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KANAB, Utah — My friend Patti Nickell and I are both animal lovers, but when it comes to pets, Patti is in the dog camp while I am firmly cat. Nonetheless, we found common ground at Best Friends Roadhouse and Mercantile, a Western chic motel in Utah’s canyon country.

We were attracted by the location, of course, but even more by the back story. The lodging was created by Best Friends Animal Society, which operates the country’s largest sanctuary for homeless animals. The motel supports the sanctuary, and guests are encouraged to volunteer to help care for the animals. The feel-good story of animal rescue was irresistible. When we visited in December 2019, shortly after Roadhouse opened, we had no inkling that it would be our last chance for more than a year to travel together.

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Personally, I’ve always had a soft spot for classic two-story motels where every room has an outside entry, but very few have been as utterly transformed as Best Friends Roadhouse. Designers remade the property with such nods to Western style as pale alder wood furnishings in the living/sleeping area, bathrooms with red sandstone vanities, and sliding barn doors to divide the two spaces. Missing from the Western chic conventions were decorative antlers, cowhide throws, or tufted leather hassocks.

Best Friends Roadhouse and Mercantile opened in Kanab, Utah, in November 2019 to serve owners and their pets visiting southern Utah.
Best Friends Roadhouse and Mercantile opened in Kanab, Utah, in November 2019 to serve owners and their pets visiting southern Utah.Patricia Harris for The Boston Globe

Instead, Best Friends Animal Society has made Roadhouse the ultimate animal-friendly property. We knew it the moment we arrived and followed dog paw prints in the concrete sidewalk to the reception area. Vegan cookies awaited us. Had we brought animal companions, they would have been greeted by cat and dog treats.

Each guest room is equipped with food and water bowls and a bed with a pull-out animal bed beneath. But if Muffy and Fido prefer to sleep with their humans, that’s perfectly OK. Cat-specific rooms also feature a portable igloo-style bed for more aloof felines and a tall scratching post. The site also has a dog park and dog-washing facilities.

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Patti and I didn’t have any animals in tow, so we did the next best thing. We had registered in advance to volunteer at the nearby Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, the society’s 3,700-acre property which is home to about 1,600 animals, most of whom will find their “forever homes.”

Our first three-hour stint was pretty easy. In one of the cat buildings, we spent time socializing with Dude, Dudette, Fergus, Haven, Magnificent, Bruce, Hot Cocoa, and their comrades. We also helped wipe down surfaces, inspect beds and blankets for soiling, and wash food bowls. It was hardly glamorous work, but essential to ongoing health and cleanliness of the facilities. It also helps the cats socialize with people. There was a lot of petting involved.

Guests are welcomed to their rooms with photos of animals saved by the Best Friends Animal Society, owners of Roadhouse.
Guests are welcomed to their rooms with photos of animals saved by the Best Friends Animal Society, owners of Roadhouse.Patricia Harris for The Boston Globe

We didn’t mind that things didn’t get any more elegant in a dog house the next day, where we started by scooping poop. Another volunteer and I took Les and Calla Lily for walks while Patti socialized with Carmello and Tiramisu. Many of the dogs became instant pals, but even the most reserved animals warmed up when we helped deliver the dinner bowls — all of which needed to be washed after the food vanished in seconds. We could have hosted animals for sleepovers, but both Patti and I declined, fearing that we would become too attached to our guests.

We did take a free van tour of the property so that we could also meet some of the horses, pot-bellied pigs, bunnies, and birds living in the rugged red rock landscape. Patti was born and raised in Texas and, over the years, I’ve come to share her love of old western movies. We realized why the Best Friends property seemed so familiar when we learned that it has been the location for a number of cowboy movies, including “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” “Mackenna’s Gold,” and the 1956 “Lone Ranger” film with Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels.

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A horse is more interested in food than in the beautiful landscape of the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah.
A horse is more interested in food than in the beautiful landscape of the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah. Patricia Harris for The Boston Globe

In fact, Kanab was the setting for about 125 western movies and episodes of television series such as “Death Valley Days,” “Have Gun Will Travel,” and “Gunsmoke.” When we perused the gift shops and Western wear stores in Kanab’s little downtown, we also read some of the more than 100 plaques along the sidewalk. They celebrate the movie stars and famous directors who helped make the laid-back town into “Utah’s Little Hollywood.”

Kanab itself hardly lacks for red rock drama, but one day we drove about an hour to Zion National Park, itself a sanctuary for a diverse range of high-desert species of plants and animals. Eighty-four percent of the park remains protected wilderness. In pre-pandemic days, about 4 million visitors per year flocked to Zion, sometimes even making key lookouts in the great outdoors seem overcrowded. In the offseason, things were much quieter. We were allowed to take our own car along the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive where red and white sandstone cliffs and wind-sculpted rock formations rose around us. (Shuttle buses provide transportation from spring through fall.)

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The 1956 “Lone Ranger” movie was filmed in Kanab, Utah.
The 1956 “Lone Ranger” movie was filmed in Kanab, Utah.Patricia Harris for The Boston Globe

To cap off our visit, Patti and I joined Adventure Tour Company for an evening trip into the hills outside Kanab to an old movie set for a western fort. Away from big city lights, we were hoping to see a dark sky awash with stars. Alas, clouds obscured the sky, but we were hardly disappointed. As we sat around a campfire toasting marshmallows for s’mores, our guide related tales of prehistoric dinosaur tracks embedded in rock outcrops and of ancient Native American trails through the rugged landscape. Just for good measure, a herd of longhorn cattle milled around in the shadows. What more could we ask?

Patricia Harris can be reached at harrislyon@gmail.com.


Patricia Harris can be reached at harrislyon@gmail.com.