From Native Americans to Hollywood superstars, this southern Utah city has always been a draw for many.
A vibrant town tucked amidst the red-rock canyons of Southwest Utah, Kanab has long attracted explorers keen to experience life in this unique setting. Its rich history includes the native Paiute, who lived in the region for thousands of years, followed by a century of European exploration and settlement. Franciscan monks, mountain men, and Mormon missionaries journeyed to this desert oasis to develop trade routes and establish townsites. In the 150 years since its settlement, Kanab has attracted the attention of pioneers, treasure-hunters, movie directors, mountain bikers, and hikers.
Today, visitors come to marvel at the stunning scenery of Zion National Park and other hidden wonders that lay deep in its twisting canyons. It’s an astonishing place, made all the more special by the stories of those risk-takers who first made it their home.
Early Inhabitants & the First European Explorers
Native Americans lived in this region for more than 11,000 years. Numerous tribes subsisted on local plants and animals for survival and created villages, leaving relics that survive today. Navajo and Ute tribes inhabited much of the Southwest, while the Paiutes lived near present-day Kanab during its settlement. They were resilient, adapting a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to coexist with the unrelenting desert environment.
The Dominguez-Escalante Party of 1776 was the first group of non-native people to explore the area. Sent by Spain, the group featured a dozen men who were led by Dominguez and Escalante, two Franciscan monks, with native guides helping to lead the way. Their goal was to develop a trade route between Sante Fe and San Francisco, but the terrain posed perilous challenges.
They fumbled their way across the challenging landscape, parched with thirst and dazed from a lack of food. Legend has it that when they reached the steep walls of Glen Canyon along the Colorado River, it took them 12 days to find a route out. Eventually, they carved steps into the canyon walls to help them and their animals navigate around the vertical terrain. Although now named the “Crossing of the Fathers,” this section of the Colorado River wasn’t regarded so fondly by the explorers, who called it Sal Si Puede, or Get Out if You Can.
Early Explorers: Mormon Missionaries in Kanab
Many Western explorers traveled through Kanab, including the famous mountain man Jedidiah Smith during his 1826 expedition from the Great Salt Lake to the Mojave Desert. But the first known pioneers to reach Kanab with aims of settling it were Mormon missionaries. In the 1850s, LDS church president Brigham Young sent parties to scout the area, but the inhospitable climate discouraged these newcomers. Farmers struggled to cultivate the land, and Mormon settlements suffered relentless attacks from native tribes. While they established a fort in Kanab to defend themselves, it wasn’t a deterrent for indigenous tribes who were forced to fight for their land. After ongoing attacks, the Mormon settlers abandoned the fort in 1866.
Another Chance at Settlement: The Fort at Kanab and the Expansion of the Town
Things changed when Jacob Hamblin, a Mormon diplomat, learned the Paiute and Ute languages and negotiated with the local tribes to regain peace after years of tumultuous relations. Mormon missionaries settled the town of Kanab, branching out from the old fort, and it soon became indispensable as a trading post and base for missionaries and pioneers. Brigham Young visited in the 1870s, blessing the land and bringing cattle and horses. Newly invigorated by their leader’s visit, the early settlers surveyed the surrounding area and expanded the townsite by divvying up land plots to families.
Yet life in the desert proved to be difficult. Insects ravaged crops, and water shortages sucked the land dry. So the new community changed their game plan and formed a cooperative farming operation to overcome the challenges of cultivating the desert, and they focused efforts on cattle ranching.
John Wesley Powell’s Exploration of the Colorado River, 1869- 1873
Perhaps the most famous explorer to spend time in Kanab was John Wesley Powell, the one-armed Civil War veteran-turned-geologist who first mapped the Colorado River. After his first expedition that followed the river into the Grand Canyon, Powell saw a need to retrace his steps. The first trip, although successful, was ill-planned and underprepared. Unrelenting river rapids damaged the expedition’s instruments, so observations were incomplete and unreliable. Powell had failed to collect specimens or take adequate geological and natural history notes.
He organized a second expedition in 1871, and the town of Kanab became his major operational center. Powell painstakingly prepared for the second trip while in Kanab, determining potential routes to cache supplies and establishing friendly relationships with the native people. This expedition resulted in an extensive account—and the first topographic map—of the Grand Canyon area. The photographs from this journey ended up in households across the country, where the average American dreamed of one day seeing this spectacular region for themselves.
Early Twentieth Century Kanab: Little Hollywood and Montezuma’s Treasure
As early as 1922, Kanab garnered the attention of movie directors for its authentic wild-west character. Canyon walls tower over babbling creeks, while striated sandstone forms waves across rolling desert hills. This landscape became the setting of cowboy movies. The Parry Brothers, businessmen in the tourism industry, promoted Kanab as a filming destination.
As film crews flocked to Kanab, community members established lodges and restaurants, and the local economy boomed. During the golden era of westerns, more than 100 movies were shot in this region. Hollywood stars such as Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, and Clark Gable spent time at the Parry Lodge. Zane Grey, famed author of Western tales, wrote Riders of the Purple Sage while living in Kanab.
Around the same time, another adventurer found his way into town: Freddy Crystal. Crystal had different hopes of striking it rich—he wanted to find Montezuma’s Treasure, a legendary stash of gold that was supposedly hidden from the Spanish in the area. Armed with a map he found in a Mexican monastery, Crystal searched for years. He recruited the help of the town and caused a frenzy after finding archaeological remains. But Crystal eventually came up empty-handed, and the mystery of Montezuma’s Treasure remains unsolved.
Unspoiled Kanab: The Draw of the Desert for Modern-Day Explorers
Today, much of the land surrounding Kanab remains wild and unsettled—desert gems ready to be discovered. The town is an epicenter for outdoor exploration, with national parks, monuments, state parks, and thousands of acres of unexplored terrain. Adventurers visit Kanab for the snaking slot canyons, the teetering toadstools, and the swirling smells of sagebrush. And while Zion is the fourth most-visited national park in the country, the region remains filled with the wide-open spaces and scenic vistas that take you back to a time before the modern town. It’s easy to lose yourself in the past and see why so many people were drawn to this special place.
Written by Hannah Singleton for Matcha in partnership with Kane County.