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Slow Roll

Written by Devon O’Neil for Bike Mag

Southwest Utah’s rise to riding fame

As I climbed out of a truck in Utah’s Gooseberry Mesa parking lot, toothy, redrock peaks filled the view to the north and east, highlighted by the world-famous skyline of Zion National Park. I’d been told to expect a two- to three-hour ride that was rugged and technical. But perusing our flat surroundings made me skeptical.

Perhaps sensing my apprehension, Jake Weber, a retired Army combat engineer-turned guide with Utah Mountain Biking Adventures, offered a measure of reassurance. “We get a lot of people who show up and say they want to ride 30 miles every day of their trip,” he told me. “But after about 15 miles on their first day, they’re like, ‘Yeah, we’re good,’ and they’re ready for a beer at the trailhead.”

Welcome to the land of “mesa miles.” Maybe you’ve heard of them. In short — no pun intended — they’re harder than standard miles which makes them feel longer. The more you ride them, the more comfortable you get disclosing that you “only” rode 10 miles today and it still took two hours.

I had never ridden a mesa mile when I got to Washington County, Utah, which is well known to desert aficionados as a singletrack oasis and has hosted the world’s premier freeride competition, Red Bull Rampage, off and on since 2001. Still, it remains something of a hidden gem to the rest of the riding world, in part because it’s remote: four hours from Salt Lake City, six hours from Phoenix, nine hours from Denver.

St. George, the county seat and a city of roughly 90,000 people, spent decades as a retirement community for golfers and still attracts celebrities like Michael Jordan to its greens come winter. But starting around the mid 2000s, adventure took a bite out of golf’s place as the area’s top attraction. The number of local outfitters swelled from a dozen to more than 50. Mountain biking overtook road biking as the most popular two-wheeled pursuit. With an almost 90-percent population jump since 2000, Washington County ranks as the fastest-growing metropolitan area in America. It also has a warmer climate than its sometimes-rival, Moab, five hours to the northeast, and offers legitimate riding and 60-degree temps in the belly of winter.

On this beaming morning in early October, photographer Margus Riga and I had joined a local crew for a spin along the South Rim and through Hidden Canyon. Gooseberry, the original mesa ride and still a lot of locals’ favorite mesa of the five with trails, carries an almost-mythical reputation among those who know about it. Mostly that is due to Goose’s sandstone features and their surprising, albeit intimidating, ridability.

“They’re like giant rock biscuits that you can just roll up onto,” said 54-year-old Kenny Jones, who owns Gooseberry Yurts and once finished 14 straight Leadville 100s back-to-back. “A lot of the bottom sections of the rocks have a nice, roll-y out. So they look really steep but then the tranny grabs your front wheel and gets you out of the vertical position.”

We followed Quentin Morisette, owner of Over the Edge Sports in nearby Hurricane, as he weaved between puddles in the rock — and the brine shrimp they hold, making it a no-no to ride through them — and abided by the local code not to leave tracks in the dirt. He led us to a playground that he called the Skatepark: two deep, connected bowls that mimic the flow of a purpose-built concrete bowl. From there we swooped between stands of juniper, piñon and cedar trees, as well as the mesa’s namesake gooseberry bushes. After 15 minutes of wrestling our bikes up, down and over the sandstone landscape — a full-body workout that longtime local Bill Bergeron compares to “being stuck in a cage with a gorilla” — we came upon a 20-foot-tall biscuit that looked like a soft-serve ice-cream tower. It was steep and layered, with a small drop at the entry over significant exposure. Morisette hiked to the top for the second time in his life and prepared to drop in.

The line, my riding partners explained, was not to be confused with the Wall of Considerable Consequences, which we’d pass later, or the Wall of Death, which we’d skip. Morisette rolled in, landed the initial drop and rocketed out the bottom as the rest of us filmed it with our phones. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” shouted Weber, who served two tours in Iraq and left the military after a pair of traumatic brain injuries saddled him with PTSD. Now he coaches a local high school team and rarely sees someone test the sharp end, hence his incredulous response.

Morisette let out a sly grin. “I’ve been riding here for 23 years, and it just gets better,” he said. “When you’re on the rock, the sky’s the limit.”

As we continued toward Gooseberry’s high point, I realized why locals pay attention to their tires’ side knobs here: You need a lof of support to grip the off-camber sandstone. It helps that the trail is marked by white dots on the rock, too; otherwise it’s easy to wander off track.

We pedaled over a 4-foot-wide plank to the Point, an airy perch overlooking the valley and Zion. The trail only gains 300 vertical feet from the White Trailhead (elevation: 5,100 feet above sea level) to here, but the entire ride includes about 900 feet of gain. “It’s all 10 feet at a time,” Morisette quipped.

We ogled the old Rampage venue to the north, which includes the notorious King Kong descent, as well as Flying Monkey, a mesa across the valley where the government, legend has it, used to send furry primates down a rail propelled by a rocket at supersonic speeds to test military ejector seats.

Then we returned the way we came, back to the trailhead. Slightly under the weather, I collapsed in the gravelly shade, feeling like I’d ridden 20 miles if not more. Someone informed me it was actually less than 10. I sighed, chalked it up to the mesa effect and closed my eyes for a nap, while the others tipped back beers in the sun.

According to Washington County’s GIS department, the local mountain biking scene encompasses 296 miles of mapped trails to go with a gnarliness spectrum ranging from sublime cross-country favorites like Hurricane Rim, J.E.M. and Dead Ringer, to the five local mesas and their sandstone playgrounds, to big-boy gravity lines that attract the world’s best freeriders every October.

The area’s rise to prominence happened neither quickly nor due to a mass movement. On the contrary, it started in late 1993 when a pair of native sons took up the sport at age 49. Twin brothers Morgan and Mike Harris had grown up in Rockville, a tiny town on the Virgin River at the mouth of Zion Canyon, but because their father forbade them from riding dirt bikes, they didn’t start until they were 26. As Morgan tells it, they rode motos for 20 years, then performance ATVs for three, at which point they grew wary of the danger and turned to mountain bikes.

In the early days, Morgan rode a primitive bike with a shoddy fork. “Boy, I went home bloody a lot,” he chuckles. A few other locals were riding at the time, but they mainly stuck to the mellow Green Valley Loop. “There wasn’t any real anchor trail to draw people to the area,” Harris recalls.

He and Mike used to hunt deer, coyotes and rabbits on Gooseberry Mesa, and they often heard visitors talk about slickrock riding in Moab. They knew Gooseberry contained similar features and started poking around, starting with the slab that parallels the White Road. They built a short trail through one of the mesa’s mini-canyons, then found out they needed a permit. So they met with the BLM in 1994 to talk about expanding their work to the north and south rims and Hidden Canyon. “Originally they wanted 15 cents a foot, per year, for the use of the land,” Harris says. Then the agency softened its stance. “They said if you can have everything completed by Trail Days of 1996, we’ll do a trail dedication. We had it done, but it took them until ’98 to dedicate it.”

With Gooseberry complete, the Harris brothers turned their attention to Little Creek Mountain, which they’d been staring at for years from Gooseberry. They started exploring its slabs, ancient petroglyphs and fossils (there’s actually a dinosaur bone embedded in the sandstone in one spot) and potential trail corridors that didn’t require slaughtering flora. After a year-and-a-half of building there — with unofficial permission from a BLM official, Harris says — the agency changed its mind and asked them to stop. So they did, again shifting to where they thought the next destination could be. In this case it was a long redrock spine that would come to be known as Church Rocks.

Mike Harris quit riding after Little Creek, leaving Morgan to continue alone. Luckily others picked up the slack, and soon enough a growing community of riders had built Guacamole, which fostered its own mini-network on the mesa including The Whole Guacamole, Holy Guacamole and Salt on the Rim.

