Aland of red-rock canyons, towering sandstone cliffs and majestic mesas, southern Utah is an adventurer’s playground. The otherworldly scenery is ideal for outdoor experiences not only because it’s strikingly gorgeous, but also because it provides the ideal setting for outdoor activities like hiking, canyoneering, four-wheeling and even paddleboarding. (Indeed, the area is home to beautiful blue reservoirs, too.)
Before starting your adventures, set up base camp in St. George. This small city in Utah’s southwest corner offers outdoor enthusiasts plenty of nearby options for getting up close and personal with nature’s wonders — namely because the area shines with stellar state and national parks.
Whether you have a few hours or an entire week to play in southern Utah, there’s an itinerary for you.
Short Escape: Go Off-Roading in Sand Dunes
If you’re itching to drive an off-highway vehicle (OHV) along dirt trails, across vast sand dunes, and up and over slick sandstone, the Sand Mountain OHV Area at Sand Hollow State Park, about 14 miles east of St. George, is a great place to give it a whirl.
Rent a one-passenger all-terrain vehicle (ATV) or multipassenger utility terrain vehicle (UTV) to take off on your own in the state park for as little as two hours. Or if you prefer guidance from experts who can show you all the best spots to zoom around, book a two- or four-hour tour of the area’s red dunes, cliffs and buttes.
One-Day Adventure: Hike in the Morning and Paddleboard in the Afternoon
Snow Canyon State Park, about ten miles north of St. George, offers a variety of easy-to-difficult hikes amid dramatic red rock formations, ancient lava flows and pockmarked slot canyons.
For your morning adventure, consider pairing a couple of trails that showcase the unique volcanic features of the area. Head out on the 2.5-mile round-trip Lava Flow Trail, where you can peek into lava tubes. (You’ll likely need to use your phone’s flashlight if you venture in.) Then drive north to hop on the 1.9-mile round-trip Cinder Cone Trail — a steep but scenic trek to the top of what was once an active volcano.
After building an appetite, drop back into St. George to fuel up with a freshly made sandwich or pizza at Farmstead. Then drive 14 miles northeast to Quail Creek State Park and rent a paddleboard to explore the coves of a calm reservoir. The St. George area enjoys a mild winter climate, so you can SUP here year-round.
Weekend Escape: Explore Zion National Park
One of the country’s most extraordinary natural attractions is just an hour drive northeast of St. George. While you can certainly see some of Zion National Park‘s highlights in a day, a three-day adventure allows for a more relaxed pace.
A majority of Zion’s key sights are along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. Most of the year this main road is only open to shuttle buses that drop riders off at trailheads. But if you’re looking to add some healthy exercise to your day, you can bypass the bus and rent mountain e-bikes to cycle along the eight-mile paved road from the visitor center to the Temple of Sinawava.
While cruising at your own pace with a daylong mountain e-bike rental, you have lots of options for hiking (bike racks are found at the base of each trail). For example, consider the easy, paved Lower Emerald Pool Trail. For a longer, moderate hike, continue on to the Middle Emerald and Upper Emerald pools. Streams connect the three pools in this area rich in vegetation, and the scene is especially impressive during spring runoff when trickles grow to waterfalls.
A more strenuous trek is the out-and-back West Rim Trail to Scout Lookout. From here, admire the vast views of Zion Canyon. If you want to test your mettle by continuing to the precipitous Angels Landing trail, you’ll need to secure a permit.
A romp through The Narrows, a dramatic slot canyon that’s rightfully popular among visitors, requires the right gear to conquer wading through the chilly Virgin River. Rugged shoes and hiking poles are key for navigating slippery river rock.
No matter how you spend your time in Zion — perhaps also horseback riding or exploring the lesser-traveled Kolob Canyons area — be sure to look up as the sun starts to set to witness the craggy cliffs in the waning light as they turn golden orange.
If you still have some energy after adventuring in Zion National Park, consider booking a half-day of canyoneering or via ferrata trek with expert guides on your way back to St. George. These excursions take place outside of the national park, and they’re not available in the winter.
However, if the timing’s right and you’re seeking an adrenaline rush, rappelling down slot canyons (canyoneering) or climbing iron ladders up cliff walls while harnessed and clipped into a cable (via ferrata) makes for an exciting weekend finale.
Weeklong Expedition: Road Trip to the Rest of “The Mighty 5”
Together with Zion National Park, Utah’s other spectacular national parks — Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Arches — constitute “The Mighty 5.”
While a one-week, 800-plus-mile road trip to four national parks is indeed fast-paced, it’s a compact way to get an overview of the most magnificent landscapes in each park.
From St. George, drive northeast to Bryce Canyon National Park for your first stop. Check out Bryce Point for an expansive view of out-of-this-world spire hoodoos. If you’re game, combine a couple of hikes in the park to loop through high-altitude forest and along canyon rims.
Continuing northeast, Capitol Reef National Park is Utah’s least-visited national park, but it’s well worth a visit. Consider the eight-mile scenic drive to take in some nifty geologic features and a steep-walled canyon where historians believe outlaw Butch Cassidy once hid out. Learn about the area’s pioneer history with a walk around the orchards.
From Capitol Reef, head northeast again, motoring along I-70 a bit before dropping south to vast Canyonlands National Park. This park deserves a couple of days of your time as it’s home to two distinct districts you’ll want to hit on your overview tour: Needles and Islands in the Sky. Oodles of trails here allow for traipsing to prehistoric rock carvings, ancestral Puebloan structures and picturesque overlooks.
Only a 30-minute drive northeast from Canyonlands is Arches National Park, featuring an incredible 2,000 natural stone arches within its boundaries. You can view famous Delicate Arch (pictured on Utah license plates) from a mile away via an easy-to-reach lookout point. Better yet, make the moderate three-mile trek to the massive freestanding formation and admire the wondrous work of Mother Nature up close.
Before looping back to St. George via U.S. Route 191 to I-70 west and I-15 south (the fastest route, about five hours), be sure to stroll through downtown Moab with its casual restaurants, art galleries and gift shops — perhaps to pick up a memento of your journey to Utah’s stunning national parks.
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