Among the Navajo sandstone: Discovering the unknown in Greater Zion

by Courtney Knott

photography by Tory Powers

Words by Courtney Knott | Photos by Tory Powers

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I should have known the next three days in the saddle were going to be epic when the excitement emanating from my riding partner, a seasoned veteran of Southwestern Utah, dwarfed my own. While I was a first-time visitor, Dave Steiner, a long-time resident of Park City, was no stranger to the pull of Greater Zion. His enthusiastic prophesy of a blown mind of unimaginable proportions gave way to high expectations; expectations I was secretly afraid would lead to disappointment.

As the miles on the odometer ticked up and the miles-to-destination dwindled down, the fear of being let down dissipated as rapidly as the sun disappeared below the distant mountains and mesas. All that was left – an awe-inspiring cotton candy sunset – welcomed us into a world of uncharted territory on an undiscovered planet. 

Nestled in Southwestern Utah, Greater Zion is a diverse landscape that should not be left out when talking about the great United States cycling destinations. St. George, the municipal epicenter of Greater Zion, is located 160 miles (260 km) north east of Las Vegas and 300 miles (480 km) south of Salt Lake City. Surrounding communities are Hurricane, Ivins, Virgin, La Verkin, Springdale – each with their own unique charm, easy access to all Greater Zion has to offer, and countless options for lodging whether you’re looking for a night or two in a hotel, or an entire month settling into an Airbnb.

With mild winters and only a short portion of the summer producing sweltering mid-day temperatures, Greater Zion makes for a prime cycling destination year round. Dave and I, both traveling from high-alpine mountain towns, came prepared with plenty of cold-weather gear but once the chill of early morning was gone, clear blue skies and sunshine warmed our skin until the sun tucked itself back in for the night.  

The Veyo Loop

In May 2016, the work that Washington County put into building a bike-friendly community paid off when the county was first in the state to be designated as a “County Road Respect Community”. By October, the Veyo Loop was named the county’s first official bike route. 

The first pedal strokes of our trip carried us to the outskirts of Ivins where we were greeted with nothing separating us from distant layers of jagged, black basalts, and red and white sandstone. The few yellow leaves left on their branches added a pop of contrast.  Each pedal stroke brought with it a new frame of rural Utah – from relics of the old west to new churches; cattle, horses, and even a bald eagle soaring above Gunlock Reservoir!

The toughest decision of the day came when we arrived at Veyo Pies and had to decide between key lime and raspberry rhubarb. I remedied the dilemma by ordering both; Dave went wild with a generous slice of Veyo Volcano pie; and Tory, the man tasked with telling our story in photographs, rounded out our sampling with triple berry and coconut cream. My only regret was that I failed to stash a couple chocolate chip cookies in my jersey for later.

The good news is, whether you ride the Veyo Loop clockwise or counter-clockwise, it’s (almost) all downhill from pie! 

The full loop (roughly 40 miles / 60 km) includes a stint on Highway 18 with potential for heavy traffic, or a parallel bike path. To pay homage to our cyclist friends who wear funny socks (sometimes no socks at all), we detoured through Snow Canyon State Park. What is a 4-mile (6.4 km) teeth-gritting climb on the Ventum Bike Course of the 2021 Ironman 70.3 North American Championship made for a fast, winding descent for us.

Snow Canyon Parkway turns into Red Hill Parkway and traces the northern limits of St. George with a great view of the city from above.

Zion National Park

We started the day with a scenic ride from Virgin to Springdale – a charming community that serves as the portal to Zion National Park. We passed the site of the Red Bull Rampage, and the iconic cartoon-like facades of the Fort Zion gift shop.

Deep Creek Coffee Company is where we landed for breakfast and were greeted with friendly faces, a pastry case full of fresh baked goods, and a menu that did not make for an easy decision.

The avocado toast was hands-down the best I’ve ever had! They pile a generous portion of perfectly ripe avocado on fresh, house-made wheat bread (gluten-free available), top it with a house-made dukkah spice blend, and a drizzle of roasted chili oil for those looking for a kick without a caffeine-laden beverage. Divine.

After posing for a quick photo with the Zion National Park entrance sign (see the top of this article), we crossed the threshold into the majestic park. Once inside, there are two roads to explore: Zion Canyon Scenic Dr and Zion Mount Carmel Hwy. First, we climbed the switchbacks of the latter to the Zion Mount Carmel Tunnel.

It is worth it to hitch a ride through the 1.1-mile-long (1.8 km) tunnel (you can’t ride or walk through). Just when we started to think it couldn’t possibly be more awe-inspiring, we rounded a corner to find a herd of bighorn sheep prancing effortlessly up the steep walls of the Navajo sandstone.

