Zion National Park is one of Utah’s Mighty Five national parks and (for good reason) many people travel to the state to see its natural wonders, but southwestern Utah offers so much more for outdoor enthusiasts. Surrounding St. George are four superb state parks—Quail Creek, Sand Hollow, Gunlock, and Snow Canyon—all offering gorgeous scenery and plenty of ways to enjoy nature, including hiking, camping, fishing, boating, photography, cliff diving, and swimming.
These parks are great alternatives to the busier national park, particularly on weekends and during Zion’s high season. Expect low entrance fees, uncrowded trails, plenty of wet and wild water sports, starlit campgrounds, and breathtaking scenery. Here’s just a taste of what you can expect.
Snow Canyon State Park
Snow Canyon State Park is southwestern Utah’s best-kept secret. The park’s magnificent landscape features a 5-mile-long canyon flanked by soaring cliffs. You'll find national-park quality views on the 38 miles of hiking trails, plus a visitor center, campground, and diverse wildlife including desert tortoises, Gila monsters, and peregrine falcons. Snow Canyon, named for pioneers Lorenzo and Erastus Snow, offers a natural beauty that’s just as gorgeous as Zion 50 miles to the east, but without the crowds. The 4,700-acre park, lying north of St. George, is easy to visit and the entrance fee is far less than Zion.
Snow Canyon is, like Zion and Bryce Canyon, a textbook in geologic history. The canyon cliffs, composed of burnt red and cream sandstone, are the petrified remains of 180-million-year-old sand dunes, while more recent volcanic cinder cones and lava fields scatter across the higher elevations. The park also hides rock art panels created by the ancient inhabitants, including petroglyphs at Newspaper Rock and Sinking Ship boulder.
Get acquainted with Snow Canyon by driving the canyon road from Highway 18, passing scenic overlooks and the visitor center. To really see Snow Canyon’s wonders, head out on a park trail to explore the sandy canyon floor, cliff-lined side canyons, and stone mountains like Island in the Sky.
Hikes range from short strolls to hardy backcountry adventures. Best easy hikes are the 0.5-mile Jenny’s Canyon to a sculptured canyon and the 0.5-mile Pioneer Names Trail which climbs to an alcove filled with pioneer names written in axle grease. Longer hikes include the 3.5-mile Three Ponds Trail and 4-mile White Rocks Trail to Lava Flow Overlook. For big adventure, take on Arch Canyon, a canyoneering trek down slot canyons, or climb technical routes on the vertical Circus Wall. There are also equestrian trails and a paved 3-mile walk and bike trail. Get an early start on hot days and always bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and a hat.
After a day of hiking across swirling sandstone slabs, discovering petroglyphs, and photographing Snow Canyon’s dramatic scenery, head to the park campground for a quiet night under starry skies. The 35-site campground offers tent and RV sites, accommodating trailers and RVs up to 40 feet, and modern restrooms with showers.
Quail Creek State Park
Quail Lake, a sprawling 600-acre lake in the Quail Creek State Park, fills a valley northeast of St. George. Filled from the Virgin River, the lake is home to some of Utah’s warmest water, making it a paradise for water lovers and fishermen. Surface temperatures climb well above 70 degrees in the summer, but the lake reaches depths of 120 feet so rainbow trout thrive in its deeper water. Quail Lake is also surrounded by reefs of tilted sandstone, flat-topped mesas, and the towering Pine Valley Mountains. You’ll have breathtaking views in every direction.
Powerboats and jet skis zoom across the water, making waves and pulling water skiers. The lake is a perfect destination for paddle craft with kayakers and stand-up paddlers gliding across the glassy water in early morning. If you want to get in on the fun, you can rent a paddleboard or kayak at the park. Swimmers find coarse sand beaches along the lake’s edge, but don’t forget water shoes or sandals for beach walking.
Fishermen hope to catch big rainbows lurking in the depths or haul in 5-pound largemouth bass, crappie, bluegill, sunfish, and catfish.
There are also a few solid mountain biking trails south of the lake, including Rhythm and Blues, a 2.5-mile roller coaster, or the Boy Scout Loops.
After a fun day, settle into the park’s campground on the western shore. It offers 23 campsites with shaded tables, modern restrooms, tent sites, and pull-through and back-in sites for RVs up to 35 feet long.
Sand Hollow State Park
Sand Hollow Reservoir, the centerpiece of 20,611-acre Sand Hollow State Park, offers a mini-Lake Powell experience with a 1,322-acre, turquoise-colored lake surrounded by red sandstone formations. It’s only 15 miles east of St. George and is a veritable playground for outdoor adventurers. Boaters, anglers, swimmers, and paddlers enjoy watery fun on the lake while off-highway vehicles (OHVs) explore 6,000 acres of windswept sand dunes and technical trails on Sand Mountain.
Sand Hollow offers year-round excitement, but it is most popular for water sports in the summer thanks to the lake’s warm surface temperatures. Off-road riders will have better weather in the off-season when temperatures cool (summer heat on the dunes reaches over 100 degrees).
Most visitors spend time on the lake, twice the size of nearby Quail Lake, to explore its sandstone islands, red sand beaches, quiet coves, and open water. Fishermen cast lines from the shoreline and boats for catfish, crappie, bluegill, and trophy bass. The lake is perfect for boating, with motorboats towing water skiers, wakeboarding, sailing, and calm water for paddling. Kayakers, canoeists, and stand-up paddlers enjoy exploring the shallow water around a rock island or dipping oars in the shallows along the south shoreline. A red beach on the lake’s southwest corner has warm water for swimming and fine sand for building castles. Sand Hollow Reservoir is the best place for cliff diving, with daredevil jumpers plunging off cliffs into deep water on the northwest shore.
Besides offering outdoor adventure, Sand Hollow State Park makes an ideal basecamp for exploring the nearby state parks as well as Zion National Park’s wonders, which lies 45 minutes away. The park’s two campgrounds—Sandpit and Westside—offer 75 campsites, many with full hook-ups, as well as tent and group sites, restrooms, and showers.
Gunlock State Park
Gunlock State Park is a compact 548-acre parkland nestled in a scenic valley northwest of St. George. Gunlock Reservoir, fed by the Santa Clara River, is a 266-acre lake surrounded by dusty mesas rimmed with cliffs and eroded sandstone bluffs. The park, less visited than Quail Lake and Sand Hollow parks, offers a quick getaway with a small campground, fine fishing, water sports, and waterfalls, a unique sight in the desert. Don’t expect Gunlock, named for settler Will “Gunlock” Hamblin, to have the same facilities as the bigger state parks. Instead, the park is primitive with a small campground, a single boat ramp, and a beach.
Gunlock’s best attraction is the overflow channel below the dam. Clear lake water dashes down salmon-colored sandstone cliffs, forming a whitewater cascade and several waterfalls that empty into deep pools in late spring. The calm, warm-water lake is ideal for paddle sports, with rocky coves to explore in kayaks, canoes, and stand-up paddleboards. Walk across the dam to the swimming beach and to explore natural caves hollowed in sandstone cliffs. Swimmers also dunk in the emerald pools below the waterfalls, while anglers find good fishing for crappie, bluegill, and bass in the lake. It’s best to fish from a dory rather than the shoreline, which is steep and hard to access. The state park offers a five-site campground for overnight guests to park an RV or pitch a tent. Expect peace and quiet in the primitive campsites—and bring your own water.
Written by Stewart Green for RootsRated Media in partnership with St. George Tourism.
Featured image provided by Anna Papuga