89 or 89A: That is the Question
Of all of the questions I am asked about traveling on US Route 89, one of the most frequent is about the two possible drives between Bitter Springs, Arizona and Kanab, Utah. Since both US 89 and 89A are about the same length and take the same time to drive, neither one has a clear advantage over the other. However, each road has unique features and possibilities for exploring this corner of the Colorado Plateau. I’ll describe what you can expect along each road so you can answer the question for yourself. For a map and more information, check out the road trip guides here Flagstaff to Page, here Page to Kanab and here Bitter Springs to Kanab.
Bitter Springs to Kanab on US 89A
US Route 89A is the original alignment of the highway when it came into existence along with the rest of the federal highway system in 1926. It became an alternative when 89 was rerouted to Page to facilitate the construction of Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. From Bitter Springs it is 14 miles to the low point on this route at the crossing of the Colorado River in Marble Canyon. Navajo Bridge was completed in 1929 as the final connecting link in the border to border highway. A new vehicle bridge was built in 1992. Stop at the visitors’ center and take a walk out on the old bridge to view Marble Canyon and the Colorado River 470 feet below.
The road to Lee’s Ferry is on the west side of the river. River trips downstream through the Grand Canyon start here and some of the best trout fishing in Arizona is upstream toward Glen Canyon Dam. You can also visit Lonely Dell Ranch, the home of John D. Lee, now lovingly maintained by the Park Service.
For 28 miles through the House Rock Valley, 89A parallels the Vermillion Cliffs. California condors have been reintroduced to make their home here and can be seen along the cliffs and near Navajo Bridge. Stop at the Donimgues-Escalante Interpretive Site to learn about the history of Spanish exploration across the Colorado Plateau. At the west end of the valley, a dirt road goes north along Coyote Wash and eventually connects to US 89 in Utah.
Straight ahead is the Kaibab Plateau. For the next twelve miles the road climbs 2,500 feet to the top at Jacob Lake. From here, Arizona Route 67 runs south to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. This road is only open from the middle of May until the end of October depending on snow conditions. If you are traveling 89A in the off season, be sure to check ahead for current driving conditions.
From Jacob Lake, highway 89A descends the west side of the Kaibab Plateau to Fredonia. Pipe Springs National Monument is 13.5 miles west of Fredonia on highway 389. Continue on 89A for 7 miles to Kanab.
Bitter Springs to Kanab via Page on 89
From Bitter Springs, US 89 climbs 1,000 feet in 3 miles hugging the face of the Echo Cliffs through Antelope Pass onto the Kaibito Plateau. Near the top, there is a small parking area where Navajos set up tables to display and sell jewelry and other craft items.
The road slowly descends for 20 miles to Page. Three miles south of Page is short road on the west that leads to an overlook of the Colorado River at Horseshoe Bend. US 89 reaches its low point as it crosses the Colorado at Glen Canyon Dam. The visitors’ centers offers tours of the dam including descending inside the dam almost to river level to view the giant turbines that produce electricity for distant cities.
Views of Lake Powell and access to the lake at Wahweap are available along the highway to the west of Page. The road crosses the Paria River 29 miles from Page. A hike into the Narrows of the Paria is one of the highlights of this section of US 89. Check in at the BLM Ranger Station for a permit and for information on current weather conditions. Flash floods are common on the Paria in the summer rainy season, so proceed with caution.
Five miles west of the Paria is the intersection with House Rock Road. Take the road south to access the Coyote Buttes and eventually connect to US 89A. Permits are required to hike to the Wave and other spectacular rock features along this road and are available at the BLM Ranger Station.
US 89 continues west for 40 miles to Kanab.
What about recreational vehicles?
Several people who have asked this question have been driving larger RV’s and are concerned about steep grades. Be assured that both roads can be driven in larger vehicles. They are federal highways and conform to the national standards of construction. Since both roads connect Bryce Canyon, Zion and Grand Canyon National Parks, they are heavily traveled by tourists in all kinds of vehicles, especially in the summer months.
When we travel through this area on a round trip from our home near Tucson, we drive 89 in one direction and 89A the other. That way we can enjoy both roads and avoid having to choose one over the other. If you can only choose one, both are beautiful drives so you can’t go wrong either way.