Just before we arrived at our turn-around point, the east entrance to the park, Checkerboard Mesa towered into view. I couldn’t help but feel a disconnect between such a modern, trivial name assigned to the behemoth masterpiece of Navajo sandstone formed 145-200 million years ago.

Zion Canyon Scenic Drive was equally as impressive. We were welcomed into the canyon with a canopy of fall colors and skimmed along the valley floor that mimicked the sweep forged by the Virgin River. This is a 12-mile (19.3 km) out-and-back route showcasing many quintessential Zion landmarks: The Court of the Patriarchs, Angels Landing, Weeping Rock and The Great White Throne. 

We traveled through 6 miles (9.7 km) of flickering sunlight before reaching the Temple of Sinawava at the end of the road (where the Riverside Walk takes you towards The Narrows).

Kolob Terrace

Any day with a 5,000-foot (1,520-metre) climb looming should start with a cinnamon roll – preferably one the size of your head – from River Rock Roasting Company in La Verkin (just north of Hurricane). The cinnamon roll, an actual locals’ favorite, is a must-see, must-taste. And a must-climb? The 15-mile (24.5 km) climb of Kolob Terrace!

Starting in La Verkin, we climbed 500 feet (152 m) in the first two miles (3.2 km) before cruising some false flats and steady descents into and through Virgin. At mile 6.5 (10.5 km), we turned onto Kolob Terrace Road and that’s where the real fun began.

With an average grade of 5.2%, we quickly found our rhythm; rhythm that was only occasionally interrupted by a few spicy efforts on sections that topped out near 16%!

As we ascended from 3,000 to 8,000 feet (915 to 2,440 m), the towering formations of Zion started to come into view. And just when we thought we’d been transported to Mars, the Navajo sandstone cliffs morphed into a vast open meadow, before aspens started dotting the landscape and lining the roadway.

Before we knew it, we were blowing past the Kolob Marketplace, keen to add on the extra 3.6 miles (5.8 km) to Kolob Reservoir.

On my quest for some ride stats, I stumbled upon Utah local, professional athlete, and Kolob Climb KOM holder TJ Eisenhart’s Strava ride titled “One of the funnest climbs ive ever done.”  Every good roadie knows what that means: fun climbs make for even more fun descents!

What you need to know

Getting here:

  • Fly into the St. George Regional Airport with daily connections from Salt Lake City on Delta, Denver on United, and Phoenix on American (Dallas-Fort Worth seasonally beginning in March).
  • Drive – Greater Zion is just off Interstate 15, just 90 minutes north of Las Vegas and four hours south of Salt Lake City. 

The climate (not like the rest of Utah!)

  • Climate can change drastically during the year and throughout the day and depending on what elevation you are at.
  • Winters are mild with highs in the 50s or 60s (10-16 ºC), great for all outdoor adventures. Chilly in the evening and early morning, but nothing layers can’t handle.
  • In summer the temperatures range from the 80s-90s (27-32 ºC) with some days reaching upwards of 100 ºF (38 ºC).
  • Expect dry heat and come prepared with plenty of water.

The wildlife

Greater Zion is the only place where the Mojave Desert, the Colorado Plateau, and the Great Basin merge. With this diverse landscape comes many types of wildlife and plant species. Most wildlife is elusive, but on roads, trails, and public lands you may occasionally encounter the protected desert tortoise, coyotes, kit foxes, quail, roadrunners (meep meep!), leopard lizards, gopher snakes, and canyon tree frogs. 

Vegetation includes desert-adapted species such as creosote bush, narrow leaf yucca, sand sage, blackbrush, scrub oak, and desert willow. (See other fun facts here.)

Bike shop and repairs

Road bike routes

  • Utah Hill
  • Veyo Loop
  • Snow Canyon State Park
  • Southern Parkway
  • Zion Canyon Scenic Route
  • Ironman 70.3 bike course

Food and drink

Must dos

  • Snow Canyon State Park – Miles of hiking and views for days (and made famous by movies like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) with slot canyons, arches, pioneer routes, lava tubes, and petrified sand dunes. 
  • Tuacahn Center for the Arts – Broadway-style shows in the summer; concerts and performances across the other seasons; plus a Saturday market.
  • Quail Creek State Park – Paddleboarding, kayaking, boating, swimming, camping.
  • Sand Hallow State Park – OHV (off-highway vehicle) on Sand Mountain, paddleboarding, kayaking, boating, jet skiing.
  • Via Ferrata – Combine scaling the steep face of gorgeous canyon walls with the security of iron-rung ladders and safety cables – one of the only places in this country where this is possible.
  • Zion National Park after dark to observe the night sky (certified International Dark Sky Park).

Photo gallery