Harris left to build trails in Nevada after constructing Holy Guacamole, and now, at age 73, he just maintains existing routes. But the foundation he and Mike laid continues to anchor the network. If you ask 20 locals to name their favorite trail, like I did, you could get 15 different answers. The scene now includes a 100-mile race — True Grit, held every March in St. George — and a respected advocacy organization, the Dixie Mountain Bike Trails Association (DMBTA), which was launched in 2010 by True Grit founder Cimarron Chacon. (‘Dixie’ is a common moniker in Washington County because the early settlers grew cotton, which led to the area being known as ‘Utah’s Dixie.’)

DMBTA only counts about 75 official members, but more than 2,000 people follow the organization on social media, “and a lot of them come out to our volunteer days,” says club president Kevin Christopherson. Others hand him money on the trails, even if they’re not from the area. In addition, the Rampage organizers have donated about $14,000 to DMBTA each of the past two years.

The roots and robust support keep the area on the broader map, attracting riders from around the world — with a healthy dose of freeriders each spring, an influx that Morisette affectionately calls the Canadian Invasion. The key to providing such a reliable product when so many other destinations in the region cannot, he says, is the geography. Just north of Hurricane, Interstate 15 goes from 3,500 feet in elevation to above 5,000 and stays there, which places Zion on the northern edge of viable winter and early spring riding.

Although a lot of local rides, particularly the mesas, require driving a fair distance to park at a trailhead, not everywhere does. One of the guys we rode Gooseberry with, a diehard XC fanatic named Josh Wolfe, lives in St. George and doesn’t own a car. We bumped into him the next morning in the nondescript parking lot for Zen and Barrel Ride, just over a dirt mound from St. George’s subdivisions and commercial sprawl. We had just finished up an ambitious combo ride in a group of eight.

Wolfe was on his way out for a midday loop, and after our morning figure-eight on Zen and Barrel, I understood why he lives so close to these trails. Zen features the kind of ledgy, technical terrain that makes your forearms cramp. Kenny Jones called it a “rim-basher trail,” and halfway through our descent it delivered. Jake Miller, a Red Rock ambassador and standout local rider, buckled an $1,800 carbon wheel in two places without crashing. Despite its ride-from-home proximity to a city of 90,000, you still feel like you’re away from the hectic rush of civilization when you reach the top. Then the real fun begins. Both Riga, who lives in Vancouver and calls the North Shore home, and I deemed it our favorite trail of the week.

We continued on to the freeride-friendly Barrel from there, led by longtime St. George rider Bryce Pratt, who built it 15 years ago, and Mitchell Curwen, who recently refurbished it and added some features. “If you want to see what a bike can do, this is a great place to take it,” Curwen said as we pedaled up a wash toward the top. Pratt designed the trail to snake through a series of barrel cactuses, which look like stunted pony kegs with 3-inch-long thorns.

I followed a mother of three named Angie Anderson down the Waterfall, an aptly named chunky section that serves as Barrel’s crux, if you don’t count the jumps below. Some of those jumps dropped blindly off of giant boulders into perfectly sculpted transitions. Others were gaps, including one over a creek. Everything seemed to flow just as it should until we were back at the parking lot.

“Doing Zen and Barrel in the same day is a big day. They’re probably our two most technical trails in St. George City,” Curwen said. “If you can get out of here without a broken bike part or broken body part, that’s a win.”

Victorious, Riga and I returned to St. George later that afternoon to check out the Snake Hollow St. George Bike Park — the newest addition to the area’s stable of radness. Built on 80 acres of city-owned land through a collaboration between DMBTA, the Southern Utah Bicycle Alliance and the Washington County Tourism Office, the facility was funded by $1.6 million in tax dollars and was slated to open the month after our visit. But there were already dozens of kids testing it out after school. This winter, city workers and volunteers are planning to add a 5.5-mile NICA racecourse through the lava field on the lot’s southern end. According to county tourism director Kevin Lewis, it will be the only year-round bike park in Utah.

The most recent addition to Washington County’s singletrack menu arrived two years ago when DMBTA finished a 7-mile intermediate loop on Wire Mesa. In its first year of existence, trail counters recorded 16,000 visitors — or an average of 44 a day. It’s close to Gooseberry and Grafton mesas, so you’d expect it to see traffic, but the number still quantified the area’s growing renown. (In total, 178,000 people rode BLM trails around Washington County last year, including 30,000 on Gooseberry.)

The numbers are a far cry from when Morgan Harris broached the idea of a Gooseberry trail to the BLM 25 years ago. “At that first meeting, they said, ‘Being that remote, 7-and-a-half miles off the highway, you’re probably only going to see 36 riders a month, at most,’” Harris recalled. Within three years of Gooseberry’s trails being open, the local bike shop owners told Harris they’d seen a 60-percent increase in sales. Five years later, when Harris’ fork fell apart, Zion Cycles founder Fred Pagles gave him a new Trek Remedy and free service and parts for life. When Harris protested, Pagles said: “If you hadn’t done what you did, I wouldn’t have a business.”

There is still a touch of uncertainty about what will happen to unofficial trails on BLM land that have become wildly popular and mapped, like Little Creek and Dig It on Grafton Mesa. A long-in-the-works travel management plan is nearing completion, and locals are optimistic the BLM will bring them into the fold and declare them legal, since closing them would be more complicated and potentially hurt the area’s economic growth.

But whatever happens, the local scene is plenty healthy, as evidenced by a recent show of support for Harris after he was diagnosed with gum cancer. In mid-May, Harris underwent surgery to remove a tumor, and doctors removed his fibula from his lower right leg and used it to rebuild his jaw. Locals held a fundraiser to help cover his medical bills, bringing in nearly $25,000. Over the Edge built a new Ibis Mojo HD for Harris to ride into his 80s. At a post-ride barbecue in October, Harris said he still didn’t have the leg power to ride technical terrain, as much as he wanted to.

Instead, he had been maintaining trails he built a generation ago. “I get out there at daylight and get done before it gets too hot,” he said. “Me and the dog, Hazel.” His tools were hidden in the bushes as he spoke.

I asked Harris what he thinks of the community that he and his brother helped to create. “It amazes me what’s happened here,” he said. “When I was building trail, I never expected any payback. Payback was people having a smile on their face, loving what you built. I can’t believe this came out of us wanting to ride a trail on Gooseberry.”

RIDE: Although most trails are on MTB Project, for a more localized resource check out, a brand-new, one-stop tool for trail descriptions, photos and videos with downloadable maps and GPS navigation. Trails are sorted into geographical zones to showcase the various regions throughout the county.

STAY: You’ll find ample lodging options throughout the county via Google. We stayed at a rental house in Sand Hollow Resort, which suited our large group well and was convenient to both Hurricane and St. George. You can also check out Gooseberry Yurts for a more primitive, adventurous option — with four days’ worth of riding from your front door. The 20-foot-diameter yurts sleep five to seven adults and cost $150 a night.

EAT: Again, options abound, but you can’t go wrong with Lonny Boy’s BBQ in Hurricane, George’s Corner Restaurant in St. George and the Bit and Spur Restaurant and Saloon in Springdale. Affogato is a worthy coffee shop in St. George, while River Rock Roasting Co., in La Verkin, serves tasty food and everything from coffee to beer on the edge of a canyon carved by the Virgin River.

SHOP: Over the Edge Sports in Hurricane treated our team well, whether that meant providing TLC to the day’s testing steeds each evening, sharing local beta on where to ride or leading the way on hard-to-follow loops (OTE also runs a free shop ride every Saturday, which is a great way to see the area’s nooks and crannies). Red Rock Bicycle Co., Rapid Cycling and Bicycles Unlimited have everything you need in St. George.   

