Southern Utah’s otherworldly landscapes draw visitors from around the world, but this unique setting has also drawn pioneering artisans who create food, art and oases of hospitality. Bookend your adventurous days here with a wealth of refined dining, cultural experiences and beautifully curated spaces to pause, reflect and refresh.
St George © Jason Cameron / Getty
Getting your bearings in Southern Utah
Southern Utah is a large region generally thought of as everything south of Interstate 70. This rectangle is divided into three distinct areas by the topography of mountains, mesas and canyons: Southeastern Utah (including Moab and Bluff), Southwestern Utah (St. George and Springdale) and Central (Boulder, Escalante, Kanab). All are fanned out in five- to-six-hour drives from Salt Lake City, and all three include ample helpings of adventure and beauty. Each includes at least one of the five national parks and the eight national monuments within Utah.
The ‘warm hearth’ of Hell’s Backbone
Nineteen years ago, Jen Castle and Blake Spalding came to Boulder, Utah to begin an experiment in intentional, sustainable creation. The result is Hell’s Backbone Grill, a beloved restaurant and six-acre organic farming operation in the high-desert lands on the edge of Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. Each season (mid-March through Thanksgiving) the restaurant and farm welcome a fleet of staff and volunteers who invest time and energy in creating dining that is the truest farm-to-table possible.
The chef-owners create meals with sustainably grown vegetables, herbs and flowers (more than 20,000 pounds of produce each season), and Boulder-raised, grass-fed and finished local lamb and beef. They tend more than 75 heirloom fruit trees and 130 heritage-breed laying hens who provide the eggs for the breakfast plates.
‘From the beginning, we wanted to motivate people to come to this place and fall in love with it,’ Castle told us. ‘We want to develop advocates for this land. We have children who came at age five for our Easter egg hunt, returned as adults and then came back to work with us because we’ve succeeded in sharing our love for this place.’
To that end, Spalding says, they are creating a base for their guests to launch excursions into the monument’s wilderness. They encourage their staff to be touch points for advice on how to explore the area and they work to create a convivial space where guests can interact and share tales of their adventures.
‘We are a doorway for people who are going into the wilderness and coming back out,’ Spalding says. ‘We know how powerful those experiences can be and our vision is to create a warm hearth for people to return to and enjoy the company of those who have shared the same experiences.’
Native American brick structure in Cedar Mesa © Jeffrey Woodhouse / Getty
Peace, harmony, and Western icons near Navajo Nation
Another base for exploring Southeastern Utah is the small town of Bluff, offering a different vibe than busy Moab, tucked in quietly below beautiful red cliffs. Bluff’s proximity to the Navajo Nation means that there is a strong Navajo feel to the town. You’ll see lots of native art on display around the area, but it’s more than that. It’s something the locals call Ho′zho′ – essentially a concept of peace, balance, beauty and harmony with the passage of time. There was a thriving population of what are loosely known as Ancestral Puebloans who built cliff dwellings in the canyons of Cedar Mesa starting around 650 AD.
Exploring the Cedar Mesa is like untangling an ancient riddle: you’ll need a quiet, comfortable place to reflect on your experiences. The Desert Rose Inn & Cabins (open year-round) provides modern travelers with well-appointed comfort as well as advice for exploring the region. Its attached restaurant, Duke’s, is open spring through fall and offers a beautiful outdoor patio and a changing menu of seasonal delights. Recapture Lodge is another Bluff option with various room configurations perfect for larger groups and families. Open February through November, Recapture’s sprawling grounds feature an easy-going trail system to explore the San Juan River and family play areas as well as a pool and spa open May through October. Recapture Lodge’s owners also offer the Adams House, a renovated historic home in Bluff that is also well suited to larger groups and families.
From Bluff, it’s a mere 46 miles to the breathtaking Oljato-Monument Valley. There, you’ll drive through iconic cinematic landscapes made famous by old John Ford Westerns like Stagecoach (1939) and The Searchers (1956).
Moab: a teeming headquarters of adventure and fine Utah hospitality
Moab has a deserved reputation of being a hub of adventure for this part of Utah with the entrance to Arches National Park and the Colorado River greeting you at its northern end. River runners, mountain bikers, climbers, rock crawlers and hikers all descend in droves on Moab each year. It’s also here that you’ll find the gem of a breakfast joint, the Eklecticafe with its vegan-friendly menu and lovely outdoor patio. And, on the banks of the Colorado River, bookend your daily adventures and wash the dust off at the Sorrel River Ranch, a full-service resort and spa set underneath towering red rock cliffs. Sorrel River was founded by homesteaders Fred and Ida Stearns who claimed the untamed territory way back in 1903. Their original two-room farmhouse still stands by the resort’s organic herb garden.
Springdale © Nigel Kileen / Getty
Springdale: a vibrant gateway to Zion
The small town of Springdale has learned to embrace its role as the gateway to Zion National Park with aplomb. Zion is one of America’s marquee parks – up there with Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite – and enjoys four million visitors a year. To accommodate visitors interested in maintaining a sense of civilized charms between shorter trips into the park, Springdale boasts an enlightened selection of interesting galleries, scrummy eateries (like the King’s Landing Bistro) and top-shelf lodging. The Cliff Rose Lodge has a range of suites with full kitchens located right on the Virgin River, running through town. For something completely different, consider luxury camping with Under Canvas Zion. Deluxe canvas tents, on site chef-prepared meals, helicopter rides, guide services and more are available from March to mid-November. And while you’re just outside the park, you’d be well-served by asking around about some less-explored trails in the greater Zion area. It’s a great way to find a little corner of Utah all your own.
St. George: a classy base of operations in Southwestern Utah
St. George is the big city in Southern Utah. Long a popular golfing and retirement community, the sprawling town in the state’s southwestern edge attracts snowbirds and explorers who flock to Snow Canyon State Park, Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks. Using St. George as a base for Southern Utah exploration means you will have all the amenities of a small city at your disposal. Grab a reservation at the Painted Pony, a Southern Utah dining institution that offers a funky Southwestern vibe and contemporary seasonal fare. For lodging, consider Red Mountain Resort, located on the edge of Snow Canyon State Park and near the larger Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, a quiet conservation area ideal for solitary hikes and nature-minded visitors. The Red Mountain resort and spa offers guide services for getting out (and coming back) into the rivers, canyons and natural wonders of the region.