The 7 Best Water Adventures in the Southwest Utah Desert

Nothing feels more refreshing on a scorching day than a cool dip in a swimming hole, lake, or—if you’re in southeastern Utah—even a slot canyon. Washington County is famous not only for soaring cliffs and sandstone landscapes—it is the driest part of the state, after all—but also for its diverse water adventures. Indeed, on hot days, lakes and swimming holes near St. George are the perfect spots to cool down. Families paddle tandem kayaks in rocky coves, boaters pull water skiers across broad lakes, kids build sandcastles on red sand beaches, and stand-up paddleboarders skim over calm waters, while anglers cast lines from boats and shorelines for rainbow trout and trophy-sized bass.

And the adventure isn’t, well, watered down, either: Outdoor enthusiasts can hike to sparkling waterfalls tucked into dramatic canyons, where a refreshing dip rewards the effort, while hardy adventurers rappel and squeeze down slot canyons sprinkled with creeks and waterfalls. Check out these unique-to-Utah, water-fueled adventures to keep cool, escape the desert heat, and add a whole new element of adventure to your visit to Washington County.

1. Swimming Holes and Waterfalls

What better—or more nostalgic—way to beat the summer heat than jumping into a swimming hole? Most of southwestern Utah’s best outdoor pools lie below frothy waterfalls reached by short hikes. One of the best swimming holes is below Toquerville Falls northeast of St. George, an oasis whose waterfalls plunge dramatically into a deep pool. At Sand Hollow State Park, colorful cliffs set the backdrop for sandy beaches edged with shallow water perfect for kids to splash around in, while advanced swimmers can venture out to deeper areas. Hikers who trek an easy route up a cliff-lined canyon in Red Cliffs Recreation Area are rewarded with a small waterfall that tumbles into a natural swimming pool; slide down the waterfall’s slippery chute for the “wow” factor. And for a few weeks in late spring, the overflow channel below Gunlock Reservoir forms a spectacular cascade after the lake fills behind a dam. The clear water plummets down sandstone cliffs, forming numerous falls and emerald green swimming pools. Whichever swimming spot you choose, avoid diving headfirst into pools.

2. Stand-up Paddleboarding

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Stand-up paddleboarding, or SUP, is a peaceful way to experience Washington County’s lakes as you glide across water reflecting puffy white clouds or navigate cliff-lined coves. The county offers spots ideal for paddlers of all skill levels, including Quail Lake, spacious Sand Hollow Reservoir, Kolob Reservoir, and Gunlock Reservoir. At Quail Lake State Park, you can rent boards by the hour from Dig Paddlesports and take paddleboard lessons. Other recommended beginner spots are Ivins Reservoir at Fire Lake Park and small Grandpa’s Pond in Hurricane. Whichever you choose, you can count on stunning red rock scenery and a surprisingly intense core workout.

3. Quail Creek State Park

Quail Creek State Park, a dozen miles northeast of St. George, is a quick getaway with Utah’s warmest water in glassy Quail Lake and offers fun for every water lover. Powerboaters cut waves across the big lake, while kayakers and stand-up paddlers stroke across still waters. Swimming beaches are on Quail Lake’s west side (but bring sandals to spare your feet from the coarse sand). Fishermen also frequent the lake, regularly catching five-pound largemouth bass, bluegill, crappie, and sunfish, but it really shines as the area’s premier rainbow trout fishery. The stocked trout love the cold water in the 185-foot-deep lake.

4. Sand Hollow State Park

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One of Utah’s most popular lakes, Sand Hollow Reservoir is an adventure playground for boaters, swimmers, and paddlers. The huge lake, part of sprawling Sand Hollow State Park, is also popular with campers, equestrians, and hikers. Twice the size of nearby Quail Lake, the reservoir boasts spacious red sand beaches, sandstone islands, and plenty of water for motorboats and paddle craft. Hit the beach on the south shore to swim with the kids or bask on a shoreline boulder. Stand-up paddlers and kayakers cruise quiet waters among rock outcrops, while cliff divers plunge into deep water from airy perches. In the summer, the lake is a hotspot for waterskier-towing powerboats towing and jet skis, and it’s a perennial favorite among fishermen for its trophy-sized largemouth bass, crappie, and bluegill. If you’re having too much fun to call it a day, make it an overnight adventure at one of the park’s two campgrounds and rest up for another day of adventure on the water.

5. Gunlock State Park

Gunlock Reservoir is a gorgeous lake that fills a scenic valley surrounded by sandstone cliffs and volcanic cinder cones. The lake, centerpiece of a 248-acre Gunlock State Park, is a quiet setting for water sports and fishing. Bring a kayak, canoe, or stand-up paddleboard to explore calm water in narrow coves, or walk across the dike to take a swim and then sunbathe on a sandy beach. In late spring, swimmers take advantage of the waterfalls and deep pools below the dam’s natural spillway. Fishermen cast lines for bass, bluegill, and crappie from both the shoreline and boats. After fun in the sun, stay in the small campground with a sea of stars overhead.

6. Kolob Reservoir

To escape the lowland summer heat, head up to Kolob Reservoir at a cool 8,107 feet above sea level on the western edge of Zion National Park. The lake, located in the headwaters of the Virgin River, is a blue-ribbon fishing area for hardy anglers looking to hook rainbow, brook, and cutthroat trout, some over 18 inches long. Surrounded by groves of quaking aspen, the reservoir is a quiet getaway with lakeside campsites and plenty of options for kayaking, canoeing, and stand-up paddling. The steep drive up Kolob Terrace Road to the lake is simply spectacular, with wide views of Zion’s sandstone peaks and deep canyons.

7. Slot Canyon Adventures

Exploring a slot canyon is the ultimate wet adventure in southwestern Utah. Canyoneering, the art of descending narrow canyons sliced into bedrock, combines elements of climbing, hiking, and swimming to explore these dramatic destinations. The Zion area features stunning canyons that range from difficult hiking to technical challenges. If you’re a canyoneering newbie or don’t have the skills and equipment to navigate slot canyons, your best bet is to hire a local guiding service like Zion Adventure Company. Yankee Doodle Hollow, the best slot near St. George, has a big rappel and gorgeous narrow passages. Nearby is Bitter Creek, a short beginner canyon. Off I-17 north of St. George is the narrows of Kanarra Creek, a deep gorge with waterfalls, a tumbling creek, and colorful cliffs. Other good slots outside Zion National Park include the Middle Fork of Taylor Creek, Spring Creek, and Water Canyon. Wherever you go, be sure to wear sandals or water shoes—and prepare to get wet.

Written by Stewart Green for RootsRated Media in partnership with St. George Tourism.

Featured image provided by Willem van Valkenburg