Written by Jenny Willden from RootsRated Media Utah Office of Tourism

From Classic Broadway Style Plays to Contemporary Art, Greater Zion Has it All

Arriving near sunset, my partner and I take our seats facing the 1,500-foot red rock cliffs at Southern Utah’s Tuacahn Amphitheater, the rocks glowing in the magic hour light. We’ve just driven in from Salt Lake City, but the bustling energy of the city quickly fades, and we find ourselves enchanted as a tale as old as time unfolds on stage. The classic story of Beauty and the Beast comes to life as actors dressed as candlesticks and clocks sing and dance to “Be Our Guest,” their voices echoing against the canyon walls.

One of three Broadway-caliber live shows that Tuacahn hosts each year, the dramatic desert setting breathes new magic into this old fairytale. Beauty and the Beast, Annie, and The Count of Monte Cristo will soon grace this stage, and no performance disappoints in this spectacular space.

From the freeway, it’s easy to mistake this hamlet for a strip mall-filled border town, but visitors discover that St. George, Utah, boasts a flourishing art and culture scene that beckons exploration. From theater to galleries to a thriving music scene, this red rock utopia is more alive than ever.

And the secret is out. St. George’s booming population has made it the fastest-growing metro area in the nation, with retirees and young adventurers alike relocating to this desert paradise that’s a short drive from Zion National Park, vast red rock wilderness and conservation areas and a cluster of Utah’s best state parks. But you don’t have to move here to get in on the action. St. George’s spectacular landscapes, small town charm, and big city amenities make it an incredible place for an artistic escape.

Tuacahn Center For the Arts
Tuacahn Center For the Arts

Broadway in the Desert: Tuacahn Center for the Arts

Built in the shadow of tall red rock sandstone cliffs, Tuacahn puts on Broadway productions in a dramatic outdoor amphitheater near Snow Canyon State Park. The word “Tuacahn” means “Canyon of the Gods,” and its stunning rugged backdrop enhances any production. Catch musical performances by leading local and national acts on the outdoor stage through November, long after northern Utah’s temperatures have gone cold.

Return to Tuacahn on Saturday mornings for a weekly market featuring local art, crafts, food, and free live entertainment. An ever-changing set of painters and artisans sell their wares alongside Tuacahn Canyon, and musical acts play until afternoon.

Outdoor theatre

Art Enclave: Kayenta and Coyote Gulch Art Village

To discover the essence of St. George’s authentic art scene, make a beeline for the artist enclave of Kayenta. Creative types have long touted the inspirational benefits of living amidst these soaring cliffs and dazzling panoramas, illustrated by Kayenta’s popularity. Built against stunning varicolored rock walls just seven miles from St. George, Kayenta bustles with galleries, studios, festivals, retail shops, gourmet food, a yoga studio and even a spa — just in case you need a vacation from your vacation.

Venture into Juniper Sky Gallery to see wind sculptures and Mystic Canyon Light for outdoor landscape photography. Find impressive ceramic works at Zia Pottery Studio.

Refuel and caffeinate amidst a xeriscaped desert (one that needs very little irrigation) at Xetava Gardens Café, a Kayenta coffee shop and kitchen surrounded by lava fields. Then catch a brilliant sunset in the sculpture garden or stroll around the meditative Desert Rose Labyrinth built by Kayenta locals.

Art Events: Center for the Arts and Festivals

Catch performances by musicians, comedians, artists, and actors at the new, multifunctional Center for the Arts in Kayenta Art Village. Completed in 2017, the spacious center encompasses 11,000 square feet along with an outdoor plaza.

Stay for one of the region’s signature art festivals and gallery walks. High temperatures mean summers are slower here, making the art-strolling season a reason to visit during the cooler months of March (St. George Art Festival), April (Street Painting Festival) and October (Art in Kayenta Festival).

Close up view of pottery and paintings on display.
Dave West Art Gallery

St. George is home to 16 museums and galleries, and one of its best served as a simple sugar-beet-seed storage facility before being transformed into an art museum. Through the work of the community, St. George Art Museum opened in 1997 in this restored space. Today, the museum boasts a collection of regional and local art exhibits as well as rotating collections and events like date nights and book clubs.

For relaxation amidst classic and contemporary art, visit Dixie State University’s Sears Art Museum. The museum features six exhibits each year and an outdoor sculpture garden where you can meditate and meander among reflecting pools and bronze sculptures. Admission to both is always free.

Outdoor Tunes: Concerts in the Park

Casual and free is the name of the game at this outdoor Monday music series. Make it a long weekend and pack a picnic for these family-friendly Concerts in the Park that run from April to September in Vernon Worthen Park. Pick up some picnic fixings and then lounge on a blanket and soak up jazz, rock and roll and R&B under the stars.

Musical Theatre: Brigham’s Playhouse and St. George Musical Theater

Performing arts are popular in this community, and there’s room for more than one theater in town. Beyond the red rocks of Tuacahn, find Brigham’s Playhouse, a family-friendly theater focusing on fun, affordable performances. Its location inside a saloon-styled structure in Washington, just outside St. George, adds to the ambiance, and you can enjoy an old-fashioned root beer or dessert during any performance.

Popular St. George Musical Theatre closed for nearly five years when it lost access to its performance venue, but the company’s return to the old St. George Opera House has been met with enthusiasm. See classics like Annie, The Music Man and Guys and Dolls performed here by talented singing and dancing casts.

Classic Sounds: Southwest Symphony Orchestra

Hear the sounds of Handel’s Messiah and masters like Beethoven and Brahms at performances by the Southwest Symphony Orchestra. This 75-member orchestra calls the Cox Performing Arts Center on the campus of Dixie State University home and is celebrating 36 years of inspiring the community with classic symphonic performances.

Whether you come to St. George for the professional theater, dazzling landscapes, or abundant art galleries, this booming southern Utah destination just four hours from Salt Lake City makes the perfect place for a cultural getaway.

Written by Melissa McGibbon from the Utah Office of Tourism

We May as Well Have Been on Mars

Far away from any semblance of civilization and surrounded by a seemingly endless horizon of dramatic desert landscape, we had the place to ourselves. Is there anything so liberating as escaping the masses to quietly commune with nature in a vast expanse of stunningly beautiful desolate terrain? Granted, it was a Wednesday afternoon in the middle of July with temperatures soaring into the triple digits, but still. We were there to take a tour of the legendary Gooseberry Mesa mountain biking trail system near Hurricane, Utah.

Woman sitting on cliff's edge

Let’s set our stage: Massive exposed shelves reveal 240 million years of erosion and a departed ocean that left shoreline deposits and formed the hardened Shinarump conglomerate, which formed the cap of Gooseberry Mesa. Rising further, the bygone forest left behind petrified wood, which can be found lying on the mesa surface. Wavy bands of red sandstone mold the Moenkopi Formation that experienced riders familiarly know as slickrock. Swirls of piñons and junipers pepper the trails, while California condors circle above. A cottontail rabbit darts across the path. We peer closely at the rock as we spin by to see the sunbathing lizards. Stop for a quiet rest, a deer might make an appearance. Mind the cacti. Crashing is even less fun if you land in the prickly Claret Cup Cactus.

Crashing? It’s possible. These trails are not for everyone, as most are considered intermediate to advanced level riding.

