Tucked in the far southwestern corner of Utah, the expansive desert landscape of Red Cliffs National Conservation Area marks the zone where three ecosystems merge: the Mojave Desert, Great Basin, and Colorado Plateau. Covering roughly 45,000 acres of public land with 130 miles of non-motorized trails, the preserve offers a rugged environment ripe for adventure. We’ve hand-picked some of the area’s best hikes, mountain bike trails, and one-of-a-kind outdoor experiences to create the ultimate guide for a weekend spent exploring the quiet beauty of Red Cliffs.
With so many miles of trail to explore, narrowing it down to the best hiking adventures in Red Cliffs proves no easy task. For a well-rounded look at the best this desert landscape has to offer, check out these must-do trails.
Babylon Arch Trail
Gaze out in any direction from this trail and you’ll see the impressive sandstone formations that typify southern Utah. Swirling layers of red and orange rock form narrow canyons and hollowed out chambers line the cliff walls. This 3-mile out-and-back route winds through sandstone gulches and up a few short, but sandy, hills on the way to the namesake Babylon Arch, shortly before the trail’s turn-around point at the Virgin River. Hiking through the sand and few trail markers along the way can make the path tough to follow, but the solitude and scenery are worth the effort.
Yellow Knolls Trail
Situated eight miles north of downtown St. George, this 4-mile out-and-back trail takes you into a world of slickrock dunes with a fascinating checkerboard pattern. The trek starts with relatively easy hiking in a meadow of sagebrush and desert grasses before the moderate uphill section takes you right through the Yellow Knolls for which the trail is named. For a longer excursion, connect the Yellow Knolls hike with the Winchester and Black Gulch trails for a strenuous, 6-mile loop.
Red Cliffs Nature Trail
Also known as the Red Reef Trail, this hike showcases many of the quintessential charms that draw visitors to southern Utah. Glorious red rock canyons complete with waterfalls and pools, a pristine creek lined with vibrant cottonwood trees, and caverns painted with ancient petroglyphs all combine to make this hike a classic. Suitable for all ages, this easy 2-mile trail starts at the Red Cliffs Campground about 15 miles northeast of St. George.
Mountain Biking Adventures
Whether on your own or as part of a guided excursion, mountain biking is the perfect way to explore the unparalleled beauty and solitude of Red Cliffs. St. George and several smaller towns in Washington County—like Springdale, Virgin, La Verkin and Hurricane—offer everything you need to set tire to dirt, from bike rentals to gear shops to qualified guides. Here are a couple of the best rides you’ll find in the conservation area.
Dino Cliffs and Church Rock Loop
If you’ve only got time for one trail here, go for this one. An excellent introduction to slickrock singletrack riding, this intermediate, 9.5-mile loop serves up incredible views of sandstone bluffs, snow-capped peaks on the horizon, and a few dinosaur tracks thrown in for good measure. For a longer ride, add on the easy to intermediate, 7-mile (one-way) Prospector Trail.
Broken Mesa Rim Trail
Strong riders comfortable with rocky climbs and descents will get their kicks on the 4.6-mile (one-way) Broken Mesa Rim Trail. Located 10 miles north of St. George in Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, this heart-pumping ride can be linked up with some dirt road and singletrack climbing for an adventurous 15.5-mile loop, known as the Broken Mesa Loop Trail.
Also located in the quiet beauty of Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, this upper-intermediate ride features 6.8 miles of sustained downhill, descending nearly 2,000 feet. Technical terrain toward the end will challenge your skills on rock-strewn singletrack. Run a shuttle with two vehicles, or ride back up the dirt Cottonwood Road back to the trailhead for an 18-mile loop.
A Few Other Unique Outdoor Adventures
A trip to Red Cliffs National Conservation Area is the perfect opportunity to try new outdoor experiences in a remarkable desert setting. Unique adventures like soaring above Snow Canyon’s multi-colored peaks in a hot air balloon or navigating scenic backcountry roads on a guided Jeep tour are just a few examples of the opportunities available in Red Cliffs.
Rock climbing and canyoneering top the list of thrilling excursions in the area, with options to explore with local guides or to go out on your own (if you have the experience!). Snow Canyon State Park—which lies just northwest of St. George and is mostly encompassed within Red Cliffs National Conservation Area—features the highest concentration of established rock climbing routes in the region as well as several intriguing canyoneering spots.
When to Go
Like most of southern Utah, spring and fall are the best times of year to explore Red Cliffs. Pleasant temperatures and few rainy days make these seasons ideal for hiking, biking, camping and other outdoor adventures. Note that the rivers, waterfalls, and canyon pools are most vibrant in the spring before the warm temperatures of summer start to dry things up.
High temperatures during the peak of summer usually reach into the upper 90s or low 100s, while winter in St. George and the surrounding area stays relatively mild with average highs in the mid-50s.
Where to Stay in and Around St. George
The city of St. George, with a population just over 80,000, makes the ideal base camp for a weekend of exploring Red Cliffs National Conservation Area. From full-amenity resorts to cozy villas to secluded campgrounds, there’s a fitting place to lay your head for every type of adventurer.
When looking for a hotel in St. George, you’ll find most of the familiar names in hospitality, like Courtyard Marriott, Best Western, Holiday Inn, and Hilton. Additionally, St. George has several boutique resorts and hotels that offer a distinctly local feel with enviable vacation packages, such as Amira Resort and Spa and Inn on the Cliff. Nearby Ivins, Utah, is home to Red Mountain Resort, another option for guests who seek luxury accommodations with spa and retreat packages in the area.
Condo and villa rentals around St. George strike a nice balance between indulgence and relaxed comfort for a weekend trip. Popular choices like Red Sands Vacation Properties, The Inn at Entrada, and Ledges Vacation Rentals make it easy to find your home away from home, southern Utah style.
In the heart of town, St. George RV Park and Campground is an ideal option for those who appreciate the convenience of a central location while still enjoying their evenings of chilling and grilling out beneath the trees. Sixteen miles northeast of St. George, the Red Cliffs Campground offers a small, simple place for tents or RVs set amongst impressive sandstone canyons and the peaceful Quail Creek. Campers who call this place home for the weekend will enjoy easy access to some of the area’s main attractions, including Red Cliffs Nature Trail, the Dinosaur Tracks hiking area, and the Red Cliffs Anasazi Site.
No matter where you stay, you’re just minutes away from some of the most beautiful country in southern Utah. It won’t take long to see why the Red Cliffs National Conservation Area is one of the state’s real gems.
Written by Jenna Herzog for RootsRated Media in partnership with St. George Tourism.
Featured image provided by Bureau of Land Management