Cycling Hub: St. George

Studded with sprawling mesas and red sandstone cliffs, the countryside surrounding St. George is straight out of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — literally. The classic Western, shot near St. George in 1969, isn't St. George's only claim to fame; the town of over 80,000 is just 30 miles from Zion National Park. It's also adjacent to a half a dozen other adventure destinations, including Snow Canyon State Park, Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, Gooseberry Mesa, and, less than a hundred miles away, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Time to grab your bike, there's a lot to see.

For a pleasant warm-up, head into Snow Canyon State Park for a 20-mile loop. From downtown St. George, head north on S.R. 18 to the junction with Snow Canyon Parkway, and hang a left. Stay in the narrow shoulder for just over four miles; this will take you towards the entrance to the park on Snow Canyon Drive.

You gain just over 1,300 feet of vert in the first 11 miles of this loop, but don't worry, the downhill cruise begins when you meet back up with S.R. 18 at mile 11.5. As a bonus, the shoulder widens considerably as you head back into town. It's good to have the extra room — the views of Snow Canyon's vermilion cliffs may drive you to distraction.

If you are looking for a challenge, follow the century-length course of the annual Spring Tour de St. George, which skirts the western edge of Snow Canyon State Park, swoops down to the Utah-Arizona border, passes through Sand Hollow and Quail Creek state parks, and finishes alongside Red Cliffs National Conservation Area.

Boasting an average 300 days of annual sunshine, it's no surprise that St. George trends significantly warmer than the rest of the state. Its arid desert climate is emblematic of the desert southwest, averaging in the high nineties and hotter in the summer months. Wherever you're riding, plan to bring plenty of water, and consider acclimating to the dry heat with shorter loops before taking on a big day.

Accommodations and Bike Shops

Thanks to its proximity to outstanding road and mountain biking, St. George is home to three bike shops, plus an all-around outdoor gear supplier, the Desert Rat. The town is supremely bikeable, too: it's easy-to-navigate bike routes and trails system will get you nearly anywhere in St. George, including lodging and the myriad restaurants on Main Street. There are dozens of budget-friendly accommodations in town; those looking for a luxury getaway should head north from town toward Snow Canyon State Park for a stay at the upscale Inn at Entrada.

Extend the Adventure

When you're ready for a break from saddle time, you won't need to look far for rest day activities: In addition to the aforementioned state parks and monuments, visitors can check out one of St. George's five museums, including a children's museum. For an adventurous, family-friendly outdoor alternative, head to the Warner Valley Dinosaur Track Site trail, just 15 miles southeast of St. George proper, where over 400 perfectly preserved dinosaur tracks have been discovered. Complete the dinosaur diversion with a visit to an excellent museum, the Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm.

Want to check out St. George's other outdoorsy offerings? There's plenty of rock climbing (mostly sport) and canyoneering on the sandstone in the surrounding cliffs, not to mention a lifetime's worth of singletrack — often favorably compared to the mountain biking scene near Moab.

Written by Utah Office of Tourism.

Featured image provided by Dave Becker

Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm

Looking out across the floodplain of the Virgin River in southwestern Utah, I imagine that I'm looking at a great lake. It's the late Triassic and the water is beginning to dry out. Turning west, I imagine an ancient shoreline of a Paleozoic ocean — now I've gone back too far in time. But it's important to consider eras of dramatic changes that have culminated to this moment. Hundreds of millions of years all leading to this. The city of St. George spirals out in almost every direction from the red rock outpost, laying its grid over the desert to tame it in a way certain predecessors of this land never could. Dinosaurs weren't exactly "civilized," by our definition of the word.

First, a little background for the geology buffs.

In 2000, a local optometrist Dr. Sheldon Johnson was leveling a hill on his property in St. George, when he found a thick level of sandstone as he removed layers of sedimentary rock. As he removed large blocks of rocks, Dr. Johnson discovered a fully preserved, three-dimensional dinosaur track that was visible in both the brittle clay below and also on the bottom of the sandstone block. The track was just one of thousands made by dinosaurs and other animals almost 200 million years ago on the shores of an ancient lake near St. George and within the broader Colorado Plateau and surrounding areas that are world-renowned for the high concentration of Triassic-Jurassic fossil resources.

Experts converged on the site to verify and reveal an extensive "trackway" found on the farm. Realizing that these dinosaur tracks would be best served if they were maintained for scientific and educational purposes, Dr. Johnson and his wife LaVerna donated the found tracks and arranged for the land to be cared for by the City of St. George. This is now the museum found here today at the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm.

