I have been very blessed to live where I have throughout my life: The Santa Cruz area in California, Southern Oregon, Bellingham, Washington, Ogden in Northern Utah and now St. George in SW Utah. Each of those places had amazing outdoor opportunities and spectacular scenery, and each has a special place in my heart. But I have to say, after just a couple of months living in this far corner of Utah, that St. George takes the top spot for outdoor recreation opportunities. And that isn’t meant to detract from the other places, but here in the desert the combination of diverse terrain, massive volume of developed trails, rock climbing areas, wilderness and near-perfect weather makes my new home truly epic and indeed, world-class for outdoor enthusiasts.
Let’s take a look at why this place is so special.
When I first came to Southern Utah back in 2011, I was immediately impressed by the sheer volume of trails I saw on the way to Zion. Before we moved here, I did a lot of research on places to explore, and knew that I was moving into territory that was unparalleled in hiking opportunities. Here are a few examples of why St. George is a hiker’s paradise:
Red Cliffs Desert Reserve: This 62,000 acre reserve was set aside primarily to help protect the endangered Mojave Desert Tortoise, but is also a hugely popular outdoor recreation area, with not only miles of hiking trails, but also mountain biking trails, rock climbing areas, Native American archaeological sites and even dinosaur tracks!
Snow Canyon State Park: There is a saying that if it wasn’t for St. George’s proximity to Zion, Bryce and Grand Canyon National Parks, this park would probably be a national park. Instead, it is “just” a state park, but what a beauty it is: Sandstone cliffs close to one thousand feet high, a pallet of colors that dazzle the eyes, miles of hiking trails, caves, rock climbing, canyons and more. I am particularly fortunate to live less no more than a quarter mile from its eastern border.
Pine Valley Mountains: St. George is not all desert, either. About ten miles north of town, the Pine Valley mountains rise up to 10,000 feet and provide a cool refuge from the desert heat. With a completely different environment than the red rocks and mesas below, there are large grassy meadows, forests of pine and fir and beautiful little mountain streams in this large wilderness area (one of the largest in Utah.) The trails up here are a stark contrast to what you will find in the lowlands below.
Zion National Park: A short 45 minute drive from town, this national park, one of the crown jewels of the national park system, also provides an amazing, vast playground for hikers (not to mention climbers and canyoneers.) Probably my very favorite spot in this world. There are trails that run from serious and slightly scary (Angel’s Landing) to long and adventurous (West Rim trail) to easy (The Narrows.) There is something for everyone here.
These are just some of the general areas in and around town. There are also numerous trails that aren’t part of the wilderness, state or national parks system. I have been speculating that there are so many trails here that you could hike every day for a year and not have to drive more than 20 miles without repeating a single hike.
2. Rock Climbing:
According to Mountain Project.com, there are at least 26 distinct areas with 637 routes in the area right around St. George (Zion not included.) These areas provide a wide range of climbing options from trad (traditional) climbing, sport climbing and bouldering. You can climb on sandstone, limestone and basalt here. The routes vary from short bouldering problems to multi-pitch trad routes. With so much to choose from, most places (except perhaps Chuckwalla and Black Rocks) are crowd-free and pristine.
There aren’t a lot of really big, alpine mountains around here, but the Pine Valley Mountains do have a nice selection of hiking peaks such as Gardner Mountain and Signal Peak (the apex of the Pine Valleys at 10,365′.) There is also West Peak in the Beaver Dam mountains, Scrub Peak, Moapa Peak (in Nevada) and Mt. Bangs (in Arizona.) It is also only half a day’s drive to bigger mountains in Utah, Nevada and California.
Utah is world-renowned for its canyoneering, and rightly so. There are numerous slot canyons in the immediate area, ranging from easy family hikes to epic, super-technical horror-shows. I haven’t had an opportunity yet to do more technical routes, but have explored a few of the easier slots in the area, such as the Narrows (the local Narrows, not the Zion Narrows) and the Red Reef slot.
5. Mountain Biking
I’m not a mountain biker (yet), but St. George is truly one of the epicenters of the mountain biking world. There are so many dedicated mountain biking trails that it deserves an article of its own. Places like Gooseberry Mesa, the Jem trail, the Zen trail are well known in the MB community, and committed cyclists come from far and wide to test themselves on these trails. The Red Bull Rampage, one of the most extreme and mind-blowing competitions on the professional circuit, is held in the nearby town of Virgin.
6. Other assorted outdoor adventures
The swimming is great here. We have gone to both Quail Creek and Sand Hollow reservoirs (both Utah state parks) and while Quail Creek has incredibly warm water, myself and my family really prefer Sand Hollow. The water is much more clear and there are lots of interesting spots to explore, like an island within easy swimming distance and a cliff with deep water for thrill seekers.
St. George also has a vibrant skim boarding community. The Virgin river is particularly suited for this sport, since it runs flat and wide.
One of the places I am most eager to explore is the Bloomington Cave. The largest tectonic cave in Utah, this spelunkers delight has six levels, a labyrinth of rooms and passages and is almost a mile and a half in length.
Despite being the warmest spot in Utah, there is also excellent winter skiing available at Brian Head Ski Resort, an hour and a half drive from St. George. Brian Head is the highest elevation ski resort in Utah and has a wide selection of runs to choose from.
There is also whitewater opportunities in the Virgin river, but generally this will only happen after a modest rainfall.
As an outdoor adventurer I am completely under the spell of this magical area. So much to choose from, and with weather that is sunny for over three hundred days per year (and with a year-round average high temperature of 70 degrees), the opportunities to get outside and explore are almost limitless. I have been here less than three months and have already climbed and hiked more than in the previous two years (of course this has more to do with being a full time college student than anything else.)
I am eagerly looking forward to more.