“Kanab, Magically Unspoiled,” is the message on the welcome mug given to us by the Kane County Office of Tourism. Those two words capture the essence of this small town making Kanab the perfect base for exploring southwestern Utah.
We found Kanab by accident. We were looking for a town to stay in that offers easy access to Grand Canyon’s North Rim. There aren’t a lot of options. Though still accessible, the park was officially closed for the season as was the Grand Canyon North Rim Lodge. Jacob Lake, the closest place to stay outside the park was too isolated to work as a base. Page, Arizona, another option, at the edge of Glen Canyon, is touristy and didn’t appeal to us. Plus, its location wasn’t accessible to the other places we wanted to visit. Then, bingo! We discovered Kanab, 90 minutes from the North Rim and close to other places on our itinerary, the small “magically unspoiled” town seemed just right.
Kanab the perfect base for exploring southwestern Utah
What makes Kanab the perfect base for exploring southwestern Utah? Location, location, location! Plus, the small town is laid back with a lot of charm. Our goal was to visit the North Rim as well as Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks. What we discovered is we needed much more than our three nights and two full days in the area. We missed a lot of what this geologically rich area has to offer including Cedar Breaks National Monument, Paria Canyon Wilderness, Pipe Spring National Monument and Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park. While we’d heard of some of these places before traveling to southern Utah, others were new to us.
What we did while based in Kanab
Grand Canyon North Rim
We set out for Grand Canyon’s National Park’s North Rim on an overcast, chilly day – the only one we had the entire time we were in Utah. We stopped at Jacob Lake to get a picnic lunch. They were serving breakfast so our only option was pre-made sandwiches, we reluctantly got one to share; it was going to be our only lunch option unless we wanted a late lunch.
We arrived at the North Rim late morning; the weather hadn’t improved. Because the park was officially closed for the season (the road stays open until closed by snow), it wasn’t very crowded. Almost everyone we’d talked to who’d been to both sides of Grand Canyon said they preferred the North Rim to the South one. Steve really loved discovering a different view of the canyon and wants to explore the area more. Probably because I went in with high expectations I came away a bit disappointed. I’d like to go back and see it on a sunny day. A big plus for the North Rim: because it’s more difficult to access, is will always be less crowded than the South Rim. To fully experience Grand Canyon, see it from both North and South Rims and if you’re truly adventurous hike down or take a mule ride to the canyon bottom.
After chatting with Deborah Hurst, General Manager at Parry Lodge, where we were staying, the evening before, we decided to return to Kanab the long way around via the Vermilion Cliffs, Navajo Bridge and Page. It was a good decision!
We headed back through Jacob Lake and then detoured towards the Vermillion Cliffs. Part of this route is in Utah and part in Arizona. The red rock cliffs are imposing. On a sunny day the colors would have been more vivid, but even on a cloudy day the cliffs are worth seeing. They are part of Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, 260,000 acres on the Colorado Plateau, running from the Kaibab National Forest on the west to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area on the east. Within this vast area visitors will find Coyote Butte, home to The Wave, Paria Plateau and Paria Canyon. Paria Canyon offers two slot canyons to hike. Paria Canyon, at 38 miles long, takes a few days to hike. The 12 mile long Buckskin Gulch canyon is more doable. Of course, you don’t have to hike the entire canyon. On the way into Buckskin, while still hiking through a dry river bed, look for paths diverging from the main one. Some of them lead to petroglyphs. If hiking these slot canyons check the weather. You don’t want to be caught in them during flash floods. Much of Vermilion Cliffs National Monument is remote with roads that need a high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicle. The geologic formations are reported to be stunning. We drove along the southern end of the cliffs, stopping to take photos and read historic markers.
We pulled off the road at Navajo Bridge which spans Marble Canyon, the canyon that is set on the Colorado River between Glen Canyon and Grand Canyon.. Navajo Bridge crosses the river downstream from Lee’s Ferry, the only spot for hundreds of miles where the river is easily crossed. The first bridge, now a pedestrian walkway, opened in 1929. The new bridge replaced the original in 1995. We stopped at the visitor center on the west end of the bridge and got out and walked onto the old bridge which offers a great view of the canyon as well as the new bridge. It’s a great photo opp. Back in the car we crossed the river on the new bridge.
We intended to check out Horseshoe Bend, south of Glen Canyon. After seeing a crowded parking lot and lots of people we decided to pass it by.. After seeing photos of it I’m kicking myself!
