KANAB, Utah — During my three decades as a travel writer, this was the first time I had found myself in the doghouse. Literally. I was in the Puppy Pre-school at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary’s Dogtown, cuddling an affectionate pit bull mix named Challah. She was the last of her litter, and if there is any justice in the world, this adorable mutt has already found or will soon find her forever home.
In the meantime, she — and others like her — receive lots of TLC from the passionate staff at Best Friends. Let me amend that — Challah and others both like and unlike her. Here, in this sprawling 3,700-acre sanctuary in Angel Canyon nestled among the red rocks of southern Utah, cats, bunnies, horses, birds, pigs, goats and even the occasional turtle join their canine companions in living the good life until they can be adopted. If, in the rare case, they never are, this is their safe haven for life.
Recently, another animal species has become part of the Best Friends landscape — humans, in the form of intrepid travelers who are looking for a different kind of vacation.
According to Cyrus Mejia, one of the founders of Best Friends in 1984, some 35,000 visitors arrive annually at the sanctuary. Some come to sightsee, but about a third come for the express purpose of volunteering.
They come to feed the equines stabled at Horse Haven; grab a leash and take the residents of Dogtown for their daily walk and coax a shy feline to come out and play at Cat World. At the end of the day, it’s hard to tell which species — animal or human – has benefitted most from the encounter.
"Volunteers, many who come from as far away as Europe, Africa and Australia, are a great help to our staff in caring for the animals," says Mejia, "but we feel they get something in return that is positive, uplifting and sometimes, life-changing." Life-changing is a good way to describe a visit to Best Friends, not only in seeing the staff’s genuine devotion to these neglected animals — you have to love a place that rescued 22 pit bulls from Michael Vick’s dog-fighting ring — but in the majesty of the setting itself.
On a morning walk with Mejia, he explained that prior to starting work on the sanctuary, the founders met with a Paiute elder to ask for the tribe’s blessing on the land (they got it) and to ask for his advice on how to be respectful in their stewardship (they got that too.) This was important, says Mejia, as the canyon was where Paiute leaders came to seek guidance from Mother Earth.
You can’t help but feel close to Mother Earth in this serene setting, but it’s her most vulnerable creatures that are the real draw. Volunteers can choose from three-hour morning or afternoon shifts. Advance registration is required, and the staff will do their best to match potential volunteers with the species of their choice.
If they want to continue canoodling with canines, frolicking with felines and bonding with bunnies, and if they happen to be staying at the Best Friends Roadhouse and Mercantile, they can arrange with the sanctuary for a dog, cat or bunny to join them on a sleepover.
The sanctuary opened Best Friends Roadhouse in 2019 as a way to both accommodate visitors to Kanab and generate more revenue for its animal rescue efforts. Surrounded by the starkly beautiful Vermillion Cliffs, the Roadhouse is located just five miles from the sanctuary.
The 40 rooms are designed with pet-friendly touches such as built-in cubbies for your dog or cat, while the grounds feature dog-washing stations and a fenced dog park with a splash zone.
The Roadhouse has a friendly staff who always seem to have treats in hand. Just so you won’t feel left out, they offer freshly baked chocolate chip or oatmeal raisin cookies at bedtime, and a continental breakfast in the Mercantile to get your day started.
'Little Hollywood' in the Utah desert
To scientists, the red rocks that cover this part of Utah were petrified sand dunes dating back 150 million years. To artists, they were the colorful gems of the desert. To the native Paiutes, they were sacred places sheltering the ghosts of their ancestors. To the movie and TV industries, they were money in the bank.
Kanab is not known as "Little Hollywood" for nothing. During our walk, Mejia points out a break between two canyons.
"There used to be a wooden bridge across it," he explains. "Those old enough to remember the (1950s) movie version of ‘The Lone Ranger’, might recognize that as the spot where the Lone Ranger uttered ‘Hi, Ho, Silver’ as the horse reared up on its hind legs." The Lone Ranger was just one of the 100 Western movies and television shows that were filmed here. Movie classics such as "Fort Apache" and "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" and television classic "Gunsmoke" called Kanab their cinematic home.
The Old West is alive and well here, and no one knows it better than Dennis Judd, Kanab’s historian and onetime stunt man for Dean Martin in "Rough Night in Jericho." I met Judd at the Victorian-style Heritage House Museum for a tour and coffee where he educated me on Kanab’s history, both real and reel.
"Settlers started coming to Utah in 1847, but they were continually repulsed by Indian attacks. It was 1870 before 10 families from the Latter-day Saints finally arrived to stay," he says. "Before them, it was the Paiutes who lived here and gave it its name, which in their language means ‘Place of the Willows’."
Hollywood’s interest was initially piqued in 1924 with the first in a long line of Westerns filmed here. The film was "Deadwood Coach" and its star, Tom Mix, is one of 104 Western stars who have been honored over the years with a plaque on the Kanab Walk of Fame.
It’s a favorite activity with visitors to see how many plaques they can find. They’re scattered throughout the town, seemingly without rhyme or reason. I found Dale Evans’ plaque, but not that of Roy Rogers, although I was assured he had one.
There are plaques for the Cartwright boys, but not together. They’ve also split up the "Gunsmoke" gang, but John Smith and Robert Fuller — aka Slim and Jess of TV’s "Laramie" — have plaques side-by-side … "pards" to the end. And their plaques are next to Ronald Reagan, who despite his eight years as leader of the free world, never got over being a cowboy.
As if Kanab can’t get enough of its celluloid cowboys, the town hosts an annual Western Legends, Heritage & Music Festival (this year Aug. 13-15), where guests have a chance to interact with some of their favorite Western heroes.
What to do when you're not volunteering
In between volunteer sessions, there’s plenty to do in Kanab and its environs. For a small town, Kanab has a surprisingly robust restaurant scene. For starters, there’s the Rocking V Café, situated in an old mercantile building from 1892, and Wild Thyme, known for organic ingredients from their own garden. Sego is the place to go for upscale cuisine, especially fine cuts of beef. However, vegetarians and vegans need not worry about going hungry here in cattle country.
Angels Village on the grounds of Best Friends Sanctuary is, in keeping with their animals-first philosophy, vegan only. Peek A Boo Canyon Wood Fired Kitchen, across the street from the Best Friends Roadhouse, offers vegan and vegetarian versions of favorite dishes. Their cassoulet, which substitutes vegan apple/sage sausage for duck or chicken, gets high marks.
Save a day for a trip to one of the nearby national parks. Zion National Park, Utah’s first national park, has the massive red sandstone cliffs common throughout the area, while Bryce Canyon National Park, smaller in size but occupying a higher elevation (9,000 feet) than Zion, is not really a canyon. Rather it’s a series of natural amphitheaters whose tall, cylindrical columns are known as hoodoos. Both parks are nothing short of spectacular.
While it’s true that you won’t find the kind of night life here that you do in big cities, there’s one thing Kanab offers that you won’t find in any city.
This part of Utah is a dark-sky destination and Adventure Tour Company can arrange an evening visit to a red rock canyon with the ruins of an old movie fort as a backdrop. Here, you can toast s’mores over a campfire and marvel at more stars than you thought possible. Off in the distance, you can even see the outline of the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Take that, city dwellers.
Starlit skies, multicolored prehistoric rocks, Old West history, scenic national parks and the chance to lose your heart at Best Friends Sanctuary — Kanab is a traveler’s dream come true.