The Desert Southwest Tour: St. George to Zion
Why should Moab have all the two-wheeled fun? Southwestern Utah boasts some of the best desert
The desert southwest isn’t all sandy washes and red cliffs: the St. George area is colloquially known as “Color Country” for good reason. Snow Canyon State Park, just 11 miles from St. George and the start of a phenomenal 65.3-mile tour of the area, features red and white Navajo sandstone formations, black lava rock, and countless species of vibrant flora and fauna.
Situated at the intersection of the Mojave Desert, the Great Basin, and the Colorado Plateau, Snow Canyon was originally inhabited by Ancestral Puebloans, who hunted and gathered in the canyon thousands of years ago. Begin your desert southwest journey by camping at one of the park’s tent sites ($20/night) — in the morning, you can explore the area where classic Westerns like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Jeremiah Johnson were filmed and, if you’re lucky, spot a Gila monster. Several concessioners also offer guided climbs and horseback tours of the park.
From Snow Canyon, head through nearby Ivins and St. George and onto the Virgin River Trail. This paved, well-maintained bike route winds along the Virgin River and provides access to Sand Hollow State Park, 27 miles from Snow Canyon. There are several campground options at Sand Hollow, but cyclists looking for a quieter experience should head to the primitive camping area ($15/night), where no motorized vehicles are allowed. To cool off after a long ride in the desert heat, head to the beach at Sand Hollow Reservoir to swim or rent a kayak.
It’s a little under 10 miles from Sand Hollow to Hurricane (insider tip: locals pronounce it “HUR-a-kin”). Here, cyclists can stock up on supplies before heading toward Zion National Park on Utah State Route 9 — this scenic highway provides the first glimpse of Zion’s jaw-dropping rock formations. This 38-mile leg gains just over 1,200 feet of elevation.
The South and Watchman Campgrounds (both $20/night for tent-only sites) are the closest Zion campsites to the park’s Springdale Entrance. Camping within the park gives cyclists, who pay a discounted park entrance fee of just $12 per person, a head start to maximize time in Zion.
From the Zion Canyon Visitor Center, take the 1.4-mile paved Pa’rus Trail to Canyon Junction, where the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive begins. Beyond Canyon Junction, no private vehicles are allowed, which is great news for road cyclists: Aside from professional shuttle drivers, you’ll have the roadway to yourself. The nine-mile one-way ride to the end of Floor of the Valley Road, as it’s also known, is breathtaking. Plan to bring a bike lock and check out some of the area’s hiking trails, which vary in difficulty and exposure. Adventurous spirits won’t want to miss the hike to Angels Landing, one of the most iconic views in Zion National Park. Bring a change of shoes, too — the steep, rocky trail to the summit has sheer drop-offs and shouldn’t be attempted in clipless shoes.
Travelers can opt to spend another day in Zion, where there’s no shortage of hikes and scenic views. A ride up to the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel and back will mean negotiating heavy vehicle traffic, but views of the park are unparalleled. In any case, the ride back to St. George trends downhill and can be comfortably split into two easy days.
Pro Tips and Map
Regardless of the timing of your visit, the desert is a wild place. Temperatures can soar into the triple digits during the summer months, so plan to carry plenty of water. Thanks to its high desert status, though, the weather also turns quickly: It’s not uncommon to experience snow flurries in late August and beyond. The desert southwest is prone to wind, triggered by weather patterns making their way into Utah — dust storms kicked up by high winds can seriously reduce visibility, so avoid heavily trafficked areas and take shelter if there’s wind in the forecast.
Here is a map of the route for further details.
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