Looking for a short but exciting adventure in southern Utah? Look no further than the Red Reef Trail, located just outside St. George Utah! This 2.2 mile hike follows along a babbling creek, snaking its way through narrow canyons, until reaching a picturesque waterfall. If you are feeling adventurous, you can scramble up the side of the waterfall and continue your journey into the canyon. The Red Reef Trail in Utah is a great adventure for families and those looking for a short hike that comes with plenty of cool sites!

Hi there! We’re Sarah and Matt, two nomads road tripping across the United States with our cat, Fitzgerald, making a new place our home month to month while working full time and adventuring as much as possible. We spend any free time we can get hiking, camping, backpacking, and exploring new places! We hope that our experiences will help you plan for your next adventure and inspire you to be an outlier!


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About the Red Reef Trail in Utah

The Red Reef Trail, which is also called the Red Cliff Trail, is a short, fun out-and-back hike located in the Red Cliffs Recreation Area, about 25 minutes outside St. George, Utah. The official trail is 2.2 miles roundtrip and leads to a beautiful narrow canyon with a waterfall and fun rock scrambling obstacle. The hike to the canyon is also beautiful, leading through huge red rock cliffs, along a babbling creek and even offers the chance to see pictographs painted onto the walls of a cave!

This hike is perfect for families and those looking for a quick adventure near St. George and Zion National Park!

Red Cliffs Recreation Area

The Red Reef Trail is located in the Red Cliffs National Recreation Area, a BLM-managed area of protected land off Highway 15 about 14 miles northeast of St. George, Utah. Red Cliffs Recreation Area is part of the larger Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, which is often overlooked for its more popular neighbors such as Zion and Bryce National Parks.

The recreation area is popular with local families and is a great option if you want to do something outside one of the nearby national parks! The Red Cliffs Campground is also located

Hike Overview | Red Reef Trail

Hike Stats

  • Hiking distance | 2.2 miles
  • Elevation gain | 225 feet
  • Total time | 1.5-2 hours
  • Epic-ness rating | 6
  • Difficulty | Easy

Find this hike on AllTrails: Red Reef Trail

How difficult is the Red Reef Hike?

On paper, the Red Reef Trail in Utah is fairly easy. At just 2.2 miles and 225 feet in elevation gain, it is not too long and relatively flat. However, about halfway through the hike, you will reach a small waterfall with a series of cascading pools below.

To continue the hike, you will need to climb up the rock to the side of the waterfall using an installed rope and set of Moki steps, or small alternating hand and footholds carved into the steep sandstone. This climb towards the end of the hike ratchets up the difficulty just a little bit. The scrambling section itself isn’t too long or strenuous but may deter some folks not willing to risk a short fall into the water below.

Highlights

  • Plenty of fun things to see packed into a short 2.2-mile hike.
  • Just a short drive from St. George, Utah makes it an easy weekend adventure

Lowlights

  • Can be crowded
  • Water levels can vary, making the waterfall less beautiful when low
pool of water on the Red Reef Trail in southern Utah

When is the best time to hike the Red Reef Trail?

Like most hikes in southern Utah, the best time to hike the Red Reef Trail is during the spring (April-May) and fall (September-October). Accordingly, this is also the most popular time to visit Red Cliffs National Recreation Area. Due to limited parking, visitors may be turned away during the peak season. Arrive early, or better yet, spend then night at the Red Cliffs Campground to ensure you are able to get a parking spot!

Hiking the Red Reef Trail during the summer months will be very hot, so be sure to bring plenty of water and sun protection. There are some trees and canyon walls along the route that offer some shade and protection from the sun, but it will still be very hot! The waterfall and pools in the canyon are also more likely to be dried up during the summer.

During the winter, temperatures can get well below freezing so be sure to bundle up. There tend to be fewer crowds during the winter, so you may have the canyon to yourself for a bit! We started the hike around 8:00 am on a Sunday morning in February and saw just one other group of hikers.

Red Reef Trail packing list

Below are a few items that are helpful to pack for hiking Red Reef Trail:

  • Cash: Red Cliffs National Recreation area does not accept credit or debit card to pay the $5 entrance fee.
  • Hiking boots or shoes: (Hers: Danner Mountain 600s, His: Salomon Ultra 4 Mid GTX) A pair of boots with good traction are helpful for the moki steps/rock scramble at the end. If you have a pair of approach shoes, they could be helpful for the scramble as well.
  • Water shoes or sandals: If hiking during warmer weather, it’s easier to walk through the water than trying to avoid it, so it’s a good idea to bring a pair of shoes that can get wet.
  • Backpack with bladder: (Hers: CamelBak Helena 20L, His: Camelback Rim Runner 22L) You will want a small day pack to carry your belongings, snacks and water.
  • Lightweight towel: (PackTowl) For drying off if you get in the water.
  • Sunscreen and sunglasses (Goodr)
  • Dry Bag: (Dry bag) To protect your phone and valuables in case you fall in the water (it can get very slippery!)

