A First-Timer’s Guide To St. George, Utah
Over the past year as COVID almost entirely shut down the travel industry, one of the few bright spots has been people exploring more of the amazing natural beauty and wide-open spaces that the United States has in spades.
And with multiple national parks in day trip distance, as well as many of its own nearby attractions, southern Utah’s St. George area has been a popular focus for roadtrippers and nature lovers.
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St. George is the perfect base for exploring the INSANE amount of beautiful views, range of different hikes, and interesting geological history.
If you’re looking for nightlife, shopping, and more, I’d head a couple hours west toward Vegas. But if you want to experience some of the coolest nature the U.S. can offer, the St. George area is for you!
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From a COVID standpoint, Utah has been one of the more open and permissive states from the beginning of the pandemic, so depending on your own level of comfort I’d recommend doing some research on what is and isn’t required. Mask mandates, for instance, were not uniform everywhere in St. George so it was up to individual businesses, and Utah residents in general tend to take a more “live and let live” attitude. It’s on you to decide what you’re okay with and if this area is the right fit for you.
The great thing is that there is so much to do OUTDOORS that the inside stuff isn’t as critical to enjoying your trip if you’re worried. I spent a week and a half in St. George last fall (October 2020) and still barely scratched the surface on all the hiking, national park visits, and scenic drives I wanted to do.
If you’re thinking of a visit to St. George, I’ve laid out ideas for what to do, where to stay, and where to eat below!
Other inspiration for your trip to the St. George area:
Where to stay in St. George
Because we were planning to be there for over a week and also maybe host friends for dinner, we wanted a nice big place to stay. I was less happy with the options for actual houses, pretty much all condos and townhomes. We got this three-bedroom condo and enjoyed our time there.
Like many of the condos in the area, it was in a neighborhood with gated pool, golf course, and more. Personally I would have loved to be a bit further out from town and had amazing views, but this was a super convenient location and still surrounded by natural beauty.
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My favorite part about our condo was that it was right on the Man-O-War Trailhead, and I loved going for a chilly and stunning sunrise run every morning, watching the sun creep over the desert and surprising little rabbits here and there.
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What to do in St. George
Okay, now to get to the good stuff. There’s a TON to do in St. George, though the majority is nature, hiking, views, and scenic drives. If you’re very mobility limited or don’t enjoy the outdoors, I wouldn’t recommend this area as a good fit for your interests.
Snow Canyon State Park
It’s crazy that Snow Canyon isn’t a national park, but I guess since Utah already has five they figured that would be overkill. It’s only 20 minutes from St. George, and both less expensive and less crowded than Zion or Bryce.
In many ways you can get a little bit of everything here…the soaring sandstone cliffs of Zion, the crazy colorful rock formations of Valley of Fire State Park, and a mini version of Arizona’s famous “The Wave”. There’s a ton of different options depending on what you’re looking for, from a scenic drive to hiking, camping, photography, ranger walks, lava flow “tubes”, and more.
One of the things I love about Snow Canyon is that it’s great for a more casual walker, hiker, or people with kids. So many of the well-known hikes around St. George require stamina, tons of time, or a 4WD vehicle, and instead Snow Canyon has tons of hiking options that are easy or moderate.
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Yant Flat & Candy Cliffs
This one is more of a hidden gem…Yant Flat and its “Candy Cliffs” are often called Utah’s version of Arizona’s famous “Wave”. We went one step further and decided we HAD TO see it for sunset.
I do strongly encourage 4WD…it technically *could* be visited without one if there’s no mud (we saw a local with a car there), but we were very thankful we had a 4WD Jeep. The hike isn’t difficult, basically flat, but the last half or so has thick sand you have to slog through.
The effort is totally worth it, though, for these AMAZING views. The fascinating rock formations are cool any time of day, but the pinks, purples, and peaches of sunset totally light up the landscape. It’s also cooler for hiking if the daytime temps are high (it was upper 90s F while we were there!). The only downside to sunset is you have to hike back in the dark, so be careful!
I also wanted to share some places that I didn’t get around to visiting myself, but came highly recommended.
Pioneer Park is great because it’s super close to town and so you don’t *have* to commit to a half day in order to visit it. It’s a large area with several different types of activities…from huge sandstone structures for kids to crawl around and play in, to some rock climbing and rappelling options, to the perfect spot for a sunset picnic with views of St. George. There’s even a really narrow short slot canyon here (the “St. George Narrows”).
