Finding Solitude (and Fun) in Greater Zion
Zion National Park and the surrounding ‘Greater Zion’ region in St. George is home to some of the most jawdropping landscapes on Earth from red rock cliffs to sandstone slot canyons. Thanks to Instagram and the ever-growing popularity of adventure travel, Greater Zion’s popularity has boomed in recent years. Due to the pandemic, you may worry about traveling to an area known for its crowds.
But we’re here to show you how to find solitude in Greater Zion, Utah. From where to go and what to eat, we’re sharing nine Greater Zion secrets in hopes that you’ll fall in love with this magical place. So grab a mask and let’s start traveling again.
For an audio adventure of my experience, listen to Traveling Jackie’s JUMP podcast where I discuss the secrets of Utah’s most popular parks.
1. Explore Snow Canyon State Park
In any state besides Utah, I’d bet that Snow Canyon State Park would be awarded national park status. Its stunning red rock landscapes, slot canyons, lava tubes, and trails are worthy of both the protection and adoration. Thankfully, Snow Canyon’s state park moniker means its less well-known than neighboring Zion National Park, keeping crowds at bay–even on the weekends. Plus, it’s located right in the town of St. George
The best strategy for beating the heat (and crowds) is hiking in the evening off hours. Most folks start early and hike into the heat of the day, which is so not my jam. Instead, we ventured out in the early morning for canyoneering, took a siesta at mid-day, and explored Snow Canyon in the afternoon and early evening hours. This means most folks were gone and we had this desert wonderland all to ourselves.
For an easy intro to the park, try Jenny’s Canyon, a 0.3-mile path leading to a short slot canyon and park overlook. It’s perfect for kids and can be combined with other trails. Next, we hiked the Lava Flow Trail, a 2-mile path leading over ancient lava flows and tubes made of hardened lava. The biggest tube is found where the trail ends before the valley, and you can walk almost 50 feet deep into this cave! Fun for kids and adults alike. Bonus: We saw no one else while exploring this trail.
If you can only fit in one hike in Snow Canyon, make it the Hidden Pinyon Loop. This hike is a relatively flat loop showcasing the area’s flora, fauna, and red rock. Add on the Hidden Pinyon Overlook for the best views of the park! Hidden Pinyon begins and ends on Whiptail Trail, a paved six-mile path for bikers and rollerbladers along the park’s road.
2. Dine, Drink, and Sip Coffee (GASP!) in St. George
Long a sleepy, southern Utah town known for its religious restrictions and influence, St. George, Utah is fast evolving into a proper city. It’s been a few years since I’ve really explored here, and I was shocked by its recent rebirth. Instead of wondering where to eat and drink, skip the Googling and sample a few of our favorites.
Great coffee has long not been a thing in St. George due to the prevalence of the Mormon faith here so I was stoked to see craft coffee is now available! Start your morning at Affogato West, a coffee truck-turned-shop with coworking space built in. COVID is keeping its indoor guest count low, but this shop is a seriously cool place to hang and beat the heat. There are no artificial dyes or flavors in any of its beverages or food, and the Snickerdoodle Latte was tasty–even for a non-flavored coffee lover like me. There’s also locally made cold brew from River Rock if you’re looking to cool off. FeelLove–our favorite Zion coffee stop–also has a St. George location that’s surely worth a visit.
For lunch, Angelica’s Mexican Grill came highly recommended, and it did not disappoint. As a vegetarian, I found the Mulita to be surprisingly delightful. This corn quesadilla may not sound like much, but it was packed with flavors. Loved the salsa bar and COVID-safe outdoor patio.
When dinner calls, find pioneer fusion fare at the newly opened Wood. Ash. Rye. (W.A.R.) in the Advenire Hotel. An open kitchen and wood-fired oven mean every meal is served hot and fresh. We started with buttermilk biscuits with salted butter and jam, and they were easily some of the best we’ve ever had. The grilled carrots topped with chimichurri and cojita cheese were so flavorful that I’ll be trying to replicate them at home. The mozzarella salad with heirloom tomatoes, avocados, and poached egg is a fresh, tasty starter. As a vegetarian, I loved my homemade pappardelle pasta with tomato ragu, and it’s also available with beef if that’s your jam.
