The western states are filled with gorgeous scenery and there are many popular national and state parks to camp, hike, or take scenic drives. I decided to follow US Highway 89 north after I visited the Grand Canyon. I hopped on at Flagstaff and rode 400 miles to northern Utah. It’s a great road trip with many places to stop for days at a time. Luckily, I passed through this area a month before the Tunnel fire started, raging between Flagstaff and Page, Arizona, briefly closing US 89. I’m glad I got to drive through before the fire temporarily closed the road.
This part of the country is best to visit in the spring and fall. Summers are hot and flash floods come with the monsoon season. This is a desert climate with high elevations so come prepared with water, a hat, and sunscreen — even in colder months. There can be quite a bit of snow in these higher elevations as you move north into Utah. Expect crowds at the popular stops. Everyone wants to experience the beauty of this area.
1. Flagstaff And Tuba City
Flagstaff sits at the crossroads of I-40 and I-17. You can drive west to Las Vegas and Los Angeles and south to Phoenix and Sedona. It’s a college town (Northern Arizona University) and a hikers’ paradise. You can hike to see petroglyphs in the Picture Canyon Natural and Cultural Preserve. There are three trails you can hike to see the petroglyphs, each under 3 miles and relatively flat. Other trailheads are easily accessible from US 89 or you can visit a Pueblo archeology site, have fun at Peaks View County Park, or try the Cinder Hills off-road vehicle trails and camping area.
Numerous peaks surround the area as you head north with more places to stop and hike.
As you leave Flagstaff you will see the far edges of the Grand Canyon in the distance to the left and the Navajo Nation to the right. Turn off towards Tuba City and visit the Navajo Moenave Dinosaur Tracks area. Navajo people offer guided tours to see the fossilized tracks and sell jewelry.
Pro Tip: There is no admission or required tour fee, but this is reservation land so please respect the tribe members.
2. Horseshoe Bend And Lake Powell
Plan to spend some time in Page, Arizona, as there is a great deal to see and do. It’s hard to say which is the main attraction — Lake Powell, Horseshoe Bend, or Antelope Canyon. You also can take in Lee’s Ferry and the Glen Canyon Dam.
The ride into Page is quite scenic. You can see the backside of the Grand Canyon, twist and turn on some S-curves coming through Antelope Pass, and see Horseshoe Bend from an elevated vantage point as you head down into Page.
Horseshoe Bend is an iconic rock formation that forces the Colorado River to bend like a horseshoe around it. It’s an amazing geological formation stemming from millions of years of erosion. You can park for $10 and walk 0.7 miles to the rim of the canyon edge. There are no rangers or park personnel for safety, so watch your step. Though crowded, the scenery is worth the effort.
If you want some boating or lake fun, head to Lake Powell and try to find the water. Sadly, this once enormous lake has shrunk as water levels decline, much like Lake Mead in Nevada. Rent a boat but be prepared for crowds in the summer. Also, be prepared for the water reflection and summer heat. It can be deceiving at 4,700 feet. Have potable water, sunscreen, and shade.
If you want to have a great adventure, book a tour at Antelope Canyon. You can’t get into the slot canyons without a guide, but the wavy and smooth surface of these orange, red, and cream-colored canyons is not to be missed. You can also see canyons by floating down the Colorado River. Come ashore before Horseshoe Bend and see the Ancient Anasazi Petroglyphs. Lee’s Ferry homestead site is the stopping point for floats and has its own campground and beautiful views of the river and mesas. You can also drive to see Lee’s Ferry.
The Glen Canyon National Recreation Area maintains a dam across the Colorado River. You’ll have great views as you drive over the river. The old 1929 steel Navajo Bridge remains and is a pedestrian bridge, offering more spectacular views for free.
Pro Tip: Page may give you sensory overload. The area is filled with scenic overlooks. Pick and choose a few spots and slow down to take them in. Otherwise, the area becomes a blur.