Sand Hollow State Park
Many people talk about Sand Hollow as a mini Lake Powell, with its clear blue waters framed by the red rocks. There are lots of water activities, from swimming to boating to jet skiing (you can get rentals there). It’s popular for families, or people wanting a day at the “beach”. The most adventurous can do sand dune buggy-ing as well. My friends spent the afternoon there one day and RAVED about it.
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Babylon Arch & Red Reef Trails
Located in Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, Babylon Arch Trail was something I was dying to do, but we didn’t have a 4WD to get there. It’s another really sandy hike, but supposed to be full of unique sandstone formations (Babylon Arch is at the end, where you’d turn around).
It’s supposed to be a real hidden gem, and not as crowded as some of the super well-known hikes in the area. I hear sunset is beautiful if you hike down near the Virgin River as well. A couple of my friends spent the afternoon doing this hike and said it’s definitely worth the effort to get here!
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I am REALLY bummed we couldn’t make this work, we just couldn’t figure out the timing and permits with other day trip plans while we were in St. George.
Billed as a shorter and less well-known alternative to Zion’s famous Narrows hike, Kanarra Falls has an amazing slot canyon and beautiful waterfalls. You do have to get a permit ahead of time, as they only allow a certain number of people a day.
A beautiful outdoor amphitheater nestled into the red rock of St George, this is an iconic experience if you’re visiting the area. From Broadway shows to concerts, Saturday markets to ballet, make sure to check out their calendar and see if a visit here is possible while you’re in town!
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Longer day trips from St. George
So we’ve talked about all the great things to do right near St. George, but remember it’s also an awesome base for visiting Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, and more…even the Grand Canyon if you’re ambitious!
Here are some ideas for day trips or easy overnights if you’re using St. George as a base. One benefit of a lot of these parks is that they are still good options for scenic drives and more casual walks, rather than ONLY intense half-day/full-day hikes.
Zion National Park
Zion is one of the most famous U.S. national parks, in the top-five for visitors every year. It has tons of different trails, from full-day intensive hikes to wheelchair- and stroller-friendly walks on paved paths. It also boasts sweeping scenic drives and an easy-to-use shuttle system.
You can see and do a ton with even just a full day in the park. Take the shuttle around to see all the views, drive the back half of the park for a different type of landscape, walk the Riverside Trail (or even try a bit of the Narrows!), Emerald Pools, and so much more!
Make sure to check out the official Zion National Park website to see COVID restrictions, hiking trail closures, and more. I’ve also written a post about what it was like visiting Zion during COVID, as there were some changes to the shuttle system that are important to know.
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Kolob Section of Zion
This is a section of Zion that doesn’t see as many visitors, and is an easy visit from St. George. One itinerary I saw recommended was going St. George to Snow Canyon State Park, then to Enterprise, Newcastle and Cedar City. Then as you return to St. George you can visit Kolob Canyon.
It’s far less visited than the main portion of Zion, and boasts the 2nd-largest natural arch in the U.S. (6th-largest in the world). It also has amazing views, some deep slot canyons, hiking, scenic drives, and more. I’m told it’s best visited in the afternoon, and if all of these are short stops along with enjoying the beautiful drives, it’s definitely doable in 5+ hours or a whole day.
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Bryce Canyon National Park
While it definitely is a bit longer day trip than Zion, Bryce Canyon is a can’t-miss! It’s one of the smallest national parks in the U.S., but also in the top-10 busiest—largely due to the otherworldly “hoodoos” in the amphitheater.
These cool geological rock formations were created by erosion and are such a unique thing to see. It’s truly magical at sunrise in particular, so even if you’re based in St. George it might be worth spending one night at the Bryce Canyon Lodge and getting out for a magical sunrise experience.
My favorite thing here is to drive the whole park, stopping at all the different scenic pullouts for pictures. Make sure to walk around the rim, and if the trails are open even hike down into the amphitheater to see the hoodoos up close!
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Valley of Fire State Park
I love Valley of Fire so much! It’s only about 1.5-2 hours from St. George, and about 45 minutes to an hour from Vegas. It’s a perfect day trip from St. George, or an easy add if you’re driving to or from Vegas for a flight.
Valley of Fire is first and foremost a gorgeous scenic drive, a single through trip rather than a loop. But there are tons of scenic pullouts, several great hikes (largely easy to moderate), and an insane amount of photo opportunities. If you can swing it, I recommend trying to be there right around sunset for beautiful photos, though you’ll have to book it out after (as the park closes at sundown).