But it's not just the in situ dinosaur tracks that draw local and international geology enthusiasts year after year. Many other fossils have been found in the area (like fish bones, dinosaur bones, leaves and plant seeds, and aquatic animal shells) that have allowed paleontologists to reconstruct the approximately 200-million-year-old ecosystem, with a clarity that some call "unprecedented" and a "rarity for rocks of any time period."
The museum isn't just for geologists. Families and children will have a great time here following dinosaur tracks along the ground, making tracks on their own, uncovering replica fossils or putting together dinosaur puzzles.

The Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm is also great for solo travelers with a copy of "Roadside Geology of Utah" who are looking to deepen their appreciation of a place whose red rock splendor is so visible it begs a closer look.

Plan Your Trip

St. George, Utah, is the largest city in southwestern Utah and is home to a wide range of great restaurants, shopping and other city amenities. The city is a gateway to some of Utah's most famous parks and destinations. Many visitors travel to the area for Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, but full vacation itineraries are easily created by including state parks such as Snow Canyon, Sand Hollow and Kodachrome Basin, and vast outdoor landscapes like Red Cliffs Desert Reserve and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

To find events at the museum during your visit, check out the museum website.

The St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm is located at 2180 East Riverside Drive, St. George, UT 84790.

Hours Winter hours (Oct 1-Feb. 28) are Mon-Sat 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and closed on Sundays.
Summer hours (Mar.1-Sept. 30) are Mon-Sat 1 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sundays 11am-5pm.
The museum is open for all summer holidays, including Memorial Day, July 4th, Pioneer Day (July 24th), and Labor Day.

Admission is $6 for adults, $3 for children ages 4-11, and children under 4 are free.

GPS Coordinates: 37.101096, -113.5369087

Written by Utah Office of Tourism.

Featured image provided by Courtesy of Utah Office of Tourism

The Desert Southwest Tour: St. George to Zion

Why should Moab have all the two-wheeled fun? Southwestern Utah boasts some of the best desert cycling in the state, and it's all just a stone's throw from some of America's most dramatic national parks. For this tour, stock up on supplies in the road cycling hub of St. George — the town of 80,000 is home to plenty of grocery stores and three bike shops.

The desert southwest isn't all sandy washes and red cliffs: the St. George area is colloquially known as "Color Country" for good reason. Snow Canyon State Park, just 11 miles from St. George and the start of a phenomenal 65.3-mile tour of the area, features red and white Navajo sandstone formations, black lava rock, and countless species of vibrant flora and fauna.

The Tour

Situated at the intersection of the Mojave Desert, the Great Basin, and the Colorado Plateau, Snow Canyon was originally inhabited by Ancestral Puebloans, who hunted and gathered in the canyon thousands of years ago. Begin your desert southwest journey by camping at one of the park's tent sites ($20/night) — in the morning, you can explore the area where classic Westerns like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Jeremiah Johnson were filmed and, if you're lucky, spot a Gila monster. Several concessioners also offer guided climbs and horseback tours of the park.

From Snow Canyon, head through nearby Ivins and St. George and onto the Virgin River Trail. This paved, well-maintained bike route winds along the Virgin River and provides access to Sand Hollow State Park, 27 miles from Snow Canyon. There are several campground options at Sand Hollow, but cyclists looking for a quieter experience should head to the primitive camping area ($15/night), where no motorized vehicles are allowed. To cool off after a long ride in the desert heat, head to the beach at Sand Hollow Reservoir to swim or rent a kayak.

It's a little under 10 miles from Sand Hollow to Hurricane (insider tip: locals pronounce it "HUR-a-kin"). Here, cyclists can stock up on supplies before heading toward Zion National Park on Utah State Route 9 — this scenic highway provides the first glimpse of Zion's jaw-dropping rock formations. This 38-mile leg gains just over 1,200 feet of elevation.

The South and Watchman Campgrounds (both $20/night for tent-only sites) are the closest Zion campsites to the park's Springdale Entrance. Camping within the park gives cyclists, who pay a discounted park entrance fee of just $12 per person, a head start to maximize time in Zion.

From the Zion Canyon Visitor Center, take the 1.4-mile paved Pa'rus Trail to Canyon Junction, where the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive begins. Beyond Canyon Junction, no private vehicles are allowed, which is great news for road cyclists: Aside from professional shuttle drivers, you'll have the roadway to yourself. The nine-mile one-way ride to the end of Floor of the Valley Road, as it's also known, is breathtaking. Plan to bring a bike lock and check out some of the area's hiking trails, which vary in difficulty and exposure. Adventurous spirits won't want to miss the hike to Angels Landing, one of the most iconic views in Zion National Park. Bring a change of shoes, too — the steep, rocky trail to the summit has sheer drop-offs and shouldn't be attempted in clipless shoes.

