By J.C. Thomas
A first-time family visit to St. George, Utah feels like you’ve been let in on a not-so-well-kept secret. Entertaining kids away from home without sacrificing enjoyment for yourself tends to be a challenge – but not in St. George. This city at the very southwest corner of the state is as close to an ideal destination for families with small children as you’ll find anywhere.
What makes St. George so great for a family getaway? During a recent visit with our two- and four-year-old children – a four-day road trip from Southern California in the peak of summer – we discovered a combination of characteristics that make the destination delightfully and genuinely fun for all ages.
Top among those factors is St. George’s proximity to several national parks, with the glorious Zion National Park the closest at less than an hour’s drive away. The city is also a hub for Bryce Canyon and the Grand Canyon, plus Snow Canyon State Park and Red Cliffs National Conservation Area just outside its limits. Opportunities for outdoor recreation amid scenic red-rock landscapes are abundant, with hiking and biking especially inclusive for all ages.
Further, St. George spreads urban attractions out widely across scenic mesas and hills. Highlights include the excellent Children’s Museum and adjacent Town Square park and splash pad. Our older boy is in the middle of a major dinosaur phase, so it was a big bonus for our family to find that St. George is the site of some world-renowned paleontological discoveries, and fully embraces the dinosaur theme. From cheerful, dino-themed playgrounds like Thunder Junction to the real-deal 200-million-year-old preserved ecosystem at the Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm, St. George’s celebration of its prehistoric heritage is a big hit with little visitors.
St. George is in southwest Utah, near the intersection of Utah, Arizona and Nevada. It’s right off Interstate 15, 118 miles (about 2 hours) northeast of Las Vegas. From the Los Angeles area, the drive is approximately 390 miles, mostly on I-15, and takes 6 to 7 hours on average. We drove both outbound and homebound legs in a single stretch, but an overnight stay in Las Vegas might be a good choice for some families. The only other sizeable hubs along the route are Primm, Nevada and Barstow and Baker, California (home of the world’s tallest thermometer!). From the Bay Area, St. George is 650 miles away. The drive (mostly along I-5 and I-15) takes at least 10 hours, so plan for a long day of driving or pick an overnight spot.
Flying is also an option. St. George Regional Airport (note: closed for construction until late September 2019) is served by United, American, Delta and SkyWest airlines. You might also fly into Las Vegas, rent a car there and drive to St. George.
Where to Stay
St. George hosts a full range of accommodations from campgrounds to luxury resorts, with family-friendly mid-range hotels plentiful and (compared to California prices) inexpensive. The Holiday Inn St. George Convention Center hosted our stay, and we found it ideal in both setting and service.
The hotel is just minutes off I-5, in a new and expansive (and 100 percent smoke-free) building directly behind the Dixie Convention Center. A spacious and impeccably clean room with two queen beds was perfect for our family of four. Larger groups and those with older children might prefer one of the suites, which have a sleeper sofa in a separate living area. Connecting rooms and rollaway beds are available as well.
Our room had a view across open space to the red-striped mesa in the near distance. This was very appealing, as it gave the impression of being away from urban life, yet all the restaurants, shops and other conveniences of the city were close by.
Every room at the Holiday Inn features a 42-inch flat-screen television, microwave, refrigerator and complimentary Internet access. Suites have two televisions. Single-serve coffee makers, Bath and Body Works toiletries and premium cable channels are nice touches that feel like upgrades but come as standard. Guests also enjoy access to complimentary hot coffee and ice-cold water in the lobby all day long.
The hotel has a heated outdoor pool and large hot tub with plenty of chairs and loungers around them, and a serene mountain backdrop. A pool is pretty much an essential hotel feature when you’re traveling with kids, serving as an instant antidote to excess energy or whining, and an hours-long activity that calls for zero planning. On a Friday afternoon we had the pool to ourselves for a while, then shared it with a couple of teenagers. A Saturday swim session saw several other families come and go, but there was plenty of room for everyone. There’s a well-equipped fitness center right by the pool too.
