Everyone loves Moab, Utah. Jeepers flock there as if it was their Mecca. Hippies gather to bathe nude under rock arches and sneak a puff from that joint they purchased in Colorado. Through all the bustle, families try to squeeze their toddlers through the mesh of people for a quick picture at the same rock everyone else is staring at. Smile, kids– before that fat guy gets in the frame! (We’ve all heard it.)
Moab is cool. It has Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park right on its outskirts. The town is a great mesh of the 60’s meets Mormon (looking at you, limited liquor stores), and there is no doubt that outdoor adventure is limitless here.
But with the popularity comes the crowds, and with the crowds come the prices. There are ways to do Moab cheaply (future article idea?), but I’m not a believer in people-packing our national parks. RV sites are hard to find, Airbnbs book up quickly, and a night in a shady hotel is still going to cost you over $100. So while Moab is cool, there are always great alternatives to help disperse crowds and still get everyone out and enjoying the desert.
Cue Kanab, Utah. Utah’s redheaded stepchild of recreation towns.
Located just north of the Arizona border and about 3 hours east of Las Vegas, Kanab is not the easiest town to get to (neither is Moab, but people still find a way). However, it offers many of the same outdoor activities enjoyed in Moab, but with much fewer people. While the town isn’t as charming as Moab (you won’t find endless rock shops and palm readings here), for those of us looking for a great base camp for exploring red rocks and canyons, Kanab cannot be beat.
Below, I’ve listed out my Top 5 Things to Do in Kanab, Utah.
1. A Hike Through Buckskin Gulch from Wire Pass (Google pin here) 1 hour from Kanab
You’ve probably seen countless pictures of Arizona and Utah’s famed slot canyons. Antelope Canyon and Zion’s Narrows are top dogs in this arena. However, the last place you want to be negotiating crowds is in a slender, 3-foot wide rock slot where booties and faces will definitely touch.
Buckskin Gulch is a great day hike for adventurers looking to experience a slot canyon, but at their own pace and in solitude. This 5.6 mile out-and-back trail offers a great sampling of red rock vistas, slot hiking, and open canyon. This is part of the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, one of the rarest geological sites in the world.
You can access this trail by heading east on highway 89, and turning south on a tiny dirt road called House Rock Valley Road. This turn is easy to miss, but if you make it to the Toadstool Hoodoo Trailhead, you’ve gone a few miles too far. Cell signal is limited in this area, so it is best to download Google maps before leaving Kanab, and bring a back-up GPS. This is always good to have on any hike anyways. Check out some options here.
The road is a rough few miles down to the parking lot, but our Subaru Outback handled it well. Check the weather to see if any rain is in the forecast, because this is not a trail or a road you want to be on in the rain (slot canyons can fill up quickly in a flash flood, even if it is not raining directly above you. Stop at the BLM Ranger Station before heading out to get a full weather forecast).
Buckskin Gulch goes on for over 15 miles, but I like the shorter option from Wire Pass Trailhead to keep the rest of my day open for more trails. Bring cash to the parking lot as there is a $6 per person permit required for day-hiking in this area. You will fill out a pay envelop at the self-service stand (bring a pen too, just in case). This parking lot is also used for hikers visiting the elusive Wave, a famous area with very limited permits. If you’re interested in trying to snag one of these permits to fit in this hike as well, directions for the permit lottery can be found here.
Because this is a technical trail, it is important to review the trail details fully before going. I subscribe to AllTrails, so I have use of the maps and trail directions offline. Click here to access trail details for Buckskin Gulch from Wire Pass. (Pro tip: There is a drop into this canyon at the beginning. This may not be suitable for small children, elderly hikers, or people who cling to rock faces when they see heights).
2. A Drive to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon (Google pin here) 1 hour and 40 minutes from Kanab
America’s favorite ditch– The Grand Canyon. Chances are this beauty is on your bucket list. Most visitors experience the Grand Canyon from the more popular South Rim. However, this area can easily get overrun with tourists and tour buses, creating hours-long waits at the entrance, packed trails, and no camping availability.