Tips for a great hike

  • Start early: This is known to be a fairly popular hike and parking is limited. To avoid a crowded trail and parking issues, plan to start your hike as early as possible!
  • Bring cash: There is a $5 fee to enter Red Cliffs National Conservation Area. You will need to grab an envelope and deposit your $5 in one of the collection boxes in the parking lot.
  • Dogs are allowed but must be kept on leash. Note that parts of the hike may be difficult for a dog to pass.
  • The canyon is most likely to filled with water during the winter and spring. By the summer, the water that flows through the canyon is dried up to a trickle.
  • Typically the water in the canyon is static, collected in pools. If you visit after recent rain, you are likely to see waterfalls in the canyon instead.
  • The trailhead is located just next to the Red Cliffs Campground, a great place to stay if you want to get an early start on the Red Reef Trail hike. The campground is open year round and there are 11 campsites, each with shade shelters, picnic tables, potable water, and grills. Reservations are required and can be made atrecreation.gov.
Pictographs on the Red Reef Trail in Southern Utah

Hike Details | Red Reef Trail in Utah

In this section, we will give you all the information you need to complete the Red Reef Trail in Southern Utah!

Our Experience

We hiked at the end of February after a rare snow storm. It was bitterly cold and all of our other plans for the day were scrapped due to poor road conditions. Needing something to do, we found the Red Reef Trail not far from St. George and decided to give it a try!

We were pleasantly surprised by the narrow canyon and the cool things to see along the way! Unfortunately, the water was quite high and the rope in place to help scramble up the side of the waterfall had been moved around to the far side, out of reach. Even more so, the brutally cold temperatures and the prospect of falling into the pool was enough to deter us from scrambling up the rock. We spent some time snapping pictures around the waterfall and decided to head back to the trailhead.

But on a warmer day with the rope accessible, you can continue past the waterfall and explore more of the canyon!

Hiking the Red Reef Trail in Southern Utah

Getting to the Red Reef Trailhead

The trailhead for the Red Reef Trail is located next to the Red Cliff Campground in Red Cliffs Recreation Area, right off Highway 15. Parking is very limited and we have heard reports that it can fill up early on busy days. As in most cases, it is better to get an early start to ensure you get a parking spot and avoid some of the crowds!

The Hike

The Red Reef Trail hike starts from the northwestern corner of the campground. The trailhead is clearly labeled so it will be hard to miss. The trail itself is pretty easy to follow and eventually leads along Quail Creek until you reach the narrow canyon.

Shortly after starting the hike, you will come across the “elephant tree,” which, as you probably guessed, is an old tree that looks like an elephant head. We didn’t know about the elephant tree before we hiked but noticed some people taking pictures with the tree as we walked past.

Pictographs

About half a mile into the hike, there is a short spur trail that leads up to a cave along the canyon walls. The cave itself is cool, but look closely and you will see a number of pictographs on the right-hand side of the cave closer to the trail. It’s fun to think about the people who lived in the area hundreds or thousands of years ago!

Remember to Leave No Trace. Pack out what you pack in, stay on trail, be well-prepared, leave nothing behind, take only photos and memories with you, treat the area with respect and help preserve this beautiful spot for generations to come.

Quail Creek

After taking a short detour to the pictographs, return to the trail and continue to the left along Quail Creek. There is a series of stepping stones placed across the creek to help you get to the other side. After crossing the creek, continue along the shore until you enter the canyon and reach the waterfall at the end of the trail.

A lovely reflection of orange rock over Quail Creek on the Red Reef Trail

Canyon & waterfall

After about one mile, the canyon narrows and you arrive at a small waterfall, with a few pools below leading into a more narrow slot canyon. This is the most picturesque part of the hike! The reflection of the canyon walls in the slow flowing water is picture perfect.

With the sound of the waterfall tumbling over the rocks in the background, make sure to enjoy the serenity of this desert oasis.

Moki steps

To the right of the waterfall, you will see a series of steps carved into the rock and a rope dangling from the canyon wall above. To continue further into the canyon, you can use these Moki steps and the rope to climb up the rock wall to the right of the waterfall.

The “short version” of the Red Reef Trail ends shortly after the waterfall. There is also a trail that continues for a few miles past this section, but it involves a few more serious rock scrambling sections to pass. Continue as far as you feel comfortable before returning back to the trailhead.

When we hiked, we did not climb up the waterfall because it was brutally cold, had recently snowed, and the rope had been left on the far side of the waterfall. The idea of falling into the water when it was 25 degrees out was not particularly appealing! Under normal conditions, however, I wouldn’t say the scramble is too scary or difficult.

We have heard that the section right above the falls is very pretty and has a few more pools to explore!

Return hike

Once you have had your fill exploring the canyon, you can make your way back to your car by following the same trail.

Other hikes nearby

Planning a trip to southern Utah? We think you may be interested in the following hikes, located in close proximity to Red Reef Trail.

For all things Utah: Utah Travel Guide

Questions or comments about the Red Reef Trail hike? Let us know in the comments below!

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