As a siren call to parents, kids eat for free at Burger Theory, the Holiday Inn’s onsite restaurant. Up to four children ages 11 and under eat for free at any time with an adult ordering a full meal. The casual, tavern-inspired restaurant is open for breakfast, dinner and room service. Its specialty is from-scratch burgers loaded with toppings, and there’s a build-your-own burger option. Burgers share the menu with a handful of appetizers and entrée-size salads, plus local craft beers behind the bar. We dined at Burger Theory for two dinners and a breakfast, and heartily recommend it. The service was always friendly, the menus thoroughly tempting and the food pretty much faultless, as long as you’re in the mood for classic American comfort cuisine.
Zion National Park
Zion National Park with its stunning valley carved by the Virgin River is a natural treasure that any St. George visitor simply must see. In fact, it’s the biggest draw to the region – the fourth most-visited national park in the United States. The scenery and hiking opportunities are unmatched, with virtually every vista encompassing towering cliffs and rugged rock formations with facades of striated reds, pinks and shades of sand. Zion is often called “Yosemite in color,” though we concluded it resembled a cross between Yosemite and the Grand Canyon.
The park is navigable in one day, provided you pick one or two highlights and take a full-route ride on the shuttle. Consider combining two or three shorter hikes or one longer one with a scenic drive along the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway, or a portion of its winding 12-mile length. Prepare to pass through the historic 1.1-mile Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel, a heart-racing journey through the dark belly of a mountain with infrequent illumination from rock-cut windows.
An alternative, much less busy destination in the national park is the Kolob Canyon area. If you’ve already explored the valley or really want to avoid the crowds, head here instead.
Zion National Park Logistics
The park shuttle runs up and down Zion Canyon from March to early November. During this season, cars are not permitted on Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. Visitors can park at the visitor center, but understand that spaces are typically full by 10 a.m. During our late-June visit we scored one of the last remaining spaces around 9:30 a.m., so aim to arrive as early as possible if you want to get a free space inside the park.
The other option is to park in the town of Springdale, just outside the park entrance. Parking spaces in the town are ample but not free. A second shuttle connects several spots in Springdale with the visitor center, so it’s not an inconvenient option.
The park shuttle route features nine stops along Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, and it makes the same stops on its way up and down the canyon. Wait times are short – no longer than 15 minutes – and the full round-trip takes about 80 minutes. It’s feasible to bring a stroller on board, provided you collapse it. At busier times you might have to stand or instead wait for a seat on the next shuttle.
Kid-Friendly Hikes in Zion National Park
Skim an up-to-date park newspaper and look at the descriptions of easy hikes starting at shuttle stop-adjacent trail-heads. Half a dozen trails are suitable for kids or anyone who wants a shorter, less strenuous hiking route.
We decided the Riverside Walk, a 2.2-mile round-trip along a paved trail, and the Weeping Rock Trail, a short-but-steep 0.4-mile round-trip, would be suitable for our small kids and appealing to us as well. This proved accurate for both trails, which could just about handle our flimsy umbrella stroller. A sturdier stroller would probably be better on the trail, although more cumbersome elsewhere.
The Riverside Walk starts at the Temple of Sinawava shuttle stop at the very top of the canyon. It follows the Virgin River through a narrow section of the canyon and is spectacular at every turn. We were pleased to find it had plenty of shade as well as sandy side trails to the water’s edge. Proximity to the water, shade and the occasional dripping-wet rock garden made the day’s high-90s temperatures feel considerably cooler. Still, plenty of water and a leisurely pace were essential.
The Riverside Walk is understandably popular and has lots and lots of foot traffic. Perhaps half of the hikers on the Riverside Walk are headed to the Narrows, one of Zion’s most famous features. Traversing the Narrows requires hiking exclusively in the river, which park rangers on the day of our visit warned was up to chest-level. It is not suitable for children.
The Weeping Rock Trail is short at just 0.4 miles round-trip, but very steep. The reward at the top is a cool rock alcove with a natural curtain of dripping spring water. The shade, spray and expansive views across the valley, including the landmark Angels Landing, are well worth the requisite exertion.
