Road Biking Grand Staircase–Escalante

Johnson Canyon Cruise

The Johnson Canyon Cruise is a 50.8-mile out-and-back course. The elevations range from 4,985 feet in Kanab to 5,950 feet at the turnaround. The ride begins at the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument (GSENM) Visitor Center on the eastern edge of Kanab. The route spends very little time in Kanab, immediately heading toward the expansive sagebrush flats east of town and the wonderful landscape of the GSENM.

Start: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Visitor Center, 745 East Highway 89, Kanab (hours: 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. seven days a week, mid-March through mid- November; 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. mid- November through mid-March).

Length: 50.8 miles (out-and-back).

Terrain: Rolling hills and false flats. Minimum and maximum elevations: 4,985 to 5,950 feet.

Traffic and hazards: US 89: 2,450 vehicles per day east of Kanab in 2005; 2,120 vehicles per day at Big Water; 3,190 vehicles per day at the Arizona state line.

Maps: DeLorme: Utah Atlas & Gazetteer: Page 58 D2.

Benchmark: Utah Road & Recreation Atlas: Pages 75, 76 G11 on page 75.

Getting there: From I-15 in the St. George area, exit to S.R. 9 and head east to Hurricane. In Hurricane, get onto S.R. 59. This highway proceeds through Hilldale and enters Arizona at Colorado City, before terminating at U.S. 89A in Fredonia. Turn left and head north on U.S. 89A to Kanab. Once in Kanab, turn right and head east on U.S. 89. The GSENM Visitor Center is at the eastern edge of Kanab.

Miles and Directions

0.0 Exit Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument (GSENM) Visitor Center parking lot (east side); turn left onto Fairway Drive, then left again to continue on Fairway Drive. Walker’s mini-mart and Wendy’s are adjacent.

0.05 Stop at U.S. 89; proceed across — now on 700 East.

0.1 At the stop sign, turn left onto Chinle Drive.

0.9 Begin climb.

1.7 Crest of climb; begin rolling terrain.

5.1 Turn left onto 8-Mile Gap Road (4400 East).

5.2 At the stop sign at U.S. 89, turn right.

8.9 Turn left onto Johnson Canyon Road.

19.6 Cattle guard.

20.6 Enter GSENM.

24.5 Cattle guard.

25.4 End of pavement at Y intersection with Skutumpah Road; turn around here and begin return trip.

26.3 Cattle guard.

30.2 Leave GSENM.

31.2 Cattle guard.

41.9 At the stop sign at U.S. 89, turn right.

45.6 Turn left onto 8-Mile Gap Road (4400 East).

45.7 At the stop sign at Chinle Drive, turn right (no street sign).

49.1 Begin descent.

49.9 Base of descent.

50.7 Turn right onto 700 East. After 0.05 mile, go straight at the stop sign at U.S. 89; now on Fairway Drive.

50.8 End of ride; turn right and enter the GSENM Visitor Center parking lot.

Ride Description

Kanab (population 3,782 in 2008) is the seat of Kane County, located in a rugged region of southern Utah. Kanab is bordered by the Vermilion Cliffs on the north, the Kaibab Plateau and Shinarump Cliffs on the south, the Moquith Mountains and several canyons on the west, and, prior to the damming that formed Lake Powell, the Colorado River on the east. The region is so rugged that, in fact, it was one of the last areas of the continental United States to be mapped. Kanab, at an elevation of 4,925 feet, was once considered to be one of the most isolated towns in the United States; before the introduction of highways into the area, access was a challenge. The Anasazi, Desert, and Southern Paiute cultures all inhabited the valleys and canyons surrounding Kanab during different eras, before “white men” established a settlement.

The name “Kanab” is, in fact, a derivative of a Southern Paiute word meaning “willow basket,” which was used to carry a baby on a mother’s back. Early white settlers abandoned Kanab initially when they experienced hostilities from the Native American tribes. Just a few years later, however, around 1870, Mormon pioneers returned to Kanab and established a peaceful community.

