This Picturesque Desert Town Is on the Doorstep of Four State Parks

Southwest Utah’s largest city is worth the drive for a weekend getaway.

Photo courtesy of Greater Zion Pioneer Park
Photo courtesy of Greater Zion Pioneer Park

You heard it here first: St. George, Utah, is about to boom. So get there before everybody else does. The largest town in Southwest Utah is slowly and comfortably embracing its growth at just the right pace. A quiet community of less than 90,000 people, St. George is best known for its proximity to the great outdoors, especially Zion National Park, but it's turning into a worthwhile destination in its own right.

The story of St. George is much like other Utah cities. It was founded as a Mormon settlement, but eventually developed its own identity. While other parts of the state see snow-capped mountains throughout the year, St. George has a warm, desert climate that along with a history of cotton production earned the nickname "Utah's Dixie." The tag is a source of local pride, but has obvious complications, reflected in movements currently underway to rename the Dixie Convention Center and Dixie State University.   

But more often than not, everybody seems to be on the same page. While the divisions between Salt Lake City's Mormon population and its alternative counterculture are sharp and distinct, the lines blur more in St. George. It's a city that's both artsy and family-friendly. A place where an eccentric sidewalk sculpture might share room in the same photograph as a Mormon tabernacle. Some cities are still figuring themselves out, but St. George remains effortlessly grounded in a pocket of Utah that's neither cosmopolitan or remote, surrounded by the beauty of towering desert cliffs. 

And it's a great road trip. When driving from Las Vegas, stop at Yardley's, a truck stop that serves steakburgers from local cattle. Coming from Salt Lake City? Detour to The Creamery for farm-fresh ice cream. With those road-stop suggestions out of the way, here's what to do in St. George after you arrive.

ancestor square
Photo by Rob Kachelriess for Thrillist

Explore Ancestor Square and the rest of historic Downtown

St. George's Downtown district is an engaging mix of architecture, art, parks, and independent storefronts. The St. George Utah Temple is the city's most identifiable landmark, an imposing white structure that contrasts sharply with the surrounding homes and businesses. It's traditionally open to Mormon visitors only, but everyone can access the visitors center and surrounding grounds. While it’s still worth driving by to check out, be aware that the temple is in the middle of a major renovation project and closed until 2022.

Ancestor Square is a collection of shops, restaurants, and offices around a historic courtyard with an old brick jailhouse and sheriff's office. The winter home of Mormon leader Brigham Young was preserved and converted into a free museum, offering a glimpse into 19th century life. Thomas Judd's Store Co. (or "Old Judd's") is the oldest business still actively operating in St. George. Formerly a general store built in 1911, it now sells nostalgic candy and ice cream. A vintage gasoline pump remains out front. Town Square Park is a great place to bring the kids with a vintage carousel and splash pads modeled after rock formations, but it's also a cool spot to hang out on your own with nothing but your thoughts and a laptop. The Wi-Fi is free. 

advenire hotel
Advenire Hotel | Photo by Rob Kachelriess for Thrillist

Book a room at a top hotel

Before you do anything in or around St. George, you'll need a place to stay. It's hard to beat the new Advenire Hotel as the best overall option, especially if you want a perfect location in the heart of Downtown. The 60-room boutique hotel opened in early 2020, blending luxury with rustic pioneer-esque touches with a heavy emphasis on locally sourced wood and materials. Some rooms have balconies, some have tall arched ceilings. A pair of rooftop decks with large hot tubs more than make up for the absence of a swimming pool. 

If you prefer to be even closer to nature than you already are, Red Mountain Resort is like having a hotel inside Snow Canyon State Park, although technically, you're just outside the entrance. The red exterior of the hotel matches up well with the natural surroundings with a spa, swimming pool, and contemporary furnishings. Spend a few extra bucks on a villa. 

St. George has its share of golf courses and if you're in town to practice your putt, the Inn at Estrada has a private country club feel with condo-like suites and private parking garages. Want a room with a crazy view? The Inn on the Cliff lives up to its name with a perch high atop the towering cliffs that frame the western edge of St. George. You can even check out the views from the pool or the patio of Cliffside Restaurant.