We thought that visiting both Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks in one day might be too much. When we asked people which one to choose the uniform answer was we had to see both. The best thing anyone said to me when I asked about the two was that at Bryce you’re looking down at the canyon and at Zion you look up.
We headed to Bryce Canyon first. The 90 minute drive from Kanab took us through beautiful rock landscapes. The most noteworthy was Red Canyon. While you can spend time hiking the trails through these stunning red rock formations, we drove through stopping a few times to capture photos.
Bryce Canyon National Park
Arriving at Bryce Canyon National Park we started up the road through the canyon. As the canyon overlooks are on the left side of the road going up we decided to head to Rainbow Point (elevation 9,115 feet above sea level) at the top and work our way back. It was a somewhat overcast day and I discovered emerging from of the car, pretty chilly. I donned a pair of UGGS, a wool jacket, a sheepskin ear-band and gloves. I was toasty and ready to roll. Our first view of the canyon with its needle-sharp hoodoos, some so clustered they look like skyscrapers in a futuristic red city, literally took my breath away. It’s magnificent! From Rainbow Point we drove down the road and stopped at each of the 13 viewing points, emerging from the car, cameras in hand, to try to capture the canyon’s beauty. The drive is 36-miles round-trip; with heavy traffic it can take a while. Because it was off-season, the park wasn’t too crowded when we visited.
Zion National Park
We learned a valuable lesson at Zion National Park. Don’t go on a weekend in October. We thought it was far enough off-season that there wouldn’t be crowds. Wrong! Even this late in the season, traffic through the park was bumper to bumper. The road is narrow and very twisty in places. There are rock formations on both sides of the road that we wanted to get pictures of but it was difficult to find pull-outs with space to park. Most photos were shot from the slow-moving car.
Zion offers a 7-mile scenic drive through the canyon. From February through November access is via shuttle bus only. In December, January and February cars are allowed to drive this road. We wanted to take the shuttle ride but the parking lot was so crowded we couldn’t find a parking spot. Our takeway: if we head to Zion again, we’d plan to arrive thing in the morning before the crowds or visit off-season. Zion is beautiful, but it was too crowded on the day we went to be enjoyable. Kanab is a bit over a half-hour from Zion making it very easy to get to from there. Our best advice: go early in the day or off-season.
The Wave – next time!
We hadn’t heard of The Wave in Coyote Canyon until we arrived in Kanab and didn’t get to see it. If you want visit this remote spot plan ahead. Part of Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, it’s under the protection of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and is one of the hardest public places to access in the United States. Why? The Wave, a “fantasy land of sculptured sandstone,” is fragile. To preserve the BLM only issues 20 permits a day. Each admits up to six people (whose names must appear on your application). The first 10 are issued via online lottery. Feeling lucky? The second 10 are given out the day before you want to visit. The lottery drawing is held at 9am at the BLM Grand Staircase Visitor Center in Kanab. Winter offers a better chance of winning the lottery but an inquiry to the BLM office yielded the information that even off-season 30 to 40 people may appear for the lottery each day. The BLM website suggests that “This extremely rugged and remote region is best experienced with a guide and off-road outfitter, which can be arranged through the Kanab Visitor Center.” South Coyote Butte also requires a permit to visit, also subject to a lottery. We were told it’s necessary to have a high clearance four-wheel drive vehicle to explore this area as it’s a long hike in if you don’t have one. Will James of Dreamland Safari Tours in Kanab says that if you can’t get a permit for The Wave, White Pocket, on the Paria Plateau near The Wave, doesn’t require a permit. While less known, White Pocket, is in his words, “as good or better than The Wave.” He says it’s 80 times larger than The Wave with more geological diversity.
All too soon our time in Kanab came to an end. We wished we could have stayed longer. We wanted to visit many of the other natural wonders that are easily accessed from this charming town. On the way out of town, early on Sunday morning we were greeted by the beautiful sunrise above. What made it even more special is that I’ve been trying to see a colorful sunrise for years and never managed to capture one. It was a special ending to our stay. Kanab’s tourism website sports the exclamation, “Abra Kanabra!” We agree; the area is nothing short of magical making Kanab the perfect base for exploring southwestern Utah.
We thank the following for their photos:
Dreamland Safari Tours for The Wave photo
Janice Chung of France Travel Tips for the Horseshoe Bend photo