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Slowing the Pace in Western Utah

by Peter Thody

From the sandstone cliffs and lush greenery of Zion National Park to the searing heat and inhospitable desert of the Wah Wah Mountains, Peter Thody explores the southwest corner of Utah, discovers his favorite bar in the whole of America and decides that, like the outlaw Josey Wales, he wants to settle here.

East Zion layers

The slick rock eastern section of Zion National Park, entirely different from, but no less impressive than, the main Zion canyon.

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Photo by Peter Thody


Arrive in southern Utah on U.S. Highway 89 and the first place you hit is Kanab, an unremarkable sprawl of gas stations, real estate businesses and RV parks, and about as unlikely a candidate for the sobriquet "Little Hollywood" as it's possible to imagine. But so numerous were the cowboy films shot around here in the 1930s that this did indeed become the town's nickname.

The natural beauty of the surrounding area has attracted the TV and movie industry ever since, and it's the preserved set of Clint Eastwood's 1976 film "The Outlaw Josey Wales" that tempts us into town. Actually, the Old Pariah movie set (named after the nearby Mormon ghost town) is a good half-hour's drive east and, we've been told, involves picking up a dirt road at some point, so we call in at the tourist office for directions.

"Old Pariah? Oh dear, I'm afraid it burned down in 2006," we're told. "They're rebuilding it but I don't believe they've got any further than the foundations."

While the charred remains of a burnt-out homestead might have been quite evocative, my enthusiasm for Clint-related memorabilia doesn't quite stretch to concrete footings so we skip it and head west instead, through high desert and on to Zion National Park.

Arriving at the east entrance and making our way into the park on the Zion - Mount Carmel Highway, I'm immediately struck by the change in geology. While the beauty of much of what we've driven through this morning has been in its rugged inhospitality, Zion is nothing short of magnificent.


View Arizona border to Garrison, Utah in a larger map


At first the rock formations are soft and rounded, the curved, layered patterns emphasizing their smooth, organic shapes. As we get further into the park, this landscape gives way to a bigger and greener scenery of cliffs and canyons, all created by the Virgin River, which rushes down the Zion Canyon. Although no more than maybe five or six miles long, the drive from the east entrance to the south entrance takes us a good hour as every bend reveals a new scene to be marvelled at.

If you're planning to follow this route, be aware that the Zion - Mount Carmel Tunnel was built in the 1920s when vehicles were smaller and fewer in number than today. If you're driving an RV, bus or camper, or pulling a boat or trailer, you'll need to pay a fee for the traffic to be halted while you drive down the middle of the road.

Zion is Utah's busiest national park so we've booked lodging ahead, choosing Springdale's Majestic View Lodge on the likelihood that it will offer better views than the Really Rather Disappointing View Motel. And the gamble pays off. Stepping out from our very large and very comfortable room onto our private balcony, we look out over the pool toward the park itself and enjoy what are indeed truly majestic views.

There's one more treat still waiting to be discovered. Over in the main lodge there's a saloon with its own brewery (usual Utah rules apply: drinks for members and diners only) along with a steakhouse and a gift shop selling the usual leather and feather knickknacks. But what sets this place apart from any hotel I've ever stayed in is its incredible collection of dead animals (or "wildlife museum," as it's euphemistically described). There are grizzly bears, black bears, Kodiak bears and a polar bear. There are boars, badgers, beavers, bobcats, bucks and bison. In one amazingly lifelike scene, four timber wolves are attempting to bring down a Yukon moose.

I can only presume that the investment (and carnage to North American wildlife) is justified by the extra traffic the display brings to the gift shop, but you'd need to sell an awful lot of rugs, dolls and moccasins to cover the cost of this extraordinary attraction.

The next day we hit that point that eventually arrives on any trip, when a combination of factors - fatigue, the availability of a pool, and the need to wash clothes being just three of them - forces you to slow down a little. Zion may be one of nature's most beautiful jewels but, you know what?, today we're taking it easy.

Not for us the leg-jellying Walter's Wiggles cliff ascent, a series of 21 switchbacks constructed in the 1920s under the supervision of the park's first custodian, Walter Ruesch, or the acrophobia-inducing Angels Landing ridge trail with its 1,000-foot drops to either side. Click here for a list of a variety of hikes in Zion National Park. No, today we accept our position at the bottom of the tourist food chain, find a seat on the park's shuttle bus and listen attentively as a pre-recorded park ranger describes what's passing by our air-conditioned cocoon.

At the top we get out and enjoy an easy stroll up to The Narrows, where the canyon, yep, narrows and the footpath disappears into river. And then we turn around and take the shuttle bus all the way back down to the visitor centre.

There are any number of trails for more eager or energetic visitors but for us, a morning of scenery, photography and minimal exercise followed by an afternoon of swimming, sunbathing and snoozing is just what's needed. And just when we think that to be any more relaxed would see us fall over backwards, we follow the recommendation of our shuttle bus driver and head for the wonderful Bit and Spur Restaurant and Saloon.

This is one of those places that's so genuinely welcoming that you immediately feel at home. After a couple of Provo Girl Pilsners at the bar we take our seats on the patio, sip Francis Ford Coppola California Classic and watch hummingbirds darting to and fro while waiting for our calamari, brie, salad and local bread. What a day. Perfect.

Later, I get into conversation with Tricia, one of our servers, and tell her that there's something so special about Springdale we could imagine living here. Instead of dismissing the notion as foolish wine talk, she sees this as completely normal and starts to tell us how to make it happen.

"Sure!" she says. "You need to speak with my friend, she moved here from England. Maybe you should think about Virgin, just down the road? That's where I'm building my house."

The next day, promising ourselves we'll be back, we leave Zion and head north on Interstate 15, diverting briefly to say hi to the good folks of Leeds, Utah (pop. 547), a town named after our home city of Leeds, England (pop. 747,939). In fact, I do slightly more than that, calling in at the town hall to see if they have anything on the history of the place. Before I even get to ask, the lady behind the desk recognises that I'm from "the other Leeds" and presents me with a 200-page souvenir book. I like to imagine the staff in our town hall would be equally helpful, but somehow I doubt it.

Eighty miles north on Interstate 15 and we reach Beaver, turn left onto State Highway 21 and, after lunching on what can most charitably be described as "authentic diner cuisine" at Milford, head west into the desert. And suddenly we're as close to the middle of nowhere as I have ever experienced.

I was going to describe it as empty but we see more deer and antelope playing on this particular range than anywhere else on our journey - possibly because there's nowhere to hide. And the views! As we crest yet another 6,000-foot summit of the wonderfully-named Wah Wah Mountains, the next perfectly straight section of hardtop stretches out in front of us, drawing us ever deeper into this arid wilderness.

The 60-or-so miles west from Milford to the one-horse town of Garrison on the state line are pretty much devoid of any sign of human habitation other than the turn-off to the Desert Range Experimental Station (which, depending on which Google search results you're inclined to believe, is either the site of all kinds of sinister extraterrestrial/military activity, or a research center specialising in the effects of sheep grazing). It's a road that's incredibly fun to drive and, as we leave Utah, I realise that we haven't stopped smiling the whole time we've been here. It's that kind of place.

Peter Thody

(Updated 7/1/20, RTA)

Next> Taking the Even-Lonelier Highway Across Nevada

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