Last month, we diverted from Heritage Highway 89 to explore the dramatic red rock buttes of Capitol Reef National Park and the acclaimed scenery of Scenic Byway 12. This month we’ll complete our trip by staying on 89 through Richfield, Sevier and Marysvale, on our way to Kanab. Along the way we’ll encounter fabled attractions like Big Rock Candy Mountain, the pastoral Long Valley and the Carmel Junction, gateway to the eastern entrance of Zion National Park.
Richfield, the county seat of Sevier County, was so named because of the rich soil in the area. Driving through this region, with its wide-open farmland framed by mountain ranges, one has to wonder about the overcrowded cities so many of us call home, and ask why? I’ve heard tales of European travelers becoming unnerved by such wide-open spaces because they are simply not used to such expanses of unoccupied land. Conversely, I feel a sense of freedom and well-being, knowing that there is still a lot of uncivilized and untouched land out there.
If a bit of civilization is comforting, you’ll definitely find it in Richfield, the commercial center of the Sevier Valley. RV parks, motels, restaurants, shopping, entertainment, services—you’ll find a good selection of everything here. Just south of Richfield is one of the area’s most interesting attractions in Fremont Indian State Park. The park came into being in the 1980s when construction workers came across the remains of one of the largest Fremont Indian communities in the west. Artifacts were collected and are displayed at the park, providing a fascinating look at the early Fremont and Anasazi Indians who lived in the area 5,000 years ago.
Made Famous by Song
Continuing south along 89, as the farmland gives way to more hilly and mountainous terrain, you’ll come across the unique natural wonder known as the Big Rock Candy Mountain, which is now the site of a family resort with lodging, a restaurant, ATV and mountain bike rentals and, of course, an RV Park. Named after the Harry McClintock folk song first recorded in 1928 and made famous by the Burl Ives version in 1950, the colorful mountain of yellow, orange, red and white minerals is one of the best-known geologic features in the west. It really does look like you could take a bite of its colorful slopes.
About five miles south, you’ll drive through the town of Marysvale, one of the access points for the 900-mile Paiute ATV trail, considered to be one of the top ten ATV trails in the country. Folklore says it was originally named Merry Vale by Mormon leader Brigham Young, who spent an enjoyable evening in town “stag” dancing, a common form of entertainment where men danced together, due to the lack of women. The area is also rich in mining history. Some people believe that Spanish conquistadors came to the region in the 1600s looking for precious metals. You can take a self-guided walking tour of the Silver King gold and silver mine that was active in the 1890s. Or take a driving tour of “The Canyon of Gold,” just west of Marysvale. There’s also whitewater rafting along this section of the Sevier River, which parallels Highway 89 all the way to Panguitch.
Considered to be one of the gateways to Bryce Canyon and Highway 12, Panguitch is also a National Historic District, with one of Utah’s best-preserved downtowns. Many of the turn-of-the-century storefronts have been restored and today house a vibrant mix of shops, restaurants and lodging. Head west from Panguitch on State Road 143 toward Brian Head Ski Resort and you’ll find Panguitch Lake. This scenic mountain lake is at an elevation of 8,400 feet and is surrounded by historic lodges and cabins. Panguitch is a Native American word for “Big Fish,” and you’re likely to find more than a few should you decide to try your luck.
Driving south from Panguitch, you’ll be going along the Markagunt Plateau toward Long Valley Junction. Here you can head west on the Markagunt Scenic Byway 14 that will take you to Cedar Breaks National Monument. As you can tell, this is not an area that you want to rush through. There is so much to see and do that you’ll want to plan your trip carefully.
From Long Valley Junction to Mt. Carmel Junction you’ll be cruising through the pastoral farmlands of Long Valley. Every time I drive through here, I want to buy some land and put up a small cabin just for an escape. It’s very inviting.
At Mt. Carmel Junction you’ll find the Thunderbird Motel and restaurant. Its unique neon sign reminds me of those trips I took in the ‘50s with my parents. It has that classic “motor lodge” appeal. There’s also an adjacent nine-hole golf course that creeps up the foothills if you feel like breaking out the sticks. Here, you can head west on Scenic Byway 9 to the eastern entrance of Zion National Park, or continue south on Highway 89 to Kanab. If you choose to go toward Zion, you’ll find Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort, a full-service family resort with pool, hot tub, lodging, restaurants and every activity you can imagine from ATVs to horseback riding to zip lines and skeet shooting. I spent a few days there last year, and it was truly delightful.
As you continue south on Highway 89, you’ll drive past the road to Coral Pink Sand Dunes. Don’t miss it. This vast expanse of pink sand is a mind-boggling contrast to the blue sky, green sage and juniper trees. It is truly stunning. If you’re a photography buff, plan to be here at golden hour, or for an early sunrise. You won’t be disappointed.
As the highway turns from its southern route and you head east toward Kanab, you’ll be entering the Old West country that Hollywood fell in love with, beginning with Tom Mix’s western “Deadwood Coach” in 1922 and continuing on through the “Gunsmoke” era. It’s easy to see why, with the majestic red rock buttes and dramatic desert horizons that form the backdrop of every view. Kanab has also become one of Utah’s burgeoning arts communities. Shops and galleries display fine art and photography, as well as Western memorabilia and some of the highest quality Native American crafts and jewelry in the region. If you continue east, Highway 89 will lead you to the inland water wonder known as Lake Powell, with its jaw dropping combination of red rock desert and deep blue waters.
Utah’s Heritage Highway 89 might be one of the most dramatic drives in America, with its amazing transition from high country farmland to red rock desert. Whenever you choose to explore it, make sure you give yourself enough time to enjoy the variety of experiences you’ll find along the way. If you’re like me, most likely you’ll be planning your next visit before you finish the first one.
Bob Wassom is a Utah based free-lance writer with a passion for outdoor recreation, travel and tourism.