Zion is one of the country's most astonishing national parks... but, with great beauty comes crowds. That's okay, though, because all of Southwestern Utah features the soaring red sandstone cliffs, winding canyons, and twisting hoodoos for which Zion is famous. Whether you're exploring a lesser-traveled trail in the park, or heading outside its boundaries for adventure, there are plenty of ways to beat the crowds. Pro tip: bring along (or rent) bikes and climbing gear to take your trip to these hidden gems to the next level.
Park at the Zion Canyon Visitor Center and get ready to hike a Zion National Park classic: the Watchman Trail. Covering 3 miles (roundtrip) of breathtaking views that can only be seen in Zion, Watchman Trail is a trek of medium difficulty for most fitness levels... and just because it's an easier hike doesn't mean it’s light on scenery. Its main feature is a lookout loop at the end of the trail that offers a killer view of Watchman Peak and a bird's eye view of the visitor center. It's a great early morning hike that will definitely be far less crowded than many other trails in the park.
Located near Mount Carmel, Hidden Canyon trail is a less demanding alternative to the popular Angel's Landing hike. This 3.2-mile trail delves into the hanging canyon, with rock scrambling, stone arches, cliff-hugging stretches, mossy walls and water-filled potholes. The hike itself is incredibly exciting, so even though it doesn't end with a sweeping overlook, the trail keeps you interested with obstacles and adventure all along the way.
Start the day on the Emerald Pools Trail to get your heart pumping with the promise of a refreshing swim to cool off. It boasts multiple waterfall views and a relatively easy route. It ends with three tiers of pools, each more stunning than the last. It's 3 miles to the upper pool, but if you're looking for something easier and faster, you can end your hike at the lower pool after 1.2 miles, or at the middle pool, which is a 2-mile hike from the trailhead. Along the way, enjoy views of Lady Mountain, the Great White Throne, and Red Arch Mountain.
Located in Hurricane, Utah, Babylon Arch is a moderate hike that will have you wondering if you've somehow been transported to Mars, thanks to the red rocks and sandy terrain. It's only 1.5 miles roundtrip, and the end of the trail will leave you in awe of the gorgeous natural arch. After you've stopped to admire Mother Nature's handiwork, keep on hiking until you reach the stunning Virgin River. It's the perfect place to cool off before heading back up the trail!
For some relaxation, head to Quail Creek State Park. It's on a reservoir, which makes a visit here the perfect excuse to get out on the water. Swimming, boating, kayaking, paddleboarding, and fishing are all top-notch at Quail Creek. The park is also home to a great little campground, which offers year-round camping. It's a respite from the hustle and bustle of Zion nearby... and a dip in the water is the perfect way to cool off after exploring the national park and all of the excitement nearby!
Nothing in Zion can even come close to the experience of hiking Yant Flat. The 1.5-mile trail ends at a stretch of sandstone, sometimes referred to as the "Candy Cliffs." The colors range from cream and grey to rusty red and bright orangey pink, and the rock itself almost looks like it’s ebbing and flowing like a wave. The whole Flat feels like it’s just begging to be explored. Visit in the softer light of morning or between the afternoon golden hour and sunset for the best pictures of the colorful cliffs!
Popular for boating and fishing, Gunlock State Park is a great place to just get away from the hustle and bustle of Zion National Park and St. George. Like Quail Creek, Gunlock State Park is on a reservoir lined with red rocks and extinct cinder cones that boasts calm, warm waters perfect for fishing and boating. The reservoir, park, and nearby town are all named for one of the Mormon pioneers who first settled the area back in 1857, "Gunlock Will" Hamblin. Make your way over to the reservoir's spillway to enjoy the waterfall-like effect as it overflows!
What better way to end your trip through Southern Utah than with a hike to a place called "The Vortex?” The spot is also sometimes known as "The Bowl.” It lies at the end of a slickrock and sandstone trail that's just under 3 miles long. Along the way, you'll notice all kinds of strange patterns and designs carved into the rock. The Vortex itself is a swirling impression in the stone, hidden among the cliffs and towers of Lower Sand Cove.
While Zion National Park often steals the spotlight, there is plenty to be seen and explored off the beaten path. If you're wanting to change things up, there's plenty to keep you busy and entertained. Make a trip up to Babylon Arch, enjoy the warm waters of Quail Creek and Gunlock State Park or conquer the challenge of Yant Flat and The Vortex trail. Utah continues to make its case for being the place to visit when you want to see the best parks the country has to offer.