Kanab, Utah

Where “Little Hollywood” Meets the Coral Pink Sand Dunes

By —— Bio and Archives--April 11, 2010

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imageDue to Kanab’s convenient location as a central hub, if you plan to visit the north rim of the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and Lake Powell, you should consider making Kanab your home base like many visitors from across the globe have done over the decades. With ample lodging, wide tree-lined streets, stately brick dwellings and friendly residents, recently “discovered” Kanab caters increasingly to the tourist and is decidedly unpretentious. It’s the real deal - a conservative slice of the authentic republican West built on a strong Mormon heritage, like much of rural Utah.

Isolated in the southwest corner of Utah’s red rock country, Kanab’s placid demeanor and impressive Old West architecture do little to convey its storied past as Utah’s “Little Hollywood.” The drive-by tourists headed for the big parks have little reason to suspect that roughly 300 mostly-western motion pictures and television shows were filmed in and around this small town of 3,800 from the 1920s to the present.


Clint Eastwood, James Garner, Dennis Weaver, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Dale Robertson, and the greatest actor of all time Ronald Reagan, to mention a few, plied their craft in the Kanab area. As a matter of fact, James Cameron, who directed “Titanic” and “Avatar,” is shooting nearby as I type, another movie mogul following on the heels of other movie moguls captivated by the rich tapestry of vermilion desert landscapes.


The glory days of Kanab’s rich cinematic past and the heritage of the American West are recalled and relived every year during the popular Western Legends Round-Up and Artisan Fair which shouldn’t be missed if you’re in the area near the end of August. The highlight of the bustling three-day event celebrates some of the silver screen’s legends and the industry, or “biz,” that employed many a local. Classic movie and TV celebrities like Clint Walker, Peter Brown, Cheryl Rogers-Barrnett and Neil Summers mingle with their admirers at breakfast and participate in panel discussions where they lead the faithful down memory lane.


At the Round-Up you’ll enjoy live music on two stages, gunfights and stunt shows featuring genuine Hollywood stuntmen, a quilt-show displaying over 150 beautiful quilts, a Junior Ranch Rodeo, a foot-stompin’ barn dance, mountain-man encampment, Native American presentations, cowboy poetry contests, a High Noon parade, a western film festival, and much more. They even run a herd of cattle down Center Street for that authentic touch and smell.


If you miss the Round-Up you can still get a taste of film history by visiting the free Frontier Movie Town set on West Center Street where you can step into the original barn used by Clint Eastwood in “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976), or peer through the gun-portals used in “Sergeants 3” (1962). I highly recommend it. Then, why not drive up Johnson Canyon Road for a visit - from a short distance as it is private property - to one of the oldest and most authentic movie sets in America built for “Westward the Women” (1951).


It’s not only movie buffs who congregate in Kanab; Model T and antique, luxury automobile enthusiasts by the dozens regularly converge on the town. And in late spring, over 300 retired greyhounds (the skinny fast ones) and their owners fellowship and reminisce on the good old days when their bony hounds raced in circles around the track.

If you’re a bona fide animal lover you should also pay your respects at the Best Friends Animal Society, the nation’s largest no-kill animal sanctuary at Angel Canyon 5 miles north of Kanab off Highway 89. It’s a large operation run by a staff of over 400 dedicated to rescuing abandoned or abused dogs, cats, horses and other helpless homeless who have nowhere else to live out their lives in peace. It’s a noble endeavor of love that will surely move you, especially after you take the free daily tour.


A trip to Kanab wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, a perennial favorite of mine unknown to the masses and filmed in “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965). Located 20 miles northwest of town, the dunes are unique for their color - pink, orange, tan and cream that verges on crimson-red at dawn or dusk - and their proximity to forests of towering ponderosa and thick groves of twisted juniper.


The dunes were formed by strong winds that stripped the Navajo sandstone cliffs of the Moquith and Moccasin Mountains and deposited grains of sand where you find them today, piled to great heights or swirling low among the trunks of large trees - the living and the dead, stark skeletal remains splayed on the ground to rot or reaching for blue sky in one defiant last gasp.


Encroaching sands have swallowed the vegetation, spilling into rich habitat that houses a wealth of wildlife. Between bouts of fierce winds that shift and shape the elegant designs you’ll find the ground crisscrossed with telltale tracks of insects, rodents, snakes, coyote and mountain lion. Birds are everywhere.


On the east end of the dunes foot traffic is rare and off-road vehicle-use strictly limited; you’ll also find a small BLM-managed campground that is off-limits to the big rigs. If you plan to explore on foot, camp here for easy access to the sandbox, a short walk through pinion-juniper, ponderosa and silvery sagebrush. To fully appreciate the rippling textures, long shadows and meandering ridge-top lines, leave early to capture the glow of slanted light, or stroll through the evening’s warm rays and brisk winds that will bend and twist native grasses and send a million grains of sand bounding down deep gullies and over towering mounds. It’s an absolute delight exploring the pockets and folds and hidden, ever-shifting valleys of the Coral Pink Sand Dunes. It’s one experience you do not want to miss.


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John Treadwell Dunbar -- Bio and Archives | Comments

John Treadwell Dunbar is a freelance writer

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