There’s a trail that rivals every hike in Utah, and no one is talking about it — until now. In an area like St. George, where hikers, climbers and backpackers come from around the world to explore, it’s impossible to keep a good spot under wraps for long. However, this tucked away canyon trail has managed to stay virtually unknown to outsiders for years. Water Canyon is the type of place that surprises hikers with the same wonder that was felt when people first explored Utah. As one of the best places that showcases the region's unique communal terrain, a half-day visit here is a journey that feels less like a trail and more like a discovery.
If you travel southwest through the town of Hilldale and down the very end of a Mojave sand road, red stone canyon walls close in and the trailhead for Water Canyon picks up. This shady trail winds through the trees and along a spring-fed creek, leading to a playground-like slot canyon. It’s a prime example of the area’s signature overlapping terrain that mixes desert with forest and mountains, and it might as well be a secret.
Taking the scenery in for the first time, it’s impossible to believe Water Canyon isn’t a locals' only backdoor into Zion National Park. With towering red stone cliffs, a cool damp canyon breeze and a juniper scent lingering in the air, Water Canyon feels and looks like the most Zion-y Zion hike possible — but Zion from the 1950s before it gained worldwide fame.
Even since gaining a more official designation of a brick and mortar bathroom, this spot has remained almost entirely off the radar. Here, the landscape still accomplishes what the national park set out to do: provide a sanctuary to commune with nature. The canyon may not be a hermit’s paradise, but compared to Zion, it is a ghost town. In fact, after five hours on the trail, we'd only seen eight other hikers. The ground is still loose, and the only sounds come from the shaking leaves, creek water and far off birds.
In most situations, hikes like this would stay less traveled because their beauty bellies their difficulty, but Water Canyon is one of the most accessible hikes in the region. The trail is an easy-to-moderate 1.5 miles from outset to slot canyon, and, aside from a surprise blackberry thicket, there’s no tricky geography. The easy access to the varied terrain leaves room for hikers to add in their own explorational adornments that make new trails exciting, like walking through the stream or climbing extra rocks. On our own, we easily lost track of time. Stopping to take in the shifting landscape, a creekside trail rising up to poke through the trees, revealing a 50-mile view to the next mountain range.