A two-hour dash from Las Vegas or intriguing escape from throughout the region, southwest Utah, with St. George as your starting point, features some of the nation's finest national park experiences — but these parks are not islands. They are surrounded by an exciting array of outdoor recreation and scenic drives to capture your imagination. A terrific road trip throughout the year, The Unexpected Southwest is also ideal in the "off season." You can capture some lingering summer sun or enjoy a taste of The Mighty 5® in winter, but without the colder weather of the higher elevations. Depending on the weather and your sense of adventure, you may spend a day exploring either Capitol Reef National Park or Coral Pink Sand Dunes. But clement-weather creatures may choose to hang close to St. George in this getaway.
Indeed, there's so much more to the Unexpected Southwest: You can golf on some of the best public greens anywhere or hike among flows of lava, hardened by time. Reservoirs and lakes also abound, part of this land's fascinating human and natural history. You'll have every opportunity to get on the water, hike among wildlife or retreat into the backcountry if that's on the menu. Oh, and while you're in the area The Southwest Explorer is an opportunity to get even further off the beaten path.
Sometimes it's just good to get out and drive, too, and see what there is to see. For that impulse, The Unexpected Southwest rewards with towering monoliths, quaint towns, dense forest and tucked-away waters. Between it all, the unexpected might just become blissfully comfortably. This is a place we can expect you'll come to love.
Total Driving (for full itinerary): 500 miles, about 10 hours | Driving per day: 1 to 4 hours | Most Driving: Day 2, Return
At a Glance
The Great Escape
Start: Morning tee time
See: Championship greens and black lava flows
Scenic Route: Zion Park
Roads: I-15, S.R. 9
Getting There: Las Vegas to St. George: 120 miles; Salt Lake to St. George 400 miles or an hour flight
Monolith to Monolith:
Start: Sunrise in Zion National Park
Explore: Historic Highway 89 and the Capitol Reef Scenic Drive
Scenic Route: Zion Park Scenic Byway, then south on Highway 89 toward Kanab or north to Capitol Reef Country
Roads: S.R. 9, U.S. 89, S.R. 24
Day 3 (Optional)
Capitol Reef Bound
Beautiful any time of year, but winter can get quite cold and special preparations are necessary for hitting the trails.
Start: Sunrise over the Land of the Sleeping Rainbow
Explore: Highway 24's Hickman Bridge
, the orchards of Fruita, and a tucked-away lake
Options: The Frying Pan's ridgetop panoramas
Scenic Route: Capitol Reef County
Roads: S.R. 24, 25
Miles: 50 to 125
Start: Deep breath of cooler mountain air
See: The lesser-visited side of Zion
Scenic Route: Kolob Fingers Road
Roads: S.R. 24, I-70, I-15
Miles: About 200 to St. George
St. George is Utah's "getaway'' spot and for good reason. Mainly, it comes with a subtropical desert climate. It is constantly the warmest part of the state, summer or winter, and yet even in the peak of late-season heat, does offer cooling retreats at elevation such as Zion National Park, Sand Hollow State Park and Dixie National Forest. A trip to St. George would not be complete without a visit to one of the 12 championships golf courses, each placed in a breathtaking setting of a red backdrop and green fairways. Consensus is that some of the best golf courses in southwestern United States are found in St. George. Golf Digest, in fact, picked The Ledges Golf Course as its fifth best public course. Each is unique. Each offers a special challenge. The best time to play is in the early morning.
Snow Canyon State Park, located eight miles north of town, has long been considered one of Utah's more spectacular parks.The red Navajo sandstone cliffs accented with black lava rock makes for a stunning and spectacular natural contrast, and a perfect backdrop for great photos. Within the park there are a number of popular hikes, including Three Ponds, which is a scenic hike to three man-made ponds, and Hidden Pinion Trail, which is a 1 1/2-mile self-guided walk through red-rock formations and large lava flows. There is a trail through the flows past the popular lava tubes, created centuries ago by cooling lava.
As temperature warm a trip to Sand Hollow State Park is an ideal getaway. While nearby Quail Creek Reservoir is more well known, its younger sister, Sand Hollow Reservoir is only now being discovered. Sand Hollow Recreation Area and reservoir is a few miles southeast of Quail Creek Reservoir, which officially opened in April 2003. Along with a large pool of water, much larger than Quail Creek, it is accented by red, sandy beaches flowing from nearby Sand Mountain into the rising water. There is hiking, biking, equestrian and viewing opportunities for visitors. This area is a popular riding spot for motorcycles and ATVs. The Sand Hollow Golf Course is recognized as one of the more picturesque and challenging in the state.