Other shorter hikes suitable for kids include the 3.5-mile Pa’rus Trail, which is fully paved and starts at the Visitor Center. So does the steep 0.4-mile Archeology Trail that leads to the remains of some prehistoric buildings. The paved 1.2-mile Lower Emerald Pool Trail leads to a lovely pool and waterfalls and connects to longer trails. Also consider the 1-mile Grotto Trail from Zion Lodge, which links to the Lower Emerald Pool and Kayenta Trails.
More Things to Do in Zion National Park
In addition to trails and scenic drives, Zion National Park has several indoor spaces of interest to families. In summer, air conditioning is no small part of their appeal.
The Zion Canyon Visitor Center has interesting exhibits, an information desk, gift store and book store. It also has nicely maintained restrooms, plenty of seating and water-filling stations, and is the start point for two trails. Just a short walk from the visitor center, outside the pedestrian entrance to the park, is a restaurant and tour/rental office. If you stroll there from the park, keep hold of your entrance receipt for re-entry.
The Zion Nature Center does not have a shuttle stop but is accessible via the Pa’rus Trail. It offers kid-friendly programs including a scavenger hunt, and is a great place to go to learn about the national park’s flora and fauna. Visit the Zion Human History Museum to see exhibits and art depicting the park’s native and pioneer heritage.
Zion Lodge has a dining room and café open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It also offers the only in-park lodging and is the departure point for narrated open-air tram rides.
Safety Tips for Parents
Zion’s high summertime temperatures and arid conditions make it essential to bring plenty of water, sunscreen, sunglasses and hats for everyone. There are water-filling stations at the visitor center and some shuttle stops, but not along the trails.
Many of Zion National Park’s trails, including the Riverside Walk and Weeping Rock Trail, have steep drop-offs and gravelly edges that are only partially guarded. Take necessary precautions according to your kids’ ages and level of understanding, whether that means sticking close by, holding hands, explaining hazards or using a stroller or carrier.
Rock squirrels frequent the trails, and they are not shy. Don’t be surprised to see squirrels approach you when you stop for a snack or drink. Make sure your kids understand that these friendly-seeming squirrels are not to be touched or fed – they bite!
St. George Children’s Museum
Inside the historic Dixie Academy building in the heart of St. George is the St. George Children’s Museum. It’s a fantastic institution, with 12 rooms packed with fun, educational and interactive exhibits that keep kids of all ages entertained for hours. (Realistically it’s best suited for ages 10 and under.) Little ones can milk a cow, ride a triceratops, fly a plane, deliver the mail, shop at a kid-sized supermarket and perform on stage, all in one visit.
We spent time in every single room and the children thoroughly investigated most of the exhibits. There’s a lot to like from an adult’s perspective too, both in terms of vicarious enjoyment at seeing the children have such a fun experience, and because many exhibits have universal appeal. Consider the music room, where your fingers pull notes out of thin air while strumming an invisible harpsichord, and where you can play drums of all sizes and types as loudly as you wish. Another fun spot for everyone is the science room with its plasma ball, shadow-snapshot booth and tactile magnets.
Highlights for our children included the grocery store room, which has kid-sized grocery carts and fully stocked miniature versions of supermarket shelves, produce stands and a deli case, plus a working checkout. They had fun collecting eggs and driving a wooden truck in the farm room, scaling the climbing wall in the sports and exercise room and flying an airplane in the transportation room. In the prehistoric room the boys sat on a triceratops, uncovered fossils in the sand and rode down a volcano.
Other exhibits include an art room, the fairy tale-inspired castle with a dragon and thrones, and the desert discovery room representing the natural world of southern Utah. Dress-up clothes are available throughout the museum, including postal workers’ outfits, founding fathers’ garb and firefighter uniforms.
St. George Children’s Museum is closed on Sundays. Entrance is $5 per person for those 2 and older.