Beyond W.A.R.’s standout eats, we were dazzled by the craft cocktails. I’m certain this is the only place to get high-quality, artisan cocktails in town, and they’re worth every dollar spent. The Desert Rain with rabbit & grass agave spirit, mezcal, lime, and prickly pear is not too sweet while the smoky W.A.R. Valley Tan is a whiskey lovers’ dream.
3. Stay and Dine at a Cliffside Inn
If you’re not camping out while in St. George, beat the midday heat with an incredible swimming pool. The Inn on the Cliff delivered the best red cliff views in town and had an always-empty outdoor pool and hot tub with stellar vistas of town. We lounged here midday while the crowds sweated it out on their daytime hikes. So I’d say we did it right! I also loved the Inn on the Cliff because the rooms are recently remodeled with plush mattresses, and the hotel design means everyone has a balcony with spectacular red rock views.
Breakfast is delivered to your room on each day of your stay, and they even packed us up to-go treats when we had an early morning. Expect hardboiled eggs, yogurt parfaits, and muffins. Also at Inn on the Cliff is the Cliffside Restaurant. It’s easily St. George’s best fine dining with a view, and you can practically expect to see a proposal while you eat there. Loved spending a long evening on the patio.
4. Go Guided in a Stunning Slot Canyon
While I love venturing into Utah’s slot canyons, I don’t own the gear for rappelling on my own and have always been dependent on friends with the right gear and skills. This time we had neither so we booked a guided canyoneering trip with Paragon Adventures into Yankee Doodle slot canyon–just outside St. George. Since guided canyoneering is not allowed in Zion National Park, this is one of your best options if you’re not ready for a DIY experience. This canyon only takes a few hours and begins early in the morning, leaving you with plenty of time to mountain bike or hike during the day too.
Our guide, Todd, has extensive knowledge of the area, canyoneering, and safety! He made the experience of rappelling 100 feet fun and most of all, safe. I have an intense fear of heights so this was important to me. As for COVID-19 protocols, they’ll keep their behavior in line with whatever makes you comfortable in terms of mask-wearing and ride-sharing. We only saw one other group during our slot canyon experience, and we learned the art of rappelling and climbing techniques for scrambling over boulders and short steep sections. Bonus: Two guides go on every trip so there’s always someone to take pictures along the way.
5. Stay in a Tiny Home Near Zion National Park
We usually camp in Zion National Park, but the sweltering heat and lack of open campgrounds made us opt for indoor accommodations instead. But we didn’t go to a regular hotel. Instead, we stayed at The Dwellings, an all-new tiny home community in La Verkin–a Zion gateway town. Each tiny home is outfitted with a plush bed, full kitchen, heat and A&C, flatscreen TV, full bathroom, Adirondak chairs, and a deck with an outdoor bar. Bonus: You check yourself in with a code so there’s no contact with the staff. From The Dwellings, it’s a 25-minute drive to Zion and 20 minutes to St. George, making it a great basecamp if you’re visiting both places. Communal fire pits available when it’s not a global pandemic.
Another perk of The Dwellings: they’re next to River Rock Roasting Company. This bakery/restaurant is open morning until night and has a delightful breakfast, lunch, and dinner menu. We walked from our room and sat on the patio overlooking Confluence Park and the Virgin River below. It’s the perfect place to enjoy River Rock’s unique pizzas and salads. (Get the Amerikesh Moroccon salad; you won’t be disappointed.) Craft beer is also available if you like suds with your salad and meal.
6. Experience Zion’s First Via Ferrata
Despite being afraid of heights, I love the thrill of crossing ledges and cliffs on via ferratas. The first via ferrata in the Zion area opened just this summer so we were some of the first to experience it! Located on private land on Zion’s western side, Utah Adventure Center built this via ferrata to showcase this private land (and waterfall) for those who’ve never seen it. Called Angels Leading Ledgewalk, this via ferrata has a similar vibe to Angels Landing, but without the possibility of falling to your death.
