Utah

To visit Utah’s great outdoors without the crowds, head to St. George

In 2021, Zion National Park accounted for over 5 percent of all national park visits — that’s more than 5 million tourists scrambling down the Virgin River, cramming into park shuttles and taking selfies among the park’s famous red cliffs.

Many chose to stay in Springdale, about seven miles outside the park boundaries. The city of 553 people fills up with visitors crowding hotels and restaurants and streets that really only lead to one place. When you get here, you know exactly where you want to go.

If you want to avoid the crowds in the national park, drag your finger along the map about 30 miles west to St. George, Utah. Here you are about an hour from Zion, two hours from Bryce Canyon, and even closer to under-the-radar spots like Snow Canyon State Park and Dixie National Forest — which we’ll cover in a moment. You have access to cheaper hotels; more restaurants, theaters and museums; and a plethora of Zion-level experiences dotting southern Utah.

“When you stay in Springdale,” explains Kyle Walker, owner of Grand Circle Tours, “you’re spending the fewest opportunities with the most people.” Walker offers outdoor tours throughout Greater Zion and offers guests the opportunity to see Zion – highlighting the often-overlooked area of ​​the Kolob Canyons – and places you might not find on your own. Staying in St. George, he adds, means there’s always a fair-weather option. “There are places where I’ll have an answer if you call me in April or December.”

It hints at St. George’s access to over 7,000 feet of elevation gain — and the excess of exquisite outdoor options around the city that are lost in Zion’s shadow. Walker’s guided excursions include Cedar Breaks National Monument, a mini Bryce Canyon with nearly identical views and a fraction of the trail traffic; the Canaan Mountain Wilderness, an uncrowded oasis that stretches along Zion’s southeastern border; and Dixie National Forest, the state’s largest at nearly 1.9 million acres.

Thanks to Dixie’s size, there are far more places to explore than the entire 150,000-acre Zion—zoom out to the county level and you have even more choices. “There are tens of thousands of acres of really high quality public land,” Walker notes, “and there are more hiking trails in Washington County than in Moab.” For those who live in St. George and are awash with options, the experienced guide recommends starting with the 3.4-mile Yant Flat Trail, a hike that leads to the orange-and-white “Candy Cliffs” — similar in atmosphere to the Wave in Arizona, without the 5 percent chance of getting a permit .

Interior at the Advenire Hotel in St George

Start the day with a biscuit-packed breakfast at Advenire.

To reach curious hikers, Walker has partnered with the Advenire in downtown St. George, the first and only full-service boutique hotel in Greater Zion. Its adobe exterior and Dixie dormer windows are reminiscent of St. George’s 1860s inn, the Big House; Inside, “modern pioneer” vibes flow through 60 guest rooms and 22 suites. (The on-site restaurant, wood.ash.rye, serves one of the best breakfasts in town, and the cookie-collecting groupies.) The hotel’s existence, which opened in 2020, suggests St. George is officially a boom town, village; The partnership speaks to Advenire’s awareness that the city risks going the Sedona or Moab route.

St. George is certainly no secret. “Since 2018, we’ve seen tourism growth of 10 to 15 percent year over year, and that’s thanks to COVID,” said Sara Otto, marketing manager for the Greater Zion Convention & Tourism Office. The city’s fast-growing list of high-end amenities and improved outdoor infrastructure reflect that growth: 2023 is bringing a 19-hole golf course to the lava fields of the Black Desert Resort; the Utah Wine Trail is operational as of spring 2022 with all five locations in this region; and with $10 million in funding raised, an 18-mile paved hiking/biking trail leading from the city to Zion is currently in the works. “There’s obviously growth,” Otto notes, “and we’re encouraging visitors to avoid bank holiday weekends — but there’s still so much open space.”

Otto says spring brings fantastic weather to St. George, with warm days and cooler nights, “nothing a campfire or a shift can’t fix.” Zion’s visitor numbers begin to increase in May through June, so plan your visit closer to March through April to maximize your visitor-to-weather return.

And while you’re planning to spend a day or two in Zion, “take your turn there,” says Otto, “then look at it other Zion-like places like Snow Canyon State Park—we call it Zion’s “little brother.” Just 10 minutes from St. George, the park contains exactly the same Navajo sandstone formations as Zion, with significantly fewer visitors and a few extras Lava tubes to explore.

“You feel something different here,” says Otto. “Until you get here, that sounds corny, I know, but there’s really something there. We’re not sure what it is. Simply put, it’s a combination of people and land. And the view reinforces that feeling.”

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