When I first moved to Arizona in 2001 and landed in Page, I spent long and adventurous weekends exploring the canyons, bluffs and trails of southern Utah. The rugged red rocks scraped against the blue sky turned into a soul-altering tableau for my East Coast eyes.

Around that time, Kanab was the town I passed through coming and going — a sleepy place of around 5,000 people. A handful of motor lodges and dive restaurants catered to the passing visitors and occasional tour busses.

Now, Kanab has emerged as something more, as it recently launched into marketing and promoting itself as a true gateway town to Zion National Park, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and Bryce — an hour from the former and an hour-and-a-half from the other two.

The town has adopted a slogan, “Abra Kanabra!” — wordplay that might prompt magician puns and Steve Miller Band references. It refers to the so-called surprises of the Grand Circle, the roundup of national parks and monuments that span southern Utah and northern Arizona. 

This move to cement itself as a destination pairs with a spike in hotel construction, new restaurants and shops to cater to the tourism.

As a three-and-a-half-hour drive and two possible routes to get there, it makes Kanab an attractive weekend destination for Flagstaffians. It can serve as a jumping-off point for Zion National Park, the North Rim or a base camp to get up to Bryce Canyon.

And anyone who wants to skip the park entrance fees and crowds can pick up a nearby trail, visit a local state park or tour one of the largest animal sanctuaries in the country.

Offerings abound

During a recent spring break family trip, the changes to Kanab became apparent along the main avenue where U.S. 89 out of Page and U.S. 89A out of Fredonia merge. Holiday Inn Express and the Hampton Inn mark two of the new larger hotels. The other accommodations, such as the historic Parry Lodge, bring around 20 different hotels with many levels of offerings and price points.

Kanab also has added a boutique extended-stay option with Flagstone Studios, a number of bed and breakfasts and a long roster of airbnb possibilities, with around 100 listings on the site.

Joined with this is a few restaurant additions. Peekaboo Canyon Kitchen is a new wood-fired pizzeria attached to the Flagstone Studios. Sego Restaurant offers higher end New American cuisine, while mainstay Rockin’ V Café helps keep the foodie offerings on the up and up.

A Kanab classic, though, is Escobar’s Mexican Restaurant on the right side on the way in from Page. It’s a locals’ favorite that offers honest Mexican food at a fair price. Travelers can lounge on the patio with a signature burrito and Tecate after a long day of canyoneering.

Another new addition, Kanab Creek Bakery, offers some added breakfast ideas, which can be joined by great coffee at Willow Canyon Outdoor. Willow Canyon also is a hotspot for outdoor gear and a Southwest-themed selection of books.

Nearby explorations

Over the last decade or two, Kanab has built out a trail system right near the edge of town that climbs, skirts and meanders around the pink cliffs just to the north of the city limits. A half-dozen different hiking trails, with around 10 miles of options, head out from the municipality. One of the favored routes is Squaw Trail, which climbs 800 feet to overlook the town and even passes by a rock arch.

A comprehensive roundup of the trails and usages is at www.trailskanab.com. The town-connected trails give a chance to wake up early and catch the sunrise — or cooler time of day — on paths that usually are much quieter than their counterparts in the nearby national parks and monuments.

The website also lists two prominent regional hikes with Snake Gulch (includes world-class rock art) and the Barracks — a hike that heads into the East Virgin River Canyon complex.

Along with those trail options and avenues, a family favorite for exploring nearby has become Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park. It’s about a half-hour drive to the north and it’s famous for its towering dunes of, well, pink sand — though it’s more on the burnt orange side.

Our children have come to love the opportunity to climb the dunes and then roll down them or run down them to the point of exhaustion. The state park also rents “sand sleds” that offer a chance to careen down the steep slopes.

One recommendation for hiker-explorers and families looking for sand-play is to get there early and to shoot for weekdays if possible, when the off-road vehicle traffic is limited. Weekends and holidays bring an increase in ATV and dirt bike traffic.

The sand dunes have another competitor in the kid favorite category: Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. Also located north of Kanab — only about 10 minutes up U.S. 89 — the sanctuary is open to the public.

Anyone is welcome to peruse the visitor center or take a sanctuary tour. Reservations are suggested for this complimentary spin through the facility. Learn more at www.bestfriends.org.

Great beyond

Of course, a trip to Kanab offers that great jumping-off point to explore some of the best canyon country has to offer. While this time of year bring a sharp uptick in visitation to Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon — with the North Rim’s mid-May opening on its way — there are still chances to get into the backcountry on any number of hiking or canyoneering adventures.

The main canyon of Zion, with its towering cliffs of red and white sandstone and gushing springs that feed into the cool cascades of the Virgin River, has reached a point where it seldom is not busy with hikers, swimmers and outdoor revelers. And use of the shuttle system is required for all but the winter months now.

However, trails outside of the canyon, such as the Watchman Trail and the East Rim Trail (where it starts at the far-east entrance) offer some chances at relative quietude. Learn more at www.nps.gov/zion.

Along with all of the geologic and scenic bounty, drives to and from Kanab offer another collection of exploring possibilities. Head the Page route and catch Horseshoe Bend and the Pedestal Rimrocks (the trailhead is about a half-mile east of where 89 crosses the Paria River, on the right). Drive the North Rim/Jacob Lake way and take a stroll on the Arizona Trail or wander around Lees Ferry.

Before the summer scorches and the visitor season builds to a crescendo, Kanab can become a great two- or three-day getaway that serves as a reminder of what makes the Southwest so stunning. Grab a few other ideas, itineraries and maps at www.visitsouthernutah.com.