During the twentieth century, Kanab established itself as “Little Hollywood,” serving as the scene for over 150 “western”-themed films and television shows. Frontier Movie Town in Kanab is a permanent movie-set replica. A number of actual movie sets exist in the undeveloped areas around town, but they are generally on private lands. If you have seen any of the movies shot in and around Kanab — The Outlaw Josey Wales, Rin Tin Tin, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Lone Ranger, My Friend Flicka, Planet of the Apes, and others — then you will sense an eerie familiarity with the area.

More recently, Kanab has become one of the gateways to the Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument (GSENM). In 1996 flags in Kanab flew at half-mast when the 1.7-million-acre GSENM was officially designated by President Bill Clinton. Why? Because the GSENM is rich in coal and petroleum, and it was a fleeting hope for locals that the region would generate potentially high-paying jobs and extensive industrial development. The GSENM is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) rather than the National Parks Service. The Johnson Canyon Cruise explores a small sector of the GSENM.

Exit the visitor center onto Fairway Drive, turning left to cross U.S. 89. Once across U.S. 89, turn left onto Chinle Drive — watch for gravel in the turn. This 5.0-mile stretch of road is Old Highway 89, and it serves as a practically car-free alternative to the main highway. Old Highway 89 is used for the bike portion of the annual Kanab Triathlon. Turn left onto 8-Mile Gap Road (4400 East) at mile 5.1. At mile 5.2, turn right to continue eastward on U.S. 89. Although the speed limit on U.S. 89 is 65 mph, there is a shoulder, and the traffic volume was fewer than 2,500 vehicles per day in 2005. Turn left onto Johnson Canyon Road at mile 8.9 and begin the northbound trek into Johnson Canyon, amidst the Vermilion Cliffs, with the White Cliffs in the distance adding to the cornucopia of colors. The road is gradually uphill, although you may not notice as you gaze at the mixture of red, cream, and pink cliffs.

About 6 miles up the canyon, take note of the structures on the right. The somewhat familiar-looking buildings were featured regularly in the television series Gunsmoke. The buildings were also used occasionally in Have Gun Will Travel, Death Valley Days, and Wagon Train. While observing the cliffs and the “historical” buildings, also be sure to notice the periodic “sinks” that appear on the right. The soft layers of Chinle shale have eroded to form these sinks; the surrounding cliffs, however, are composed of hard layers of Navajo sandstone. Enter the GSENM at mile 20.6. The gradient increases beyond this point as you snake between the walls of Wygaret Terrace. The walls recede at mile 24.5, and the vista now includes the Pink Cliffs and Skutumpah Terrace. You never actually get there, though, as the pavement ends at mile 25.4. The now dirt road splits — to the left as Johnson Canyon Road (also known as Alton Amphitheater Scenic Backway), and to the right as Skutumpah Road — but pay these no mind, as it is time to turn around.

The return trip begins with a descent through the narrow canyon that you just climbed. On the way back, you may want to pay attention to the plant and bird life along the route. Larks, sparrows, vultures, swallows, thrashers, wrens, eagles, hawks, and falcons are common sightings. A trained eye may be needed to see some of the less common birds that have been sighted in the GSENM, including grebes, loons, herons, pelicans, doves, and roadrunners. Box elder, cottonwood, juniper, and pinyon pines are abundant in the canyon. As you near U.S. 89, the panorama includes the Shinarump Cliffs; farther in the distance are the mountains and trees of the Kaibab National Forest.

Still farther is the Grand Canyon, directly south of Johnson Canyon and Kanab, although you cannot actually see the canyon from here. Turn right onto U.S. 89 at mile 41.9. Look for the left turn onto 8-Mile Gap Road (4400 East) at mile 45.6. Watch for vehicular traffic when making the turn. At the stop sign, turn right onto Chinle Drive. Enjoy the view of the colorfully eroded cliffs on the right, as well as the city of Kanab, as you head westward. At mile 50.7, at the stop sign, turn right onto 700 East. After a stop at U.S. 89, continue across, where the road becomes Fairway Drive. The GSENM Visitor Center is on the right. For your convenience and refreshment, a Walker’s minimart and Wendy’s are on the left, across the street from the visitor center.


Ride description from Road Biking Utah (FalconGuides).

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