From the Old West to Mars: Hollywood can’t seem to quit this Utah ghost town

Kane County is still full of remnants from its days as an A-list movie backdrop

Photo: Shutterstock

Paria, a ghost town located on the shores of the flood-prone Paria River in Kane County, Utah, is surrounded by stunning, color-drenched mesas. Before Hollywood came calling in 1944, it had been abandoned for 30 long years—save for one lone pioneer who lived for more than a decade among the remains of a once-bustling village, or so the legend goes.

The town was quintessentially “western”—and director William A. Wellman had a quintessentially western story to tell.

Buffalo Bill, a 1944 biopic about a legendary Army scout-turned-entertainer, was a box-office hit, and at the time it was the second-highest grossing film ever made by 20th Century Fox. But it wasn’t the story, or even the cast, that thrilled the audience—it was the vibrant Utah desert.

Kanab’s rise to fame

Located just up the road from Kanab, Paria wasn’t the only town in Kane County to get a taste of Hollywood notoriety. Moviegoers had been charmed by the black-and-white version of the area’s expansive, rocky landscape in 30 movies filmed over the previous two decades. And with the rise of technicolor film, Kanab and greater Kane County joined the A-list.  

The region, which became known as “Little Hollywood,” went on to serve as the filming location for dozens of films and television shows, from the Western series Gunsmoke (1955-1975) to the sci-fi classic Planet of the Apes (1968) to the fourth machines-from-outer space film, Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014).

Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park in southern Utah.
Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park in southern Utah. | Photo: Shutterstock

Over nearly a century, the movies filmed here have left their mark, quite literally, in the form of discarded movie sets and memorials. But what Hollywood instantly fell in love with back in the 1920s took me exactly three visits to actually see.

The first time around, eyes glazed from heat and altitude after a long day of hiking at nearby Zion National Park, I barely saw the town as I drove down through its core. A few years later, I stayed in Kanab overnight but, arriving late at night and leaving at the crack of dawn, I never even ventured out of my motel room.

Not this time, though. Driving into town, crimson cliffs flaming beneath a dramatic sky cloud my vision, and I stick around long enough to explore the labyrinthine Peek-a-Boo Slot Canyon and the pillowy drifts at Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park. It’s almost as if I’ve wandered into a movie set. And, by Hollywood standards, I have.

Toadstool rock formations near Kanab.
Toadstool rock formations near Kanab. | Photo: Shutterstock

Famous four-legged residents

The same diverse landscape that finally caught my attention is a big part of what drew the film industry here in the first place, at least according to Tom Forsythe of Kanab’s Little Hollywood Museum. “Right around Kanab, you can have this classic Western, high desert appearance. Within an hour, you can be in an alpine forest,” he says. “Thirty-five minutes the other way, you’re in what looks for all the world like Mars in Paria—and part of the reason it looks like Mars is because when Hollywood wants to shoot Mars, they come here.”

This winter, southern Utah—a dry desert 5,000 feet above sea level—has seen an unusual amount of rain and snow. And though the sun is out, the road through Kanab Canyon (also called Angel Canyon) to the headquarters of the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary is so muddy and rutted that the car I’m riding in has to turn around and find another route.

“When Hollywood wants to shoot Mars, they come here.”

Before it was purchased by the founders of Best Friends in 1984, this canyon was known as the Kanab Movie Ranch. The 3,700-acre property lined with striated cliffs and riddled with rock shelters was, for years, a working ranch with cattle, horses, and plenty of nooks and crannies for framing scenes. The Lone Ranger, Lassie, Route 66, Daniel Boone, and several other mid-century television shows were shot here from the 1950s through the 1970s.

The homestead set from One Little Indian in Kanab.
The homestead set from One Little Indian in Kanab. | Photo: Shoshi Parks

On a tour of the animal sanctuary, our guide points out a choke point in the canyon popular for ambush scenes. How much of this deep, spectacular canyon, I wonder, has had its 15 minutes of fame? How much did film crews leave behind? Only one thing, it turns out: A wooden barn built for the 1976 Disney film One Little Indian still sits in a sodden paddock of sway-backed horses. “The horses like it just fine,” says Barbara Williamson, Best Friends’ media relations manager.

Though the canyon has likely seen its last Western, Hollywood hasn’t strayed too far. The sanctuary’s 1,600 animal residents—or at least its four-legged, tail-wagging ones—have starred in not one but two National Geographic shows: Dogtown and Animal ER Live.

A film set graveyard

The movie sets have been removed from Kanab Canyon, but remnants from the Hollywood heyday in Kanab are still strewn elsewhere around Kane County. Paria is among the most famous of the local film locations, and signs in the desert still mark the “Old Town” movie set built for the Rat Pack film Sergeants 3 in 1961. The set itself is long gone. Built to enhance the ghost town’s original buildings, it was destroyed by a flash flood in 1998, then rebuilt and destroyed a second time by a fire in 2006.

Inside a set from The Outlaw Josey Wales in Kanab.
Inside a set from The Outlaw Josey Wales in Kanab. | Photo: Shoshi Parks

The biggest repository for discarded movie sets, though, is found in town at the Little Hollywood Museum. A rickety orange bike with coaster brakes takes me the few blocks from my hotel to the museum. This town is so bucolic that my bike doesn’t even come with a lock. The route is installed with a long line of plaques illustrating the golden age actors who once graced Kanab with their presence. Above the complex, a massive cowboy rides a rearing white stallion into the sunset.

This town is so bucolic that my bike doesn’t even come with a lock.

Out back is a film set graveyard. Here lies the homestead and barn from the 1976 Clint Eastwood vehicle The Outlaw Josey Wales; farming equipment from 2012’s John Carter of Mars; a windmill from the 1996 Kiefer Sutherland film Truth or Consequences, N.M.; the tack and feed building from 1948’s Black Bart; and a dozen other pieces left behind by film crews eager to return to “civilization.”

The sets here date from the 1940s to the 2010s—but movies filmed in and around Kanab since the late 1970s have been relatively few and far between. By then, Hollywood was no longer infatuated with Westerns and the few that were made used locations in Northern Arizona that became more accessible to Los Angeles after the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam in 1966, according to Forsythe.

An aerial view of Kanab Canyon.
View of Kanab Canyon. | Photo: Shoshi Parks

The Hollywood agenda

More than a few Kanab locals were happy that the film industry was moving on; the loose morals of the Hollywood set were at odds with the conservative Mormon town. Though locals had accommodated the industry—especially the proprietors of the Parry Lodge, who not only opened Kanab’s first bar in 1945, but built a kidney-shaped pool at the request of John Wayne in 1956, and knocked out the walls of three rooms to build Frank Sinatra a suite—some had trouble accepting the agenda of their visitors.

“When Robert Redford came to town and started to tout an environmental agenda, that was too much for the ‘good old boys,’” Forsythe recalls. In 1973, an effigy of the legendary actor was burned in the street.

Despite a precarious love-hate relationship, Hollywood can’t seem to quit Kanab completely—parts of HBO’s Westworld is filmed here, for example. But while the pace of film production has slowed to a trickle, the town’s natural beauty still manages to capture the imagination, and bring the Old West—and Mars—to life.

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