Far away from any semblance of civilization and surrounded by a seemingly endless horizon of dramatic desert landscape …

This is a first-rate, looping trail system that allows for a variety of course options. If you ride the entire Big Loop Trail counterclockwise, you’ll complete just over 13 miles of intermediate and advanced technical riding connecting both the North Rim and South Rim sections. Alternatively, you can choose your own adventure by riding a combination of the trails to customize your mileage and difficulty preferences. Although both the Point and Overlook vantage points are out-and-back trails, they are absolutely worth the extra effort.

The trails are marked fairly well and easy to follow in most places, but cairns can always be missed. Some of the routes are marked with white paint spots to designate the trail. However, because you can ride in either direction, it’s important to use your navigational skills because it’s too easy to get turned around and the trailscapes can start to look homogenous real quick if you get lost.

Woman standing at the edge of a bluff.

The summer’s mid-day heat made each pedal rotation a little more work, but the cache of Gooseberry Mesa is that it features roller coaster slickrock singletrack grandeur in lieu of lengthy ascents and descents, allowing riders to whistle while they work. The South Rim and Hidden Canyon loop is considered advanced technical and inspires a few come-to-Jesus moments along the way. Good thing it’s always an option to hop off your bike and walk the iffy sections that are close to the cliff side. The 1.8-mile North Rim is more suitable for intermediate riders and features short, steep climbs with no shortage of jaw-dropping vistas.

If you’re unsure of your ability, have a go at the moderate Practice Trail. It will give you a good idea of what’s in store. It’s also a great warm-up for the longer trails. Overall, no matter which trail you choose, Gooseberry Mesa is a classic trail that will reward you with epic views and darn good fun. Add it to your itinerary if you plan to ride in the area!

Written by Jenna Herzog at RootsRated Media

Here Are the Best Ways to Experience the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area

Tucked in the far southwestern corner of Utah, the expansive desert landscape of Red Cliffs National Conservation Area marks the zone where three ecosystems merge: the Mojave Desert, Great Basin, and Colorado Plateau. Covering roughly 45,000 acres of public land with 130 miles of non-motorized trails, the preserve offers a rugged environment ripe for adventure. We’ve hand-picked some of the area’s best hikes, mountain bike trails, and one-of-a-kind outdoor experiences to create the ultimate guide for a weekend spent exploring the quiet beauty of Red Cliffs.

Must-Do Hikes

With so many miles of trail to explore, narrowing it down to the best hiking adventures in Red Cliffs proves no easy task. For a well-rounded look at the best this desert landscape has to offer, check out these must-do trails.

Incredible sandstone arch
Babylon Arch in Red Cliffs National Conservation Area

Babylon Arch Trail

Gaze out in any direction from this trail and you’ll see the impressive sandstone formations that typify southern Utah. Swirling layers of red and orange rock form narrow canyons and hollowed out chambers line the cliff walls. This 3-mile out-and-back route winds through sandstone gulches and up a few short, but sandy, hills on the way to the namesake Babylon Arch, shortly before the trail’s turn-around point at the Virgin River. Hiking through the sand and few trail markers along the way can make the path tough to follow, but the solitude and scenery are worth the effort.

Yellow Knolls Trail

Situated eight miles north of downtown St. George, this 4-mile out-and-back trail takes you into a world of slickrock dunes with a fascinating checkerboard pattern. The trek starts with relatively easy hiking in a meadow of sagebrush and desert grasses before the moderate uphill section takes you right through the Yellow Knolls for which the trail is named. For a longer excursion, connect the Yellow Knolls hike with the Winchester and Black Gulch trails for a strenuous, 6-mile loop.

Red Cliffs Nature Trail

Also known as the Red Reef Trail, this hike showcases many of the quintessential charms that draw visitors to southern Utah. Glorious red rock canyons complete with waterfalls and pools, a pristine creek lined with vibrant cottonwood trees, and caverns painted with ancient petroglyphs all combine to make this hike a classic. Suitable for all ages, this easy 2-mile trail starts at the Red Cliffs Campground about 15 miles northeast of St. George.

Mountain Biking Adventures

Whether on your own or as part of a guided excursion, mountain biking is the perfect way to explore the unparalleled beauty and solitude of Red Cliffs. St. George and several smaller towns in Washington County—like Springdale, Virgin, La Verkin and Hurricane—offer everything you need to set tire to dirt, from bike rentals to gear shops to qualified guides. Here are a couple of the best rides you’ll find in the conservation area.

Mountain biker on red rocks

Dino Cliffs and Church Rock Loop

If you’ve only got time for one trail here, go for this one. An excellent introduction to slickrock singletrack riding, this intermediate, 9.5-mile loop serves up incredible views of sandstone bluffs, snow-capped peaks on the horizon, and a few dinosaur tracks thrown in for good measure. For a longer ride, add on the easy to intermediate, 7-mile (one-way) Prospector Trail.

Broken Mesa Rim Trail

Strong riders comfortable with rocky climbs and descents will get their kicks on the 4.6-mile (one-way) Broken Mesa Rim Trail. Located 10 miles north of St. George in Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, this heart-pumping ride can be linked up with some dirt road and singletrack climbing for an adventurous 15.5-mile loop, known as the Broken Mesa Loop Trail.

Icehouse Trail

Also located in the quiet beauty of Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, this upper-intermediate ride features 6.8 miles of sustained downhill, descending nearly 2,000 feet. Technical terrain toward the end will challenge your skills on rock-strewn singletrack. Run a shuttle with two vehicles, or ride back up the dirt Cottonwood Road back to the trailhead for an 18-mile loop.

Man preparing to take a photograph of red rock formations under blue sky.

A Few Other Unique Outdoor Adventures

A trip to Red Cliffs National Conservation Area is the perfect opportunity to try new outdoor experiences in a remarkable desert setting. Unique adventures like soaring above Snow Canyon’s multi-colored peaks in a hot air balloon or navigating scenic backcountry roads on a guided Jeep tour are just a few examples of the opportunities available in Red Cliffs.

Rock climbing and canyoneering top the list of thrilling excursions in the area, with options to explore with local guides or to go out on your own (if you have the experience!). Snow Canyon State Park—which lies just northwest of St. George and is mostly encompassed within Red Cliffs National Conservation Area—features the highest concentration of established rock climbing routes in the region as well as several intriguing canyoneering spots.

When to Go

Like most of southern Utah, spring and fall are the best times of year to explore Red Cliffs. Pleasant temperatures and few rainy days make these seasons ideal for hiking, biking, camping and other outdoor adventures. Note that the rivers, waterfalls, and canyon pools are most vibrant in the spring before the warm temperatures of summer start to dry things up.

High temperatures during the peak of summer usually reach into the upper 90s or low 100s, while winter in St. George and the surrounding area stays relatively mild with average highs in the mid-50s.

Where to Stay in and Around St. George

The city of St. George, with a population just over 80,000, makes the ideal base camp for a weekend of exploring Red Cliffs National Conservation Area. From full-amenity resorts to cozy villas to secluded campgrounds, there’s a fitting place to lay your head for every type of adventurer.

When looking for a hotel in St. George, you’ll find most of the familiar names in hospitality, like Courtyard Marriott, Best Western, Holiday Inn, and Hilton. Additionally, St. George has several boutique resorts and hotels that offer a distinctly local feel with enviable vacation packages, such as The Advenire and Inn on the Cliff. Nearby Ivins, Utah, is home to Red Mountain Resort, another option for guests who seek luxury accommodations with spa and retreat packages in the area.

Red Mountain Resort in Ivins, Utah

Condo and villa rentals around St. George strike a nice balance between indulgence and relaxed comfort for a weekend trip. Popular choices like Red Sands Vacation Properties, The Inn at Entrada, and Ledges Vacation Rentals make it easy to find your home away from home, southern Utah style.

