Head to sunny Utah for hiking, golfing


ST. GEORGE, Utah — Pick your plea­sure: Scram­bling up a steep ridge, 1,000 feet above a can­yon floor? Or glid­ing in a golf cart down a man­i­cured fair­way, where a car­pet of em­er­ald green of­fers a strik­ing con­trast to the red-rock des­ert?

At first blush, the two out­ings might seem to have lit­tle in com­mon. But hav­ing done them on suc­ces­sive days in south­west Utah this fall, I can iden­tify two key sim­i­lar­i­ties: Both call for sun­screen and each goes a lot bet­ter if you avoid go­ing off a cliff.

Vis­it­ing the dra­matic spires and vis­tas of Zion Na­tional Park has been on my to-do list for de­cades. And re­cently a friend men­tioned that St. George, Utah, the clos­est siz­able city, has be­come a bit of a golf Mecca.

Here’s a closer look at Zion hik­ing and a St. George round of golf:

An­gels Land­ing

Some­where along the steep­est sec­tion of this 5.4-mile hike in Zion Na­tional Park, my right foot slipped a bit, dis­lodg­ing a cou­ple of dime-sized rock chips. They bounced once or twice and dis­ap­peared. I didn’t see them land. I knew they could be fall­ing 1,000 feet or more.

This is why the park’s pub­lished guide says the An­gels Land­ing hike is “not for young chil­dren or any­one fear­ful of heights.” And it’s why a heavy chain is an­chored to steel posts to as­sist hik­ers along the up­per­most half-mile of this hike, which in­cludes cross­ing a nar­row rock “fin” with sheer drops on ei­ther side.


WHEN TO GO: We timed our va­ca­tion for just af­ter the start of the school year, when the peak of the sum­mer crowds — and three-digit sum­mer­time tem­per­a­tures — had abated. Fall and spring are great times to visit Zion Na­tional Park and the golf courses of St. George.


Zion Na­tional Park: www.nps.gov/zionSand

St. George area golf courses: www.utah.com/st­george

Th­ings to do in St. George: www.st­georgeutah.net

Tuac­ahn Amphi­the­atre: www.tu­ac­ahn.org

The Salt Lake Tri­bune has re­ported six fa­tal­i­ties in the last eight years along this route. (And in late Oc­to­ber, a 49-year-old Cal­i­for­nia man fell to his death on a tech­ni­cal climb­ing route be­low An­gels Land­ing, a route that is not part of the trail.) When my foot slipped, I grasped the chain more tightly. And it took a few mo­ments be­fore I was ready for the next step.

An­gels Land­ing, a hike that gains 1,488 feet, is in the “stren­u­ous” cat­e­gory on the park’s guide, which also lists easy and mod­er­ate hikes.

Zion, Utah’s most-vis­ited na­tional park, is known for its nar­row can­yons and lay­ered sand­stone cliffs in shades of red, tan, and cream. Though the park is huge, at 229 square miles, vis­i­tor ac­tiv­ity is cen­tered along a 15-mile stretch of the Vir­gin River, which carved these rock faces over the eons.

One of the ap­peals of An­gels Land­ing is that it pro­vides breath­tak­ing views al­most from the start of the hike. The first two miles, wide and paved, end in “Wal­ter’s Wig­gles,” a set of 21 switch­backs built in the 1920s and named for Wal­ter Ruesch, the park’s first cus­to­dian.

The “wig­gles” lead to Scout Look­out, with views up and down the can­yon. This is where my wife, Judy, say­ing she felt no need to prove her “man­hood,” waited while I tack­led the fi­nal sec­tion.

From Scout Look­out, it took about a half-hour, in­clud­ing stops for pho­tos, to reach the top.

The pay­off was a gen­tly rounded sum­mit, roughly the size of a 7-Eleven lot, with a mag­nif­i­cent 360-de­gree view. This may in­deed at­tract an­gels in the next world. For now, it’s draw­ing vis­i­tors from all over this one. I over­heard con­ver­sa­tions in at least four lan­guages.

Per­haps be­cause I had read about the dan­ger well be­fore the trip, I found the hike a lit­tle less scary than I had ex­pected — but a lit­tle more stren­u­ous, for a guy over 60. In one spot, I had to use the chain not just to hang onto, but to pull my­self up, un­clear where my foot should land.