Town Square Park
Right next door to the St. George Children’s Museum is Town Square Park with its big, fun splash pad. On a hot day the two neighboring attractions make an unforgettable combination excursion so be sure to bring the kids’ swimsuits, towels and sunscreen. In fact, if you’re going to the Children’s Museum, your kids will almost certainly spot the splash pad and want to play there, so plan accordingly to avoid any disappointment.
Town Square Park is surrounded by the oldest buildings in St. George, which adds considerable charm. It’s an expansive space with grassy lawns and a carousel, but all the action is around the splash pad. A lazy river meanders around red, flat-topped rocks ideal for sitting and clambering, with fountains and waterfalls over a faux red-rock cliff at one end. There’s also a huge compass-floored fountain with dozens upon dozens of vertical jets that keep the kids going around in gleeful circles. Expect a protest and potential stand-off when it’s time to leave.
Thunder Junction All Abilities Park
Of all the playgrounds I’ve been to as a child or a parent, Thunder Junction All Abilities Park in St. George easily takes the No. 1 spot. This is a city park so entrance is free, although it’s $1 per ride on the miniature train. The whole park has a fun dinosaur theme, with a slide down a triceratops’ back, bouncing T-rex and tree house structure ascending a volcano that periodically rumbles and emits smoke.
The park’s design is inclusive for children of all ages and abilities including those using wheelchairs, and the ground is covered in a soft, rubbery surface. There’s a splash pad in one section, a zip-line ride with standing and seated options in another, plus a climbing wall, four-person see-saw and a secluded sensory garden with musical instruments. We all had a blast.
St. George Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm
Lots of attractions in St. George embrace the theme of dinosaurs, but the Dinosaur Discovery Site at Johnson Farm is the real deal. The “farm” part of this museum’s name is misleading – don’t expect any animals. Instead, you’ll walk around and over a genuine paleontological dig site and admire some of the most incredible dinosaur discoveries in the world.
At first glance, many of the exhibits at the discovery site aren’t especially striking. There are some impressively large and clear dinosaur footprints, but other displays look to the untrained eye to be little more than dents, dimples and ridges in rock beds. But take the time to read, or at least skim the wealth of information provided by signage and other displays and the enormity of these discoveries will start to sink in. You’re standing above the preserved remains of a 200-million-year-old ecosystem.
The site beneath your feet was a Jurassic-era shallow lake bed where a dilophosaurus left its footprints and other dinosaurs gouged tracks as they swam or swiped their tails. See skin impressions so familiar in their reptilian texture, bubble-like impressions that the experts think were made by prehistoric frogspawn, and a very rare crouching dinosaur print.
The museum does a great job of presenting this esoteric information in a way that appeals to children. There are touchable replica footprints, a floor-to-ceiling mural depicting Jurassic life wrapped around two walls, realistic dinosaur models and windows looking into a working fossil preparation lab. Kids can also complete a scavenger hunt to win a small prize. Outside there’s a life-size crouching eubrontes you can climb on, along with a sandpit “dig site.”
Entrance is $8 for adults and $4 for children ages 4 to 16.
Other Things to Do
A dozen or so top-notch golf courses are in or around St. George. One of the most scenic is Sand Hollow Golf Course, ranked No. 1 in Utah by Golf Week.
Visitors interested in the city’s religious heritage might take a tour of the St. George, Utah Temple, which was completed in 1877 and is the oldest continuously operating LDS temple in the world. There’s also the Brigham Young Winter Home, which is open for scheduled tours.
Some of the best hiking trails close to the city are in Pioneer Park. Its red sandstone rock formations are spectacular, as are the views across downtown St. George from its bluff-top setting. Also consider the Red Hills Desert Garden with its displays of native flora.
Other attractions include the St. George Art Museum, the Rosenbruch Wildlife Museum and the Tuacahn Amphitheatre. Opportunities for outdoor recreation are plentiful, including rock climbing, mountain biking, kayaking and ATV rides.
For more information about visiting St. George, check out the Greater Zion Tourism Office website.
Disclaimer: California News Press and its contributors may have received goods, services and/or other professional courtesies to facilitate this review. All opinions are those of the author.