Escape Tourist Hotspots on a Quiet Winter Getaway to Kanab

Experience western charm and rugged adventures on an off-season visit to this southern Utah gem.

Written By Jenny Willden

Kanab   |  Jenny Willden

Armed with a heavy wooden sled, my best girlfriends and I set our sights on a steep, sandy set of snow-dusted dunes in Southern Utah. We’re kicking off a winter weekend at Kanab’s Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park after a rare storm blanketed it in snow. 

We’ve heard tales about sandboarding down this red-hued sand in summer, but we’re here to make a go of it in the cold. After renting a sit-down sled model at the park entrance (because we value our lives and limbs) we take off on the “slopes” — no lift ticket or chairlift required. 

“You’re on!” my friend Kelly yells as she starts recording my descent. I start sliding and the wet snow adds speed, spinning the board out of control and launching me into a somersault. Luckily, sand is soft and I somehow catch myself, land back on, and laugh-cry all the way down. The other three women have better luck, managing to stay on, but they can’t contain their giggles.

While others are sand-sledding alongside us today, Coral Pink’s remote location and chilly temperatures keep it from becoming an outdoorsy Disneyland in winter. And that’s just how we like it. With ski season dominated by crowds, a Kanab getaway marked by solitude and wide-open spaces is just what we need. 

So where and what is Kanab, you ask? Let’s get this out of the way first. Say it with us: Kuh-Nab. No, it’s not Kay-Nab or Kuh-Knob. 

With soaring red rock cliffs and narrow sandstone slots, Kanab’s otherworldly landscapes and homegrown hospitality draw visitors seeking an authentic American West experience. Known best as the gateway to The Wave — a popular permit-only hike — this Utah-Arizona border outpost is fast rising to acclaim as an outdoor adventure, art and foodie paradise. 

Far from everything, but accessible to Zion National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Coral Pink Sand Dunes and Lake Powell, Kanab is an ideal basecamp for exploring southern Utah. Summer is high season, leaving winter as a bastion of calm and quiet in this small town. (Read: "How To Visit Southern Utah in Winter")

So whether you were rejected in the battle to get a permit for The Wave, or aren’t bothering to enter, you can escape crowded destinations and explore Kanab’s wondrous caves, canyons and toadstools in mild winter weather. 

Kanab’s poster-famous Toadstools are impressive in person, especially when dusted in snow.

Photo: Jenny Willden

Escape crowded destinations and explore Kanab’s wondrous canyons in mild winter weather.

Photo: Jenny Willden

Hike the Toadstools

Kanab’s guidebook and poster-famous Toadstools are more impressive in person, especially when dusted in snow. Drive 45 miles south on U.S. 89 from Kanab and follow a fairly easy 1.5-mile roundtrip trail to see these red and white mushroom-shaped rocks up close. While the delicately balanced red one is the most photographed, continue walking to explore more of this toadstool forest. 

Explore Manmade Wonders

Hikes don’t need to be hardcore. Belly of the Dragon and the Sand Caves are quick jaunts to cool caves for when you’re short on energy or time. The Sand Caves are adjacent to Highway 89 and were originally dug for mining. Take the short, slippery walk up to explore these sandy cliffside hollows. 

Find Belly of the Dragon 16 miles from Kanab under Highway 89. This human-dug rock tunnel is used for drainage from the upper canyon, but inside the rocky passage is a spooky place to explore on dry days. Bring a jacket and headlamp for the cold, dark conditions.

Also along Highway 89, Roam Outdoor Adventure Co. offers a Via Ferrata and rappel experience in Cave Lakes Canyon.

Take an ATV Tour to Peek-a-Boo Slot Canyon 

Race over sand dunes on Kanab Tour Company’s backcountry ATV journey to Peek-a-Boo slot canyon. Drive yourself in a two- or four-person Polaris RZR through a deep, sandy trail winding past Navajo sandstone to this nontechnical, crimson slot canyon. It’s accessible without climbing, but the canyon’s slender passages and dazzling layered sandstone are just as impressive as anything technical. We’re floored by the quiet power of Peek-a-Boo’s orange and red walls, carved over eons by raging water. 

The adventure continues with a drive up undulating waves of red sand. We consider ourselves non-motorized sportspeople, but I see what the fuss is about on sharply banked turns and as we roar through deep dunes. Three hours makes for a perfect ATV intro without getting overwhelmed.

Go Stargazing Under Dark Skies

Channel old west vibes with Adventure Tour Company’s stargazing and s’mores experience at an old movie fort. Kanab was once called “Little Hollywood” due to the abundance of Western movies shot in its desert landscapes. Thirty-five movies were filmed at this fort alone, most recently the second season of “Westworld.” Our local guide, John, picks us up dressed in full cowpoke attire. On the drive to this private canyon, he regales us with stories of growing up in Kanab.

Arriving just before sunset, we take in red cliff vistas behind the dilapidated fort as we learn calf roping on a metal dummy roping stand. As the sun drops below the sandstone cliffs, John lights a fire and readies a s’mores buffet — complete with homemade marshmallows — for roasting. Stars begin to light up the night, and soon Kanab’s dark sky reputation shines. John points out the “Great Conjunction,” a rare astronomical event when Jupiter and Saturn appear closer in the sky than in hundreds of years, something we struggled to see in the bright skies of Salt Lake City. 