The park’s guide says the An­gels Land­ing Trail is best from March through Oc­to­ber, but it can be hiked year-round as long as it’s free of ice and snow (and avoid it if there are high winds or thun­der­storms).

On to the golf course

For most golfers, a round of golf in south­ern Utah may be a bit jar­ring. We’re used to see­ing trees or rows of houses flank­ing our fair­ways.

But guess what runs along­side sev­eral holes at Sand Hol­low Golf Re­sort near St. George: Noth­ing.

Just left of the fair­way, the earth dis­ap­pears. It’s a 100-foot drop down to the val­ley floor, and if you just smacked your $4 Titleist Pro V1 that di­rec­tion, the two of you are not go­ing to be re­united in this life­time.

Sand Hol­low, listed by Golf Digest as one of the na­tion’s 10 best new courses in 2009, has strength­ened St. George’s cre­den­tials as a year-round golf des­ti­na­tion. Golfers can choose from a dozen courses in and around this city of 140,000, which sits at 2,800 feet.

With hot sum­mers and mild win­ters, courses here pres­ent con­trasts in bold col­ors: green grass, red-rock des­ert, black lava rock, and blue sky.

At Sand Hol­low’s 15th hole, a par-3 of 150 yards, I was de­ter­mined to avoid the chasm on the left.

I suc­ceeded — but only by slic­ing far to the right, up a rocky slope.

After a brief search, I saw I’d suf­fered a com­mon fate. Thought I didn’t find my ball, I did find four oth­ers. A dou­ble-bo­gey was a small price to pay for the ad­ven­ture.

Speak­ing of price, I paid $55, in­clud­ing cart, to play Sand Hol­low on a week­day in Sep­tem­ber, the last month of what the course calls its “off­sea­son.” From Oct. 1 to mid-May, a round here is $100 Sun­day-Thurs­day and $125 on Fri­days, Satur­days, and hol­i­days.

With vir­tu­ally no trees or wa­ter, the course de­fends it­self with brick-red bun­kers, un­du­lat­ing greens, and patches of des­ert. Golfers de­cide how much of a chal­lenge they want, with four sets of tees rang­ing from 5,306 to 7,315 yards. (From the 6,462-yard white tees, the course car­ries a rat­ing of 69.6 and a slope of 126, mean­ing it’s a much tougher-than-av­er­age track.)

Shots tend to travel far­ther than at home here, be­cause of the firm, dry fair­ways and the el­e­va­tion.

Sand Hol­low of­fers lower rates on its nearby nine-hole “Links Course,” laid out with a min­i­mum amount of land­scap­ing on flat des­ert ter­rain. A sign in des­ert grass off the first fair­way warns “rat­tle­snake hab­i­tat.”

I also played an­other nearby course, Sky Moun­tain, which also has dra­matic views but, with some bare patches on the greens, wasn’t in the same con­di­tion as Sand Hol­low.

Other courses praised by golfers I met in­cluded Coral Canyon and the Ledges.

Sand Hol­low rents va­ca­tion vil­las that could be good bases for groups who want to play this course and oth­ers.

We stayed 15 min­utes away, in down­town St. George, at the Best Western Coral Hills. It’s rightly praised on Trip Ad­vi­sor in part for its gen­er­ous com­pli­men­tary break­fasts. And I apol­o­gize to the staff for mis­un­der­stand­ing the di­rec­tions on the waf­fle-bat­ter dis­penser in the break­fast room, trig­ger­ing some­thing of a flash flood.

St. George has an in­ter­est­ing se­lec­tion of shops and restau­rants and some­thing we did not ex­pect: a fan­tas­tic out­door am­phi­the­ater where shows and con­certs are pre­sented.

It’s called Tuac­ahn, and is nes­tled against a red rock wall of Snow Canyon, just north of town. We saw a per­for­mance of Dis­ney’s “Alad­din” and marveled at feats of stag­ing that in­cluded mak­ing a moun­tain talk and hav­ing Alad­din and Prin­cess Jas­mine fly over the au­di­ence on a magic car­pet.