Growing up, St. George was my vision of the ultimate tropical vacation destination. (Back then, “tropical” meant anywhere hot with palm trees.) A six-hour drive from my hometown, my family didn’t go there often but when we did it was magical: red rock, warm desert light and—most compelling of all for a kid growing up in rural Idaho—outlet malls.
Yes, St. George was an ideal city. But it wasn’t until our visit to Zion National Park that I got a taste of what southern Utah is really all about: breathtaking scenery, abundant outdoor recreation and some of the best national and state parks in the country.
We arrived in St. George by way of Brian Head, where the fall foliage was on full resplendent display, and Cedar Breaks National Monument, a park full of hoodoos and amphitheaters very similar to Bryce Canyon but lesser-known. Only a little over an hour from St. George, Cedar Breaks sits at over 10,000 ft. and makes a perfect stop to escape the desert heat with overlook-viewing and rim-hiking.
The next day, after a delicious breakfast at Bear Paw Cafe, we headed to Snow Canyon State Park to let the kids run around and explore on the petrified sand dunes area. This part of Utah was anciently covered with sand dunes that have now hardened into Navajo sandstone. Some of that sandstone has been eroded into canyons and fins; in spots, lava flowed and filled the eroded spaces with basalt.
The rust, orange and cream colors of the Navajo sandstone are the hallmark of Zion National Park, but they exist all over southern Utah in scenery strikingly similar to Zion’s. Snow Canyon is one of the most accessible of these spots and it is absolutely worth exploring.
After running around on the rock for a while we wanted to cool off, so we headed for Gunlock State Park and some kayaking. Dig Paddlesports outfitted us with paddle boards and kayaks (including a tiny kayak for Graham to paddle all on his own!), and we headed across the reservoir to a shady spot on the far side, where we played on the red sand beach and took turns paddling around the sandstone caves and outcroppings along the shore. The water felt amazing on a hot day and Graham was so thrilled to be paddling himself; we were super impressed with how well he navigated himself around the reservoir!
The next morning, we stuck a little closer to downtown so we could try out some of the city’s 60+ miles of paved bike path. We rented bikes from Rapid Cycling, then took them for a spin from Tonaquint Park and along the Virgin River. After our ride, we let the kids loose at Thunder Junction All-Abilities Park, which is legitimately the coolest city playground I have ever seen. Dinosaur-themed, with loads of water features and a working train that you can take for rides, this place is kid nirvana. Ours would have stayed all day if we’d let them; they’re still talking about the special effects of the volcano play structure!
But we couldn’t stay at Thunder Junction forever—SO MUCH ST. GEORGE, SO LITTLE TIME. Instead we headed for Sand Hollow State Park and a little more water play. The Sand Hollow reservoir is surrounded by more Navajo sandstone; we claimed a spot among the rocks with plenty of places for the kids to climb around and a little red sand beach, and proceeded to have one of the loveliest beach experiences of our lives. In a land-locked state on the banks of a reservoir—who’d have guessed? But with a creek cascading over the sandstone next to us and a nearly-full moon rising over the red rock hills, it was a perfect evening.
Photo by Arika of Zion Adventure Photog . We took pictures with her back in January (see here ) and think she is just incredible! If you’re in the area and need some family photos, check her out!
To this point, we hadn’t done any real hikes on our visit, so we sought to rectify that situation the next morning at Water Canyon. Less than an hour from St. George, right behind Hildale, Water Canyon is one of the main access points for the Canaan Mountain Wilderness Area and it looks so much like parts of Zion Canyon that the only way to tell you’re not in the national park is that there are no crowds. We spent most of the day in the canyon and saw only a handful of other people; and while we don’t usually mind the crowds of busy national parks, it’s definitely a more relaxing and peaceful experience hiking in more isolated areas.
We hiked up to where the canyon narrows and a little stream runs down the cliffs, took off our shoes and cooled off in the water, scrambled around the rocks and through some adjoining slot canyons, played in the sand and just generally had an incredibly lovely time. This is a hike we can’t wait to come back and do again.
We hiked out of the canyon and drove back to St. George, then headed back to Snow Canyon to watch the sunset from atop one of the petrified dunes. One of my favorite things about southern Utah is the way the landscape inspires creativity in the kids—and in David and I, too, but it’s cuter when the kids do it ;). They can’t be around that red sandstone without trying to climb it, can’t see moqui marbles (little balls of sandstone with shells of iron oxide) without wanting to gather them up and make games out of them. We played through the late afternoon on the rock, til the sun was down and the stars started coming out, then moved our party to the campground for a fire and s’mores.
My childhood idea of St. George as a tropical oasis wasn’t exactly geographically accurate, but I was spot-on about this city being an ideal vacation destination. You can’t beat it for desert scenery or access to awesome recreation—and we didn’t even touch its museums, history or theater offerings. Once again, we’ve found a place so awesome that we were basically forced to peruse real estate listings for the area ;). Can’t wait to come back for another visit, St. George!
***Our visit to St. George was done in conjunction with the Travel Mindset team and was sponsored by Visit St. George. All enthusiasm is, as always, our own :). Most of our activities in the area were done with our friends and fellow travlers Jade and Bob.
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