If sandstone slot canyons, rosy-hued sand dunes, soaring rock hoodoos, and quaint main streets sound like the makings of a perfect road trip, then Utah’s southern stretch of U.S. Highway 89 is the route for you.
Although the nearby Interstate 15 offers a somewhat parallel and arguably faster north-south route to travel through Utah, I would argue that the 200-mile stretch of Highway 89 through the southern half of the state is worth the extra time for its scenic payoff.
Not only does the highway pass by two of Utah’s spectacular national parks, Zion and Bryce Canyon, but it also serves as a conduit to the sprawling Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the gorgeous Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, and a string of historic little towns.
On my recent road trip from northern Arizona, I followed Highway 89 north from the southwestern-Utah town of Kanab to Mount Pleasant in the center of the state before heading east. All along the way, I marveled at the treasures of the route that is sometimes referred to as the National Park Highway.
When To Visit Southern Utah
The best seasons to drive Utah’s Highway 89 are spring and fall, when average high temperatures are in the 60–80-degree Fahrenheit range. Summers tend to be hot, with average highs in July and August in the 80s and 90s. Winters are cool, with average highs in the 30- to 50-degree range.
To do the route justice, it’s best to spend at least 5 days to 7 days. After driving up and down Utah’s Highway 89 numerous times, I have a few favorite spots. Here are 8 of them, from south to north.
With red sandstone cliffs surrounding it and numerous historic rock buildings lining its streets, the little town of Kanab is worth a stop all on its own. Factor in the many natural wonders that surround the community, and you have a worthy spot for a multi-day stay.
Kanab is known as a great base for exploring everything from the slot canyon of Buckskin Gulch to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument’s Toadstool rock formations to three iconic national parks: Zion and Bryce Canyon to the north and Arizona’s North Rim of the Grand Canyon to the south.
Even though Kanab has a population of less than 5,000 people, it offers the services of a larger town, with many restaurant and hotel choices. For dining, I loved Sego Restaurant for its unique take on regional favorites like elote fritters and duck lo mein, as well as Peekaboo Canyon Wood Fired Kitchen for its great vegetarian pizza and salad choices. For hotels, check out the cool Flagstone Boutique Inn & Suites or the Canyons Lodge Hotel.
I recommend staying 2–3 nights in Kanab if you want to explore nearby spots like Buckskin Gulch and Grand Staircase.
2. Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park
Even for aficionados of sand dunes, Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park is a jaw-dropping experience. In this state park located just off Highway 89, about a half-hour northwest of Kanab, visitors will find shifting red-hued sand dunes straddled by Navajo sandstone cliffs.
There are few established trails, but much of the parkland is open for exploration, and the rolling waves of sand attract walkers, hikers, and ATV-ers.
Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park is perfect for a day trip from Kanab, or as a 2–3 hour stop on a road trip along Highway 89.
Pro Tip: Campsites are available at Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park year around.
3. Zion National Park
Two of Utah’s Mighty 5 national parks — Zion and Bryce Canyon — lie just 15 to 20 minutes off Highway 89, making both convenient stops on a southern Utah road trip.
Zion, the park that’s home to world-famous trails Angels Landing and The Narrows, is about 30 miles northwest of Kanab, and its eastern entrance is about 15 miles west of Highway 89 on State Highway 9.
The town of Springdale on the park’s southern border is the main gateway community and perhaps the most convenient place to find dining and lodging. For upscale pub fare, head to the Zion Canyon Brew Pub for gourmet burgers, sandwiches, steaks, and local beers. Or for gourmet coffees, paninis, salads, and soups, check out Café Soleil.
You could easily spend a week or more exploring Zion’s spectacular scenery, but a 2–3 night stay would allow you to explore Springdale, ride the park’s shuttle to several of the main attractions, and take in one or two of the hikes.
Pro Tip: In an effort to reduce crowding on the popular Angels Landing trail, Zion began requiring a permit in 2022. More information is available on the national park website.
4. Bryce Canyon National Park
Bryce Canyon National Park, famous for its large concentration of the soaring rock spires known as hoodoos, is about 75 miles northeast of Kanab, and about 15 miles southeast of Highway 89 via Highway 12 and Highway 63.