It's a nice, relaxing drive to Zion National Park. The 42-mile drive goes though valleys and orchards and farming country and ends at the oldest park in Utah, recognized in 1919. Though beautiful by day, consider an early start. Zion is Utah's most visited park but can be downright deserted at dawn Set up shop behind the Human History Museum for a dramatic sunrise, jump on the Watchman Trail from the Visitor Center, or see the trees changing colors along the Virgin River as the morning light breaks over the horizon. This cliff-and-canyon landscape has a unique blend of beauty and boldness.
For the sake of history and the park's heritage, a trip to Zion Lodge (reached by bus) is a must. If using the multi-passenger shuttle, you probably want to linger for a stab at Angels Landing, a bucket-list hike, or to wander down the Riverwalk/Gateway to the Narrows. To avoid the crowds, simply continue this journey with the drive through the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel and a short hike on the eastern end of the tunnel to a beautiful overlook of the park.
If you do hit Zion National Park in winter, check at the visitor center (reduced winter hours
) for current conditions. While some of the hikes may not be accessible, a tour of Zion Canyon in winter frequently rewards with snow-dusted monoliths among astonishing beauty and solitude.
For this optional third day of extended exploration, continue along S.R. 9 to the junction with historic Highway 89, also known as The Utah Heritage Highway. The road runs border to border in Utah, and continues all the way to Canada. At the S.R. 9 junction with U.S. 89, you have the option to turn south for Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park — a destination for ATVs or good-old-fashioned family fun in the sand. Or turn north for Panguitch (a great stop to stretch, grab an espresso and browse distinctive western collectibles ... and possibly spend the night if you played around Zion long enough) and on to the junction with S.R. 62, a short but lush stretch of highway through the Kingston Canyon Wildlife Management Area, along the East Fork of the Sevier River. (Add at least an hour or two to take the incredibly scenic All-American Highway, Scenic Byway 12, to Capitol Reef. "At least," means if you don't wish to stop anywhere along the way.)
From stunning Scenic Byway 24, Capitol Reef National Park explodes onto the landscape with magnificently colored and rugged rock formations that will immediately capture your imagination as you realize: this must be a national park. It is no wonder the Navajo called this the Land of the Sleeping Rainbow. If you've come prepared, you might try to camp in the park, or stay at a lodge, hotel or bed and breakfast along Highway 24's national park gateway towns like Torrey, Bicknell and Loa.
Capitol Reef offers several relatively easy hikes along Highway 24 in addition to its paved scenic drive, 16 miles with plenty of fascinating stops along the way. Must-sees include Hickman Bridge, Grand Wash, Sulphur Creek and the Fruita orchards. There are lots of longer options, including the majestic Navajo Knobs and the ridgetop panoramas of the Cohab Canyon/Frying Pan/Grand Wash loop. High-clearance vehicles will also have Cathedral Valley and the Waterpocket Fold districts at their disposal, where permitted backpacking and camping opportunities abound, well worth a trip all their own. Carry lots of water everywhere in Capitol Reef.
For a dramatic juxtaposition, make the 90-minute drive to Fish Lake via the Fish Lake Scenic Byway on S.R. 25. Fish Lake and the Fishlake National Forest are recognized as one of the most pristine areas of the state. The area is known for its aspen forests (especially beautiful in the fall), motorized and non-motorized travel and fishing. It is also a haven for wildlife, including deer, elk, eagles and a variety of waterfowl. This is also connected to the Paiute ATV Trail, which winds roughly 250 miles through the mountains. The national forest also provides a number of trails for hiking and biking. Lodges around the shores of the lake provide food, lodging and an ideal location to sit and relax and digest the spectacular surroundings.
The return drive to the St. George area leads to several intriguing stops, time permitting. You'll likely have to choose one, and save the others for another trip. Kanarraville Falls offers a classic desert southwest hike complete with a cooling creek and a little slot canyon.
Next up is a spectacular arm of Zion: Kolob Canyon south of Cedar City. There is a visitor center near the entrance and one road, sandstone red, leading into the interior and out. Inside the park is a 14 1/2-mile hike that takes visitors to Kolob Arch, the largest natural arch in the world. It spans 310 feet. The road into the park is six miles long, loops around and comes back out. There are three recommended hikes. The Timber Creek Overlook trail is 1/2-mile long and is a comfortable walk. The Taylor Creek trail is 5 1/2 miles round trip and is the most popular. It leads to a number of historic cabins, small pools and waterfalls around which vegetation flourishes. The longer hike is into the arch. Most of the park's 24 overnight backcountry camp spots are along this trail. Kolob Canyons remains somewhat hidden from the main flow of traffic, but is rapidly being discovered.
Finally, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area offers more than 130 miles of non-motorized recreation trails for hiking, mountain biking, and equestrian trail riding, as well as camping and day use areas. This is a recent addition to Utah's outdoor portfolio, and as such has several gems that fall into that relatively undiscovered category. Nature lovers can rejoice in its splendor and restore a sense of peace found only in wild places.