Imagine an epic landscape, a red-rock wonderland and wide-open skies. That’s southwest Utah.If you go from October through April, it’s like a best-kept secret: You avoid the summer crowds and most snowbirds are next door in Arizona or south of the US border.Most people visiting southern Utah head directly to Zion National Park, but we’re headed to Kanab first.Kanab is known as base camp for hikers: 80 miles south is the Grand Canyon, 70 miles east is Lake Powell and 30 miles west is Zion. And five miles north is our destination; Best Friends Animal Society.This extraordinary animal sanctuary, on 3,700 acres at stunning Angel Canyon, is a haven and healing oasis for about 1,600 rescue animals.We signed up in advance to volunteer for the day at Dogtown, the haven for rescued dogs (Best Friends also takes care of cats, pigs, horses, rabbits and birds who need homes).Best Friends rescues animals in crisis and nurses them back to health, and many find new homes. If not, they are loved and provided for here. Most everywhere in Kanab is pet-friendly and herein lies the danger for dog lovers: you can take a dog to your hotel for a sleepover and Best Friends transports eligible pets to Canada.
Memorials at “Angels Rest,” Best Friends Animal Sanctuary.
After a tour, you can walk dogs on designated trails and then make sure they all get dinner. The quiet that descends over the kennels when all the dogs are happily munching is one of the rewards for your labours.Bring tissues to Angels Rest and Angels Overlook, memorial gardens where animals go to their final rest. Beautiful and bittersweet, wind chimes serenade us as we visit the memorial and walk the meditation labyrinth. Among the thousands of pet markers, there’s a memorial to the dogs that survived Katrina (hundreds were rescued) and another to the dogs of former NFL star Michael Vick, who was sent to jail for running a dog-fighting ring.Kanab describes itself as “Abra-Kanabra” and it is indeed a magical place. Craggy red vermillion cliffs were once home to dinosaurs — a local guide can show you tracks and explain how the Navajo sandstone was shaped over millions of years. And the ever-changing light is breathtaking. No wonder photographers flock here.We visit the quirky “Little Hollywood Land” Museum and learn Kanab earned the nickname “Little Hollywood” for the more than 200 movies, TV episodes (Gunsmoke) and commercials filmed in the area.At Denny’s Wigwam, we are told that Denny was a stand-in for Ronald Regan. Movie stars, including John Wayne and Frank Sinatra, stayed across the street at Parry Motel Lodge (now getting a facelift, like a number of hotels here.) One local tells us his great-grandparents came here during the Depression and rented a cabin for 25 cents a night. His grandpa was a movie extra, got a chunk of change and bought the family ranch.Cruising Center Street, we find Raven’s Heart Gallery showcasing stunning local artwork and ask co-owner Gary Kalpakoff where we can get a beer or glass of wine. “Arizona,” he says, laughing. Utah isn’t totally a dry state, but finding a place to have a drink without a meal or picking up anything more than a six-pack of light beer in a supermarket is a challenge.We drive 10 miles north to Coral Pink Sand Dunes, a sea of red sand that’s a mecca for ATVs and sand surfers.
The dunes at Coral Pink Sand Dunes.
On an exhilarating outing with Coral Pink ATV Tours, Gordon and Mindie guide us along trails flanked with ponderosa pine trees, wild flowers and prickly-pear cactus, culminating in a hysterical sand surf on our backsides down the tallest dune.Next up is Peekaboo Canyon. Amazingly, no one else is here on this Saturday at 10 a.m. except a music-video crew.“You gotta know how to drive in sand, it’s easy to get stuck,” says our Forever Adventure Tours guide Jim Anderson, as he deftly manoeuvres the yellow Hummer up and around tight curves of deep red sand.
Forever Adventures Guide Jim Anderson at the entrance to Peekaboo Canyon with.
With their tall striated sandstone walls, slot canyons are paradises for hikers and photographers. Some parts you scramble, other parts you follow a glimmer of light and squeeze through twisting and turning caverns, all the time in awe.Zion National Park is just a 30-minute drive from Kanab. Zion means “heaven, the final home of those who are virtuous” or, simply, “utopia.”We say ‘Wow’ around every curve of the road, and coming out of the mile-long Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel on the east side of the park, the canyon views take my breath away. Casting our eyes heavenward, we see some of the world’s tallest monoliths of red sandstone, more than 2,000 feet high.Climbing the steep trails, looking down into deep canyons and dipping our feet into cool pools, a few hours could easily stretch into a day.Zion is another reason why it’s best to visit in low season., from April through October, the park bans private vehicles along the six-mile route and provides a free shuttle.Instead, we buy a parks pass for $20, park at the visitors’ centre and hike the Canyon Overlook Trail, billed as an “easy to moderate one hour hike.”It’s 9 a.m. in late October. We slather on sunscreen and by 10 a.m., we’re halfway there and sweating. It takes us a few hours because we stop to take a gazillion photos.We save the best for the last. There’s a palpable serenity in the Zion Mountain Ranch lobby as we check in.
In the mountains of Zion National Park, sits Zion Mountain Ranch, also home to a roaming herd of buffalo.
Owner Kevin McLaws is hauling crates of apples and rainbow-coloured corn from his pick-up truck.“Cinnamon spice is the best, picked this morning,” he says handing me an apple.We drive up the hill to the “Canyon Rim Family Lodge” and my spirit soars. Tasteful art, an immense stone fireplace, furniture to sink into, a full kitchen and an incredible view from all sides — we could plant ourselves here for a month.
The stars and Milky Way over Zion Canyon National Park.
Outside, all we can hear are songbirds. Several hundred acres of the ranch– with its peaceful meadows– are back-dropped by mountains and canyons.After soaking in a bathtub the size of a smart car, we meander down to their restaurant. Most food on the small menu is locally sourced and everything is fresh, flavourful and expertly prepared with a great selection of wines by the glass.Back at the cabin, the sky is a swath of stars and we’re plugged into the Milky Way rather than wi-fi.