You’re clipped into a cable throughout the experience, whether you’re walking across cliff walls or climbing up iron rungs, so it’s suitable for people of most fitness levels. As long as you can walk half a mile, you’re good to go. You’ll walk on ledges past a beautiful waterfall, climb up above it on trails and metal rungs, then finish with on a 1000-foot cliff overlooking the canyon below. Since you’re clipped in, you can hang your feet (or body) off the edge safely. Highly recommended for everyone from kids to adults who crave adventure but like t explore safely.
7. Visit Zion’s Quieter Side: Kolob Canyon
If you book a tour of Angels Leading Ledgewalk with Utah Adventure Center, you’ll meet at Kolob General Store in Virgin, Utah on Zion’s northern side. This home base houses a small outfitter shop and restaurant with a chef you’ll be surprised works in a small national park town. After our ledgewalk, we ordered fish tacos and beers at the shop and were wowed by the incredible food. The beers were so cheap, we bought a four-pack thinking it was the price for one!
After fueling up, we rented kayaks and paddleboards from Utah Adventure Center to paddle around Kolob Reservoir. They bring the boats down to the lakeshore for you and provide everything you need for a day on the water. Pack a lunch and paddle out to Above Zion Island where you can picnic and chill during a paddling break.
On the way back to La Verkin, find trails along Kolob Terrace Road such as Hop Valley–a meandering path through sand and red rock formations. The North Fork Trail leads to a spectacular slot canyon (technical skills and gear required) while the Left Fork Trail leads to the well-known Subway–a water-filled slot canyon with smooth, overhanging rock formations.
8. Bike in Zion National Park
While you’re in Zion, you’ll want to see what all the fuss is about and explore Zion Canyon along the scenic drive. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, shuttle reservations are required to access the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. (Unless you read this in winter when you can drive your own car into the park.) Reserve your shuttle tickets for $1 online, OR hop on without a ticket every day from 3:00-6:00 p.m. (subject to availability).
We learned that bikes could get in without reservations so we rented bikes at Zion Outfitter–right by the visitor’s center–and hopped on a shuttle during the 3:00-6:00 open time. Once at the final stop (Temple of Sinawa), we hopped on our bikes and rode nearly seven miles back to the visitor’s center. This was an amazing way to see the park because we stopped to hike short trails and take pictures along the way.
Shuttles aren’t allowed to pass bikers unless they’re pulled over and stopped so you don’t need to worry about feeling unsafe on the road. The final two miles takes you to the Pa’rus Trail, a winding, paved multi-use path where we saw deer at sunset and Zion’s bustling campgrounds. During the ride, my husband proclaimed the experience his favorite of the trip!
9. Taste Zion’s Best Eats and Drinks
The town of Springdale is just outside Zion National Park, and it was lacking a great coffee shop for a long while. Enter FeelLove Coffee. It’s a tiny shop just outside the park that sells delicious coffee, specialty drinks, vegan ice cream, infused teas, non-caffeinated lattes, and Millennial-friendly snacks (i.e. avocado toast). Perfect morning stop before heading into the park!
While not so new, we also loved grabbing a post-hike brew at Zion Brewery, just outside the park gates by the visitor’s center. It’s southern Utah’s first craft brewery and has incredible views of Zion Canyon from its patio. Eat-in for lunch or dinner, or grab just a pint of beer in the adjacent brewpub. For dinner near the park, our go-to is Oscar’s Cafe. Order the bottomless chips and salsa with guacamole and thank us later. Be aware: portions are huge so consider sharing!
Listen to Episode 140 of Traveling Jackie’s JUMP podcast below to hear Jenny discuss this trip to Greater Zion and share more secrets in Utah’s most popular parks.
Greater Zion Trip Photo Gallery
I couldn’t fit every photo and moment into this story, but I created the photo gallery below to share even more of the experience. Hope it helps you plan your own Greater Zion getaway.