Travelers can opt to spend another day in Zion, where there's no shortage of hikes and scenic views. A ride up to the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel and back will mean negotiating heavy vehicle traffic, but views of the park are unparalleled. In any case, the ride back to St. George trends downhill and can be comfortably split into two easy days.

Pro Tips and Map

Regardless of the timing of your visit, the desert is a wild place. Temperatures can soar into the triple digits during the summer months, so plan to carry plenty of water. Thanks to its high desert status, though, the weather also turns quickly: It's not uncommon to experience snow flurries in late August and beyond. The desert southwest is prone to wind, triggered by weather patterns making their way into Utah — dust storms kicked up by high winds can seriously reduce visibility, so avoid heavily trafficked areas and take shelter if there's wind in the forecast.

Here is a map of the route for further details.

Written by Visit Utah for Utah Office of Tourism.

Featured image provided by Dave Becker davebeckerphotography.com

Start ‘em Early

Blue sky peeks through the clouds as I zoom down Utah’s Interstate 15 off the edge of the high country. Juliet looks up from her book to take in the bright red landscape spreading below.

But my mind is still stormy. I had planned a trip to the Uinta Mountains, to be my seven-year-old daughter’s first backpacking experience. When the forecast called for freezing temperatures and snow in the mountains, I turned south. I scanned the state for a sunny forecast, as well as a reasonable drive, a short trail and a rewarding destination. This specific combination required a little research. Capitol Reef National Park was too cold. The trails I was eyeing in Canyonlands National Park were too far for our limited time. The southwest bit of the state was a fast drive and showed sun and 70 degrees, but Zion National Park’s reservable backcountry permits were all taken.

Then I thought of Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, a vast conservation and recreation area that encompasses the canyons above the St. George metro area. It was a place I had passed by dozens of times and not thought much about. But it seemed to be the perfect solution. I found a short, accessible canyon in a quiet corner of the reserve. And on this day, when the early fall blizzard had rendered most of our drive along I-15 a bleak gray, Utah’s Dixie proved to be dependably blue.

Yet recent dad fails are pulsing through my head. I pictured the time I had taken Juliet on her first double black diamond powder run at Solitude Mountain Resort, resulting in a head-first fall and lots of tears. Then there was the ill-fated boogie boarding session where a freak wave crashed on her head and drilled her into the ground. This trip needed to be not long, not cold and definitely not boring.

So the stakes are high. We are hiking two-and-a-half miles, and they had better be magic. ( Big Hollow trail guide below the article )

We exit I-15 at Leeds, turn past the Silver Reef ghost town, and rally down a Dixie National Forest road along the base of the Pine Valley Mountains to our destination, a pullout where the road curves around the head of the Big Hollow drainage in the upper reaches of Red Cliffs.

Even though I have most of our camping gear, Juliet will carry her own backpack, which she had meticulously packed. She went heavy on stuffed animals and books. The stuffed animals are fine as they compress nicely, I tell her, but you might want to rethink all the books, as they weigh a lot.

Backpacks on, I point out a cairn and we duck under some pine trees.

The canyon is shallow to start and we work our way down a slope of boulders. Big Hollow is an upper tributary of the larger Cottonwood Canyon system that spreads in wilderness through the core of the reserve. We can see Big Hollow deepen further down into sheer sandstone walls. The landscape here is a little different than other parts of red rock country due to the influence of the Hurricane Fault, which exposed the masses of bright sedimentary layers and led to cinder cones producing the igneous rocks scattered in the canyon.

As we stumble down to the canyon bottom, Juliet slips on some loose rocks. But I manage to catch her. She presses on, and in the wash she picks up walking sticks for us both.

Even only hiking a little over a mile in, a solitary place like this is an adventure, with nothing certain about what we’ll encounter. When you’re backpacking, you always walk the line of the uneasiness and sublimity of solitude. This sense conflicts with my desire as a parent to be in control. At least until a certain age, our kids tend to think we as parents are omniscient. But I explain to Juliet what an adventure is, that I’ve never been here before. I don’t know what will happen.

Indeed, I find remnants of flash flooding — debris hugging the upstream side of the willows in the wash. And as we walk I see fresh tracks in the mud.

Juliet is now quite happy and engaging me in what she calls the “animal game,” wherein one of us thinks of an animal and the other asks “yes” or “no” questions to home in on and guess the animal.

“Daddy, are you thinking of an animal?” Juliet says.

The tracks become clear as pawed feet.

