(This is the start of a three-part series exploring the Utah Heritage Highway (U.S. 89), which stretches through farmlands, quaint towns and historic sites from Fairview to Kanab. We begin at the northern end of the route in Fairview.)
Getting out of the fast lane and into the real American West is what Utah Heritage Highway 89 is all about. When you exit the Interstate, you can feel your pulse slow down and your hands lighten up on the wheel. A two-lane trip into history is straight ahead. Along the way you’ll encounter everything from pastoral farms to white-capped mountain peaks and red rock canyons. You’ll meander through towns with names like Fountain Green and Mt. Pleasant. And you’ll discover a pioneer culture that lives on in this region of Central Utah designated as the Mormon Pioneer National Heritage Area.
From the north, you can reach Highway 89 by exiting Interstate 15 at Spanish Fork, and heading up U.S. Route 50 and 6 until you reach the Manti exit. This is the quickest way to get to Highway 89 and the Sanpete Valley from Salt Lake City and the Wasatch Front. It will take you past the site of the well-known Thistle landslide. This was a notoriously large geologic event that occurred in 1983, during the wettest year in Utah history. The 1,000-foot wide, 200-foot deep, mile-long slide buried the railroad town of Thistle, damming the Spanish Fork River and creating “Lake Thistle.”
Twenty-six years later, you can still see an old house partially submerged in a remnant of the lake on the east side of Highway 89. This route will also take you through Fairview, which has a great historical museum, and provides easy access to Skyline Drive, a paved highway that goes up Fairview Canyon, particularly beautiful in the fall.
The other way to get on Highway 89 from the north is to exit I-15 at Nephi and take Highway 132 through Fountain Green and Moroni. Either way, you’ll be skirting 11,289-foot Mount Nebo, the southernmost and highest mountain in the Wasatch Range, named after the biblical Mount Nebo overlooking Israel, which is said to be the place of Moses’ death.
The Utah Heritage Highway’s five areas are Little Denmark, Sevier Valley, Headwaters, Under the Rim and the Boulder Mountain Loop. From the north, the first area, Little Denmark is so named because of the Scandinavian pioneers sent here by Mormon leader Brigham Young to settle the area in 1852.
In the towns of Little Denmark, you are surrounded by the influence of these early settlers. Masterful woodworking and stained glass-skills are reflected in many of the marvelous local bed and breakfast inns. You’ll soon appreciate the slower speed limits, which allow you to stop frequently to explore these cultural gems. Throughout the region, you’ll want to keep a sharp eye out for the many museums, gift shops and artisan studios in every town.
You’ll find paintings and sculptures, handcrafted furniture, wind and stringed instruments, pottery, western saddlery, custom boots and more. The area is home to Best of State award-winning artists, artisans and crafters, who convey the Mormon pioneer heritage story with skilled hands and creative minds.
Driving through the region is a visual delight—and challenge. While gazing at snow-capped Mt. Nebo rising above Fountain Green at twilight, I narrowly missed a startled mule deer that bounded in front of my SUV. The eye has many choices: verdant fields, historic homesteads, commanding mountain ranges, even a flock of sheep manicuring the front lawn of a tidy home. Keeping an eye on the road requires a bit of discipline.
Wisely, the locals have carefully preserved and refurbished many of the original buildings, with Mt. Pleasant, Manti and Kanab listed as National Preserve America Communities. The region is steeped in the history and lore of the Old West. Mt. Pleasant was initially settled in 1852 by Mormon pioneers, but was abandoned the next year due to Indian raids. The community was resettled in 1859, and the peace treaty ending the Black Hawk War between Mormon settlers and the Indians was signed in Mt. Pleasant in 1872 at what is now the Old Pioneer Museum. The community prospered following the end of hostilities and with the coming of the railroad in 1890.
Driving through the vast expanses of untouched land, it is easy to let your imagination wander as you reflect on the grit and stamina of the settlers who were sent to build homes and communities in what to them was a foreign land. I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt as I pulled in to a roadside convenience store for a cool drink. But it soon passed, modern road warrior that I am.
The region is not just about history. It’s also a gateway to many of Utah’s famed national parks including, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef and Zion, and national monuments, including Cedar Breaks and Grand Staircase/Escalante. There are also national recreation areas such as Glen Canyon, just south of Capitol Reef, and state parks, including Anasazi Indian Village, Coral Pink Sand Dunes, and Fremont Indian State Park, to name a few.
As for recreation, you may need to pull a trailer just to bring your toys. River running, ATV adventures, mountain biking, golfing, hiking, world-class fishing, hunting…it’s all just outside your RV door. In the northernmost Little Denmark region, the Arapeen ATV trail near Spring City will take you to an elevation of 10,000 feet along the Skyline Drive, one of the highest roads in the nation. Palisades State Park, near Manti, features tree-shaded RV parking, an 18-hole golf course and a picturesque reservoir for fishing. It’s a popular family destination.
Depending upon the time of year you decide to visit, there are festivals and events scheduled that celebrate the living stories of the region. In May, Ephraim’s Scandinavian Festival remembers the colorful heritage of the Danish settlers, and in June, Manti hosts the annual Mormon Miracle Pageant, held on the grounds of the region’s most notable architectural landmark, the Mormon Manti Temple. July offers everything from Butch Cassidy Days to the Bicknell International Film Festival to a variety of rodeos and Independence Day celebrations. August features such events as the Manti Mountain ATV Tour and the Western Legends Roundup, and September is when the well-known Rocky Mountain ATV Jamboree cranks up in Richfield in the Sevier Valley.
Not to be forgotten, of course is a place to stop and call home…if only for a day or two. From Fairview on the north to Kanab in the south, you’ll find plenty of RV resorts and camping spots along this 261-mile stretch of road, with amenities and activities to make your stay more enjoyable. And while there are too many to list here, you can find a complete rundown on one of several websites listed below.
While I’ve driven this route numerous times, it still feels like a new adventure every time I head out. The land is so big, and the history so rich, that it always captures my heart and imagination and inspires me. One thing is for sure. I’ll continue finding my way down Highway 89 for some time to come. There are just too many new adventures waiting to be found. Stay tuned as we continue our trip next month.
Bob Wassom is a Utah-based freelance writer with a passion for outdoor recreation, travel and tourism. He has never gotten over the fact that in Utah you can get to the mountains faster than you can get to the office.