"Abra Kanabra!"

Posted On
Apr 15, 2016

Magically Unspoiled


By Vicki Varela


People and places that carry contradictions with grace tend to steal my heart before I know it’s happened.  That’s what Kanab did to me.  Look over my shoulder to see how it captured me under its spell.    

Driving Utah Scenic Byway 89 south to Kanab, the road follows the East Fork of the Virgin River, rippling through rolling valleys to define our path. What must be tenth generation cattle roam family ranches. The stories they could tell.  Tiny towns, unchanged for decades, testify to the beauty of having less and making do.  Then In Orderville we see a beautiful new bakery, Backerei Forscher. It’s modern wood and steel, with a sleek wraparound porch.  A couple of years ago, German tourists fell in love with southern Utah and reorganized their lives to bake bread here.  Their savory baguettes preview the delicious juxtaposition of everything old and new in Kanab. I am smitten. And we aren’t even there yet.

Arriving in Kanab, the jagged red Vermillion Cliffs speak to me like they have to settlers for centuries:  what a fine place to nest.  Late afternoon shadows on the rock walls seem to flirt with me. Is there time for a quick run?  Could my legs carry me down some trails before dark? But my companions are talking up Rocking V Café, a dining destination with eclectic slow food and good wine. Ah, that sounds even better.

We cruise Center Street, with its elegant curve like the river that led us here. The iconic Parry Hotel. John Wayne and other western actors stayed there while filming movies and TV series. We see outdoor recreation stores promising the best of modern gear just down the street from Americana and Western souvenirs. At dinner, Rocking V serves up a fine meal from an inventive menu. We are surrounded by regional art and photography that preview the adventures ahead. This funky new cuisine restaurant in an old Western town is another endearing juxtaposition.   

We are up early the next day to hike The Wave. This geographic wonder has been on my bucket list for years. We are among the lucky people with the required permits for today’s exploration. If we had to submit evidence that Mother Nature played favorites with Utah’s iconic landscapes and Greatest Snow on Earth®, The Wave would be among our best exhibits. Photographers from all over the world have chronicled its geologic wonders in vivid color.  We drive 30 minutes or so southeast on 89 and take a dirt road to the trailhead, Wire Pass at Coyote Buttes North, within the vast Paria Canyon- Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness overlapping Utah and Arizona. In the small cluster of cars, we see hikers from Japan, Germany and France; also other Westerners.

Did I mention this was off-season?  (AKA October through March.) I won’t hold back on this local tip. Off-season is flat out my favorite time to travel southern Utah. Cool weather. No crowds. Light snow sometimes shimmers on burgundy rock under blue skies. I dare color experts to top Mother Nature on the palette. In these quiet seasons, those of us attached to discovery can almost delude ourselves that we are the first to experience Utah’s unspoiled wonders. 

On this November day, we wear light layers for our five-plus mile round-trip hike. It’s a relatively easy path with rolling hills. Sections of dense red sand get our calves engaged.  We could probably find our destination on our own, but I am grateful for local guides. They take us on short detours to see the tracks of dinosaurs that first roamed here.  They explain how the Navajo sandstone was shaped over millions of years, and point out destinations for future adventure all around.

Arriving at The Wave, we see an undulating red ocean. But wait. It is solid, substantial, unmoving. Red rock swells all around us.  Wind and water have smoothed these rocks over millions of years into an otherworldly ornament. Mother Nature didn’t duplicate this anywhere else on earth. There is a sense of community among those who have converged at this mystical place. We flow in small groups, giving each other plenty of room for priceless photographs. We pose as surfers on rocks, run up and down the waves, eat lunch, hear stories from the French man who comes here every year; laugh with the young woman from Hawaii, who claims this is the first time she has “surfed.”

It’s tempting to extend our adventures with a hike to the less famous White Pocket.  Photographers say it’s the next big thing: an inexplicable natural formation still undiscovered. Some like it better than The Wave. White sandstone that looks to me like chunks of giant cottage cheese curds. And no permits required. I need to explore it to decide for myself, but today our senses are overloaded and we are ready for a good meal. Tonight it’s Escobar’s back in Kanab. Nothing better than great Mexican food with lots of chips and salsa to celebrate. 

