Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument is a remote, unspoiled 280,000 acres (110,000 ha; 1,100 km2) monument with spectacular views. The cliffs are a part of the Colorado Plateau and extend all the way to Utah. With reddish or vermilion-colored cliffs rising up from the sparse desert floor, the monument contains a range of landscapes offering different views from its big neighbor to the south, Grand Canyon National Park, and makes for a wonderful addition to a trip to the North Rim. It is also home to an increasing number of California condors and other raptors.
Catch The Wave, a premier photographic destination in the southwest. The Wave requires advance permits and can be crowded. There are other formations nearby to explore with similar features in Coyote Buttes North: the Second Wave, the Alcove, Top Rock Arch, Melody Arch and the Grotto, Sand Cove, and Fatali's Boneyard. High-clearance four-wheel drive is required for backcountry destinations due to rock outcrops and deep sand.
Marble Canyon can refer to the community located by Navajo Bridge at the entrance to Lees Ferry, and can refer to the canyon section from Lees Ferry south to the confluence of the Little Colorado River within the Grand Canyon National Park proper.
Some areas in this article are properly parts of other parks, but are detailed in this article as they more often visited and associated with Vermilion Cliffs NM. Lees Ferry and the Lonely Dell Ranch are within the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, though as downstream from the dam. Marble Canyon and a few trails detailed in this article also reach into Grand Canyon NP. Similarly, whitewater rafting tours of the Grand Canyon is detailed in the Grand Canyon article, although they will launch from Lees Ferry.
Lees Ferry was the only point for hundreds of miles where the Colorado River can be easily crossed from both sides. In the mid-19th century a ferry service was established by Mormon pioneer John D. Lee. The ferry service ran continued until 1928 when the Navajo Bridge was built. Lees Ferry became the main route along the Mormon Wagon Route between Arizona and St George, continuing to St Lake City. This was also dubbed the Honeymoon Trail, as prior to 1926 Arizona didn’t have a Mormon Temple and St George was the closest. If you look closely to the east shore just south of the current boat launch (follow the cable), you can see remains of the old road to the ferry crossing: a slow incline up the east cliff, climbing as it heads south.
The Lonely Dell Ranch was the homestead ranch established by John D. Lee. Located on the Paria River just up from its confluence with the Colorado River, it is a well-preserved example of what it took to homestead in the southwest desert. The entire homestead is more of a community than just a home or two, including an irrigation dam and orchard. When in season you can pick pears from the orchard. In 1978 the ranch was added to the National Register of Historic Places, and in 1997 the designation was expanded to include Lees Ferry.
The Glen Canyon Dam was completed in 1963, regulating the flow of the Colorado. The river in this area is managed as a trophy fishery by the Arizona Department of Game and Fish.
US Route 89A was the original route until Glen Canyon Dam was built, after which US 89 was re-routed through Page and along the dam and the origional route renumbered as US 89A.
Reddish or vermilion-colored cliffs can be seen rising from the desert, starting from Bitter Springs (junction of US 89 and US 89A). US 89A runs along the cliffs from Bitter Springs on the way towards Jacob Lake and the Kaibab Plateau.
The river carves its own way, from the whitewater of a rapid to a bubble over a riffle, such as where the Paria River mixes with the Colorado. The Paria Riffle is the first spot of turbulence that rafters will experience on their journey down the river.
Flora and fauna
In the spring after a good winter rain, the valley will be carpeted with desert mallow and other spring flowers. The Welsh's milkweed Asclepias welshii, a threatened plant species that grows on sand dunes and helps stabilize them, is known to exist only in the monument and one other area in neighboring Utah.
This is quite the place for bird watching, with wide open spaces and nesting areas amid the cliffs of the Vermilion Cliffs and Grand Canyon. More than twenty species of raptors, including bald eagles and golden eagles, peregrine falcons, and several hawk species, have been observed. Since 1996, the endangered California condor has been re-introduced into this region with efforts by The Peregrine Fund, in partnership with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Desert bighorn sheep, pronghorns, and mountain lions make up most of the large mammals found here, with about 30 more species of smaller mammals.
Several examples of rare fish species, such as the flannelmouth sucker and the speckled dace live in the streams of the monument. For fishing, visitors can launch from Lees Ferry Boat Launch and go upriver towards the dam. Downriver requires an additional permit from Grand Canyon NP. The boat launch is the boundary line between Glen Canyon NRA and Grand Canyon NP when on the river; the west bank continues to be part of Glen Canyon NRA downstream.