Sledding Kanab’s Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park after a rare snowstorm

Photo: Jenny Willden

Take an ATV tour to Peek-a-Boo Slot Canyon

Photo: Jenny Willden

Belly of the Dragon and the Sand Caves are quick jaunts to cool caves for when you’re short on energy or time.

Photo: Jenny Willden

Best Friends Animal Society, America’s largest no-kill pet sanctuary, invites visitors to volunteer with its 1,600 animals.

Photo: Jenny Willden

Volunteer at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary

Outdoor adventures may be your trip focus, but why not do some good too? Kanab is home to Best Friends Animal Society, America’s largest no-kill pet sanctuary, and invites visitors to volunteer with its 1,600 homeless cats, dogs, horses, bunnies, potbellied pigs and birds.

A free tour showcases how Best Friends saves and rehabilitates so many homeless animals, and we take a follow-along version in our own vehicle before volunteering at Cat World. While volunteering can mean cleaning and other tasks, it’s often simply petting and loving these felines. 

Taking a particularly feisty kitty on a snowy stroller walk through the cat paths is my favorite “job” of the day. Did you know some cats even like walking on a leash? Afterward, amble the sanctuary’s desert trails to see pictographs and waterfalls, or follow the road up to Angel’s Rest, a memorial to dearly departed pets. 

Where to Stay

As a dogless dog lover, I couldn’t resist Best Friends Roadhouse & Mercantile — Kanab’s only pet-centric lodging. It’s owned by Best Friends Animal Society and goes beyond pet-friendly, offering thoughtful pup perks like a fenced dog park, pet washing station and built-in pet beds. Bonus for winter visitors: The rates are cheaper than in summer. 

The Roadhouse is cozy for humans too, thanks to modern rooms and a continental vegan breakfast served every morning. But our favorite perk isn’t plush mattresses or tasty muffins. It’s the sleepover program from Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. 

Volunteer at the sanctuary and you’re eligible to host an adoptable dog, cat or bunny for an overnight stay. Snuggle, pet and play with your temporary guest and give the animal a chance to experience life away from the Sanctuary. We hosted Jodi, a senior pit mix, and all that sleepover socialization must have worked because she recently found her furever home. 

Where to Eat

Kanab’s dining scene is popping, with lauded eatery Rocking V Cafe first bringing praise to this desert outpost. But Rocking V and many favorites limit hours or shutter entirely in winter. Avoid dining disappointment by visiting these open destinations during an off-season vacay.

In town, jumpstart your morning with java and French fare at Kanab Creek Bakery. Quiche is a hearty favorite, but you can’t go wrong with flaky, authentic pastries. If you’re rushing to an early adventure, grab a drive-thru breakfast burrito at Sunny Creek Coffee. 

For the cheapest lunch with Angel Canyon vistas, drive north to Best Friend’s Animal Sanctuary. Order a $5 vegan boxed lunch at Angel Village Cafe to enjoy Indian fare, Mexican burritos, or whatever else the creative chefs cook up.

Elevate dinner at a New American favorite: Sego Restaurant. Local chef Shon Foster cut his teeth as executive chef of the luxurious Amangiri resort before launching Sego in his hometown. Foster sources ingredients locally whenever possible, and his selection of gourmet toasts and garden fare led us to dine here twice in one weekend. 

Plant-based eaters love Peekaboo Canyon Woodfired Kitchen’s menu of you-won’t-believe-it’s-all-vegetarian eats. Don’t miss the Hot Mess pizza topped with vegan Italian sausage, shishito and serrano peppers, chevre and smoked gouda cheese. 

Sego Restaurant

Photo: Ted Hesser

Kanab Creek Cafe

Photo: Ted Hesser

Winter Travel Tips

Watch the weather.

Chill dirt roads and quiet canyons fast become impassable when winter storms threaten. Ask the visitor’s center or Bureau of Land Management office about conditions if you’re uncertain about a route.

Be aware of road and restaurant closures.

Some roads, like the North Rim of the Grand Canyon route, are closed throughout snow season. Check with national or state park services to ensure destinations are open.

Capture winter moments.

From snow-covered red rocks to unique lighting conditions, winter brings photographic magic. Since the sun never tracks high in the sky during winter, you’ll see long shadows all day that create visual interest in photographs.

Go early.

Popular destinations like the Sand Caves and Coral Pink Sand Dunes get crowded midday, but you’ll have the place to yourself if you arrive before 9 a.m. Also, short daylight hours make it worth getting an alpine start.

Basecamp Kanab

Kanab, Utah is classic American West, surrounded by towering Navajo sandstone cliffs and vistas of sagebrush. This scenery has lured filmmakers to Kanab for nearly 80 years. Part of being a great basecamp is an abundance of local and diverse dining options, and great Kanab lodging. Kanab offers traditional fast-food options along with an array of sit-down dining experiences, including an artisanal bakery, vegetarian wood-fired pizza, New American cuisine with microbrews and craft cocktails at Sego and southwestern and Cajun fusion at Wild Thyme Cafe. 

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