Photo by Matt Umland, courtesy of Wood Ash Rye

Enjoy the best food St. George has to offer

In a refreshing change of pace, St. George isn't overwhelmed by chain restaurants, especially Downtown. The Painted Pony has long been the standard for fine dining with wood decor, Southwestern art, and a second-floor perch in Ancestor Square that feels a bit like the world's coolest treehouse. The menu changes frequently with a focus on fresh ingredients and grass-fed beef, but the jalapeno-carrot soup is a staple that will never go away.  

Wood.Ash.Rye is quickly becoming everyone's new favorite restaurant in town. It's a lively social spot where the contemporary cuisine often comes with a Southern touch and killer craft cocktails. The house-baked bread and biscuits are already huge local favorites. Ask about the daily catch, flown in within 24 hours of being pulled from the ocean.   

Farmhouse Bakery, another recent addition to St. George, is a European-style patisserie, led by a team of Las Vegas transplants that includes Thomas Kellar's former pastry chef. The donuts, tarts, croissants, and cookies are some of the best (and most Instagram-worthy) you'll ever sample. But don't be afraid to try something unfamiliar—like a kouign-amann, a buttery French cake with a sweet, crunchy, brittle-like exterior. Pizza and sandwiches (with house-made sourdough) keep the place busy during lunch.

If you take a side trip to the charming town of Santa Clara, grab lunch at Rylu's Bistro. The gougères (savory cheese-filled pasties) and salmon rillettes will keep you full while exploring historic sites like the Jacob Hamblin Home, Frei's Fruit Market, and the Relief Society Hall in Heritage Square.  

Photo courtesy of Greater Zion Convention and Tourism Office

Explore the natural wonders of Zion National Park

St. George is less than an hour's drive to Zion National Park. You might be tempted to book a hotel in Springdale, the small town just outside the main gates. But why deal with the large crowds, heavy traffic and paid parking when you can zoom out on Google Maps and choose less chaotic accommodations in or around St. George instead?  

Either way, your vacation will reach new heights once inside Zion—229 square miles of colorful sandstone cliffs, rivers, and slot canyons. The big draw for experienced hikers is Angels Landing, a dangerous trek with narrow paths and steep drops on either side. Sky-high views are the payoff, but it's not for those with a fear of heights. Scout's Lookout is less challenging, but provides plenty of great scenery as well. The Virgin River Narrows is a hike through shallow water, leading to an area called "Wall Street" where the shoreline gives way to steep canyon walls. "The Subway" (or Left Fork) is a uniquely curved slot canyon for experienced hikers. 

Just a few weeks ago, Zion was officially designated an International Dark Sky Park, recognizing the absence of light pollution in the area. Translation: the stargazing is ridiculous. A free shuttle bus travels between nine stops outside the park. Reservations were introduced during the pandemic, but are no longer required.

sand hollow
Sand Hollow | Photo by Rob Kachelriess for Thrillist

Visit one (or all) of the four surrounding state parks

Even if you don't make it out to Zion National Park, St. George is incredibly convenient to four state parks—each with their own unique identity. Snow Canyon is a scenic collection of red sandstone hills, canyons, petrified sand dunes, and a dormant volcano that's a popular rock climbing spot. Sand Hollow is a reservoir surrounded by red rocks and sand, resembling a trippy beach-on-Mars atmosphere. The surrounding desert is popular for ATVs and other off-road vehicles. Quail Creek is a more secluded beach with trees creeping out of the water for an interesting visual. Boaters seem to have more breathing room here than at Sand Hollow despite less overall water acreage. Gunlock is another reservoir, but more remote and best known for waterfalls that pass between rock formations. However, their appearance in any given year depends on the water levels from the winter's snowfall.

Yet hikers don't need to solely rely on state parks to venture off the beaten path. Water Canyon has shaded water features and views of Zion National Park from Canaan Mountain. The Vortex (or "Bowl") trailhead is named after a strange, sunken hole at the top of a sandstone formation. The Babylon Arch is relatively easy to reach with a hike near the Virgin River. Between the bright red terrain and the arch itself, it's almost impossible to take a bad photo.

Discover the compelling St. George art scene

The beauty of nature is often balanced by human creativity in St. George. Art Around the Corner is a fascinating collection of sculptures displayed throughout the city with a self-guided walking tour to check 'em all out. See something you like? Everything is for sale. The exhibit changes each spring with about two-dozen new pieces installed.   

