In 2018, Zion National Park saw 4.3 million visitors, moving from third to fourth on the list of most visited U.S. national parks.
That’s more than 12 times the number of guests to Snow Canyon State Park, located just 50 miles to the west and known locally as “mini Zion.” Within a few miles of Snow Canyon are three other state parks, multiple national conservation areas, national forest and wilderness areas, and the emerging outdoors-oriented town of St. George. Greater Zion is southwestern Utah’s best-kept secret, and the following five adventures offer a range of ways to see its splendors (before the rest of the world catches onto them!) and get your blood pumping at the same time.
Hiking In or Near Snow Canyon State Park
Even with its close proximity to St. George, Snow Canyon offers 38 miles of hiking trails — and more than 180 traditional and sport climbing routes — threading through 7,400 acres of 180-million-year-old petrified sand dunes, volcanic cinder cones, lava fields, and red and white sandstone cliffs.
Gila Trail is easy to miss but simple enough to navigate once found. The 2.5-mile trail (one way) winds through a “secret” slot canyon, culminating in an area of ancient petroglyphs carved by the indigenous peoples who called this region home prior to settlers arriving.
For those looking to really get after it, the Red Mountain Trail, just north of the park, requires ample wayfinding skills and some serious endurance, running 9.5 miles in each direction. But the views and isolation are every bit worth the effort. Just be sure to do your homework before setting out.
Road Cycling the Veyo Loop
Though landscapes as vast and varied as these make mountain biking a main attraction for the region, Greater Zion is also a major destination for IRONMAN athletes and road cycling enthusiasts, and there are no shortage of scenic rides within reach — with better quality roads and considerably less traffic than you’ll find in other nearby cycling destinations. One route not to miss is the newly opened scenic Veyo Loop, the county’s first designated bike route and a mainstay of endurance athletes in training and local cyclists alike. At just about 55 miles, with 2,228 feet of elevation gain, the loop provides endless views of Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Gunlock State Park, and everything in between. And if that’s not enough, plan your return visit around the IRONMAN 70.3 North American Championships in 2020, IRONMAN St. George in 2020, or the 2021 IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship taking place in 2021.
Canyoneering Beyond the Zion Border
Once a niche activity that was the domain of hardcore adventurers, canyoneering is becoming more popular by the day as mainstream audiences gain glimpses of terrain that is otherwise inaccessible (thanks, Instagram). With Zion already regarded as a worldwide destination for canyoneering, the Greater Zion landscapes surrounding the national park offer near endless—and often equally beautiful—slot canyons to rappel into and hike, swim, and scramble out of, many of which are just minutes from St. George.
Lambs Knoll, just outside of Zion, is home to relatively beginner-friendly canyoneering (and an abundance of sport climbing). A bit of work there delivers stunning views of Zion and its surroundings. Island in the Sky is a much more technical route (and shares a name with a district in Canyonlands National Park), requiring an ascent of a butte that rises above the entire surrounding area. Though it demands excellent navigational and route-finding skills, mental fortitude, and comfort with exposure (and a permit), the views and terrain accessed are unmatched.
Mountain Biking Gooseberry Mesa
Situated between St. George and Zion National Park, Gooseberry Mesa is a treasure trove of MTB trails on BLM land. Unlike the Slickrock trails in Moab, there are no brutal hill climbs here, just flowy singletrack that tests your balance, agility, and reaction time — think short ups, brief downs, and quick turns. With nearly 30 miles of trails ranging from low, intermediate, to truly vexing, there’s plenty to offer—and even the gnarliest trails can be navigated at a more measured pace by intermediate cyclists. In all, the fun-to-hard-work ratio is better at Gooseberry than most any other MTB destination in the state. Plus, at 5,400 feet in elevation, the Mesa top is much cooler than the valleys below, providing an almost constant breeze.
Bouldering in Moe’s Valley
If you’re into bouldering, you’re likely familiar with Joe’s Valley in Central Utah. Moe’s Valley, just outside of St. George in the southwest corner of the state, is the perfect counterpart, completing the picture of Utah bouldering. Only in recent years has the zone been established, and it’s still growing, with nearly 200 defined routes and more being put up seasonally. Problems range from V2 to V14 — with the majority in the V3-V7 range — so there’s something for everyone. Be sure to practice LNT principles, and stay on established trails to help preserve the delicate surrounding desert vegetation, so it’s around for future adventurers. You’ll want new generations to be able to explore Utah’s best-kept secret, too!
This article is sponsored by Greater Zion.