Visitor Center, Cedar Breaks National Monument, at (801) 586-0787, or the Cedar City Ranger District, Dixie National Forest, at (801) 865-3200.
Vicinity: Cedar Breaks National Monument, near Cedar City
This diverse hike has something for almost everyone-from high alpine wilderness to a walk through a narrow limestone river gorge. There are also several nice views of the Cedar Breaks along the way. Finally, during most of the summer you will be unlikely to meet other hikers along this trail, and the solitude makes it an even more pleasant way to spend a day.
Although the hike can easily be completed in one day, many people prefer to extend it to a two or three day backpack trip. There is plenty to see. Ashdown Creek originates in the Cedar Breaks Amphitheater, about 1,500 feet below the Visitor Center, and a nice side trip is to walk upstream along the creek into the amphitheater. The Park Service does not allow camping in this area, however, so if you intend to do this you should establish a camp on the west side of the park boundary.
From Rattlesnake Trailhead the route meanders gently downhill in a westerly direction along the northern boundary of Cedar Breaks National Monument. The trail is faint in a few places, but it is well defined by blaze marks on the trees and occasional cairns. Short spur trails leave the main trail in at least two places for viewpoints along the rim. Be sure to take advantage of these side excursions.
After about 1.5 miles you will see Snow Ridge just south of the trail, so called because of the white rock along the top of the ridge. Here the route suddenly becomes steeper as it cuts down below the ridge on its way to Stud Flat. Stud Flat, a large rolling meadow above the confluence of Tri Story Canyon and Rattlesnake Creek, is extremely photogenic and a good place for a brief rest stop. Be sure to spend some time enjoying the view because soon you will be in the bottom of a timbered canyon.
From the western side of Stud Flat the trail continues dropping down into Rattlesnake Canyon, reaching the creek after a descent of some 600 feet. If you are interested in camping along Rattlesnake, there is a particularly good campsite about 0.7 mile downstream from the point where the trail first reaches the water. Finally, after following the creek for 1.6 miles you will come to a trail junction where a sign identifies the High Mountain Trail on the right. Here the Ashdown Gorge Trail leaves Rattlesnake Creek, climbing slightly up the south side of the creek and swinging around in a wide turn to the east to meet Ashdown Creek. As you leave Rattlesnake be sure to start looking for a strong, straight stick to use as a walking stick over the last section of the hike through Ashdown Gorge. The trail crosses Ashdown Creek on the eastern end of the gorge, 1.1 miles after leaving Rattlesnake Creek.
As stated earlier, Ashdown Creek also forms a natural route into the Cedar Breaks Amphitheater, below the rim of Cedar Breaks National Monument. If you wish to make a side trip into this area it is about 4 miles upstream from the beginning of Ashdown Gorge. You can also see the remains of an old saw mill 0.5 mile upstream from the gorge. (The saw mill is on private land, so do not molest it in any way.)
Your shuttle car is positioned 3.4 miles downstream from the east entrance of Ashdown Gorge, but before proceeding into the gorge you should reassess the weather. If there is any chance of rain, stay out! Ashdown Creek drains a large area that includes the entire Cedar Breaks amphitheater, and the water level of the creek can rise very quickly during a rainstorm. There is no way out of the narrowest sections of the gorge, so if it looks like rain, don’t take a chance.
If the weather looks bad, there is another route that leads to Highway 14 without entering the gorge. Just continue following the trail across Ashdown Creek. The trail soon crosses a jeep road and then continues in a southerly direction up Potato Hollow. After 2.9 miles the trail reaches Crystal Spring, where it meets another jeep road that leads to Highway 14. The total distance from Ashdown Creek to the highway by this route is 3.9 miles. Unfortunately, however, the trail meets the highway 5.8 miles upcanyon from the pullout where your shuttle car is parked.
For most people the highlight of this hike is the final 3.4 mile walk through Ashdown Gorge. From the east entrance the gorge gradually deepens until the walls on either side reach a height of 600 feet. After 1.0 mile you will pass by the junction of Rattlesnake Creek and Ashdown Creek. Notice the 100-foot-high limestone monolith, locally known as “Tom’s Head” at the mouth of Rattlesnake Creek. Then another 1.0 mile of walking downstream from Rattlesnake Creek will bring you to the next point of interest, Flanigan Arch.
Flanigan Arch is a large natural arch, about 200 feet wide, positioned high on the north wall near the deepest part of the gorge. Unfortunately it is difficult to spot and many hikers miss it. If you are wading in the river it is only visible along a 100-foot-long stretch of the creek bed, and if you are walking too close to the north wall you won’t be able to see it at all. Keep an eye on your watch, and after you have walked about 20 minutes downstream from Tom’s Head start walking on the south side of the river and look up frequently. The stretch of river below the arch runs directly magnetic west, with a wide rocky shore on the south side.
From Flanigan Arch it is another 1.4 miles through the western portion of the gorge to Highway 14. After passing Long Hollow and Crow Creek you will see the highway above the south shore of the stream. When you reach the concrete spillway in the streambed you should see a short jeep road leading up to the pullout where your shuttle car is parked.