ST. GEORGE, Utah - I've already logged 7,000 steps and haven't even set foot on the golf course yet.
It's just past daybreak. The sun has risen just high enough over the red rock walls of Snow Canyon State Park to cast warmth and shadows across the stirring landscape. In my next life I want to come back as an outdoor writer or photographer or painter. Anything to put me back in magical places like this on the regular. I would have hiked deeper off the beaten path, but a tee time at The Ledges was calling.
Forget Bandon Dunes or Sand Valley or any of those other walking-only courses. After three full days in St. George, I had found the best walking destination in golf. Funny thing is I rode in a golf cart every round. Your steps come from hiking before or after your game. It's the best way to get the full St. George experience.
St. George, located roughly 120 miles northeast of Las Vegas, is a golf destination on the rise, delivering some of the most visually stimulating golf not on any coast. The entire region in southwest Utah, called Greater Zion, is a mecca of a dozen courses and other outdoor activities. A really good new course - Copper Rock - will debut in the spring in Hurricane, just a short drive from the region's best golf resort, Sand Hollow. Perhaps the biggest news is Entrada at Snow Canyon Country Club will undergo a facelift next year by David McLay Kidd, a $7-million renovation project that will close the course from November 2020 to September 2021. Coral Canyon is also in the process of some restoration work after a flood damaged several holes. Even with Coral Canyon and Entrada in various states of transition, there are plenty of other reasons to come. I played neither and still had a memorable stay.
Day 1: Living at The Ledges
The Ledges has matured into a stay-and-play getaway. The 85 vacation rental homes built since 2014 are perfect for buddies or several couples. I shared a three-bedroom, two-story home with two other golfers. Everybody had their own bathroom and plenty of space for relaxing or gathering around the TV to watch sports. A full kitchen could prove useful for breakfast or dinner, although the club's Fish Rock Grille catered dinner for us one night, so that's an option, too.
The Ledges is a tale of two nines. The flatter front nine winds through the community's homes. At the 12th hole on, though, the 7,145-yard layout by Matt Dye (yes, that Dye family) springs to life. The Snow Canyon State Park becomes an additional playing partner. The three par 4s from nos. 13-15 are all varied and dynamic in how they use the red rocks as hazards. It's a fun run.
Dinner at Cliffside Restaurant that night provided more nice scenery of the St. George valley.
Day 2: 36 holes mixing old and new
The Green Spring Golf Course, a Washington County-owned municipal course, had a lot of positives to like - good conditions, affordable green fees, an epic par 3 that I'll never forget and an interesting mix of holes. The one negative, however, is hard to flush: Among the worst holes I've played in 20 years as a golf writer. The "Devil's Gulch", the name for the 449-yard sixth hole, is just too much to handle. The gulch is really cool, a massive canyon separating the fairway from the green. It's just not used properly. I piped a drive down the middle of the fairway and still had an impossible-for-me 200-yard carry to the green. Even laying up at the end of the fairway left a 180-yard carry because of the angle to the green. How many muni golfers do you know that can execute either of those long carry shots? The "Devil's Gulch" must snatch thousands of balls each year. It's too unforgiving.
My solution would be to transform the par 4 into a par 3 over the canyon, like the awesome 174-yard fifth hole called "Bottomless Pit" pictured above. Or, better yet, move the green to the end of the fairway to create a drivable par 4, leaving the canyon in play for misses right.
Copper Rock had no such issues that afternoon. Utah's newest course will be the centerpiece of a 960-acre housing/resort development still emerging from a dramatic landscape. The 6,970-yard course was designed by local architect Dale Beddo. Each nine ends at the same place - an elevated, double green below the spot where the clubhouse will eventually be built. A pond separates the ninth and 18th fairways. Copper Rock adds another must play to St. George, especially given its location 20 minutes away from Sand Hollow Golf Resort, where we stayed that night.
Day 3: A grand finale of red rocks
In a similar way that Wolf Creek draws golfers to Mesquite, Sand Hollow's Championship course seduces golfers to visit St. George. The back nine is Instagram crack, the kind of photos of the red-rock clifftops that wow social media accounts. Unfortunately, a frost delay forced our group into only playing the back nine or we would have lost valuable time exploring Zion National Park that afternoon. That back nine ranks among the best finishing loops in the West. It's that good.
With the frost a distance memory, the sunny afternoon at Zion National Park couldn't have been more perfect. The park's shuttle system wasn't too crowded on a mid-week day in fall. Getting off at the "Temple of Sinawava" stop at the back of the park, we made the simple hour-long hike to the mouth of the Narrows, where the more adventurous hikers explored deeper into the canyon, walking the Virgin River in wet suits and waterproof boots (both available for rent outside the park gates). It's an adventure now firmly at the top of my bucket list.
Everywhere you look at Zion (and Snow Canyon, for that matter) is a site to behold. More than 4.3 million tourists visited in 2018, making it the fourth most popular national park. Driving back to Sand Hollow, we stopped for dinner at the Stage Coach Grille in La Verkin. The large portion of ribs and steaks served were meant for the appetite of starving hikers.
It's too bad my flight out the next day out of the tiny St. George airport wasn't late enough to squeeze in more activities. Sand Hollow also sports an extra nine holes, the Links course; a nine-hole par 3, the Wee course; and a Putting course. The spacious accommodations come stocked with microwaves and small fridges for extended stays. The food at The Grille in the clubhouse was excellent. There's even the Sand Hollow State Park next door, good for swimming, boating and scuba diving in the reservoir or driving UTVs across sand dunes. I could have stayed another three days and found more places to count steps.
If you're coming to St. George for golf, bring your adventurous spirit, too. The wonderful outdoors is calling.