As with the Grand Canyon, July and August are monsoon season in Arizona and strong thunderstorms can sweep in quickly with lightning strikes every few minutes and sudden downpours. Flash floods can occur suddenly, even in areas where there is not immediate rain; rain can originate upstream and quickly rush downstream.
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument is along US Route 89A and is enroute to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon further west. US 89A is an east-west through route, with Page and Flagstaff to the east, and with Kanab and Las Vegas to the west.
The closest car rental is in Page.
Trans-Canyon Shuttle offers a seasonal daily Rim-to-Rim shuttle bus service, which runs through Vermilion Cliffs with a stop at Marble Canyon. Once there, however, you'd be on your own.
There is a small tarmac airstrip at Marble Canyon which is mostly used for bringing river rafters back to their launch point to conclude their adventure.
Closest commercial airport would be in Page, followed by Flagstaff. Nearest airport with any travel volume would be Las Vegas.
Fees and permits
Both the Glen Canyon NRA (Lees Ferry area) and the Grand Canyon NP have individual entrance fees. Additionally, many individual features require permits and/or fees. See listing of individual feature for more detail.
There are many scenic viewing areas along US 89A, which is paved the entire route from Page to Kanab. West of the monument towards Jacob Lake and Kanab, the route climbs uphill with hairpin turns, so mind RVs and trailers.
Aside from Lees Ferry area, all other routes are backcountry dirt and sand roads that require four-wheel drive, high-clearance vehicles. There are few route markers in the area. Roads are all rocky with deep sand, and conditions very greatly based on recent weather. In the summer, the sand roads are typically more challenging due to the dry, powdery sand.
- Condor Viewing — condors can be seen throughout the Vermilion Cliffs and Marble Canyon areas. Increase your changes of spotting this wide-winged birds from several viewing areas:
- Coyote Buttes North: (see 'The Wave' entry within this article).
- Coyote Buttes South. Day use only. (BLM map) (AllTrails map). $5/person; advance permits required; for day use only, no overnight camping allowed.
- 4 Lees Ferry. — where Grand Canyon rafting launches from; boating up-stream; fishing. Look across the river to the east shore just south from the boat launch (follow the cable) you can see the remains of the old road to the ferry crossing: a slow incline up the east cliff, climbing as it heads south.
- 5 Lees Ferry Fort (from Lees Ferry boat launch, just a 2 minute walk north on the dirt track). — the remains of a small military outpost to defend agains Navajo raids.
- 6 Lonely Dell Ranch. — homestead; cemetery; orchard, where you can pick the pears.
- 7 Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness. Renowned for its colorful scenery and perhaps one of the longest and deepest slot canyons in the world. Permits are required. (BLM map). ($6/person; permit area, for day use or overnight). and the 8 Paria River. .
- Stars: with very light light pollution, the stars and nighttime skies are incredible in this part of the world.
- 9 Vermilion Cliffs. Straddling around the park's boundaries, these impressive red-colored sandstone cliffs can be seen from quite a distance.
- 10 The Wave (Coyote Buttes North). Day use only. An impressive sandstone formation that characterizes the park, known for its colors, patterns and shape. However, due its frail environment and high demand, advance permits are required, done through a lottery system. (BLM map) ($7/person; permit area with lottery).
- Kayak the Colorado — guided fishing, ☏ .
- Kelly Outfitters at Lees Ferry, ☏ +1 602-510-5511 , [email protected].
- Lees Ferry Anglers, ☏ , toll-free: , [email protected].
- Northern Arizona Guide Service, ☏ .
- Marble Canyon Outfitters at Lees Ferry, toll-free: .
- East side, near Lees Ferry & along US 89A:
- 1 Cathedral Wash Trail (from Lees Ferry access road at US 89A, go north 1.3 mi / 2.1 km to parking pull-out area). daytime only. follow a mostly-dry wash to the Colorado River; 3 mi (4.8 km) round-trip; no overnight parking; some rock scrambling and wayfinding required (AllTrails map) (permit required; within Glen Canyon NRA).
- 2 Soap Creek Trail (from Cliff Dwellers go west on US 89A 1.2 mi / 1.9km, then south onto dirt track 0.5 mi / 0.8 km to trailhead). reaching the Colorado River, this slot canyon is a 8.3 mi (13.4 km) out-and-back trail (AllTrails map) (within in Grand Canyon NP, usual entrance fees).
