Cool Greens Red Rocks
It’s called hematite. Basically, it’s the primary mineral ore in iron; when oxidized, it’s rust.
It’s what makes southern Utah’s red rocks a deeply-distinct blood red.
And it’s stunning.
An outdoor enthusiast’s haven for exploration and adventure, the Greater Zion region presents an almost otherworldly canvas for play. Evidencing the quality-of-life draw, the county seat of St. George is one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities.
Home to a pair of national parks and four state parks, the area also sports nine courses on the Red Rock Golf Trail, with a long-planned 10th reportedly set to debut by 2020.
From L.A., seasonal flights are an option to the St. George Regional Airport (debuted in 2011); or, a six-plus hour drive provides a prime opportunity to piecemeal a trip with clubs in tow, as Palm Springs, Las Vegas and Mesquite, Nevada, are all along the route, with St. George located just 90 minutes from Sin City. Visitor numbers bear out the trip’s popularity, as one leading vacation rental outfit says that nearly 40 percent of Greater Zion’s out-of-state guests are coming from California.
A year-round desert destination (though a dry summer sizzle can swell temps), Greater Zion’s Red Rock Golf Trail doesn’t blush red on cost. Sure, peak-season (spring and fall) green fees can rise with the peak conditions, but course operators across the region take as much pride in the value as they do in the vistas.
“Our market is basically $85 to $110 rounds,” says Dale Beddo, director of golf operations at Coral Canyon GC. “Our market is healthy and balanced. Our guests can come in here, get a good hotel room, a good steak and two or three rounds of golf, and still be able to go home with some money in the pocket.”
At Coral Canyon, a comely spread of natural beauty is offered from the outset. With a rustic, rolling flair, rising beyond eye-level are vistas of Zion National Park and the 10,000-foot perch of Pine Valley Mountain.
In neighboring St. George, a more-manicured style of play is found at The Ledges GC, where a benign opening nine serves as a mere appetizer for a scenic, shot-shaping latter side.
“The front is really friendly; fairways are forgiving and holes are close together,” says Paul Holden, director of golf. “There’s a lot of room and kind of a tune-up for the back, which becomes more target golf.”
Sporting superb greens throughout, keeping one’s eye focused on said targets becomes a test, as Snow Canyon State Park comes into view and cliff-routed holes come into play. “On the back, being on top of Snow Canyon State Park, it’s easy to get lost in the scenery,” Holden says, smiling.
The Ledges’ fun begins in earnest on the par-3 12th, with canyons along the right side; two holes later, the 389-yard 14th is stellar, with red-rock outcroppings and massive boulders framing the right side and behind the green. On the subsequent hole, a target-style 320-yarder sports rocky risk-reward; the prudent will lay up to a split fairway and the emboldened will drive for the green.
For a Greater Zion gem, visitors need to spend at least a day at Sand Hollow Resort in Hurricane. Annually charting as the zenith of Utah’s public courses — along with one of the country’s top resort plays — the course design from John Fought and Andy Staples proves a bounty of pleasure.
A match of huge, red sand bunkers and burly distance from the tips combines with massive expanses of landing-area turf to sate all comers. In turn, a supremely natural feel eschews any sense of contrived play, as the routing weaves subtle undulations throughout and guests gear for large, waving greens.
“The designers were trying to bring an overseas style of play,” says SoCal-native Kris Burlingame, head golf professional at Sand Hollow Resort. “And they really didn’t do a whole lot to manufacture this golf course; they moved some brush, laid some grass down and shaped some greens.”
Among the most photographed holes in the West, Sand Hollow’s par-4 12th is carved straight out of the ledges and sandstone, as the left side of the fairway calls your Titleist to a rocky demise. On the diminutive 13th, 320 yards of elevated play provides a shot-making task from the tee before a delicate pitch to an uphill, tiny putting surface.
Golfers seeking extra cuts at Sand Hollow will find further opportunity on the highly-recommended, nine-hole Links Course.
Golf course operators across Greater Zion don’t simply suspect guests will trade spikes for hikes during a visit — they encourage it.
“St. George used to be more of just a snowbird place for folks down from Salt Lake. But with our landscape here, it con-tinues to draw more people and we continue to grow,” Holden says. “There are so many things to do here and be active. If, say, your wife or girlfriend isn’t a golfer, then we see all the time where the better half will head out for a hike while the guy goes to play.”
Such a mixed itinerary goes for visitors of all ages. “With the millennial market, we see that it’s not as much about jumping in the car for two or three days to go somewhere and just play golf,” Beddo says. “It’s about cumulative activities, with a boat, an ATV, a mountain bike, shopping, or even taking a helicopter ride. That’s where we’ve really grown and become a more well-rounded place for the destination traveler.”
A few rounds across the Red Rock Golf Trail coupled with exploration of the region is the Greater Zion norm.
“There’s a lot to do in this area. For us, about half the guests come here to play golf,” Burlingame says. “The other half are doing all sorts of other activities. And that means we’ve worked to brand as more than just a great golf experience.”
Among the most popular destinations is Zion National Park, which annually welcomes more than 4.3 million visitors, making it the fourth-most-visited national park in the country.
With dramatic vermilion cliffs, Navajo sandstone walls and a diverse ecosystem, trekking through the 229-square miles of Zion makes for a deservedly world-renowned hike.
Which is also to say visitors should do a little pre-trip prep.
Driving into Zion with your own ride ($35 entry) is fine, although peak days and hours will find parking a little hard to come by. One option to avoid the self-park hurdle is to leave your vehicle in the gateway town of Springdale, which precedes the park from the south; a free shuttle service takes visitors into Zion on a seasonal basis, while the town itself offers a strip for strolling.
For those who prefer controlling their own destiny, know that a spot will eventually present itself, and Zion’s bounty offers ceaseless journeys — mapped and otherwise — to just get out of your car and start walking through the wilderness.
Recommended nature hikes include the leisurely Riverside Walk, the Pa’rus Trail, the Lower Emerald Pools Trail and the Weeping Rock Trail; more moderate journeys are found across the Watchman and Canyon Overlook Trails, respectively.