Worth the Trip: Strange Scenes Along Scenic Byway 89

Inside the “Jewel of Kanab,” the first modern home in Kane County, feels more like a mausoleum than a museum, preserving the remains of the day-to-day life of Mormon polygamist settlers, down to the home’s original furniture. Around every corner, I expect to find a 19th-century ghost, hunched over a writing desk, gazing out one of the wide windows, and it would feel perfectly natural, even mundane. After all, I am the intruder here.

Exterior of Kanab Heritage House Museum
Kanab Heritage House Museum; Photo by Christie Porter/Salt Lake magazine

The 127-year-old home has been restored and transformed into the Kanab Heritage House Museum (115 S. Main St.). My museum guide, Tina, acts surprised when I show up for the tour as if I am the only visitor she has seen in days. When the tour starts, it is just the two of us. She conducts me through each room with hushed tones. I wonder who she is afraid will overhear her. In the dining room, Tina proudly shows me a family photograph of the home’s inhabitants as if it were a picture of her own brood. The photograph hangs above one of the many fireplaces, the frame stretching from one end of the mantle to the other to make room for the six wives of Thomas Chamberlain (a wool merchant) and their 55 children. 

Inside the Heritage House in Kanab
Inside the Heritage House; Photo by Christie Porter/Salt Lake magazine

In the dining room also hangs a photograph of Chamberlain in black and white stripes, in prison for the crime of polygamy. Beside it, is a picture of five women standing: the newly-elected 1912 mayor, Mary Woolley Chamberlain, and the city council of Kanab. It was the first time in the history of the United States that a town council and mayor were comprised entirely of women—eight years before it would become legal for any of them to vote in the U.S. 

When Tina takes me upstairs and shows me where the children slept (original bed, antique dolls and all). I ask if I can stay the night. She instead recommends a couple of  local B&Bs in similarly preserved turn-of-the-century homes.

Kanab (Start Here)

Moqui Cave sign at ancient history museum
Moqui Cave sign at ancient history museum located at sandstone erosion cave; Photo by MichaelVi/Adobe Stock

Historic tableaus like that are on full display all over Kanab. Just like the actors who once graced the sets of the westerns that gave it the nickname “Little Hollywood,” Kanab has been through more than a few costume changes. Chamberlain’s descendants owned and operated the nearby Moqui Cave (4581 Hwy. 89). The natural sandstone cave was once used as a bar and dance club to entertain the stars of Little Hollywood. Parts of the original bar are still there, but the rest of the space is now dedicated to an eclectic array of Native artifacts, dinosaur tracks, football memorabilia and glowing rock collections. It’s as weird as it sounds. Nearby, there are two short, but worthwhile, hikes to the Belly of the Dragon and Moqui Caverns, located along the same stretch of Highway 89. 

Kanab’s reputation as a perfect starting point for adventures in southern Utah has forced the desire to preserve its small-town vibe into conflict with the need to accommodate its ever-growing tourism industry. It’s facing labor and home shortages and rising housing prices. While not everyone who lives there is happy about its effects, its reputation is well-earned. Kanab is the lynchpin of the Grand Circle, within spitting distance of Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the Grand Canyon’s North Rim and Lake Powell.

Where to Eat: Kanab

Wild Thyme Cafe in Kanab
Wild Thyme Cafe

Kanab Creek Bakery (238 W. Center St.) keeps the case full of laminated pastries and the coffee fresh and hot, which you can take to-go or sip while sitting with a croque for breakfast. For lunch, Wild Thyme Cafe (198 S. 100 East) sources much of their menu from their own organic gardens. Their specialty bowls come in varieties like Yellow Curry and Falafel over tasty coconut rice. And for dinner, try the offering of French home-style food—an intriguing find in Southern Utah—at Vermillion 45 (210 S. 100 East).

Where to Stay

Under Canvas Lake Powell-Grand Staircase
Under Canvas Lake Powell-Grand Staircase; Photo courtesy Under Canvas

Under Canvas Lake Powell-Grand Staircase has luxury canvas safari-style tents with working showers and toilets as well as dining options on-site.
555 S. Jacob Tank Rd., Big Water, 888-496-1148

Purple Sage Inn is a redone turn-of-the-century home built in 1884.
54 S. Main St., Kanab, 435-644-5377

Grand Circle Bed & Breakfast is another converted home built in 1912. 250 N. 100 West, Kanab, 435-644-8008

Quail Park Lodge is a classic ’50s hotel, redone.
125 N. 300 West, Kanab, 435-644-8700