In the heart of town, St. George RV Park and Campground is an ideal option for those who appreciate the convenience of a central location while still enjoying their evenings of chilling and grilling out beneath the trees. Sixteen miles northeast of St. George, the Red Cliffs Campground offers a small, simple place for tents or RVs set amongst impressive sandstone canyons and the peaceful Quail Creek. Campers who call this place home for the weekend will enjoy easy access to some of the area’s main attractions, including Red Cliffs Nature Trail, the Dinosaur Tracks hiking area, and the Red Cliffs Anasazi Site.

No matter where you stay, you’re just minutes away from some of the most beautiful country in southern Utah. It won’t take long to see why the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area is one of the state’s real gems.

If you’re training for an endurance event, chances are you’ve spent a lot of time planning for every contingency: what you’ll wear, what you’ll eat, how long each leg of your race will take, and so forth. All those things are important, but when you’re competing in an endurance event in the high desert—whether it’s the True Grit Epic, the St. George Marathon, a half-IRONMAN, or a challenge of your own design—you’ve got a few added elements to consider.

Racing in the desert is incredibly rewarding, in part because the environment is so unlike any other. But this landscape comes with its own set of possibilities for which to prepare. The climate is, of course, hotter and drier, and weather changes quickly. Navigation can be challenging, and there’s the unpleasant feeling of sand in your shoes to contend with. If you’re considering signing on for an endurance event in St. George, plan ahead for these desert-specific concerns.

Hydrate Early and Often

Conventional wisdom has it that if you’re exerting yourself in the desert in the more moderate temperatures of spring and fall, you’ll need to consume three to five quarts of water per day. That’s if you’re hiking or backpacking—if you’re running a marathon or otherwise pushing your body to its limits, you’ll need more water.

“One element that often gets overlooked in the desert is the wind,” says Tiffany Gust of Utah-based TG Triathlon and Fitness Coaching. Gust holds a master’s degree in Applied Exercise Science/Sports Nutrition. “Gusting up to 30-plus miles per hour isn’t uncommon during the spring and summer months.”

That’s part of the reason you’ll need to carry more water than you might think. Consider using a bladder and hose, which make it easier to drink frequently than stopping to pull out a water bottle.

Most organized endurance events have aid stations where you can refill and refuel, but don’t count on those to be the only time you’re eating and drinking. Arrive a few days before your event to give your body time to acclimate to the dry climate, and spend those days drinking enough fluids so you’re hydrated well in advance (no need to overdo it, however, as you can go too far with this strategy where it actually hurts you). On race day, carry enough water to get you from one aid station to the next without bonking.

Drink More Than Just Water

In order to stay hydrated, Gust says, you’ll need more than plain old H2O to stay hydrated. The amount of salt your body loses over the course of a day in a hot, dry climate means it’s essential to replace electrolytes as you exercise, too. There are a number of ways to replenish electrolytes, which are essential to some of your body’s most basic automatic processes.

“Monitor urine color and aim for a light yellow color, similar to a yellow post-it note,” she suggests. “Pay attention to thirst and realize that when you are thirsty, you are already dehydrated.”

Salty foods like chips and pretzels, which are frequent long-distance aid-station fare, are great for replacing those salts. There are also tons of mixes, powders, and tablets on the market—each have qualities to recommend them, but the most important thing is making sure a specific supplement works for you. Play around with timing and amounts before you arrive for your event, and know that you may need to increase frequency when you’re actually in the desert. Bring your chosen electrolyte replacement with you so you’re guaranteed to have what you need out on the course, even if aid stations aren’t stocked with your preferred brand or flavor.

Be Sun-Savvy

When you spend as much time outside as it takes to train for a long-distance or multi-day event, it’s more important than ever to take care of your skin. Even a short day out without high-enough SPF can have brutal consequences, and that phenomenon only increases in the desert, where the sun will likely be beating down on you all day with little shade for cover.

For an 8-plus-hour day in the desert, sunscreen alone simply won’t cut it. You should reapply often, especially vulnerable areas like your face, the back of your neck, and your hands as often as is feasible (at every aid station, if you can) and use SPF-50 or greater.

You should also cover as much of your skin as possible, says Gust. “UPF clothing and sunscreen is a must when dealing with the heat in the desert,” she explains, adding that “arm sleeves that can be dipped in cool water can be very beneficial.” A hat with a wide brim will keep your eyes and face from bearing the brunt of harmful UV rays.

Take Care of Your Feet

You may not think you have particularly sweaty feet, but when they’ve been carrying you through the desert all day, things may look a little different. When sun bounces off sand, it can easily heat up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit or hotter during the warmest parts of the day, not to mention that it’ll likely make an appearance in your shoes.

With this in mind, you may want to consider running gaiters or something similar to keep sand out of your shoes and be prepared to deal with blisters early and often. Think about carrying a pared-down blister-repair kit (even if it’s just some duct tape on your trekking poles) and stop to fix address hotspots as soon as you notice them. Problems with your feet can escalate quickly in the heat.

Expect Unexpected Weather

Weather in the desert often changes quickly and without much prior warning, and it doesn’t help matters that you’re unlikely to find anywhere safe to take shelter in the event of a storm. With that in mind, check the weather forecast carefully not only for possible storm events in the immediate vicinity, but also in the area surrounding your destination, since a storm upstream can easily cause flash flooding miles downstream. Always avoid camping in washes, and if you’ll be traveling in narrow canyons or washes are unavoidable, plan your escape route well in advance.

Learn to Deal with Sand

It won’t take much time in the desert to discover one of its universal truths: Sand gets in everything. It finds its way through the mesh in your shoes, under your hat, into your teeth. Some of this is preventable, like using running gaiters to prevent tons of sand from seeping into your shoes, wearing shoes with more Gore-tex material and less mesh, and choosing sunglasses that wrap around your face rather than leaving the sides open to blowing sand.

But some blowing sand is simply a reality of desert travel. There’s not much to do in terms of preventing it from happening, but you can head in prepared by mimicking conditions during training as much as possible. That goes for training in the heat, too, says Gust. “Athletes enjoy training early in the morning to escape the excessive heat,” she says. “But if they plan on racing in the heat, some of their training needs to be in the heat—so they’ll be able to tolerate it, both physically and mentally.”

Yes, an endurance event in the desert adds another layer of complexity. But that’s also what makes the challenge fun. With a little preparation, that medal hanging around your neck at the finish line will feel all the sweeter.

Written by Emma Walker from RootsRated Media

Competing in the Land of Endurance

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect base camp for exploring southwest Utah than the scenic town of St. George. It may be just a short drive to Las Vegas and only about 300 miles from Salt Lake City, but St. George’s immediate surroundings are what make it really special.

Vibrant red rocks and steep canyons—including the spots where parts of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were filmed—beckon with enough recreational opportunities for a lifetime, and you’re just a few minutes from landmarks like Snow Canyon and Quail Creek State Parks, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, and, of course Zion National Park.

These stunning landscapes are the ideal place for endurance events, and St. George has plenty to pick from: from a silly, family-friendly mud run to a half-IRONMAN and just about everything in between. Here are our 8 favorite picks when you’re ready to really get after it.

Ironman World Championship

1. Hurricane Mud Run

The Hurricane Mud Run is the ultimate challenge-by-choice endurance event: the ambitious 5K course is packed with 25 obstacles, including the infamous mud pit. Participants do have the option to skip obstacles they’re not comfortable taking on—although race directors caution that a consequence for this is your friends may give you a hard time. This is a seriously muddy race, so it’s recommended that competitors wear an old pair of shoes and clothes they’re not worried about keeping in pristine condition since they’ll likely be ruined at the end of the 3.1-mile course.

