Our Favorite Family-friendly Trails in Red Rock Country
Full disclosure: My wife and I get cranky and irritable when we don’t get out of town and adventure. When we realized that we hadn’t been on a road trip or vacation of any sort since our trip to Maui last October, we quickly made plans to get out and do a road trip once the weather got nice. Naturally, we are also trying to visit every national park in our country (and others!) and given that we hadn’t logged a trip to Zion in years, we booked a place to stay and counted the hours before we could get down there.
To throw more adventure into the mix, we also have a one-year-old joining us now, so the nature of our trips and the activities have changed. No longer do we travel lightly with only our own gear, but now have to bring a whole slew of gear for the baby too. Our once trusty mantra, “fly by the seat of our pants,” has now been tossed away and our trips now are governed by family-friendly hikes and timing them between naps. For all of you parents out there, you’re probably nodding in agreement here. We know it’s temporary and that it will get easier as our daughter gets older, but that isn’t stopping us from getting out and enjoying the beauty we have around us, even if they are only during quick jaunts.
Of course, we found out we had booked our little road trip to Zion and St. George, Utah during the Hurricane Mountain Biking Festival so everything near our Airbnb was constantly busy. Luckily, I messaged a friend to get the lowdown on some lesser-known trails that would be interesting, less strenuous, and dog-friendly (we let our staffy, Pudge, tag along with us for some hiking fun!) for our little family of three and he quickly wrote back with some great family-friendly hikes I’d never done before.
Red Cliffs Recreation
First up was a quick jaunt to Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, a 60,000-acre expanse of absolutely stunning desert sandstone barely thirty minutes north of St. George along Interstate 15. It’s home to the rare desert tortoise (if you’re lucky enough to run into one, remember, it’s illegal to touch or interfere with them!) There are different “zones” to this entire conservation area and exploring the entirety would constitute far more than a single weekend to appreciate.
Nonetheless, we paid our $10 usage fee, found a parking spot at the City Creek camping area, and headed up a short trail along the Red Reef Trail along Quail Creek. The trail was mostly flat, and we could tell immediately that it was a perfect spot for families to bring kids because the stream was shallow and had a few points along the trail to splash around. Further up you hit a sort of dead end where the creek spills into a pool and the only way past is to take a slightly steeper section of trail to view the pond from above.
The trail continues on for another hundred yards or so until you cross the stream again and come upon some more pools below some gentle cascading falls. This is the point where most everyone will turn around after taking a little time to splash, but if you’re brave enough, you can continue along the trail using a hand rope and some footholds to get past a slightly higher waterfall. Given the time of day, we opted not to continue and let the dog swim and took the baby out of the carrier to take a few steps around.
Gunlock State Park Exploration
The next morning, we took off early to reach Gunlock State Park, northwest of St. George along Old Highway 91. Before you even realize that you’ve gotten to the park, you’ll probably notice a long side-of-the-road parking lot and, during spring runoff season, some waterfalls. We quickly found a spot to park, packed up the baby and dog, and set off along this quite short trail to explore the falls.
While we were there, the falls were running swift and covered a large area of sandstone! The area near the falls has a trail you can use to reach the top of the falls and see where the source of all the water is: a spillway from Gunlock Reservoir. Regardless of the source, the falls were impressive and, with a watchful eye, a great place to bring your kids and a dog for a short hike. If the weather was warmer and the water flow not as swift, you could probably find a spot along the falls to dip your toes and relax.
Once we were done, we snagged an envelope (handily available at the start of the trail) and paid our day-use fee. The $10 fee is more than worth getting to see these falls, use the restrooms provided a few yards up the road, or to recreate on the water.
After our short visit to Gunlock State Park, we stopped at another recommended trail along Old Highway 91: the Anasazi Trail. The trail itself is just over a mile in the exposed open desert, but there is little elevation gain and no open cliffs with a wide trail, perfect for your kids to stretch their legs and explore a bit. There are plenty of desert flowers and cacti to take in along the way, and you can extend your hike by continuing on well past the petroglyphs at the top of the hill.
Speaking of petroglyphs, you could easily spend hours poking around the boulders spying out more ancient carvings than you’ll likely find anywhere else along such an easy trail. Some of the petroglyphs are so easily found that we saw many people unknowingly walking over many of them (please, be aware of your footing in the area, most of the rocks in the area hide some petroglyphs!).
Zion National Park Magic
Last, but not least, we decided to end our day with a short hike in Zion National Park. We easily could’ve spent our entire weekend exploring more of the trails and areas we’d already visited, but the allure of the famous trails of nearby Zion National Park was too strong to ignore. It was late afternoon by the time we reached the park’s entrance. Once we got through, we parked at the nearby Visitor’s Center, hopped on the free shuttle buses, and rode up to the Zion Lodge stop.
Here, we crossed the road over to the Lower Emerald Falls Trail, a perfect paved hike for young families looking to take in a peaceful little piece of Zion Valley. The trail follows the Virgin River, and while there are a few areas you’ll want to watch your kids, it’s generally a great place to let your kids be “wowed” by the dripping water below Lower Emerald Falls at the end of the trail. Normally, you could continue on toward Upper Emerald Falls but due to a recent rockslide, the trail has been obliterated and will hopefully be repaired in the next year.
There are so many places to explore in southern Utah’s red rock country, but I’d highly recommend these family-friendly hikes as quick and easy options that are sure to delight and make your kids fall in love with the outdoors.