Honestly, Southwest Utah is like a dream. I highly recommend traveling out there for your wedding, honeymoon, vow renewal, family vacation, ANY REASON AT ALL. I spent months researching and planning a trip to Zion and the surrounding area. I found resources to help, but no one resource provided information on where to stay, best parks (beyond Zion), which specific hikes to go on, where to eat, and when to visit. It is overwhelming to travel and plan, so I hope this information helps you if you are considering a trip out west.
Where to Stay
I’ll first start with where we stayed and then offer some other suggestions based on general proximity to key places.
Desert Sage in Cane Beds, AZ (10 minutes from the Utah border)
This is truly one of the best appointed AirBnB’s I’ve ever stayed at. They had everything we could possibly need to make our trip wonderful. All of the little things they thought of, the extras, is what made this AirBnB over the top. For example, in the kitchen they had tin foil, plastic baggies, tons of single serve snacks for us, eggs in the fridge, oatmeal on the shelves. In the bathroom they had shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and Q Tips. There was a washer and dryer with detergent ready for us to use. The host thought of everything.
Then, on top of all of that, the house was so comfortable and cozy. The beds felt like they had high end mattresses and it easily slept four people (accommodates up to six). The couch was next level comfort and I wanted to pack it in my carryon and bring it home to Ohio.
One of the biggest reasons I chose this house, though, is because it is located in the middle of nowhere. On the end of a dead end dirt road, you have a couple neighbors, but beyond that you are surrounded by farms and mountains. With very little light pollution the stars at night are so bright. You are still within a ten minute drive of a grocery store and a mom and pop drive through coffee shop (both in Colorado City, AZ). Anything else you will need to drive 30 minutes to the closest bigger city, Hurricane, UT.
If this house is not available I would recommend looking at other properties managed by the same person just because the communication, extra touches, and accommodations were over the top.
If you are more into staying in locations that are a bit more populated, I recommend checking out rentals in Hurricane, Washington, St. George, La Verkin, or Kanab (all in Utah). They are within an hour of the hikes mentioned below, including Zion National Park.
Where to Hike
Honestly, the trails in Southwest Utah are so different from those in Ohio and it was hard to narrow down where to go in the nine days were were out there. I highly recommend downloading an app called All Trails. You can use it even if there is no cell service (which happens a lot) to navigate the trail you are on. This is particularly helpful because many trails are not well marked.
Hiking in Zion
Overlook Trail: For an amazing view with a modest amount of effort, I recommend the Overlook Trail. For most of the hike you are on the edge of a steep cliff, but there are guard rails on many of the sketchy areas. It is an out and back hike that is a total of 1 mile, but feels longer because you are gaining almost 200 feet in elevation in a short amount of time. The view at the turnaround point is spectacular. This would be an awesome spot for a couple to get wedding photos because it is fairly easy to get to a spot where the canyon views are beautiful.
Emerald Pools, Lower-Middle-Upper, Trails: The lower part of this trail is paved and very easy (with so-so views). As you hike you will make your way to the path that takes you to the middle and then upper pools, both moderate to hard depending on conditions (rain, snow and ice make it more challenging). The views up there are much better and worth the effort. If you hike the entire loop it is 3 miles with an elevation gain of 620 feet. At each “pool” you will see a waterfall and a pool depending on the weather conditions.
The slowest time of year to visit is the winter and even then it can get crowded. I cannot even imagine what the summer looks like (their busiest time). If you want to avoid crowds I recommend visiting during their off season. It costs $35 to enter and that includes your entire car for a whole week of visits (7 days).
Zion is probably the most popular park in SW Utah, but there are stake parks in the area that are just as beautiful, less trafficked, and less expensive to enter. Most of the state and local parks cost $10-15, but some are free (especially during the off season, ie winter). Winter in SW Utah is very mild with weather staying at about 40-50 degrees which, if you ask me, is the best weather to hike in. We happened to get snow which was really beautiful.
Snow Canyon State Park ($10 per vehicle)
We were lucky enough to know a couple that lives in Utah (my former professor and his wife) and they introduced us to this hike (they also told us to try the sugar cookies with pink frosting that are sold everywhere).If you want stunning 360 degree views this is the place to go. We tried the Petrified Dunes Trail which is very easy (although you could challenge yourself hiking in crevasses and up huge rock faces). You are at a high elevation on this trail and because of that you can see for miles and miles, mountain top after mountain top. This is a very loosely marked out and back trail, but most people (including us) hiked to higher peaks, interesting spots, and cool looking crevasses by crossing over to different trails and paths. You can pretty much make up your own trail. It is moderately trafficked, but there is enough space to spread out so you are never hiking near anyone else.
Red Cliff National Conservation Area (free in Winter, $5 during peak season)
Probably my favorite hike of our trip. We meant to go on an easier path, but ended up on probably one of the hardest trails in there (and for that I am thankful). It was a scramble which means you have to get on your hands and knees in some part and even use a rope to traverse up the side of a cliff that is above a waterfall. If you are up for the challenge then definitely try the Red Cliff Scramble. It is a 3 mile loop, although we didn’t finish because it started pouring. It is strenuous in all of the best ways, but not a good trail for beginners. You end up hiking through a canyon that is made up of stunning red rock. We saw maybe two groups on this hike so it is an awesome choice if you want to be alone in nature.
