Highway 89 Tales:
Hooked on Utah
Ellen Jo Roberts
Back when we were flatlanders, our first dose of the west came in the form of Utah in its many brilliant southern incarnations. Slick rock. Slot canyons. Natural arches. Fragrant sagebrush. Abundant sunshine and fine dry air. Hypnotized by the big skies and postcard perfect scenery we soon plotted our escape west and by the following year we had Arizona drivers licenses and a Flagstaff P.O. Box.
Visiting Utah always reminds me of those first enchanted days of our new life. In the early days, we used to spend more time north of the border, with frequent treks to the national forests and all of the park highlights: Zion, Bryce, Arches, Canyonlands, Cedar Breaks, the Grand Staircase. Back in the 20th century we often rented a sea kayak in Flagstaff, strapped it to the roof of our truck and headed up to Lake Powell, launching near Lone Rock to paddle and camp in secluded side canyons. But the spirits of Glen Canyon buried deep beneath the flood are too eerie and sad, and combined with a read of Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang we eventually lost any enthusiasm for the damned lake. For the natural places of Utah, however, high excitement remains.
Our most recent journey took us up 89 to the historic town of Panguitch and the vicinity of the infamous Butch Cassidy and his "Hole in the Wall Gang". Red Canyon, a junior Bryce complete with matching fantastic fairyland formations of the Paunsaugunt Plateau is seven miles from Panguitch, along Scenic Byway 12. Our goal was primitive camping in the Dixie National Forest. No motel, no reservations, no running water. Just sun and sky and campfire at night, alone under the stars, just like all those years we traveled on the fly and on the cheap.
The eye-popping scenery begins on our side of 89, and its pretty little sister, 89A, slicing through the Verde Valley up into the Colorado Plateau like a heaping helping of amazing geography. Up through the alpine ecosystem of Flagstaff and back down into the piñons, junipers and painted desertscape of the Navajo Nation. Roadside craft stands punctuate long stretches of badlands and vast panoramas. Many of the lonely lean-to structures are now decorated with giant photographic wheatpastes of Navajo life created by Jetsonarama, (a.k.a. Chip Thomas) and his Painted Desert Project.
A stop at the historic Cameron Trading Post, adjacent to the Little Colorado River, always arrives at the perfect time, just when your legs were starting to need a stretch. Just far enough from home to feel like we were really on an adventure. Buses full of Asian and European tourists join you, as do river running excursions towing trailers full of kayaks and inflatables.
Continuing north you can take two routes into Kanab: stick on 89 through Page and past the Glen Canyon Dam, or detour via 89A up over a winding alpine pass, through Jacobs Lake, gateway to the Grand Canyon's North Rim. Overall, Highway 89 is quicker, but please beware the speed traps just inside the Utah border, between the weigh station and the entrance to Lone Rock Beach. I am not kidding when I say we have been pulled over nearly every time we've cruised that stretch of highway, by assorted law enforcement officials (DPS, National Park Ranger, Utah State Police, etc.) for infractions so minor it leaves us shaking our heads. License plate light burnt out. Going 65 in a 60. In the end they always wave us off with a warning, and we drive off chuckling about how silly it is. (On this most recent journey Chad was pulled over on the way up, and I was pulled over on the way back.) Kanab is a historic community filled with Hollywood lore and surrounded by red sandstone buttes. This city is perhaps now most famous for being the home of Best Friends Animal Society, a large-scale rescue sanctuary tucked into nearby Angel Canyon. Begun in Arizona in the 1970s to save animals from kill-shelters, the society moved its operation to Kanab in the early 1980s. Carmel Junction and the Thunderbird Café (“Home of the Ho-Made Pies”) signals your turn towards Zion National Park, if you’re so inclined, but it was not on our itinerary this trip. Following 89 north the road continues to entertain as it curves through canyons, high prairie and a smattering of small tidy towns that appear to have been forgotten somewhere in The Twilight Zone. Orderville, where all is in order, you betcha’. Glendale, where sun-baked classic cars forever sit in a sales lot, waiting for “or best offer”, and a young boy prays you’ll buy some of the orchard pears from his roadside stand. Soon the Sevier River appears alongside you, grey-green, glassy, impossibly tangled and loopy. The Sevier (pronounced “severe”) is the longest river completely contained within the state of Utah. By the time you are in Panguitch, a cute little Mormon town with tidy brick architecture and a row of vintage motels lining 89 you feel both far from home and yet completely safe. There’s a small downtown with a couple of gas stations, a grocery, a few diners, antique shops, a thrift store and a movie theater. Nothing is open on Sundays so it took us forever to track down a can-opener (forgotten from our camping gear). Brianhead Ski Resort is not far from Panguitch, but not close either. I get the impression from the locals that the town pretty much shuts down between October and April.
