In 2021, Zion National Park claimed over 5 percent of all national park visitation—that’s more than 5 million tourists scrambling along the Virgin River, stuffing into park shuttles, and taking selfies among the park’s famous red rocks.
Many chose to stay in Springdale, about seven miles outside park boundaries. The town of 553 citizens fills with visitors, who cram into hotels and restaurants and onto roads that really only lead one place. Once you arrive here, you know exactly where you’re going.
If you want to avoid the national park crowds, draw your finger about 30 miles west along the map to St. George, Utah. Here, you’re roughly an hour from Zion, two hours from Bryce Canyon, and even closer to under-the-radar spots like Snow Canyon State Park and Dixie National Forest—which we’ll cover in a bit. You have access to less expensive hotels; more restaurants, theaters, and museums; and a plethora of Zion-level experiences that dot southern Utah.
“If you stay in Springdale,” explains Kyle Walker, owner of Grand Circle Tours, “you’re funneling yourself into the least amount of options with the most people.” Walker runs outdoor-focused tours all throughout the Greater Zion area, offering his guests a chance to see Zion—highlighting the often overlooked Kolob Canyons area—and spots they might not find on their own. Staying in St. George, he adds, means there’s always a fair-weather option. “There are places where, if you call me up in April or December, I have an answer for that.”
He’s hinting at St. George’s access to over 7,000 feet of elevation change—and the surplus of exquisite outdoor options surrounding the city that get lost in Zion’s shadow. Some of Walker’s guided excursions include Cedar Breaks National Monument, a mini Bryce Canyon with nearly identical views and a fraction of the trail traffic; the Canaan Mountain Wilderness, a crowd-free oasis stretching along Zion’s southeastern border; and Dixie National Forest, the state’s largest at nearly 1.9 million acres.
Thanks to Dixie’s size, there are far more spots to explore there than in all of 150,000-acre Zion—zoom out to the county level, and you’re even more spoiled for choice. “There are tens of thousands of acres of public land that are really high quality,” Walker notes, “and there are more trails in Washington County than there are in Moab.” For those based in St. George and swamped with options, the seasoned guide recommends starting with the 3.4-mile Yant Flat Trail, a hike that leads to the orange-and-white “Candy Cliffs”—similar in vibes to the Wave in Arizona, without the 5 percent chance of getting a permit.
To reach curious hikers, Walker has partnered with the Advenire in downtown St. George, the first and only full-service boutique hotel in the Greater Zion area. Its adobe exterior and Dixie dormers are reminiscent of St. George’s 1860s-era inn, the Big House; inside, “modern pioneer” vibes flow throughout 60 guest rooms and 22 suites. (The on-site restaurant, wood.ash.rye, serves up one of the best breakfasts in town, with the biscuits collecting groupies.) The hotel’s existence—opened in 2020—speaks to the fact that St. George is officially a boom town; the partnership speaks to the Advenire’s awareness that the city risks going the way of Sedona or Moab.
St. George is certainly no secret. “Since 2018, we’ve seen 10 to 15 percent tourism growth year after year, and that’s with COVID,” says Sara Otto, marketing manager for the Greater Zion Convention & Tourism Office. The city’s rapidly expanding list of higher-end amenities and increased outdoor infrastructure echoes this growth: 2023 is bringing a 19-hole golf course to the lava fields of Black Desert Resort; the Utah Wine Trail is a go as of spring 2022, with all five spots in this region; and with $10 million in funding procured, an 18-mile paved hiking/biking trail running from the city to Zion is currently in the works. “There’s obviously growth,” remarks Otto, “and we do encourage visitors to avoid holiday weekends—but there are still so many open spaces.”
Otto says that spring brings fantastic weather to St. George, with warm days and chillier nights being “nothing a bonfire or layer won’t fix.” Zion’s crowds start increasing in May–June, so time your visit closer to March–April to maximize your crowd-to-weather returns.
And while you’ll want to spend a day or two in Zion, “take your turn there,” says Otto, “then go see the other Zion-like spots, like Snow Canyon State Park—we call it Zion’s ‘little brother.’” The park, just 10 minutes from St. George, packs in the exact same Navajo sandstone formations as Zion, with significantly smaller crowds and some bonus lava tubes for exploring.
“You do feel something different here,” Otto says. “Until you’re here, that sounds trite, I know, but there truly is something. We’re not sure what it is. It’s some combination of the people plus the land, simply put. And the views, well, they enhance that feeling.”