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North Rim Grand Canyon
First off, this is a LONG DAY. But it is doable as a day trip from St. George (especially if you get on the road earlier than we did). I’d never been to the Grand Canyon before, and wanted to make this happen. What’s great about this is that the North Rim only gets a fraction of the visitors as its more famous South counterpart, making it far less crowded.
There’s a little less to do but the North Rim still has beautiful scenic drives and several hiking options. There’s a good likelihood you’ll see lots of wildlife too (be alert while driving!). I’d recommend planning your day trip for a day with good weather and clear skies if possible, to make sure you get the iconic views.
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Where to eat & drink in St. George
First, let’s start with coffee shops & bakeries…you KNOW I love me some pastries! I made it a point to try out a number of different places, but by far our most exciting discovery was The French Bakery.
This unassuming little storefront hides amazing authentic French patisserie…with some Vietnamese flair. That’s not a gimmick, just the (truly lovely) owners’ own backgrounds coming to life. So you can get amazing French pastries, Vietnamese coffee, and other things like healthy dishes, fresh juice blends, Dalgona coffee, and much more!
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FeelLove Coffee is another cute local coffee shop that you need to try out (pic below). It’s got a charming ambiance that would be perfect for just sitting, sipping coffee, and reading for a while, or meeting a friend. We also went to an adorable place called Affogato West, but it sadly looks like it’s closed since then.
I also got take-out breakfast from both Black Bear Diner and Bear Paw Cafe via Uber Eats a few times. Mostly to get decent coffee early in the morning, timed perfectly to meet me when I finished my run.
Black Bear’s bear claw pastry and vanilla cold brew coffee were DELISH, and the pancakes and waffles were pretty good but obviously a bit soggy. Bear Paw had delicious peanut butter pancakes and chicken fried steak. I’d definitely recommend actually eating in at both for awesome food.
Okay, let’s talk about more special restaurant options. And the two that are “musts” for me are Cliffside and Painted Pony.
We made a reservation a week ahead for Cliffside for our first night, knowing we’d be tired and wouldn’t want to figure out plans. It was perfect watching the sunset over St. George with a glass of wine and delicious meal. Everything we had there was great, but the chili-glazed salmon with coconut pilaf was BOMB.
We had dinner with friends at Painted Pony a couple nights later, and it was also top-notch. I had stilton fritters, beet salad, and steak, and we shared some sides as a table. I think I’d give Painted Pony a slight edge on food while Cliffside obviously had the scenery too. Both are great and worth a visit!
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And one other that I absolutely have to mention, whether you want to eat in or just do takeout, is Benja’s Thai Garden (or Benja’s Thai & Sushi, they have two locations named slightly different things). We went to the Garden to eat in and also got takeout. The food is awesome (I had pad thai, massaman curry, and khao soi, all awesome). The service was super slow though when we ate in, despite it not being busy. Take-out might be your best option.
Okay, now let’s talk about all the great simple and fast food options that St. George has to offer.
Starting with Viva Chicken, a North Carolina healthy fast food chain that now has a St. George location. I thought it was good but my friend Casey was obsessed, and so it became a super easy place to stop for affordable and fast food before hitting the road.
A surprise discovery was Tia’s Artisan Bakery. This eclectic El Salvadoran place has delicious pupusas, salads, soups, avocado toast options, traditional El Salvadoran breakfast (desayuno tipico), and tons more. They also have traditional Latin American bakery options like conchas, flan, and cakes.
Mad Pita Express is a yummy Mediterranean fast-casual spot where you can pick up salads, pitas, gyros, and rice bowls. And Morty’s Cafe is a local institution and another place I’d recommend for a quick bite. It has fast but good burgers, fries, and milkshakes, and is really affordable.
And these are only the places I got to try. Here are some St. George restaurants that were on my list but I wasn’t able to try out:
- Red Fort Cuisine of India – supposed to be amazing, but wasn’t open when I was there (remodeling)
- Xetava Gardens Cafe at Kayenta – 20 minutes out of St. George, but supposedly one of the very best restaurants around, with locally-sourced, wild, and organic ingredients
- The Creamery – a crepe place with a variety of both savory and sweet crepes (including gluten-free versions)
- Rigatti’s – supposed to be awesome wood-fired pizza
- Angelica’s – supposedly the best delicious, no-frills Mexican food in St. George
- Swig – A drive-thru soda shop known for its “dirty soda” (i.e. soda with shots of flavored syrup added to it) and giant pink-frosted sugar cookies
WHEW!! So that’s a lot but it shows you how much there is to do in St. George and why it’s the perfect base for exploring southern Utah, northern Arizona, and eastern Nevada.
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