In the Dixie National Forest, our campsite, at the base of bright red hoo-doos and our own secret canyon, was perfect and sparsely visited. Despite there not being much traffic or disturbance by other humans, there were tall ladders in all of the piñon trees surrounding the area of our camp. I'd never seen anything like it. Manning the ladders were migrant workers draped in sap-coated aprons, bandanas and desert-style head coverings. Later, upon chatting with them in Spanish, we found out that they were all from Arizona, imported from Phoenix by a company contracted to harvest the piñon nuts now at their fattest, ripest and stickiest. It had never occurred to me, while eating pasta, pesto or any other assorted dishes featuring pine nuts where those nuts might have originated. The harvest workers’ camp was apparently not far from ours, because one night we heard them serenading the full moon with Mexican lullabies.
Red Canyon, a favorite place for many years, is a more pet-friendly, less crowded alternative to Bryce Canyon National Park. Lots of great trails, a nice visitor center, and a large, inexpensive public campground. Many of the trails throughout the area are technical, steep and challenging, but the views are a fair reward. We’d not been to Bryce, 14 miles further along Highway 12, in a number of years. As with many national parks, dogs are not usually allowed on most of the trails. During one visit to Bryce Canyon, back before we traveled with pets, we enjoyed hiking down into a deep bowl of hoodoos while surrounded by German tourists. They called out to each other in German, their echoing hollers of “Nicht so schnell!” imploring others to slow down on the precarious steps. Upon reaching the bottom I was startled to encounter a French lady in high-heeled espadrilles, languidly smoking a cigarette. Bryce Canyon, a national park since 1928, was named after Scottish immigrant, Ebenezer Bryce, a Mormon pioneer who homesteaded nearby. Legend has it that Mr. Bryce said the unique weather-formed rock formations, complex red hot riddles of hoodoos and towering spires, was “a helluva place to lose a cow.”
(Perhaps an apocryphal tall tale, though still oft- repeated.)
Ruby’s Inn, largest shopping area for 100 miles or more, sits just outside the park entrance. It’s a tourist city of sorts, where you can buy anything you ever needed, or never needed, including just about any kind of fancy beer. Hotels, laundromat, groceries, souvenirs, tours, fake western town. They even have a one-hour photo lab. Surrounded by a great variety of foreign languages, you can always recognize the Europeans before you can hear them speak. Their shoes are always just a bit futuristic. Let’s get out of here, back to our piñon pickers, back to our own canyon and secluded campsite. Our own private Utah.
Chad, the dogs and I spent several nights in the wilderness, cuddling sagebrush, heading off on daily adventures to explore trails, sipping on fancy IPAs and cooking dinner at the campfire, under the big sky full of stars. “This feels like home”, I’d say, “All of it. This is what brought me out west.” Favorite places like these across Utah makes me feel both young and old at the same time. Old tallying the past visits, and young remembering my first glimpses of this place as it if were yesterday.
For more information:
Ellen Jo Roberts arrived in Flagstaff in 1995. She and her husband lived in a vintage pop-top camper for a couple of months, until winter came. Read all about it at ellenjo.com