Explore Southern Utah's Backcountry

The Wave
The Wave Courtesy of Kane County Office of Tourism
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Kanab, a tiny picturesque town nestled in Utah’s sage-studded desert, is a colorful place. It’s known for intensely hued rocks, mysterious slot-canyons, stately junipers, and all-around adventurous terrain.

Naturally, a place with such otherworldly beauty (and a place that happens to be within day-tripping distance of Vegas) draws plenty of visitors. Kanab’s Wave hike is world-famous for good reason, but it’s so incredibly popular that it takes months or even years to score a permit to do it during peak season.

Not to say Kanab ever feels crowded—the town is perpetually charming and the desert ever-vast. But if you really want to stay off the beaten path, there are plenty of ways to do it.

Some people dedicate years to mastering true backcountry desert navigation, developing a respect for wild desert weather and the intricacies of twisting canyons. But there’s a lot you can still access as a visitor with a map and basic know-how. Keep in mind that out here, it’s critical to check the weather for chances of flash-flooding. And on these remote roads, many of which are dirt, it helps to have a high-clearance vehicle and a good emergency kit—at least an extra container of gas and extra water.

Here are our five favorite ways to slip away and get to know the landscape.

1. Hike White Pocket

A hike at White Pocket isn't nearly as crowded as the Wave.
A hike at White Pocket isn't nearly as crowded as the Wave. John Fowler

Here’s one adventure that you’ll want a proper four-wheel-drive vehicle to access. But is it worth it? A hundred times, yes. While the crowds vie for access to the nearby Wave, you can escape into the quiet White Pocket area. Grab a detailed map and head to this multi-colored natural work of art.

You can hike a half-day to explore the main slickrock trail, or spend an entire weekend getting to know these swirling rocks’ nooks and crannies. Does the drive or the orienteering sound intimidating? Not a worry: multiple guide services in Kanab offer tours of White Pocket year-round and would be happy to take you there and show you the scenery.

2. Wander the Site of an Old Ghost Town

The Paria River in southern Utah.
The Paria River in southern Utah. Deborah Lee Soltesz

Plagued by the regular flooding of the Paria River, this old, nameless, western town outside Kanab was slowly abandoned by its inhabitants in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It remained a popular movie set for Western films until the set burned down years ago. Little remains of the old ghost town, but it’s a worthy little adventure to drive there and ramble around the old cemetery and town site and see the picturesque painted mountain.

Take a vehicle that can handle the dirt road that accesses the town site. You can consult the staff at Kanab’s visitor center if you have any questions about getting there. But take our pro tip: make the drive in late-afternoon as the sun lights up the rocky landscape before sunset. Your jaw will drop—and you’ll want to budget plenty of time to take photos.

3. Explore the Kanab Caves

Visit the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, near the Kanab Caves.
Visit the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, near the Kanab Caves. Courtesy of Kane County Office of Tourism

It’s a fairly short walk—and a bit of a scramble—to get into this stunning series of cave rooms. This is another destination that’s perfectly lit shortly before sunset, so a late-afternoon visit is ideal—perhaps after dropping by nearby Best Friends Animal Sanctuary to feel the love from some rescue animals.

The caves are visible from Highway 89 just after you pass the animal sanctuary. Keep a sharp eye out and you won’t miss them. You’ll have a brief hike across the sagebrush country, keeping the caves in sight. Once you approach them, you can scramble up the rocks and shimmy right in. Perfect place for a picnic or afternoon drink? We’d say so.

4. Try Out Canyoneering with a Guide

A guide can help you discover the best places for canyoneering.
A guide can help you discover the best places for canyoneering. Mia & Steve Mestdagh

Technical canyoneering without a guide is best left to those who really know what they’re doing—it involves ropes, rappelling, navigation in narrow canyon networks, and scrambling on swirling slickrock. But novices can safely try canyoneering accompanied by a proper guide. You can trust them to get you through some of the most interesting terrain you’ve ever encountered.

Anyone with a decent level of fitness—and a willingness to trust the guide and try new things—will love the experience. There are multiple guide companies in Kanab that can help you plan and prepare. You can usually choose a half-day or full-day adventure.

5. Wander Around Towering Toadstools

Toadstools offers some amazing rock formations to explore.
Toadstools offers some amazing rock formations to explore. au_ears

About 45 miles east of Kanab on Highway 89 lies an area called the Toadstools—rock formations that look like exactly that. The open, rocky desert’s full exposure to the sun makes it no fun on sweltering summer days with no shade in sight besides the fleeting shadows cast by the rock pillars. So pick a quiet autumn, winter, or spring day to explore this otherworldly area in the quiet, cool desert air.

The established trail winding through the Toadstools is a quick mile and a half loop, but it lies adjacent to an area called Rimrocks, which promises wide-open adventure to any hardy explorer armed with a map and navigation skills.

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