Take a volunteering vacation and make some new Best Friends

By Red Oelerich

Kimosabe. Those old enough will recall the term that Tonto called the Lone Ranger in his native tongue, a phrase thought to be from the Ojibwa language, meaning “trusted scout” or “best friend.” It’s not surprising, then, that on a recent visit to the feel-good capital of Utah, Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, my wife, Karen, and I encountered our own kimosabe.

As one of the largest no-kill refuges of companion animals in the world, Best Friends is anything but tamed. Located just outside Kanab and surrounded by southwestern Utah’s most iconic wilderness landscapes, the facility makes it easy to enjoy red-rock splendor and do some good for its 1,600 rescued animals at the same time.

The landscape is, in fact, one of the primary reasons thousands of Best Friends’ volunteers keep coming back year after year to work with dogs and other animals such as cats, horses, goats, ducks and the like. Nowhere is volunteering such an aesthetically pleasing experience, especially when accompanied by one of the residents of Dogtown, the care center at Best Friends, where pups and mature dogs wait, and hope, for adoption to a good and loving home. The sanctuary depends on vacationing volunteers, and its website includes information about their voluteer program along with suggestions for nearby lodging and dining.

Though not within the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the 3,700 acres that comprises Best Friends may as well be. The focal point of the sanctuary is Angel Canyon, carved through one of the step-like terraces that define the monument. Walls of caramel-colored cliffs line both sides of the canyon, leading in and out of steep side canyons that beckon exploration. From the rim of the canyon, an incredible vista of the monument’s brawny White Cliffs encircling the sanctuary to the north is there for the gazing.

If the scenery here appears faintly familiar, it’s because you’ve probably seen it before —on the small and big screens. The Lone Ranger TV series was shot in Angel Canyon, as were numerous scenes from The Outlaw Josey Wales and the Disney movie, One Little Indian.

Offering a break from the parched desert heat, Kanab Creek runs a sinuous course through Angel Canyon, its banks dense with cottonwoods, cattails, willows and bird life. At one stretch, the creek channels through about 12 feet of sheer rock—a favored destination for dog outings.

The short, but exhilarating Water Canyon hike from the Best Friends Welcome Center is one of the more thrilling ways to sample the canyon. Along the way, you and your canine companion can dawdle in Kanab Creek and relish one of the few perennial streams in the area, sustaining a multitude of wildlife that live in or pass through the canyon.

From there, the trail traverses the side of Angel Canyon toward the cliffs before veering into a side canyon, where the ruins of an Anasazi kiva squats inside one of the many Angel Canyon alcoves. The trail climbs upward past spiraling rock formations and follows a spring before ending at a pour-off in the cliffs—where flash floods are often funneled into the canyon. It’s easy to roam from there along the slick rock to the east rim of Angel Canyon, where gorgeous vistas open up and down the canyon and out toward the White Cliffs.

Water and time sculpted this magnificent landscape, and an easy jaunt into yet another side canyon reveals another way water behaves here. As snow has piled up over countless winters, the melt has seeped through the porous sandstone rock and dripped into a subterranean chasm known as the “underground lake.” A short path lined with gamble oaks leads into a gaping hole at the bottom of a cliff, and the water inside is from snow that fell hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years ago. It’s a refreshingly cool place to bring dogs on a warm day.

The sanctuary lends itself nicely to exploration if you don’t mind finding your own way around. Following deer trails, bushwhacking along the canyon bottom or walking up and down the creek, you never know what you and your chosen dog may find. You may even stumble across an Anasazi petroglyph, pictograph or ruin, or spot a hawk’s nest perched on a cliff ledge. It’s not unusual to encounter a gaggle of wild turkeys that fly down each evening from the rim of Angel Canyon to roost in the cottonwoods.

A good starting point (or lunch spot) for a hike through the canyon is Angels Landing, a natural amphitheater set within the cool, shady recesses of a domed-shape rock alcove. The acoustics are stellar here, making this an ideal setting for the occasional concert Best Friends hosts. Caregivers often bring dogs here to conduct some training or simply to have a quiet moment away from the hubbub of Dogtown. This is also the setting of the animal cemetery. Thousands of tiny graves of dogs and cats that have lived out their lives here and passed away peacefully. Impossible to not be emotionally moved.

Whichever way you decide to experience Best Friends Animal Sanctuary or its environs, there’s a canine companion or two at the sanctuary willing and waiting to experience the landscape with you. There’s no more gratifying way to do it. And, after bonding, your hiking partner is available and willing to be adopted.

On our last visit there, after the nearly impossible task of choosing, my wife and I settled on a 2-week old puppy from the Navajo reservation. Naming him was a no-brainer—our new “best friend”:  Kimosabe.

For ways to donate, subscribe or volunteer, visit:
Best Friends Animal Society
5001 Angel Canyon Road, Kanab