In 2021, Zion National Park accounted for more than 5 percent of all national park visits, with more than 5 million tourists clambering the Virginia River, boarding park shuttles and taking selfies among the park’s famous red cliffs.
Many chose to stay in Springdale, about seven miles from the park’s borders. The city of 553 people fills with visitors who crowd in hotels and restaurants and on roads that lead to only one place. When you come here, you know exactly where you are going.
If you want to avoid crowds in the national park, swipe about 30 miles west on the map to St. George, Utah. Here you’re about an hour from Zion, two hours from Bryce Canyon, and even closer to hidden spots like Snow Canyon State Park and Dixie National Forest, which we’ll cover in a bit. You have access to less expensive hotels; more restaurants, theaters and museums; and the many Zion-level experiences that dot southern Utah.
“If you stay in Springdale,” explains Kyle Walker, owner of Grand Circle Tours, “you are targeting yourself with the fewest options with the most people.” Walker runs outdoor tours throughout the Greater Zion area, offering guests the opportunity to see Zion, with a focus on the often overlooked Kolob Canyons area and places they might not find on their own. Staying in St. George, he adds, means there’s always a choice when the weather is nice. “There are places where if you call me in April or December, I have the answer to that question.”
He hints that St. George has access to over 7,000 feet of vertical drop, as well as a plethora of exquisite outdoor recreation options surrounding the city that are lost in Zion’s shadow. Some of Walker’s tours include Cedar Breaks National Monument, a mini Bryce Canyon with nearly identical views and some walking; the Canaanite Highlands, a crowd-free oasis stretching along Zion’s southeastern border; and the Dixie National Forest, the largest in the state, at almost 1.9 million acres.
Thanks to Dixie’s size, there are far more places to explore here than in all of Zion’s 150,000 acres – zoom out to the county level and you’re even more spoiled for choice. “There are tens of thousands of acres of really high quality public land,” Walker notes, “and there are more trails in Washington County than in Moab.” For those who live in St. George and are swamped with options, an experienced guide recommends starting with the 3.4-mile Yant Flat Trail, a hike that leads to orange-and-white “Candy Rocks” similar in atmosphere to The Wave in Arizona. , without a 5 percent chance of getting permission.
To attract inquisitive tourists, Walker partnered with the Advenire Hotel in downtown St. George, the first and only full-service boutique hotel in the Greater Zion area. Its adobe exterior and Dixie’s lofts are reminiscent of the 1860s St. George’s Inn, the Big House; inside, 60 rooms and 22 suites are filled with an atmosphere of “innovative modernity”. (The on-site restaurant wood.ash.rye serves one of the best breakfasts in town, and the biscuit draws in fans.) The existence of the hotel, which opened in 2020, suggests that St. George’s is officially a boom. town; the partnership suggests that Advenire is aware that the city is in danger of going down the path of Sedona or Moab.
St. George, of course, is not a secret. “Since 2018, we have seen a 10-15 percent increase in tourism year on year, and this is due to COVID,” says Sarah Otto, marketing manager for the Greater Zion Tourism and Convention Authority. This growth echoes the city’s fast-growing roster of first-class amenities and growing outdoor infrastructure: Black Desert Resort’s lava fields to feature a 19-hole golf course in 2023; The Utah Wine Trail will begin in Spring 2022 with all five locations in the region; and with $10 million in funding, work is currently underway to build an 18-mile paved walking/biking trail from the city to Zion. “Obviously there is growth,” Otto notes, “and we encourage visitors to avoid the holiday weekend, but there are still so many open spaces.”
Otto says spring brings fantastic weather to St. George’s: warm days and cooler nights are “everything a fire or a layer of clothing won’t fix.” Crowds in Zion start to increase in May-June, so plan your visit closer to March-April to maximize the crowd-to-weather ratio.
And while you might want to spend a day or two in Zion, “Go there,” says Otto, “then go and see Another Places similar to Zion, like Snow Canyon State Park – we call it Zion’s “little brother.” The park, located just 10 minutes from St. George, is made up of the same Navajo sandstone formations as Zion, with significantly fewer people and some bonuses. lava tubes to explore.
“Here you feel something different,” says Otto. “It sounds trite while you’re here, I know, but there really is something to it. We’re not sure what it is. Simply put, it is a kind of combination of people and land. And the views, well, they enhance that feeling.”