My 11-year-old son and I set out for Signal Peak on August 17, 2008. We stayed in St. George overnight and got up before the sun, as the forecast was for a hot day in Dixie, and we wanted to get up the switchbacks before it got hot. We traveled up I-15 to the Leeds exit and found the Silver Reef Road and hit the odometer. The road is paved for a mile or so until it crosses the creek and turns to dirt. From there, the road is generally in good shape; if you have a 4WD or even a Subaru Outback type car, this road is no problem at all, although there are a couple of spots where it might be tough if you were driving the old family sedan.
We arrived at the Oak Grove Campground at about 5.45 am, and it was still dark. It looked like we had the place mostly to ourselves, as we could only see one other vehicle camped there.
After arranging our stuff and getting ready to go, we started off at 6.05, and it was still dark enough for headlamps. Given the darkness, I was concerned we might miss the early right-hand turn to the summit trail, but it was pretty obvious where the turn-off was. It's only a couple hundred yards past the carpark, and there is a pretty obvious fork in the road. Previous trip reports have noted either a sign (stating "Summit Trail") or at least a rock cairn at this fork, but as of August 2008 this fork is completely unmarked. Still, even without marking, and even in the dark, this turnoff was hard to miss.
After the fork, the trail starts to climb almost immediately, heading up to the right and then switching back to the left, proceeding up a half-mile to the sign marking the beginning of the Pine Valley Mountain Wilderness Area.
This sign was still there. After entering the wilderness area, nothing really changes much, the trail just keeps on heading steadily upward, switching back and forth dozens of times. The time to climb this trail is very early in the morning, though, as the sun as it rose over Zion National Park didn't really touch us much. The trail winds upward back in a sort of draw that remains shady for the first hour or so after sunrise. The views become slowly more spectacular the higher you rise, as the spires of Zion backlit in the early-morning sun become more visible. You can also see the towns of Hurricane and Washington, and the twin reservoirs Quail Creek and Sand Hollow. Each time we stopped to catch our breath, we took in the great views.
After dozens of switchbacks, we finally reached the ridgeline at about 8.15 am. Because of the early hour, the temperature had remained cool and we had been able to keep a good pace.
We concluded as we sat munching a snack at the ridgeline that the switchbacks were not nearly as fierce as the other trip reports made them out to be.
After a 15 minute break, we headed over the ridge. Almost immediately, the terrain changes from the dry, southeast-facing slope (which was dominated by scrub oak, manzanita, and the occasional ponderosa pine) to a cool, moist, verdant forest, with soft needles covering the ground and mushrooms poking their way up through the needles. It was shady and cool and altogether inviting. From the ridgeline the trail heads downward, giving back some of that hard-earned elevation, for probably about a quarter mile, until we reached the wooden sign, facing the opposite direction, stating that Whipple Valley is in one direction and Further Water in the other.
From this sign, we went left (southwest), the trail trending upward now through the forest for a while until it enters the small grassy meadow known as Deer Flat. In August, this meadow was waterless, but otherwise would make an excellent camping spot. The trail heads straight through Deer Flat, and then climbs gently up a small rise and down into the next watershed, which is Further Water.
I should interject here that this portion of the hike--from the ridgeline to the summit--was longer than I had anticipated from reading other trip reports. This is a very pleasant walk through a beautiful alpine forest, with only gentle elevation gains and losses, but it is farther than advertised.
Anyway, the trail descends into Further Water meadow, where there is in fact a small trickle of water, even in August, which kind of surprised me. As in Deer Flat, there was a nice place to camp here. This meadow is much longer than Deer Flat, and both meadows are some of the more beautiful alpine meadows I have seen. The trail proceeds all the way through the Further Water meadow, and then bears to the right. As you proceed through the Further Water meadow, the summit knoll is directly in front of you. At the end of the meadow, when the trail re-enters the forest and starts to bear to the right, we left the trail and headed upward to the left. From there, we just picked our way through the forest toward the top of the knoll. There are no real obstacles bigger than some fallen trees, and no undergrowth to speak of. It is just a matter of picking a path upward.
After a few minutes we came to the top of a narrow ridge, and followed this ridge in a general southwesterly direction until we came to the end of it. At the end of this narrow ridge is a cairn marker that looks a lot like the cairn marker in Picture #4 of the summitpost Images on the Signal Peak webpage. At the base of this cairn marker is a plastic tupperware-type container holding a pen and a notebook. The notebook proclaims that it was left there on August 19, 2006. A few people had signed the book, but not very many, which made me sort of suspicious that this was not the actual summit. We signed into this trail register, but then consulted the topo map which clearly indicated that this was NOT the actual summit, as marked on the map, and that the actual summit was a few hundred yards to the west on the next knoll over.
So we put the pack back on and made the 5-minute walk over to the next knoll, where, after some poking around, we found another cairn that looks like the one in Picture #12, the picture with the funny bent stick. I am almost certain that this second cairn is the true summit, because the topo map seems to clearly indicate this, and also because the cairn was accompanied by two glass jars covered by metal coffee-style cans. The larger jar contained several small notebooks signed by many many hikers, and proclaimed on its first page that this was the highest point in Washington County. We reached this point at about 9.50 a.m., meaning that it took us 2:10 to get up the switchbacks, but then (after a 15-minute break) took us 1:20 (including time spent searching around in the trees for the summit) to get from the top of the ridgeline to the summit. What we learned, then, is that the switchbacks are not as fierce as advertised, but that the remainder of the hike, while not severe in terms of elevation gain/loss, is longer than advertised.
The views from the summit are blocked in large part by trees.
If you peer between the trees you can see most of St. George below you. We found one nice photo spot where you could look right down onto Snow Canyon, which was a spectacular view, one that included the high country in the foreground and the white and orange sandstone as well as the dark lava of Snow Canyon in the background. Quite a diverse landscape. It also occurred to me as I looked down onto St. George that the prominence was over 7300' in terms of the elevation difference between Signal Peak (10,365) and St. George (approx. 2900). If the trees on top were a bit thinner, this viewpoint would be right up there with the best of Utah's views. Even with the tree obstructions, it was still worthwhile to spend a few minutes up there taking it in.
After enjoying the view, we headed back. Not much to report on the way back, we just went back the way we came. The last couple miles of heading down the switchbacks were quite hot, as it was near midday and the sun was high in the sky and that southeast-facing slope is right in the direct path of the sun at that time of day. I was glad we were not ascending at this hour. We kept a good pace, though, and it only took us about two and a half hours to get back to the car from the summit.
A word about the trail: others have stated that this trail is in extremely poor shape, etc etc. While I would agree that it is not in tiptop shape, it is really not in that bad of shape, and it is easy to follow the entire way. There was not one time when I was unsure where the trail was or which way it went. It clearly could use some attention, and is sort of washed out in a few spots, but it is by no means difficult to follow. It also looked like someone had been up there very recently clipping branches of bushes and trees overgrowing the trail, so someone had been giving it some minimal attention.
All in all, this is a great hike, provided you get an early start in the summertime. We have done 20 of the 26 Utah COHPs, and of the 20 we have done we agreed that this hike was in the top four, along with Mount Ellen, Mount Nebo, and Deseret Peak.