The North Rim offers the same spectacular views– minus the crowds. The only catch? The North Rim is 1000 feet higher than the South Rim, so the winters make it inaccessible. The road to the North Rim is not maintained past Jacob’s Lake in the winter, so the visitor center and services (such as restaurants and lodging) are only available May 15-October 15. If you’re visiting Kanab in the summer or early-Fall, you can take an entire day exploring this area or staying overnight at one of the campgrounds or cabins. Rim trail hikes and hikes into the woods leave from the main parking lot as well as numerous lots scattered along the rim (Check out this blog for a great list of North Rim day hikes). Just note, a day hike down to the Colorado River is not possible from the North Rim. The hike down to the bottom is 28 miles long, with a 6,800 feet elevation drop (and gain for the way back). This is recommended for experienced hikers only.
Being higher, the views (in my humble opinion) are even better. The higher elevation also means this rim stays much cooler than its hot sister in the south (averages stay in about the low 70s for highs as oppose to the upper 80s). So if you’re a friend of cooler days and crips nights, you’ll be right at home here. The road to the North Rim is also prettier than the drive to the South Rim. Highway 89A winds through Kaibab National Forest all the way to the rim, and you are rewarded with spanning vistas of the Grand Staircase Escalante on your way back. Without the crowds, you can take a moment of solitude to truly appreciate the canyon, and get views that few visitors ever get to see.
Pro tip: If you’re visiting Kanab in the winter, you can still access the North Rim after the official close date on October 15. While there are no services (or entrance fee), the road stays open until the snow makes it impassible. Check here for road conditions. We visited in late-November, and the road was dry and accessible. Just invest in a pair of clamp-ons and trekking poles in case the trails are icy. Also be sure to pack a warm parka, gloves, and suitable layers as the wind can drop the temperature dramatically.
3. Get Sandy at Coral Pink Sand Dunes (Google pin here) 30 minutes from Kanab
If you’ve ever felt like tapping into your inner Lawrence of Arabia (cue epic music), you don’t need to voyage to the Middle East to do so. Just northwest of Kanab lies Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, an oasis of shifting red sand dunes cast in the shadows of Moquith Mountains. Here, you can sit upon a giant sand mound and stare moodily up into the sky, Luke Skywalker-style. Or roll down the hill to recreate the “As You Wish” scene in The Princess Bride (okay, I’ll stop with the movie references now…but I actually did do this).
Whatever floats your sand dune boat, you can find it at this state park. There is an $8 per vehicle entrance fee as you enter through the main park entrance. If you want to avoid the fee, you can also park at one of the many pull-offs on Coral Pink Sand Dunes Road and walk on one of the numerous trails leading to the sand dunes outside of the park.
Inside the park, you can rent stand-up sand boards (real thing), sand sleds (also, surprisingly real), and ATVs to fully explore the park. Nothing says family time like sending your 8-year old flying down a 100-foot sand mountain on a rental board. Rentals are through the park and more information on bookings can be found here. You can even book a rappelling adventure to satisfy those “fun ways to kill me” urges.
If you’re going towards the end of the day, be sure to bring a compass or a GPS. Sand Dunes can be incredibly disorienting, and once it gets dark, it becomes difficult to find your way back to the parking lot. Trails are built into the sand, so they’re easy to follow in the day, but easy to miss at night. If you’re visiting in winter, don’t let the cold scare you off. The site of white snow against red sand is beyond beautiful, and you’ll have the entire place to yourself. Just be sure to layer up and pack a towel to knock off any wet sand when you get back to the car.
Bonus round: On your way back to Kanab from the Sand Dunes, you’ll also pass the Sand Caves. Traveling southbound, you will see them on the left side of highway 89 just past the Moqui Cave attraction. You will park on the west side of the road (Google pin here), then cross the road towards the slab of red rock just north of the caves (don’t go towards the caves, there is no way up). You’ll see other trails from adventurers before you, and you can follow them up as you walk along the edge to the caves’ entrance. This is not a trail for those scared of heights. For those staying behind, there is a beautiful waterfall right by the parking area. Sit there and reflect on how you don’t have the urge to plummet your body down a cliff.