“Daddy?” she says when I don’t respond.

“Uh huh,” I say, scanning the canyon around us for any movement.

“Is it a mammal?”

The walls are sheer, no escape.

“Daddy!”

After a few distracted rounds of the animal game, we arrive at the junction of Yankee Doodle, a relatively popular technical slot canyon. We decide to run up, until the canyon narrows and a muddy pool blocks our path, and Juliet wants to get to camp.

The cat tracks have tailed off, and the canyon wall shadows have lengthened. After another half hour of walking down canyon, we arrive at the junction where Big Hollow meets Heath Wash. This is where we plan to camp.

Juliet wants to know if we’re camping right in the wash. She hopes so because she likes the sand and mud. I tell her we don’t really want to get washed away by a flood. In fact, finding a good spot to camp is tricky. You have to look for a lot of things: level ground and safety are vital but so are avoiding cryptobiotic soil, finding big rocks for furniture, and above else getting yourself a nice view.

We explore all parts of the canyon confluence, scampering up the loose rock of each escarpment before deciding on a spot. It’s at the nose of the plateau between Big Hollow and Heath Wash, on a flat area in a garden of lichen-covered boulders, juniper and manzanita. We have views both down the canyon and up, through the folding layers of sandstone.

The area is beautiful, and part of the beauty is that it’s new to us and there’s no one else here. I-15 is just three miles away but the place feels remote. It’s one of the lessons I want to impart to Juliet on this trip, that if you go slowly and spend a night in a place, every landscape has its own value and presents opportunities to explore. Especially in Utah.

But what do you do with a 7-year-old during the down time of backpacking? There’s plenty of daylight left in the long September day. Not to worry — Juliet goes right in the tent and gets comfy in her sleeping bag with her stuffed moose. This was her vision of the trip.

What the heck, I follow suit. One of the things she has in her backpack is a Bunco dice game we had bought on the way out of town. We play a few rounds of Bunco in the tent before we emerge to kick a soccer ball in an open field. She jumps some rope. Dinner is bean and cheese quesadillas. Juliet marvels that this entire place seems to be ours.

When the stars come out, it’s unlike anything she’s seen. Despite the snow up north there is no rain in the forecast here so we leave the rainfly off, and the glittering black sky seems right on top of us as we drift off to sleep.

The morning brings the simple directive to finish the journey. A different light shines on the trail we walked the afternoon before. I feel good. I realize that after Juliet had taken her licks on the double black diamond and in the ocean, it wasn’t long before she was asking to go back. This time, we’ve barely returned to the car before she’s talking about the next backpacking trip.


TRAIL GUIDE

Big Hollow and Heath Wash are two drainages in the Cottonwood Canyon area of the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. This Upland Zone is a wilderness-focused part of the reserve where off-trail canyon and plateau hiking and backcountry camping are allowed. The key philosophy of this area is to use your judgment — for route-finding, safety and preservation of the environment.

Difficulty: Moderate — relatively flat but some route-finding, a lack of amenities, and an overall wilderness experience. For a more challenging hike, consider longer and cross-country, off-trail routes.

Route, distance and elevation gain: Hiking from the head of Big Hollow at Danish Ranch Road (Forest Road 31) to its confluence with Heath Wash is about 1.2 miles. In another 2.4 miles is the confluence with Cottonwood Canyon, and then another 3.2 miles to the Cottonwood Canyon trailhead along I-15. Loops could be made by returning to Danish Ranch Road up Heath Wash, Cottonwood Canyon or cross country on Yant Flat. Also consider exploring Yankee Doodle, a technical slot canyon that is also accessed via Danish Ranch Road and joins Big Hollow.

Trail type: Unimproved washes and cross-country route-finding in and out of the canyons.

Multi-use: In the Upland Zone of the reserve, where the Cottonwood Canyon area is located, hikers and equestrians can use trails or travel cross-country where the terrain permits.

Dogs: All pets must be on a leash to prevent wildlife disturbance, protect the pets from predators and to avoid conflicts with other people. Hunting dogs are allowed to travel off-leash with a licensed hunter in the act of hunting during the official hunting seasons.

Fees: None, for this part of the reserve.

Seasonality: Year-round; hot in summer.

Bathroom: None; nearest restrooms are at the White Reef trailhead near Harrisburg.

Access: Turn north off Interstate 15 at Exit 23 onto Silver Reef Road; Turn left on Forest Road 32; Turn left on Forest Road 31; take Forest Road 31 to where the road wraps around Big Hollow.

Written by Tim Sullivan for Utah Office of Tourism.

Featured image provided by Tim Sullivan

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