Like Zion, Bryce Canyon is a bucket list–worthy national park, and it should definitely be on a southern Utah road trip. I loved Bryce for its easy vehicular access to viewpoints that offer sweeping views of the hoodoo-filled canyons.
The park’s website recommends checking out Bryce Amphitheater, home to the greatest concentration of hoodoos found anywhere on Earth. Viewpoints along the first 3 miles of the main road provide access to views overlooking the area. Then, if you have time, continue on to the Southern Scenic Drive, which offers nine scenic overlooks that display the lesser-seen beauty of Bryce Canyon. Bryce Canyon also offers numerous hiking opportunities, from easy to strenuous, that will get you into the midst of the hoodoos.
Plan to stay for one or two nights to take in the main sights and try several of the hikes. Scenic and convenient lodging is available at the historic Lodge at Bryce Canyon.
Much of the town’s main drag, which coincides with Highway 89, is on the National Register of Historic Places, and informative signs offer fascinating tidbits about the history. For authentic dining, check out the Cowboy’s Smokehouse, where the menu includes regional fare like the mesquite BBQ ribs, a green chili pork burrito, and country-fried steak.
The town’s name means “big fish,” and Panguitch is within a half-hour of four well-known fisheries: Paragonah Reservoir, Panguitch Lake, Panguitch Creek, and Asay Creek.
A stop of 3–4 hours would allow you to have lunch, explore the antique shops, and visit one of the area lakes.
For fans of the classic 1969 western film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Circleville is a sentimental stop. Just south of town, road trippers will come upon the childhood home of Butch Cassidy, also known as Robert Leroy Parker.
In contrast to the outlaw lifestyle of Cassidy’s later life, the little homestead is a peaceful spot consisting of a small log cabin, a stand of leafy trees, and a few interpretive signs and picnic tables.
Cassidy (played by actor Paul Newman in the movie) lived at the site with his family from about 1880 to 1884, from the age of 14 to 18. Information uncovered about Cassidy indicates that he was “a fun big brother, loved dancing and racing horses, liked to read, was a hard worker, and was kind to animals,” according to a sign at the site.
Plan to spend an hour or so reading the signs and checking out the Cassidy homestead. The town of Circleville features a small selection of cafés and service stations for a lunch stop and a gasoline fill-up.
7. Big Rock Candy Mountain Bike Loop
For a place to stretch your legs and take in the rugged scenery of Marysvale Canyon and the peak known as Big Rock Candy Mountain, the Big Rock Candy Mountain Bike Loop Trailhead in Sevier is a convenient stop along Highway 89.
The Big Rock Candy Mountain Bike Loop trailhead is located along the highway and just north of the Big Rock Canyon Mountain Resort, which sits at the base of the caramel-colored mountain that got its name from a popular song of the 1920s.
The Big Rock Candy Mountain Bike Loop is a paved trail that is a part of the historic Old Spanish National Historic Trail. It offers views of colorful rock formations and the pretty Sevier River.
The trail is smooth and is rated as easy. If you decide to take a walk or bike ride on the trail, plan to stop for an hour or two. The trailhead has ample parking and restrooms.
8. Spring City
Pure charm is in store in the little town of Spring City, a community billed as one of few sites in the U.S. where the entire town is on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
Settled by mostly English and Danish pioneers, Spring City features a main street (Highway 89) that is lined with historic rock buildings, including the Old City Hall building, which was constructed of local limestone in the Greek Revival style, complete with a bell tower. The building now serves as the home of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers Museum.
Across the street from the museum is a row of historic buildings that house shops, galleries, and restaurants. Be sure to stop by Das Café, a signature eatery in Spring City that features fare that Visit Utah describes as “American-German-Mormon fusion.” You’ll find menu items such as bratwurst and kraut burgers alongside omelets and Belgian waffles. I especially enjoyed Das Café’s shady patio, which is decorated with colorful murals.
A stop of 2–3 hours would allow you to have lunch, visit the museum, and explore the vintage buildings along the streets of Spring City.