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Parks, Polygamy, and Puppies! A Rambling Red-Rock Road Trip

May 7, 2014

What I drove: 2014 Volkswagen Tiguan

Destination: Las Vegas to the Red Rocks of Utah, with a stop at Hoover Dam on the way back.

The Route: From Las Vegas, take I-15 to St. George. UT 9 passes through Zion and eventually connects to US 89. Next up: Route 389, which will take you back to Vegas.

Time Required: 5-8 days

The colorful highway to the majestic Zion National Park. (Photo: Thinkstock) 

Think John Ford Westerns. Think the ending of “Thelma and Louise” (well, not the very end). And think about polygamists. Really! This drive has all that—and puppies.

I’ve driven these roads many times, alone and with others—most notably with my ex-boyfriend and coauthor Steve Zusy as we wrote “Motorcycle Touring in the Southwest” (long story). The multicolor landscapes and remote, wide-open ribbons of pavement of America’s Southwest will never get old for me.

This trip reminds me that old is relative, anyway—especially compared to an ancient place like the Grand Canyon, where the Colorado River has slowly carved its way a mile down to rocks that have existed for a billion years. We are all younger than eye-blinks compared to that, aren’t we?

I bring sunscreen, snacks, and lots of water in refillable containers and plan to buy gas pretty much wherever I can.

I let I-15 escort me away from the neon of Las Vegas, that glitziest of cities, toward a different kind of color: unbelievably bright red-rock desert. The blacktop burns through 100 miles before it hits a twisty little canyon that opens up at St. George, Utah, an orderly town in a broad valley surrounded by red cliffs.

After St. George, UT 9 runs eastward past imaginatively named towns like Virgin and LaVerkin. First must-do stop: Springdale, an artsy alternative for the many who miss out on one of the scarce rooms inside Zion National Park. Thank god for Deep Creek Coffee Co., the best java for possibly hundreds of miles (people in Utah are lovely, but they make terrible coffee).

I play tourist here, stretching my legs on short jaunts among Zion’s world-famous cliff overhangs and slot canyons. A few brave souls attempt the steep Angels Landing hike, ending on a peninsula that drops off as 1,000-foot cliffs on three sides. Definitely not recommended for those afraid of heights or fighting with their traveling companions.

From Zion, UT 9 and US 89 run east and south toward Kanab. One detour, Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park (the name says it all) leaves the beaten path behind and points to a different world entirely. The dirt road from the park’s southern end leads to the Arizona border, where you can get a firsthand glimpse of life in the Hildale-Colorado City polygamist enclave.

Coral Pink Sand Dunes National Park. (Photo: Frank Kovalchek)

Trust me, you’ll know a “plural wife” if you see one. And if you find yourself thinking, “This looks like a compound,” it probably is a compound. I marvel at these odd conjoined-twin towns beneath a bank of spectacular bright-red cliffs. 

The best way to meet polygamists without feeling like you need to take a shower is to grab a bite at the Merry Wives Café in Hildale (on the Utah side), a little cafe decorated with old photos of residents’ ancestors. Friendly young women with carefully hand-coiffed hair serve imaginative meals, along with imaginative sweets.

(Illustration: Margot Trudell)

Kanab lies to the east. The town’s visitor center describes the area’s moviemaking history, from old cowboys-and-Indians movies (locals often acted as horseback stunt doubles) to “Planet of the Apes.” Fans of Sinatra, Martin, and Davis Jr., can even sleep at the Parry Lodge, where the Rat Pack stayed while they filmed the 1962 “Gunga Din” remake “Sergeants 3.”

Just outside Kanab, animal lovers tour or even schedule volunteer time at the Best Friends Animal Society, the nation’s largest no-kill shelter (“giant pet playground” would be more apt). Both animals and travelers are happy for the companionship.

One of the “Vicktory” dogs at the Best Friends Animal Society. (Courtesy: Best Friends Animal Society)

I make another jog eastward to grab eye-popping views of Lake Powell—a giant jagged-edged reservoir amid split-open pink rock—then cut south past the proliferating hotels, cheap steaks, and plentiful booze of Page, Arizona.

Now for the grandest part of the journey: the mile-deep gouge we call the Grand Canyon. Time-crunched travelers can investigate the higher, cooler, less crowded North Rim (open May 15 to October 15) and then swing back to Las Vegas via Route 389. Otherwise, I like to mosey along both the North and South Rims, trying to hit Mather Point, Yaki Point, and the Desert View Watchtower at sunrise and sunset. Secure lodging for this leg well ahead of time; in-park options fill up months in advance.

Yaki Point, at sunset. (Photo: Grand Canyon National Park)

By this point, I’ve had enough open space; my head is almost too clear and I crave a stiff cocktail. I point my headlights toward the razzle-dazzle of Vegas. But one last treat: Hoover Dam, now visible from a downstream bypass bridge that’s an engineering marvel in its own right.

Hoover Dam photographed from the Bypass Bridge. (Photo: Cameron Grant)

The Hoover Dam reminds us just how tiny we are. I head back to Sin City to wash the existential crisis away. 

Christy Karras is the author or co-author of four books: Motorcycle Touring in the Pacific Northwest, Motorcycle Touring in the Southwest; More than Petticoats: Remarkable Utah Women, and Scenic Driving: Utah. She is a regular contributor to the Seattle Times and has written for publications ranging from Salt Lake City Weekly to the New York Times.