2. IRONMAN 70.3 St. George

An IRONMAN 70.3 triathlon (also known as a “Half-IRONMAN”) is the among the world’s ultimate endurance challenges. The event consists of a 1.2-mile swim, followed by a 56-mile road bike ride, topped off with a 13.1-mile half marathon. In other words, there’s no such thing as an easy IRONMAN. Competitors consider the St. George IRONMAN 70.3 to be among the best, and the city itself comes to life for the big race. St. George is well-known for having awesome, encouraging spectators. It’s also a North American Pro Championship, which means you’ll be bumping elbows with some of the best athletes in the world.

ironman 2016 run 002
ironman 2016 run 002

3. Vision Relay: Moab to St. George

Formerly known as the Rockwell Relay, the 525-mile Vision Relay is perhaps the best way to experience southwestern Utah on two wheels. Teams of four cyclists take on a total of three legs each (averaging about 44 miles per leg), and spend the better part of two days taking in all there is to see between Moab and St. George. The race offers competitive and non-competitive divisions, depending on how speedy you and your team are feeling, and there are categories for male, female, and co-ed teams. There’s also a Vision Gran Fondo, which is run concurrently with and offers 23- and 64.5-mile routes.

4. Tour de St. George

The chip-timed Tour de St. George is run twice a year, in the spring and fall, so it’s both the ideal kickoff and a great way to wind down the Utah cycling season. Cyclists will get to experience many of southwestern Utah’s geological highlights on the ride, including the iconic red rocks, sandstone cliffs, and the surprisingly verdant, cottonwood-filled valleys created by the Santa Clara and Virgin Rivers. The race heads down to the Arizona border and takes cyclists through Sand Hollow and Quail Creek State Parks and past the mouth of gorgeous Snow Canyon. Participants can choose between the 35-, 75-, and 100-mile distances.

Group of smiling cyclists

5. Salt to Saint Relay

The 400-odd-mile, 24-hour Salt to Saint cycling relay might just be one of the best ways to bring together a group of active-minded friends. Sign yourself and your pals up for an eight- or four-person relay (or, if you’re a real rock star, go for a solo endeavor), then get ready to spend a full day and night riding from Salt Lake City to St. George. Legs average around 17 miles, but they vary significantly in difficulty and distance, so you can choose which team member will take on which legs. This means you can safely bring newer cyclists along, while the more seasoned riders in the group can tackle the tougher legs. Best of all, by the end of the race, you and your team will have built up some serious camaraderie—as well as a deep appreciation for the stunning scenery around St. George.

6. 25 Hours in Frog Hollow

What kind of race doesn’t tell you how far you’ll be riding? With 25 Hours in Frog Hollow, the distance is based on how many laps you can complete on the 13-mile mountain bike course during the race’s 25-hour duration. But this epic event is more than just a race: It’s a chance for the mountain bike community to come together. There’s ample camping space for teams and support crews, which means when you’re not out on the course, there’s plenty of socializing. You can also use the time to rest up and get back some of your energy for the next lap on this no-nonsense course.

7. St. George Marathon

Run every October since 1977, the St. George Marathon is regularly mentioned in running-centric publications as among the best of the best—Runner’s World called it one of the top four marathons to build a vacation around, and the magazine has also rated it one of the 20 best marathons in the country. One of the best aspects of the St. George Marathon, though, is that it’s all downhill: It’s a 26.2-mile point-to-point race beginning in the Pine Valley Mountains and dropping to Worthen Park, almost 2,600 feet in elevation below. It’s also a Boston Marathon qualifier—and a great race to aim for a new PR, since its elevation loss means it’s among the fastest marathons in the country.

Marathon runners

8. True Grit Epic Mountain Bike Race

Looking for one of the most intense mountain bike races in the Intermountain West? The True Grit Epic won’t disappoint. The race runs in March, just before temperatures start to really heat up, and offers 50- and 100-mile distances. The race’s tagline is “Long, Tough, and Technical,” and race directors are careful to remind participants that that’s no joke: “The first 20 miles,” they write, “are over rocky and steep terrain that requires excellent bike handling skills and upper body strength.” The rest of the course navigates boulders, sandy washes, and sandstone, and racers will ride through some of St. George’s best mountain bike zones: Red Bluff, Curly Hollow, and Boomer Hill.

Where to Stay

Nothing beats a good night’s sleep before a big race, and St. George offers plenty of options from hotels to B&Bs to camping. You will want to book well in advance when there’s a big event coming to town, though—accommodations fill up quickly!

Written by Amy Whitley from RootsRated Media

Family Friendly Adventures in Greater Zion

Best known as a gateway city to Zion National Park, St. George in southwestern Utah is a year-round playground for outdoor enthusiasts. With its red rock canyons, sandy rolling landscapes, and the Virgin River just awaiting your next adventure, St. George is a great place to try out a new sport. There are also plenty of cultural and indoor entertainment options to keep you busy when the occasional thunderstorm rolls through. Here are five things to try on your next family vacation here—or at least your first one, as you’ll never get to all of this in one trip!

1. Hike in Washington County

Zion National Park is right there for the taking, and it’s definitely one of the country’s top hiking destinations, but the park gets crowded. Very crowded. Like so many aspects of travel and outdoor adventure, with just a little outside-the-box thinking, you can easily find a workaround. While hiking in and around St. George, you can get a similar experience to Zion without the crowds. Instead of the national park, consider one of the following:

Red Cliffs Desert Reserve

In this preserve, try the Babylon Arch Trail, where the sandy, open terrain transports you to another planet. It’s only a mile and some change, but as long as you time your hike to avoid the peak heat of the day, it’s very manageable for all but the youngest members of the family. Elephant Arch offers a longer, sandier hike of almost four miles. If the kids want to dabble in a little of Southern Utah’s famed canyoneering on a path that’s still just over a mile long, head to the Red Reef Trail, where they can do some scrambling as you hike. If you want to make a day of it and really get your hike on, the Red Reef Trail is part of the Cottonwood Canyon Wilderness System (allowing you to do an almost six-mile loop).

Red cliffs jutting up into a blue sky.

Snow Canyon State Park

One of the most intriguing hikes in Snow Canyon is the Pioneer Names Trail, where, yes, you can observe the names etched into the rock by early Mormon pioneers. (If graffiti is old enough, it becomes historic. But don’t add your own.) The north trailhead to the site provides the closest access, but it’s a short trail either way. You can also hike to the petrified dunes in Snow Canyon, which is located in the center of the park, offering amazing views of the cliffs.

Eagle Crags

If you want a taste of Zion National Park without the crowds, Eagle Crags is your go-to destination. (Note that you’ll need a vehicle with good clearance to get to the trailhead near Rockville.) At Eagle Crags, you not only get the panoramic views Zion delivers, but the variety of landscapes, too, as the trail ascends from desert to juniper groves to the top the canyon.

dixie rock pioneer park 1200x799 1

Pioneer Park

If you’d prefer to stay closer to town where you can easily haul your picnic and gear, head to Pioneer Park, sitting directly above St. George. Climbers love the place, but the hiking is easily accessible, too, with the added bonus of BBQ pits, picnic tables, bathrooms and a shade pavilion.

2. Go Cycling and Mountain Biking

Greater Zion has more than 60 miles of bike paths and literally hundreds of miles of off-road singletrack and slickrock trails. Beginner mountain bikers should head to Barrel Roll, which is as fun as it sounds. Located in the Santa Clara River Reserve, Barrel Roll delivers views and twists and turns without being too steep to handle. From there, advance to the Wire Mesa Trail, located just outside Zion. This singletrack is more mountainous (with a bit of shade as a bonus) and offers incredible views.