We are staying at the Victorian Inn, a Canyons Collection hotel, part of their eclectic mix of accommodations that are revving up tourism in Kanab. We enjoy our complimentary breakfast the next morning, then do another town cruise on the free loaner retro bikes sitting out front. Everything looks different on a bike. I spot more local treasures for exploration. Happy dogs are there to greet us back at the hotel:  a preview of our next adventure.   

Best Friends’ Animal Sanctuary is five miles north of Kanab in Angel Canyon. The setting alone is worth the drive, but Best Friends is internationally renowned as the largest no-kill sanctuary for companion pets in the United States. Best Friends takes in animals in crisis.  Think New Orleans floods. Michael Vick’s dogs. This is where they are nurtured back to health then adopted to loving homes, or comfortably live out the rest of their lives there. 

Visitors – and volunteers – are welcome at Best Friends. With volunteer tourism expanding, many people book volunteer time at the sanctuary --- even a half day – in between outdoor adventures. 

The celebration of pets is increasingly a part of Kanab’s reputation and brand, thanks to Best Friends’ growing influence in the community. The Canyons Collection hotels are entirely pet friendly, and virtually all other lodging has designated pet rooms. A new Comfort Inn & Suites will include an on premise dog park. Zion’s Bank drive through offers dog biscuits. Even more important, an increasing number of regional trails allow dogs, including Squaw, Bunting and Hog Canyon.  

Our next adventure: rappelling Minaret slot canyon. This one took a little nudge from Nick Smith at Seldom Seen Adventures. Descending a rope is not my preferred mode of transportation. I rappel periodically, but opt first for traveling red rock in a horizontal fashion. I was so compelled by the promised beauty and great company of the Minaret slot canyon that I signed on with Nick. 

Spectacular. And safe. Seeing the sun shimmer down steep vertical drops reminds me why some people make a habit of rappelling. With Nick at the other end of the rope I would descend almost anything. Bonus was that Kanab’s local grocer Barry Glazier was part of our group. Barry captured amazing photos. Glazier’s Market doubles as a gallery, so buying cheese and crackers could inspire the next adventure.

One final tip about Minaret: don’t try to find this slot canyon without Nick. It’s 30 minutes of high adventure four-wheel driving from Coral Pink Sand Dunes north of Kanab. You would never know it’s there.

Back in town, we check out Kanab’s colorful history as a movie-making destination at the Little Hollywood Movie Museum, and eat traditional chuck wagon grub. They called this place Little Hollywood because more than 100 Westerns were filmed there from the 1920s to the 1960s. The free museum includes great old movie sets. Anyone in town can tell you how their kin interacted with the likes of Cecile B. DeMille, Clint Eastwood, John Wayne and others. One of my favorite stories was about Frank Sinatra buying football uniforms for the Kanab High School team.

Then there was the Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, a reminder that many of Utah’s 43 state parks could well be national parks.  This shifting sea of red sand – miles and miles of it – is a mecca for off-highway vehicles and sand surfers/sledders. We tried them all.  Nothing like bringing sand home in your pockets to make you feel like a kid again.

So Kanab has captured a piece of my heart. It is my new hub for day-trip adventures, with lots of great options for nesting at night. Future explorations from Kanab will include White Pocket, Glen Canyon NRA - Lake Powell, Zion National Park and Grand Canyon North Rim in Utah’s neighbor, Arizona.  Make unspoiled Kanab your base camp to experience some genuine Utah magic!   VisitSouthernUtah.com   BestFriends.org   SeldomSeenAdventures.net


Editor’s note:

Vicki Varela walks the walk.  She is the Managing Director of the Utah Office of Tourism, Film & Global Branding.  Her department has the difficult task of promoting the incredible beauty and the multitude of outdoor adventure activities Utah offers.  Difficult because there is so much from which to choose.  Vicki and her staff do the enjoyable task extremely well.