3. Small Towns Of Utah: Kanab, Mt. Carmel Junction, And Orderville
A few miles north of Page you enter Utah. The drive provides more amazing sights of mesas and rock formations. There are numerous trailheads just off the highway including the southern edge of the Escalante National Monument area for back-country hiking. Head for the valley town of Kanab founded by Mormons during the 1860s. The downtown is charming and filled with eateries and shops along with historical buildings and turn-of-the-century homes. It has an amazing restaurant scene for such a small place. Try New American cuisine restaurants offering wood-fired food and high-end dining options, as well as more casual and rowdy places like Houston’s Trail’s End offering cowboy ambiance or the Iron Horse for western themes. There’s even the Havana Cabana Cuban restaurant.
A few miles farther north is the little town of Mt. Carmel Junction where you can turn west on Utah Highway 9 and head to Zion National Park through a breathtaking scenic route complete with a tunnel through the mountain. There are several trailheads in this area. The east fork of the Virgin River runs through the area at the junction, so watch the weather and flash flood warnings. A few more miles north is Orderville which boasts a number of inns as well as the East Zion Resort — complete with a hillside yurt where your stay comes with amazing views.
Pro Tip: Check out the numerous rock shops along the way for some unique finds. Joe’s Rock Shop in Orderville is an amazing roadside stand with thousands of raw minerals and gemstone rocks to purchase.
4. Bryce Canyon National Park And Utah Scenic Highway 12
Thirty miles north is the turn-off to Bryce Canyon National Park on Utah 12. You can stop in Hatch to the south or Panguitch to the north for hotels and food or turn onto Utah 12 and stop at one of the motel/gas station/restaurant places that are just up the road. Beyond that, you’ll have to travel 17 miles to the park entrance before finding more options.
On the drive to Bryce Park, you’ll pass through a natural rock tunnel arch into the Dixie National Forest and Red Canyon. Stop in at the visitor center to get trail maps. There are some asphalt paths/bike trails that are accessible. As you get closer to Bryce, you’ll see plenty of outdoor adventure companies offering tours, off-road ATV and bike options, and Ruby’s Rodeo arena ($15 per person, all summer) run by Ruby’s Inn — the historic hotel complex that sits outside the national park entrance. Catch a shuttle bus here in the summer to get into the park. They make stops along the rim. Like many other national parks, this is the best way to get in and out of the park during peak summer months when the crowds swell.
Bryce Canyon is not to be missed. It’s known for its rock formations called hoodoos. There are trails into the canyon that are strenuous or you can opt for the 18-mile scenic drive to the top of the canyon rim (9,100-foot elevation). It’s a beautiful drive with plenty of turn-off parking along the way to get the perfect pictures.
Hatch and Panguitch are nice respites from the masses of visitors. You’ll find some local saloons, burger joints, like Hank’s Hitching Post in Panguitch, and assorted hole-in-the-wall diners.
Pro Tip: The season begins in April. Before that, government campgrounds and some hotels and restaurants are closed. Because of the soft soil and snow, don’t expect to boondock if you’re camping. Some commercial RV parks are open.
5. Butch Cassidy Childhood Home
The final stop on US 89 is Circleville, about 30 miles north of Panguitch. This is a kitschy, western-themed town honoring a well-known historic resident. You can stop in and visit the boyhood home of Butch Cassidy just outside of town. It’s a small farm property with a log cabin and wooden barn preserved with some antique furnishings and farm implements. There is no charge and the setting in the valley is quite lovely.
The final leg of the journey takes you on a gorgeous winding tour between mountain peaks. You can stop at the Piute State Park on the Piute Reservoir. Scenic US 89 ends in Sevier, Utah, where I-70 takes over going east and west.
US 89 is the only way to get to Bryce Canyon from the south and is a welcome change of pace from the usual Interstate travel. It’s well worth the effort. Enjoy the scenery if nothing else!