If your crew is filled with experts, you have a slew of picks. The most epic is undoubtedly Nephi’s Twist at Hurricane Cliffs, a steep, technical track that will test any serious rider. And don’t forget about the state parks for mountain biking bliss: Snow Canyon State Park is a good option (just double check to see on which trails mountain biking is permitted).

3. See World-Class Museums

The Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm - Dinosaur Museum in St. George, Utah

Whether you have kids who are nuts for dinosaurs or are interested in paleontology and the natural world, the early Jurassic dinosaur tracks at St. George’s Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm will impress every member of the family. Walk where dinos have walked at the museum in St. George, then pair the experience with the Rosenbruch Wildlife Museum nearby. The somewhat eclectic collection here showcases more than 300 animal species from habitats as near as Southern Utah and as far as the African Savanna.

If you have kids in tow, the St. George Children’s Museum is your next stop, where they’ll have the run of 12 rooms of hands-on exhibits to lose themselves in imaginative play. Save this gem for a hot day or an afternoon activity after a morning hike or bike ride.

4. Enjoy the Water

Waterfall pouring over red sandstone.
Toquerville Falls

It may come as a surprise, but there is actually plenty of water in Southern Utah! The Virgin River cuts through the red rock landscape, providing the perfect way to cool off. Yes, the river gets crowded with tourists tubing in Springdale and the Narrows draws a crowd in Zion each summer (for good reason—it’s epic) but to escape the masses, head to Falls Park, also known to the locals as Sheep Bridge. You’ll get a mile of riverfront property for your day, complete with sandy beaches and perfect jump-off rocks (always be sure to check depth before jumping). Families can find shallow pools for kids, and the more daring can find rapids to ride.

Want more space to yourself? Hop in an SUV and bump your way along a dirt road to Toquerville Falls, where an easy hike lands you at the base of a desert oasis. You’ll want your camera ready for these cascading falls over the rock, but make sure you enjoy a dip, too.

5. Head Indoors

Southern Utah can get hot and sometimes, you’ll want to escape indoors. When you do, can keep your active vacation going at The Grip, the indoor gym operated by three past American Ninja Warrior contestants. Come for a class, or just pay for a few hours of open gym. (You know you want to try your hand at the salmon ladder and the warped wall!)

Not up for such a physical challenge? Head to Fiesta Fun, the family fun center that offers every game you could want, plus laser tag, mini golf, go karts and the like.

Whether you have young kids or adventurous teenagers, you’ll have no problem finding plenty of ways to enjoy a getaway to Greater Zion. Exploring this unique part of the country with the family will provide memories to last a lifetime.

Whether you’re a seasoned adrenaline junkie or enjoying a newfound appreciation for the great outdoors, you’re sure to find a memorable adventure in Greater Zion. Its northeast neighbor and namesake, Zion National Park, is a beloved destination for adventurers of all kinds – but there are plenty of other equally epic draws among the collection of communities that thrive within a close radius of Zion. 

From St. George to Pine Valley, Santa Clara to Springdale, there is adventure in every direction. There are rock walls begging to be climbed, singletracks begging for a mountain bike, and iconic red vistas surrounding you on any and every pursuit you take on. 

Here are seven adrenaline-inducing adventures that will get your heart pumping in Greater Zion.

1. Mountain Biking on Gooseberry Mesa

Move over, Moab – the mountain biking trails of Gooseberry Mesa more than hold their own with everything from rip-roaring singletrack to adventurous slickrock to flowy stretches alongside pine and juniper trees. Plenty of technically challenging terrain keeps MTB veterans stoked, while a spot locals refer to as “God’s Skateboard Park” offers a divine place to hone your trick skills. The entire trail is situated under an open, sunny sky with expansive views of Zion National Park’s stunning red and white cliffs.

mountain biking on the edge gooseberry jaydash

2. Skydiving

Imagine jumping out of a plane, flying through the air at 120 miles per hour, rolling, turning, and flipping as you please. The brilliant red landscape of Zion National Park and desert communities of St. George, Hurricane, and more wait for you below. You yank the parachute ripcord and begin to float, swaying in the breeze, feeling the warmth of the Utah sun, and admiring the creation that is Greater Zion. Just ask anyone who has jumped: Skydiving in Greater Zion is an out-of-this-world experience that will stick with you for life. When you combine that adrenaline rush with the reverent beauty of the desert, it’s hard to forget.

3. ATVing in Sand Hollow State Park

Cruise over sand dunes and down into valleys at one of several state parks in Greater Zion: Sand Hollow. Ranked among Utah’s best ATV playgrounds, you can ride as fast or slow as you like, enjoying technical challenges or the simple thrill of zooming through the desert. Take off during late afternoon or evening for a sunset adventure, and prepare to be awed by the sky lit up with the same brilliant red and pink hues as the desert rocks. This is the kind of experience you can share with the whole family without missing out on any of the thrill.

UTV driving on sand dunes

4. Ziplining Green Valley Gap

Views of Greater Zion’s desert scenery are elevated to new heights (literally) while soaring along one of the longest zip lines in Utah. Green Valley Gap offers a thrilling ride some 800 feet long, zipping from one canyon wall to another. After a quick hike for some elevation gain, your guides will strap you in and send you across the valley – but the fun doesn’t end there. Ziplining pairs nicely with other adventures like hiking, climbing, rappelling, ATVing, etc. depending on the itinerary you choose. 

5. Rock Climbing

If you take a close look at almost any rocky formation in Greater Zion, you’ll likely spot a climber. Greater Zion is filled with world-class climbing spots, and why just admire the scenery when you can be part of the picture? Rock climbing offers a workout and an unforgettable adventure all rolled into one, with breathtaking views for the entirety of your journey and a new, climber-exclusive viewpoint waiting for you at the summit. The wide variety of climbing terrain in Greater Zion makes for plenty of options for all skill levels, and newbies can sign up for a guided course to learn the basics of gear, belaying, proper safety measures, and climbing techniques. After that, you can head out to start sending some pitches of your own.

6. Canyoneering

Beneath the sand and sun of Greater Zion’s deserts, more adventure awaits in the network of canyons that expand both within and far beyond Zion National Park. Explore this sandstone labyrinth that extends above and below ground, with narrow slot canyons and vast gorges. Wade through water, rappel down into caves, or scale rock walls to find out what awaits around the next twist of the smooth red-and-orange canyon walls. Some canyons are accessible via simple but spectacular hiking trails; other, more challenging options require advanced wilderness techniques, permits, and a guide. There are several outfitters that offer guiding services and teach the basics of canyoneering.

Man rappelling down slot canyon wall.

7. Rappel Down Cougar Cliffs

This adventure is a two-fer: Hike to the top of the red rocks of the Cougar Cliffs, then ratchet up and rappel down the cliff face instead of going back the way you came. Cougar Cliffs is a great place to learn the art of rappelling, with a few low-angle options, as well as some vertical, not-for-the-faint-of-heart, 75-foot-long rappels. 

It takes a bit of courage to take that first step backwards off of a steep cliff, but the thrill and the views are totally worth it. How many people can say that they have taken in the expansive views of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve while practically hanging upside down? Go with a guide service to learn all about anchors, how to set up a rappel, and how to try a few rappels on your own. Adrenaline is built into Greater Zion, just like it’s built into you. Explore the thrills and everything else this corner of Utah has to offer here.

