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St. George

Savor the pioneer past in St. George, then delight in the area’s superb golf courses and the sun-tinged walls of Snow Canyon.

Snow Canyon State Park near St. George, Utah, image
Photo caption
You can hike amid ancient lava flows and red Navajo sandstone in Snow Canyon near St. George, Utah.

Do something when you arrive in St. George, Utah. Before you hike among the yucca plants and prickly pear in the cocoa-red soil of Snow Canyon; before you bicycle along a sunbaked ridge; and before you tee off, go to the white-trimmed brick home of Brigham Young and imagine him there in the winter of 1875. Old, rheumy, massive Young. His arthritic joints ached even in the warm and arid climes of St. George. He would lumber up the wooden stairs and from his window gaze out over his knotty beard at the workers on the tower of the tabernacle. Behind them the Mormon temple was rising in great and gorgeous relief against the distant hills. What satisfaction Young must have felt picturing the completion of both the tabernacle and the temple.

What Young could never have foreseen is St. George today. A city 48,000 strong and growing daily; a city of 50 hotels, abundant food stops, two full-fledged spas, and nine golf courses; a city where the once-forbidding landscape proves so captivating that locals warn visitors, "Once you get the red sand of Dixie in your shoes, you won’t ever get it out."

Dixie. The region is so called because in 1861, with the Civil War in its bloody beginnings, Young dispatched 309 Mormon families to settle St. George and grow cotton, which would be hard to come by as long as the war continued. The Mormons produced 100,000 pounds of the stuff in their first harvest, but life was hard in the hot and shadeless basin. Flies swarmed, food was scarce, and the Virgin River shredded every dam. To lift spirits, Young ordered the building of the tabernacle. The people rallied: They quarried stone from the foothills and the church paid them in chickens, wheat, and cloth. In 1871, they began constructing the pine-and-stucco temple. By then they had tamed the wild Virgin and grapes were growing in bountiful bunches.

Today, St. George may be marked by its modern conveniences and defined by the ages-old rock land around it, but it is inextricably bonded to its pioneer past. You will do well to visit not only the brilliant, milk-white temple (visitors not allowed beyond the annex) and the meticulously designed interior of the tabernacle but also the cotton mill, old courthouse, and pioneer museum.

Numerous attractions surrounding the town pull visitors out beneath the ever-present sun. St. George bills itself as the golf capital of Utah, and the pièce de résistance of its courses, Sunbrook Golf Club, was recently anointed Utah’s number one course by Golf Digest.There are several other superbly maintained courses with great settings as well. To swing over history with your 9-iron, play the Dixie Red Hills course, which covers the spot where red sandstone was quarried for the tabernacle walls.

St. Georgians will tell you that Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, and the north rim of the Grand Canyon are all close enough for a day trip. But the best choice on a weekend visit is a mere 11 miles north from St. George’s center, Snow Canyon. While it possesses neither Zion’s majesty nor Bryce’s fantastic terrain, Snow’s stunning vistas are bathed in a soft and playful light of their own. A photographically tempting state park, Snow provides full-service camping and offers trails that lead to lava caves and silky dunes. You can hike (in some areas you may also ride bicycles or horses) among scampering geckos and through sloping fields of sagebrush and blooming junipers. As the sun washes the deep joints of the canyon rock you will see that they are never one hue over the whole. In the morning the crests are coppery and the hillside stones look like lumps of gold. In the evening, when the canyon floor is steeped in shadows, the cliff tops go from rust to wine. You can spend the sunset hour amid the red rock at the cultural oasis of Tuacahn, a magnificent amphitheater cut deep into the canyon, where this summer’s theatrical performances will include Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoatand Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

Aside from Tuacahn, you may want to attend a play or concert at the Opera House (built in 1875) or the free evening concerts at Vernon Worthen Park near the temple. The action-starved can drive 45 minutes southwest on I-15 to the casinos in Mesquite, Nevada.

You should have little trouble getting a room in St. George. The thoroughfares of St. George Boulevard and Bluff offer virtually every hotel (and fast-food stop) you can imagine, as well as largely indistinguishable local establishments, virtually all of which provide a pool.

If you’re feeling luxurious, book a few nights at the Green Valley Resort. Or, to absorb St. George’s historic flavor, reserve a room at the Greene Gate Village, a nest of restored pioneer homes serving as a bed-and-breakfast, which is tucked off the main drag and opposite the tabernacle. You’ll stay in a handsome room (or a small freestanding house) complete with a quilt, four-poster bed, fireplace, and whirlpool bath.

Next door to the Greene Gate you’ll find Thomas Judd’s pioneer store, where folks swap stories by the soda fountain and where the chocolate milk shakes are thick and the sandwiches fresh. Other places to eat, outside of the chains, include Scaldoni’s. This cozy Italian grocery and grill not only has original salads (cranberry and gorgonzola, blackened steak) and excellent fresh bread but also serves up pastas, steaks, and seafood. It’s also a good place to assemble a picnic for your Snow Canyon hikes. The Brandin’ Iron steak house is without much decor, but locals like the tender meat and reasonable prices. For lunch or breakfast try the Bear Paw Coffee Co., which offers good coffee, quiches, and fruit smoothies, or the locally renowned Dick’s Cafe, a classic greasy spoon, which has been dishing out eggs and sandwiches since the 1930s.

A few miles outside St. George sits a community called Kayenta, where the adobe homes are built in harmony with the hills: earth tones and low-pitched roofs. At night you can drive here, park on the unlit streets, and look up at the vast sky and the silhouetted hills. These are the same hills that Brigham Young might have seen on a night more than six score years ago, just before he blew out the light and went to sleep.

Photography by Mehmet Dilsiz/Shutterstock

This article was first published in May 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.