ST. GEORGE, Utah — When Mormon leader Brigham Young passed through a small settlement in 1861 in what is now the southwest corner of Utah, he looked at the desolate landscape and made a prophecy.
"There will yet be built between those volcanic ridges a city with spires, towers ... and homes with many inhabitants."
If Young had been able to see further into the future, he might have added "and some really fine golf courses."
As it was, Young's prediction came true. He sent some 300 families from northern Utah to settle the area and grow cotton and grapes and harvest silk for export. A town arose that Young named St. George. Historians aren't sure whether Young was honoring George A. Smith, a prominent Mormon known as "the Potato Saint" because he had discovered that eating potato peels was a defense against scurvy, or Phillip St. George Cooke, a friend of Young's who donated equipment to the early settlement.
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Less than two decades later, the centerpieces of the town, complete with spires, were the St. George Temple and, a few blocks away, the St. George Tabernacle. Both are imposing structures to this day.
By 1992, St. George was a city of about 30,000. And then the population shot upward, growing 61 percent in a five-year span, as the area became heralded as a great place in which to retire. Today, St. George is a city of more than 71,000.
As the population grew, so did the number, and quality, of the golf courses. The St. George area boasts 11 public courses in an idyllic setting between the ridges, buttes, mesas and mountains that once caught Brigham Young's eye. While St. George previously attracted primarily snow birds, it now also lures golfers, who are drawn by the scenic beauty, favorable weather and reasonable greens fees.
"It's turned into a little golf mecca," said Colby Cowan, head professional at Sand Hollow Resort, whose 18-hole championship course is a stunning layout that opened in August 2008. Sand Hollow was No. 7 on Golf Digest's list of the nation's best new public courses for 2009. Golfweek lists Sand Hollow as No. 1 among Utah public courses. Coral Canyon, another St. George-area course, is No. 3.
I played four of the area's courses on a visit last month — Sky Mountain, Sand Hollow, Sunbrook and The Ledges — and Sand Hollow stood out. (I thought Sky Mountain and The Ledges tied for second, with Sunbrook fourth.)
Sand Hollow's beauty lies not just in the red-rock scenery and mountain vistas but in the course itself, with deep green fairways contrasting with red sand bunkers and light green and dark green sagebrush. A relatively flat front nine of wide fairways and huge greens is followed by a spectacular back nine in which four holes run precariously along ridges and rock ledges.
Sand Hollow (sandhollowresort.com) has two sets of prices. Rates for peak season (Oct. 1 through May 15) range from $100 to $125, with a discount for seniors and a twilight rate of $50 to $65 after 1 p.m. Offseason rates range from $50 to $65. Considering the scenery and quality of the course, these fees are a bargain.
Head pro Cowan hopes rates don't rise when construction of Sand Hollow's new clubhouse is completed.
"I think if they keep the greens fees the same, they'll have more people here than they can imagine," he said.
Nine of the area's courses comprise the Red Rock Golf Trail, in association with 14 lodging properties within 15 minutes of St. George. Stay-and-play packages can be arranged online at redrockgolftrail.com or by phone at 1-888-345-2550.
Forty miles to the southwest, along the interstate toward Las Vegas, is Mesquite, Nev., another budding golf destination offering eight public courses. Golfers who are interested in gaming have been known to stay in Mesquite and drive to St. George for their golf.
For historical enlightenment, St. George offers a self-guided history tour and, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, a "St. George Live" tour of roughly 90 minutes in which volunteers in period dress portray historical figures, including Brigham Young. The tour starts at the opera house, which was the town's social center in the 1860s, and ends at the Brigham Young home, where he spent each winter for the last five years of his life. The tour, with van transportation between stops, is a bargain at $3 per person.
One of the area's lesser-known sites is Mountain Meadows, a 30-minute drive north of St. George. It was there in 1857 that a wagon train that originated in Arkansas with a destination of California was attacked by a band of Mormons and Paiute Indians. The emigrants, known as the Fancher-Baker Party, circled their wagons during a five-day siege, then surrendered on Sept. 11 when promised safe passage.
All of the emigrants age 8 and above were then executed — some 120 in all. The surviving 18 children were taken in by Mormon families, although 17 of them were later returned by the U.S. Army to relatives in Arkansas.
What precipitated the violence was a high state of agitation in the Mormon community after years of persecution that drove them to the West. Eighteen Mormons had been murdered in Missouri; church founder Joseph Smith was murdered in Illinois; and Mormon apostle Parley Pratt was shot dead in Arkansas. Mormons' fears were elevated because of reports that the U.S. government was sending troops to Utah to deal with what it considered a rebellious, not to mention polygamous, sect.
Church leader Brigham Young was not implicated in the massacre but was said to have orchestrated a denial and cover-up. In subsequent years, the church faced up to the incident and now maintains a monument at the site of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
On the day that I visited last month, not another soul was there, not a ranger or attendant. The only sounds in the vast meadow were the chirping of birds and crickets, the wind whipping through prairie grass and willow trees and a rope from an American flag clanging against the flagpole.
If you visit, aside from seeing the monument, be sure to make the 220-yard walk up a cement path to a lookout where information about the event is displayed and views are directed to where the assaults took place.
IF YOU GO:
GETTING THERE — St. George's airport sits on a bluff overlooking the city; a new airport is scheduled to open next year. For now, flying into St. George is costlier than flying into Las Vegas, 120 miles to the west, or Salt Lake City, 300 miles to the north.
WEATHER — July is the hottest month, with an average high of 102 (but without humidity), while January and February are the coolest months, with an average high of 54. Golf and other outdoor activities are pursued year-round.
SHOPPING, EATING — With St. George's population boom less than 20 years old, everything seems new, with no shortage of art galleries, spas, boutiques, malls and restaurants.
ENTERTAINMENT — St. George nightlife is somewhat limited. However, from mid-June until mid-October, the Tuacahn Amphitheatre presents Broadway-style musicals. It also offers concerts in spring and other special events (tuacahn.org). The amphitheater sits against a red-rock cliff, and the 15-minute drive from downtown St. George to the Tuacahn area in Snow Canyon covers some of the best red-rock scenery in the area. Beautiful Snow Canyon State Park is in the same area.
ZION, BRYCE CANYON — Two of Utah's national parks are within easy driving distance. Zion National Park is 40 miles northeast, and Bryce Canyon National Park is 85 miles beyond Zion. Lake Powell is 160 miles to the south. Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is 135 miles to the northeast of St. George.
(A word of warning: I was driving to Bryce Canyon, and the quickest route from St. George seemed to be Highway 9, which, on the map, appears to run past Zion. However, Highway 9 runs through Zion, requiring a payment of the $25 park fee even if you're just passing through. If you've already seen Zion but want to go to Bryce Canyon, choose an alternate route, Interstate 15 to Highway 14.)
ADVENTURES — St. George is a playground for outdoor enthusiasts, with tour operators offering excursions on bikes, ATVs, Jeeps and helicopters. Also, sky diving, powered parachuting, rock climbing, kayaking, scuba diving and more are available. I joined a group of 14 people for a four-hour ATV outing with ATV & Jeep Tours (atvadventures.com) into the scenic backcountry over a variety of terrain (dirt roads, rocky roads, smooth sand dunes). Tours run from two hours to six hours; the four-hour tour was fun but probably one hour too long for me.
MORE INFORMATION — 1-800-869-6635, AtoZion.com