St. George has a fair share of art galleries plus the St. George Art Museum at the Pioneer Center for the Arts, a complex that's also home to the St. George Opera House. Formerly a wine cellar, it now hosts stage productions by the St. George Musical Theater. You can also check out the Sears Art Museum on the campus of Dixie State University, featuring a rotating lineup of six exhibits each year. But the St. George Art Festival may be the best place to see a wide variety of art in one place. The annual event went virtual during the pandemic, but is expected to return to its full in-person format at Ancestor Square in 2022.

Wood Rye Ash
Photo courtesy of Wood Rye Ash

Drink (yes, there's actually good booze in St. George)

In recent years, Utah has loosened its grip on strict drinking laws. Beer was famously required to be watered down in the past, but that's no longer the case. See for yourself with a visit to Station II, an old firehouse that's now a multi-story taproom with craft beer by Zion Brewery. No two rooms look the same and movie theater-style popcorn is served between sips of whatever you're drinking. The third floor is your best bet for liquor and libations. 

However, the lobby bar at the Advenire (detached from, but actually part of the Wood, Ash, Rye restaurant) is easily the best cocktail bar in town with fun touches like house-made grenadine and ash-infused honey. Smoked Old Fashioneds are the specialty, but don't hesitate to pick the brain of your bartender.

Depending on the license, some bars are required to serve food with alcohol, which is why St. George's favorite dive bar, The One and Only, has bags of potato chips on standby with each drink. Bars affiliated with restaurants are usually fine as long as they have the option to provide food. Either way, the amount in a shot is tightly controlled. No matter where you go, Utah-produced High West is almost always the whiskey of choice.

Kayenta Art Village | Photo by Jorma Teresinsk

Go off the grid at the Kayenta Art Village

St George's affection for art and nature is reflected in Kayenta, an isolated community in the desertscapes northwest of the city. If you feel like you're driving into the middle of nowhere, don't panic. Seclusion is part of the charm. It all began with Xetava Gardens Cafe, a gift shop and espresso bar with hand-carved doors and cabinets. It was sold and turned into a full-fledged restaurant with art galleries popping up around it. There's also a labyrinth and performing arts center with a stage for small events. A developer got the idea to sell homes in the area and most hide in plain sight with large lots and exteriors that blend into the environment. Biking paths connect to the Anasazi trailhead, where petroglyphs are easy to spot. Want to spend the night? Book a room at the Crescent Moon Inn. It's near Fire Lake Park at Ivins Reservoir, which is becoming a busy attraction for swimming.

Learn about Utah's extensive history of dinosaurs

About 200 million years before Utah was even Utah, the region was a hotbed for dinosaurs. Hikers can spot tracks in Warner Valley or the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, but if you want to see as much evidence as possible in one place, visit the St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site. The museum and research center was built on the site of Johnson's Farm, where leveling work turned up footprints on sandstone blocks. Exhibits now showcase examples of dino-activity from the immediate area with interpretive information, a window revealing where fossils are prepped and cleaned, and a small park in the back for kids to hop on a dilophosaurus replica. Check out rare finds like swimming dinosaur tracks, imprints of scaly dinosaur skin, and natural 3D cast fossils, formed when rising water levels and sediment filled the tracks.

Tuacahn Amphitheater
Photo courtesy of Tuacahn Amphitheater

See a show at the Tuacahn Amphitheater

Everybody in St. George says the same thing: You gotta see a show at the Tuacahn Amphitheater. The 2,000-seat venue gives the audience a unique opportunity to watch a show underneath the stars with the red rocks of Snow Canyon as a backdrop. The Broadway in the Desert series is the big draw, featuring favorites like Disney's Beauty & The Beast, Annie, and The Count of Monte Cristo this year. The amphitheater is also a great concert venue with the likes of Martina McBride, Kansas, and Kristin Chenoweth scheduled in the months ahead. The venue is operated by the Tuacahn Center for the Arts, which also has indoor theaters, a dance studio, and other facilities on property, along with a charter school dedicated to the performing arts. Come by on Saturdays for an outdoor market with crafts, food, and entertainment.

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Rob Kachelriess has been writing about Las Vegas in Thrillist for more than seven years. His work has also appeared in Travel + Leisure, Trivago Magazine, Sophisticated Living, Modern Luxury, Leafly, Las Vegas Magazine, and other publications. He's thinking twice about Angels Landing. Follow him on Twitter @rkachelriess.