Written by Stewart Green at RootsRated Media

Getting Out of the Heat is Easy in Greater Zion

Nothing feels more refreshing on a scorching day than a cool dip in a swimming hole, lake, or—if you’re in southeastern Utah—even a slot canyon. Greater Zion is famous not only for soaring cliffs and sandstone landscapes—it is the driest part of the state, after all—but also for its diverse water adventures. Indeed, on hot days, lakes and swimming holes near St. George are the perfect spots to cool down. Families paddle tandem kayaks in rocky coves, boaters pull water skiers across broad lakes, kids build sandcastles on red sand beaches, and stand-up paddleboarders skim over calm waters, while anglers cast lines from boats and shorelines for rainbow trout and trophy-sized bass.

And the adventure isn’t, well, watered down, either: Outdoor enthusiasts can hike to sparkling waterfalls tucked into dramatic canyons, where a refreshing dip rewards the effort, while hardy adventurers rappel and squeeze down slot canyons sprinkled with creeks and waterfalls. Check out these unique-to-Utah, water-fueled adventures to keep cool, escape the desert heat, and add a whole new element of adventure to your visit to Greater Zion.

1. Swimming Holes and Waterfalls

What better—or more nostalgic—way to beat the summer heat than jumping into a swimming hole? Most of southwestern Utah’s best outdoor pools lie below frothy waterfalls reached by short hikes. One of the best swimming holes is below Toquerville Falls northeast of St. George, an oasis whose waterfalls plunge dramatically into a deep pool. At Sand Hollow State Park, colorful cliffs set the backdrop for sandy beaches edged with shallow water perfect for kids to splash around in, while advanced swimmers can venture out to deeper areas. Hikers who trek an easy route up a cliff-lined canyon in Red Cliffs Recreation Area are rewarded with a small waterfall that tumbles into a natural swimming pool; slide down the waterfall’s slippery chute for the “wow” factor. And for a few weeks in late spring, the overflow channel below Gunlock Reservoir forms a spectacular cascade after the lake fills behind a dam. The clear water plummets down sandstone cliffs, forming numerous falls and emerald green swimming pools. Whichever swimming spot you choose, avoid diving headfirst into pools.

Toquerville Falls

2. Stand-up Paddleboarding

Stand-up paddleboarding, or SUP, is a peaceful way to experience Greater Zion’s lakes as you glide across water reflecting puffy white clouds or navigate cliff-lined coves. The county offers spots ideal for paddlers of all skill levels, including Quail Lake, spacious Sand Hollow Reservoir, Kolob Reservoir, and Gunlock Reservoir. At Quail Creek State Park, you can rent boards by the hour from Dig Paddlesports and take paddleboard lessons. Other recommended beginner spots are Ivins Reservoir at Fire Lake Park and small Grandpa’s Pond in Hurricane. Whichever you choose, you can count on stunning red rock scenery and a surprisingly intense core workout.

Couple paddleboarding on teal water with red rock formations

3. Quail Creek State Park

Quail Creek State Park, a dozen miles northeast of St. George, is a quick getaway with Utah’s warmest water in glassy Quail Lake and offers fun for every water lover. Powerboaters cut waves across the big lake, while kayakers and stand-up paddlers stroke across still waters. Swimming beaches are on Quail Lake’s west side (but bring sandals to spare your feet from the coarse sand). Fishermen also frequent the lake, regularly catching five-pound largemouth bass, bluegill, crappie, and sunfish, but it really shines as the area’s premier rainbow trout fishery. The stocked trout love the cold water in the 185-foot-deep lake.

Aerial view of couple paddleboarding on lake

4. Sand Hollow State Park

One of Utah’s most popular lakes, Sand Hollow Reservoir is an adventure playground for boaters, swimmers, and paddlers. The huge lake, part of sprawling Sand Hollow State Park, is also popular with campers, equestrians, and hikers. Twice the size of nearby Quail Lake, the reservoir boasts spacious red sand beaches, sandstone islands, and plenty of water for motorboats and paddle craft. Hit the beach on the south shore to swim with the kids or bask on a shoreline boulder. Stand-up paddlers and kayakers cruise quiet waters among rock outcrops, while cliff divers plunge into deep water from airy perches. In the summer, the lake is a hotspot for waterskier-towing powerboats towing and jet skis, and it’s a perennial favorite among fishermen for its trophy-sized largemouth bass, crappie, and bluegill. If you’re having too much fun to call it a day, make it an overnight adventure at one of the park’s two campgrounds and rest up for another day of adventure on the water.

Two girls sun bathing at Sand Hollow

5. Gunlock State Park

Gunlock Reservoir is a gorgeous lake that fills a scenic valley surrounded by sandstone cliffs and volcanic cinder cones. The lake, centerpiece of a 248-acre Gunlock State Park, is a quiet setting for water sports and fishing. Bring a kayak, canoe, or stand-up paddleboard to explore calm water in narrow coves, or walk across the dike to take a swim and then sunbathe on a sandy beach. In late spring, swimmers take advantage of the waterfalls and deep pools below the dam’s natural spillway. Fishermen cast lines for bass, bluegill, and crappie from both the shoreline and boats. After fun in the sun, stay in the small campground with a sea of stars overhead.

6. Kolob Reservoir

To escape the lowland summer heat, head up to Kolob Reservoir at a cool 8,107 feet above sea level on the western edge of Zion National Park. The lake, located in the headwaters of the Virgin River, is a blue-ribbon fishing area for hardy anglers looking to hook rainbow, brook, and cutthroat trout, some over 18 inches long. Surrounded by groves of quaking aspen, the reservoir is a quiet getaway with lakeside campsites and plenty of options for kayaking, canoeing, and stand-up paddling. The steep drive up Kolob Terrace Road to the lake is simply spectacular, with wide views of Zion’s sandstone peaks and deep canyons.

Man fishing in the Kolob Reservoir

7. Slot Canyon Adventures

Exploring a slot canyon is the ultimate wet adventure in southwestern Utah. Canyoneering, the art of descending narrow canyons sliced into bedrock, combines elements of climbing, hiking, and swimming to explore these dramatic destinations. The Zion area features stunning canyons that range from difficult hiking to technical challenges. If you’re a canyoneering newbie or don’t have the skills and equipment to navigate slot canyons, your best bet is to hire a local guiding service like Zion Adventure Company. Yankee Doodle Hollow, the best slot near St. George, has a big rappel and gorgeous narrow passages. Nearby is Bitter Creek, a short beginner canyon. Off I-17 north of St. George is the narrows of Kanarra Creek, a deep gorge with waterfalls, a tumbling creek, and colorful cliffs. Other good slots outside Zion National Park include the Middle Fork of Taylor Creek, Spring Creek, and Water Canyon. Wherever you go, be sure to wear sandals or water shoes—and prepare to get wet.

The airplane bucked quite a bit with about 10 minutes of flight time remaining. The second of two flights that day, the first of which started in Philadelphia, saw me in the aisle seat of a tiny CRJ200 aircraft during a short hop from Phoenix, Arizona to St. George, Utah when the plane suddenly began to hit some moderate turbulence. I was somewhere in between sleeping, but not really sleeping when this happened, and opened an eye to check the reactions of those around me.

Many people were out cold, with their necks craned back and their mouths wide open, while others seemed intent on finishing their books, and still others were content with whatever was being transmitted to their brain through some oversized, noise canceling headphones. I noticed that a handful of people seemed to have their faces pressed up against the windows, and as I craned my head around the nice lady seated to my left by our row’s window to have a look for myself, it became immediately clear what had a few of the passengers excited: we were flying directly over the heart of the Grand Canyon. I have been to the Grand Canyon once in my life, and it was as humbling an experience as I can remember; standing on the rim’s edge will remind you of your place in this world in ways not much else can. I’ve flown over it quite a few times as well, but never flown over it at such a low altitude. The updrafts from the canyon and surrounding mountains might have jostled the plane a bit, but they reminded me that I was about to spend a week in a landscape unlike any elsewhere on the planet.