Lonely Planet Writer

Polygamy USA

Everyone’s talking about national parks these days (particularly with Ken Burns’ new documentary on America’s greatest invention on PBS out later this month). If you’re pondering a trip to one of the best areas for national park–hopping in the southwest, know that you’ll be skirting the heart of real-live Polygamy Country – particularly the community of “plural marriage” families around Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah.

If you make it, and it seems like you’ve stepped into a scene right out of HBO’s “Big Love,” well, it kinda is. Though that show is set outside Salt Lake City, the depicted federal raid of Juniper Creek is loosely based on the real 1953 one on Colorado City’s “Short Creek” (pronounced “crick” around here).

Visitors are welcome to come – for many, though not all, locals. The main “hotspot” in Colorado City to stop and chat has become Colorado City’s Merry Wives Café, a restaurant open Monday to Saturday with a daily specials and good breakfasts.

Charise Dutson, the owner, told me she frequently talks with visitors interested in her and her staff's polygamy life, and that they are happy to receive anyone genuinely interested in different cultures.

“Nearly all the people are very respectful,” she told me by phone. “Though once in a while a women’s group will come and say, you women don’t have to do this.”

Not everyone feels that way though. The splinter group, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) are known for the women's bun hairstyles and "Little House on the Prairie" dresses. And they tend to feel differently about some visitors. In a recent AP story, spokesperson Willie Jessop apparently called a new "Polygamy Experience" tours a "scam."

These narrative bus tours, which began last Saturday, are run by Richard and Heber Holm, who were born into the FLDS before leaving it. “The FLDS have extremely religious zeal that’s, frankly, very bizarre," Richard told me by phone. "They stand apart in their dress, their attitude, even the tone of their voice.”

He says the tours, which cost $69 per person, are an "open dialogue" that encourages respect on local faiths. Don't expect much interaction with the FLDS though. Richard said of Saturday's debut tour, “The FLDS followed us in their pick-ups and filmed us. I think they’re just trying to cause a level of intimidation, but there’s been no problems.”

If you only want to peek at the region -- and see a few places that are certainly open to all to see (like Brigham Young's winter home) -- check Lonely Planet’s Arizona Trips guide or the $5 PDF download of the Grand Canyon region for a detailed “Polygamy Country” tour.