4. Check out the hoodoos at Bryce Canyon National Park (Google pin here) 1 hour and 30 minutes from Kanab
Forget Arches or Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon goes down in my books as one of the most beautiful parks in the NPS. At the top of the Grand Staircase Escalante, Bryce Canyon is composed of narrow, pinnacles of red rocks known as “hoodoos”. If you’re a lover of western movies, this is a place to live out your John Wayne dreams. It costs $35 per a vehicle to enter the park (unless you have an annual national park pass), and the park is open 24/7 throughout the year. This makes is a great place to go stargazing at night as well. Milky Way over the canyon? Yes, please!
You can easily make the hike down into the bottom of canyon on a day trip to Bryce. One of my favorites is the Navajo Loop and Queen’s Garden Trail. This is a quick 2.9 mile hike down into the bottom of the canyon where you can get up close and personal with the hoodoos. Another one of my other favorites is Peekaboo Loop Trail (5.2 miles). If you’re not looking to stress those calf muscles to hike down, Sunset Point to Sunrise Point is a great rim trail that has moderate elevation gain and amazing vistas. Pro tip: If you’re going October-April, pack a pair of clamp-ons and trekking poles in case the trails are icy. Once you start sliding, you don’t stop until you hit bottom.
If you just aren’t a hiker at all, the park also runs mule/horseback rides down into the canyon. I did this as a kid and it remains as one of my favorite national park memories to this day! (It’s always fun when your sister’s mule walks right on the edge.) Information of horseback riding can be found here.
5. Take a ride through Zion National Park (Google pin here) 1 hour from Kanab
I know what you’re thinking. Zion National Park is not an unknown as far as national parks go. In fact, it is one of the most visited national parks in the United States. Again, I’m not for people-packing our parks, but I recognize that Zion is something special and we all want to see it. Entrance to the park is $35 per vehicle, and the eastern side along highway 9 is always open.
One of the largest dilemmas people face when trying to visit Zion is the fact that Springdale, the town just outside the park, has extremely limited housing and restaurants. Even in the off-seasons, you’re still going to need reservations and there will most likely be a few traffic jams.
By opting to stay in Kanab, you can still easily access the park in a day trip, but you’re not battling the hoard of tourist for a hotel or dinner table. You also get to drive into the park from the east, which provides sweeping views of the surrounding canyons as well as less-visited hiking trails. Most tourists flock to the central canyon of the park (where you have to catch a shuttle to access the interior), but very few explore the eastern edge. Here, the views are just as impressive, you can access trailheads with your own vehicle, and you’re not waiting for the one instagram-girl to stop taking selfies so you can appreciate the view. Here is a great rundown of some trails found on the east side of the park.
The drive along highway 9 towards Springdale ranks as one of the most spectacular drives I have experienced in the United States. The road is a corkscrew of twists and turns around giant, granite boulders and jutting slabs of rock. If you keep your eyes to the sky, you may even catch a glimpse of a rare California Condor (they have been seen nesting in the cliffs of Zion for the past few years).
If you do decide to go into the inner canyon of the park, you will need to drive to the Zion Canyon Visitor Center, park your car, and catch the free shuttle that goes into the park. If you’re planning this trek in the summer, plan to get here extra early to beat the crowds and the long line to get on the shuttle. Shuttle information can be found here.
Any adventure out west is always guaranteed to be full of great hiking, spectacular night skies, and cherished memories. From seeing the Grand Canyon to hiding amongst the hoodoos, Kanab offers every adventurer the opportunity to get out there an explore!
While I focused mainly on attractions outside of the town, Kanab also offers a lot for those spending the night. The Iron Horse Restaurant and Saloon is a great place to enjoy a hearty meal after a long day of hiking — complete with endless western-decor. Peekaboo Canyon Wood Fired Kitchen offers a great selection of pizzas and beer, with the added bonus of free hiking guides inside by the bathroom. You can drink a beer by the fire while planning your next day’s adventures.
The BLM Visitor Center in town is also a great starting point if you’re looking to get more information on the area, check out the weather reports, or need a permit for hiking or camping.
Beyond that, Kanab offers everything else a traveler requires: ample Airbnbs, affordable grocery stores, gas stations, clothing stores, tourist shops, and liquor stores. (Just remember, Utah liquor stores have limited hours and they’re the only ones that can sell anything over 3.5%. Grab what you need before 7pm or Sunday, and you’re good to go.)
Have a hike or a spot you love? Comment below to share you expertise! Happy trails!