Cave Lakes Canyon offers tipis, hogans and conventional rooms.
Kanab, 435-644-3812

Canyons Hotel, a boutique hotel.
190 N. 300 West, Kanab, 435-644-8660

Off the Path (But Not Too Far)

If you don’t stay in Kanab, there are plenty of places around to camp, but that doesn’t mean you have to rough it. About one hour east, along Highway 89, a new luxury campsite by Under Canvas has popped up on the rim of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. And it is on the rim of an actual canyon. The on-site concierge directs me to a number of hiking trails spiraling outward from the campsite into hidden sandstone slot canyons. You’re also perfectly poised to head deeper into the National Monument and just minutes away from the Glen Canyon Recreational Area and Lake Powell.

The nearby BLM Big Water Visitor’s Center can also assist in the launch of any outdoor adventures. The Ghost Town Pahreah trail is a must for anyone as fascinated with abandoned, potentially haunted things as I am. It is a four-mile, out-and-back trail not far off of Highway 89. The eponymous Pahreah, or Paria, was another Mormon settlement, eventually abandoned by its inhabitants after one too many hardships. Terrible yearly flooding that washed away crops and homes proved to be the last straw. It saw second life for a short time as a backdrop for western films, but film crews likewise struggled with the periodic flooding. So much so, they built their own staged Old Western town not far away, which you can also visit. 

Horseshoe Bend
Horseshoe Bend; Photo courtesy Adobe Stock

If you like your strange sights to be a little more ancient, it’s a two mile out-and-back hike for the Toadstool Hoodoos. Keeping on Highway 89, there is only one place in the Glen Canyon Recreational Area where you can camp just feet from the water and swim, and boat and ride. In addition to out-of-place stretches of soft, sandy beaches, Lone Rock Beach Campground offers spectacular views, the centerpiece of which is the aforementioned Lone Rock—a monolithic pillar of sandstone, carved out by water over millennia. For an even more stunning vista, Horseshoe Bend Lookout is an easy mile hike from the parking lot in Page, Ariz. and could not be more worth the money to park. 

On the way, you can stop at the Glen Canyon Dam Overlook to see up close the manmade marvel generating five billion kilowatt-hours of hydroelectric power annually to keep lights on in much of the Western United States. It’s probably also haunted, as 17 workers died on the job during its 10-year construction. (A fitting monument to dedicate to Ladybird Johnson, I suppose.) You can see where some of those workers used to live, and even sleep where they slept, in one of the mid-century motels on the aptly named Street of Little Motels in Page. 

On the Water: Lake Powell 

Lake Powell was created when the Glen Canyon Dam was built in 1963. The lake’s shore is the red rock spires of what was once Glen Canyon and all those nooks and undulations add up 2,000 miles of shoreline which is more than the combined states on the Pacific Coast. It is best explored on the water. 

The Lake Powell resort at Wahweap Marina is the perfect base to explore the lake. The resort, situated on a bluff overlooking the lake offers beautiful views as well as a selection of rentals and tours to get you out on the water. 

On the Way Back (Take a Piece of It With You)

If you’re returning to the Wasatch Front or points north, don’t go by way of I-15 unless you have to. Instead, stay on Scenic Byway 89. Besides, the trip is not over until you have a souvenir to take home. Skip the many gift shops and rock shops (or not, rock heads) and instead, acquire something with a little history to commemorate the experience. Go for the antique shops. Almost every town you drive through on Highway 89 will have one.

Smokin’ Hot Antiques & Collectibles at The Old Firehouse
Smokin’ Hot Antiques & Collectibles at The Old Firehouse; Photo by Christie Porter/Salt Lake magazine

Not far past the turn-off for Scenic Byway 12 and Bryce Canyon (an adventure for another time), I hitch my horse in Panguitch and I am not disappointed. The small historic Main Street is home to Smokin’ Hot Antiques & Collectibles at the Old Firehouse (38 N. Main St.), which, as advertised, is inside an old Firehouse. The employees are friendly and helpful in their way, so I spend hours inside, picking over cracked leather cowboy and rancher gear, handmade beaded purses, tiffany lamps and more tin crockery than anyone could ever need. In the end, I go home with the creepiest antique doll I can find.  

Get ready for your next adventure with more travel tips from Salt Lake magazine.

Christie Porter
Christie Porterhttps://christieporter.com/
Christie Porter is the managing editor of Salt Lake Magazine. She has worked as a journalist for nearly a decade, writing about everything under the sun, but she really loves writing about nerdy things and the weird stuff. She recently published her first comic book short this year.

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