ST. GEORGE — Add some sparkle to your night at this “winter wonderland in the desert.”

Sydnee Imlay (left) and Rita Vigor enjoy the lights at Red Hills Desert Garden, St. George, Utah, Dec. 4, 2023 | Photo by Aaron Crane, St. George News

In this episode of “Discover the Desert,” presented by Findlay Subaru St. George, host Sydnee Imlay explores Red Hills Desert Garden with her guest and “work mom” Rita Vigor.

The 4.5-acre park currently features holiday lights daily from about 5-10 p.m., ending after Monday, Jan. 1. Imlay said the display is “honestly so beautiful.”

“It’s like our own little winter wonderland,” Vigor added.

Along the walking path, visitors will find glowing luminarias, which are believed to have originated in 1590 “when small bonfires were set to guide scouts back to their camp,” according to the Red Hills Desert Garden Facebook page.

Luminarias shine in the Red Hills Desert Garden, St. George, Dec. 4, 2023 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

“We hope our luminarias help guide you through the garden and feel the holiday cheer,” the post reads.

Both Red Hills and the Garden at Tonaquint Park host various workshops and events throughout the year, including rubber ducky races, the Scarecrow Walk and Haunted Canyon, and the Spring Fling and Birdhouse Parade.

The Washington County Water Conservancy District and Red Hills post current offerings on their website and social media.

The garden opened in the spring of 2015 at 375 E. Red Hills Parkway. The park is stroller-, kid- and dog-friendly, but canine pals must remain on a leash. It features a picnic area, bench swings and views of the city. Admission is free.

Colorful lights twinkle on an artichoke agave in the Red Hills Desert Garden, St. George, Dec. 4, 2023 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

It is Utah’s first desert conservation garden and home to over 5,000 water-efficient plants, including artichoke agave, blue barrel cactus and desert willow trees. Visitors can learn more about each plant species in the garden via signs with QR codes.

The park was designed to educate the public about water conservation, said Mark Goble, a landscape architect with the St. George Park Planning Division and the garden’s original designer.

It was constructed through a multiagency collaboration with the water conservancy district, the City of St. George, and the Virgin River Program.

“It took several years of research and coordination with the agencies involved to get the design nailed down,” Goble told St. George News.

Cactuses grow at the Red Hills Desert Garden, St. George, Dec. 4, 2023 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

He hopes visitors gain an appreciation for St. George’s unique climate and environment and an understanding that they can use water-wise plants adapted to the local climate to “create amazing landscapes” without using turf.

“We wanted to make sure that what we were going to display to the public would give them ideas on what they could do with their own landscapes to help conserve water,” he said.

The garden uses an average of 5 million gallons of water less per year than similar-sized turf landscaping – enough to support 50 average homes in the U.S. yearly, according to the park brochure.

Lights twinkle in the replica slot canyon at the Red Hills Desert Garden, St. George, Dec. 4, 2023 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

Vigor said that while she’s “obsessed” with cactus, there are many in the garden she’s never seen before. And Imlay jokingly asked, “Don’t you want to touch them?”

“Well, no,” Vigor said. “Not touch — just look.”

The 1,150-foot stream that flows through the park is stocked with native and endangered fish, including woundfins, Virgin River chubs and desert suckers.

The fish can be seen in a viewing area in the replica slot canyon at the garden’s heart. Goble said it is a “must-see.”

“It provides a unique protected environment from the rest of the garden, and the fish are interesting to watch,” he said.

Ducks swim in the stream at the Red Hills Desert Garden, St. George, Dec. 4, 2023 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

The stream is also frequented by other animals, like ducks. Imlay and Vigor wondered if visitors could feed them, and St. George Parks and Community Services Director Shane Moore said, “Yes.”

However, a sign in the garden warns people to avoid “harmful algae mats” in and around the water. The mats emit a musty smell attractive to animals, and dogs and children are most at risk, so they should not be allowed to eat the mats or drink the water.

The alga is often green or brown and can sometimes be seen floating in the stream.

Find prehistoric prints

Visitors can see dinosaur swim tracks at the Red Hills Desert Garden, St. George, Dec. 4, 2023 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

The 200 million-year-old dinosaur tracks are another highlight of the garden, Goble said. The tracks were found nearby when the water conservancy office building was constructed and are similar to those discovered across Washington County.

“You may notice dinosaur tracks in the main path around the garden,” he said. “These tracks lead to boulders that have either dinosaur tracks, swim tracks or other unique prehistoric features.”

The Jurassic-aged prints were formed as dinosaurs walked along the shoreline or swam in shallow water, dragging their tails, claws and toes through the mud, according to signs in the garden.

During this period, the area was a “subtropical oasis” and home to Lake Whitmore. Dinosaur species believed to have left their prints include megapnosaurus scutellosaurus and dilophosaurus.

What’s nearby?

A climber navigates Pioneer Park’s cliffs by moonlight in this file photo, St. George, Utah, June 22, 2013 | Photo by John Teas, St. George News

The garden is adjacent to Pioneer Park, which features picnic areas, an amphitheater and Boy Scout Cave, a historic “cabin” built by 16 Boy Scouts in 1941, according to this Facebook post by the Red Cliffs Desert Reserve. It is often touted as a “rock climber’s paradise.”

From Pioneer Park, visitors can find the Sugarloaf trail for a 1.3-mile hike that offers an expansive view of St. George. Various other hiking trails are available, including the St. George Narrows and the T-Bone trail, which connects to the nearby Pioneer Rim trail.

Individuals can also explore the neighboring Red Cliffs Desert Reserve, where they can find additional trails. Visitors can see various plant and animal species, potentially including the Mojave desert tortoise during its active season.

Lights twinkle in the Red Hills Desert Garden, St. George, Dec. 4, 2023 | Photo by Alysha Lundgren, St. George News

Southern Utahns can find directions to Red Hills Desert Garden here. As always, remember to take plenty of water, protect yourself from the sun and enjoy public spaces responsibly.

And there’s no better way to end a great hike than with a scoop of Handel’s delicious homemade ice cream.

Want free ice cream? Leave a comment on social media and tell the Canyon Media crew where we should hike next for your chance to win.

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