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Why Care for Greater Zion? Three Locals Talk About the Land, Community and Responsible Recreation.

Many locals here have deep roots. Some venture away, but most come back. One thing they all have in common? A deep connection to this terrain paired with a sense of ownership.

Ask any Greater Zion local what their land embodies to them and you’ll get as many answers as there are stars in its celestial night sky. Harmony and wonder dance on these horizons, where the sun illuminates a flawless, blue sky and blazes over a sculptural landscape. No one understands the emotional attachment to Greater Zion — a Land of Reverence — better than the ones who live, work and raise families here. 

One multi-generational native recalls childhood memories of St. George as a little highway town. A teacher-turned-adventure-guide churns out facts about volcano calderas and homogenous sandstone. And a Greater Zion boomerang describes his triumphant return home after 20 years away. 

All testify to a collective reverence of Greater Zion. Beyond its geographic anomaly, the land houses a proud community driven by hospitality and kindness. The residents welcome all visitors to do what locals do best: Shop and eat locally, seek out safe adventures, volunteer for events, and practice trail etiquette. There’s no better guidebook to why this Land of Reverence is worth preserving than their stories here. 

Hospitality Steeped in Pioneer Roots

“I’m as local as they come and never want to leave.” Shayne Wittwer owes plenty to his pioneer ancestors. Long before the Wittwers became hoteliers, the family’s heritage was etched in stone using wagon axle grease — still viewable today along Snow Canyon State Park’s Pioneer Names Trail.

Shayne’s Greater Zion story dates back to the 1860s. “We’ve been here forever, primarily as farmers and ranchers,” he states. Not long after a short stint in Las Vegas where his family opened their first hotel, they returned to Santa Clara in the 1950s and opened their first Utah hotel on St. George Boulevard. 

Shayne Wittwer

“Come and fully experience and enjoy it. But leave it so others can experience the same thing 100 years from now.”

Shayne Wittwer, Wittwer Hospitality

The Wittwer Hospitality CEO has had a front-row seat to Greater Zion’s growth, first as a child and today as an entrepreneur, avid mountain biker, family man, and community spokesperson. “Instead of being a stopover, we’ve become a destination from both directions. I’m amazed at how much business we see from markets like California and Arizona … and even Washington, Oregon, and Texas.”

It’s no wonder travelers seek out and care for Greater Zion. “There’s something here for everyone,” he says. “You can do 20 different things in a day that are so dissimilar from each other yet and all are enjoyable.” 

That variety is what makes Greater Zion a place to preserve for future generations of locals and explorers. “I’m of the mindset that the land was meant to be seen and used. That’s why we all live here. And that’s why people come to visit. Come and fully experience and enjoy it. But leave it so others can experience the same thing 100 years from now.” 

Getting Schooled in the Great Outdoors 

Rick Praetzel takes adventure to the next level. “When I see somebody come back from an experience and they have that look in their eyes, that shining light, and they try to put it into words. I just say, ‘It’s fine. You don’t need to explain.’” 

But Rick is not driven solely by the adrenaline rush. For him and his Zion Adventure Company team, experiencing Greater Zion is all about the human experience — one that should be gifted to the next generation. 

Rick never lost his ability to teach or connect with students, even though he launched an adventure company in 1996. The former math and physics teacher enthusiastically imparts his wisdom to today’s students of the great outdoors. 

Rick Praetzel 1

“It’s within everybody’s grasp. Just bridle yourself a little bit so that everybody can access this amazing place.”

Rick Praetzel, Zion Adventure Company

The geographic phenomenon of Zion — owning the thickest layer of homogenous sandstone, the largest super volcano caldera, dinosaur tracks, and three major geographic zones (Great Basin, Colorado Plateau and the Mojave Desert) — continues to impress him daily. “When you put sandstone with water and gravity inside a slot canyon, it’s beyond anything. Its beauty consumes every human attribute. You can’t help but be happy or experience joy and wonder. Living in Greater Zion for me is a never-ending supply of those moments.”

Cultivating these moments for future explorers to enjoy is key. That’s why sustainability bleeds into Rick’s curriculum of science and sport. Along the way, guides point out cryptobiotic soil or sandstone fins and explain the importance of bringing an extra trash bag to pack it out. “When you take on a sense of responsibility, not a sense of obligation, but a sense that it’s yours, on behalf of your children and grandchildren and everybody else, then there’s really no loss of joy or experience in factoring those actions into everything you do. It’s within everybody’s grasp. Just bridle yourself a little bit so that everybody can access this amazing place.”

The Native Returns Home 

“Love it or lose it. It’s as simple as that.” If there is one thing Hank Van Orden wants travelers and locals to know about how to care for Greater Zion, it’s this.

“The desert is so beautifully rugged, yet so delicate at the same time. When we don’t respect the terrain, we will lose access to it,” Hank says. “One of the things that make Greater Zion so great is the level of access we have to these beautiful lands. That access could easily be stripped from us if our actions are not respectful to the terrain. Protection of the lands should first and foremost come from those that use them.”

Hank takes pride in Greater Zion for a number of reasons, but two attributes stand out most: community and scenery. The people and the landscape, plus a chance to manage a new luxury hotel and restaurant in his hometown, are why he returned to Greater Zion recently after 20 years away. 

Hank VanOrden

“Love it or lose it. It’s as simple as that.”

Hank Van Orden, The Advenire Autograph Collection

“I moved around between six different states [after high school], only to realize that everywhere I moved never stacked up to Greater Zion. When the opportunity to move home and manage such a great property as The Advenire, Autograph Collection, I did not hesitate for one second. It was a drop-everything-and-run-as-fast-as-you-can scenario!” 

In his line of work, Hank frequently hears visitors recount their stays. “We recently hosted a Red Bull-sponsored pro mountain biker from New Zealand for a month. This world traveler said that the Greater Zion terrain is unlike anything he had ever seen in all his travels. The dirt, mountains, and mesas were the best he had ever ridden. But he also said that he had never experienced this level of hospitality before. Everyone he met was just so friendly and helpful throughout his whole trip. That really stuck with me and is something the whole community should be proud of.” 

How to Visit the Land of Reverence Responsibly 

Rick Praetzel best sums up a Greater Zion day like this: It’s about “creating intimate experiences, like finding a quiet corner of the park where you can watch the light change over the course of the day and see some very small special part of a big, general area.” He likes to sprinkle this “human experience” into each of his journeys. “This gives a visitor the same slice of the life that a local has here.”

This holistic human experience is simple to attain while paying it forward to the next season of visitors. All it takes is a little reading and preparation. Sustainability actions are a simple add-on benefit to enjoying the action. Refer to our Land of Forever checklist for all you need to know about how to visit and care for Greater Zion.