Coral Pink Sands State Park ($10 per vehicle)
Pink sand dunes that you can sled down. That’s all you really need to know! Views for miles. Takes a bit of work to get to the top of the dunes because walking in sand is challenging. You don’t have to go very far, but it is a serious workout. The main checkin point has sleds for rent ($25 per day), but our awesome AirBnB owners let us use their plastic sleds for free. If you can find a store nearby that sells plastic sleds I’d suggest doing that, you will save a lot of money. The dunes are massive and sledding down them is such an adrenaline rush. But walking back up is not for the faint of heart- it takes some serious effort. You will likely only want to sled a couple of times just because the walk back up is so rough. But worth it for the experience! There were quite a few groups here, but it is so large you can definitely get some space so you aren’t right next to anyone.
Hurricane Local Park (free)
You drive to a dead end street that turns into a dirt road that feels like it is going to lead nowhere and then all of a sudden you see a trail head. Gould’s Wash via Three Falls Trail is a 2 mile out and back that is easy in some parts and hard in others (several areas where there are scrambles). This hike felt very similar to the Red Cliff Scramble- in a canyon and some parts require you to be on hands and knees. However the views were totally different. We saw two people on this hike, so another great option if you want to be alone in nature. Because you are scrambling up hills there are several great lookout points. We even found a tractor that someone had literally pushed over the edge of the canyon. There were pieces and parts throughout our hike, an engine here and a tire there and so forth. At the beginning of the hike there is an area where you can go up and to the left instead of going into the canyon. This will take you to above the big “H” on the hillside. Utah has a thing for huge letters on their hills/mountains.
Where to Eat
Let me preface this whole section by telling you I have dietary restrictions, so finding a place to eat is always a whole other level of research for me. I have Celiac Disease and so I cannot have anything containing wheat or gluten. All it takes is a tiny bit of it and I am sick in bed for days. Like the worst stomach flu you’ve ever had. So my recommendations will be based on places I could eat.
I was pleasantly surprised at how many great food choices there were in Southwest Utah, especially ones that had good gluten free options (which is not an easy feat!).
Let’s start with breakfast!
La Verkin had my absolute favorite coffee shop that also offered awesome breakfast foods in addition to lunches and dinners. They also had a bar inside! You really could live in this place. River Rock Roasting Company had an extensive coffee menu and the coffee was well-balanced and smooth. I got an ice latte on day one and the barista recommend the brown sugar cinnamon syrup and OMG. My second stop into this shop I got an iced coffee with the brown sugar cinnamon. Literally order anything with that syrup and you will be happy. Oh, and they have a fabulous view of the Virgin River! My professor recommended this spot by saying it was, “coffee with a view” and that pretty much sums it up perfectly.
I am always on the quest for the best gluten free donut. Beer and donuts are the two things I really miss and just cannot seem to be duplicated properly without using gluten. When I saw that a coffee shop in St. George had some I drove AN HOUR out of my way to get some. At FeelLove Coffee they have several different flavors and you better believe I tried them all. My favorite was the donut with the lemon poppy seed icing. The donut base was a cake donut that had a strong coconut flavor so I assume they used coconut flour. I didn’t mind it because I love coconut. If you aren’t a fan of coconut, though, you probably wouldn’t love the donuts as much as I did. Also, since they are a cake donut they are very heavy and filling. You only need one or two before you are stuffed.
On our way out of town we wanted something sweet so we stopped at Muddy Bees Bakery in Hurricane. They have both gluten free and traditional baked goods. We tried the gluten free cake pops (vanilla and carrot cake) and wow. I wanted to try some of their massive pieces of cake, but couldn’t justify that as a “snack” (they were huge).
Lunch and dinner had a lot of options depending on what you were feeling like.
We stumbled across the Stage Coach Grille after our hike in Zion and were absolutely starving. They had a dedicated gluten free menu and I got the bunless burger with a fried egg, jalapenos, and swiss cheese. Fries with ranch on the side. They offered up fry sauce which I had never heard of, but is apparently a very Utah kind of think. It is a combo of mayo and ketchup, but as a midwesterner I couldn’t veer from my ranch dressing. Ope! Food was delicious and filling. So much so that we went there a second time for lunch.
George’s Corner Restaurant in St. George was ok, but somewhat underwhelming for me.They did have good ranch, though, so big points for that. I was craving lots of protein on this trip because I was hiking so much. So I got a burger while I was here too. Not nearly as good as Stage Coach, but not bad.
The BEST meal I had was when we drove out to Kanab, Utah, which is home to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. We ate at Rocking V Cafe. I got the deep dish enchilada and it was filling, a little spicy, flavorful, and you would never guess it was gluten free. It also happened to be vegetarian which is great for those avoiding meat. I would have liked to try several other items on their menu (everything sounded so good), but I was so happy I landed on the enchiladas. I don’t think I’ll ever get over them!
To sum it all up…
If you get the chance to go to Zion and southwest Utah, do it. I cannot wait to go back and explore more. I think if given the option I would also try to visit during a different season because I think it would look a lot different.
Additional Notes: We flew into Vegas which is a 2.5 hour drive from Hurricane/La Verkin/Cane Beds. Flying into Vegas is usually the cheapest option. You can also fly in Phoenix and drive north (and stop at the Grand Canyon on your way). That drive is a little longer at 4-5 hours, however the Grand Canyon makes it worth it.