- 3 Spencer Trail (continue on dirt track past the Lees Ferry launch). daytime only. climb up switchbacks to amazing views of the Colorado River and Page; 4 mi (6.4 km) round-trip (AllTrails map) (permit required; within Glen Canyon NRA).
- 4 Vermilion Cliffs Trail.
- West side:
- 5 Stateline Trail, starts from Stateline campsite (north end of Houserock Valley Road, at the Arizona-Utah boarder). (AllTrails map) (day pass required).
- 6 Wire Pass Trail. A short slot canyon that after 1.7 mi / 2.7 km empties into the much longer Buckskin Gulch (here, if in doubt, turn right for endless underground). The canyon is easy to hike though with few obstacles. (BLM map) (All Trails) (day pass required).
On the water
- Kayak and SUP on the Colorado around Lees Ferry and Horseshoe Bend, for a day or overnight. Rentals within the area, some provide backhauls back upstream to Glen Canyon dam.
- Whitewater rafting tours of the Grand Canyon down the Colorado River begin at Lees Ferry. Commercial trips range from 3-18 days and cover from 87-300 miles (140-480 km). Trips book up fast, so be sure to book your trip a year in advance or you'll have to get luck with cancellations. The most popular section of river for the "true" Grand Canyon river experience lies between Lees Ferry and Diamond Creek. (see the whitewater rafting section of the Grand Canyon for more detail).
Maps, souvenirs, snacks and similar touristy bits:
- Cliff Dwellers.
- Lees Ferry Lodge.
- Marble Canyon Lodge.
- Navajo Bridge Interpretive Center.
Gas is available along US 89A at Marble Canyon and Cliff Dwellers. No further gas available until Page (east) or Jacob Lake (west).
- Cliff Dwellers Restaurant.
- Lee's Ferry Lodge: Vermilion Cliffs Bar & Grille.
- Marble Canyon Restaurant.
- 1 Cliff Dwellers Lodge and Restaurant, Mile Post 547 N, US-89A, Marble Canyon (from Navajo Bridge, west 9 mi / 14 km on US 89A), ☏ , toll-free: , [email protected]. Lodging, restaurant and gas station. No Wi-Fi (as of Aug 2019).
Lodging: Basic but comfortable rooms with a/c and a fridge. If arriving late do call ahead to arrange a late check-in, as the office will be closed.
Restaurant: Good eats to start or end your day. Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Leave room for some pie: their signature dessert is avocado pie.
- 2 Lee's Ferry Lodge at Vermilion Cliffs (from Navajo Bridge, west 4 mi / 6.4 km on US 89A).
- 3 Marble Canyon Lodge and Restaurant (from Navajo Bridge, west 0.5 mi / 0.8 km on US 89A).
- 4 Lees Ferry Campground (from Navajo Bridge, north 4.4 mi / 7.1 km towards Lees Ferry). Campground does not offer reservations. ($20 per night).
- 5 Stateline Campground (on Houserock Valley Road at the Arizona-Utah border). Campsite with 7 sites, pit toilet and shade structures; no water. (free). Campsite is at the Stateline Trailhead and the north end of the Arizona National Scenic Trail.
The only paved routes in the area are US 89A and around Lees Ferry.
Off road, all other routes are backcountry dirt and sand roads that require four-wheel drive, high-clearance vehicles. Roads are all rocky with deep sand, and conditions very greatly based on recent weather. In the summer, the sand roads are typically more challenging due to the dry, powdery sand.
Hiking in canyons often surprises people: it can be hotter or colder than you'd expect, drier or wetter than you'd expect. A prepared hiker is better able to survive the extremes of the canyon. Even for short walks into the canyon keep in mind that it is a seducer: it seems easy hiking down into it but when you come back up you find that you have over-extended yourself. It's the opposite of climbing up a tall mountain, where you can stop and turn back when you get tired, knowing that the descent will be much easier. On some trail routes you many need some rock scrambling and/or wayfinding will be required.
There are few route markers in the area.
Take water. There are no drinking water sources.
Respect the heat, plan for heat.
Check the weather forecast, watch for storms.
Know your limits.
Cell phone service is unreliable in the wildness. You may be able to call 911 from some locations, but there is no guarantee. But in an emergency, always try 911: even if you have no service 911 may still connect with another carrier.
Take a paper map with you, and know how to read it. If using maps on your phone, download maps before you go.
Tell a responsible person not in your party where you are going and when you expect to return, so they can alert authorities in case of emergency.
Cell phone service is unreliable in the wildness. You may be able to call 911 from some locations, but there is no guarantee. But in an emergency, always try 911: even if you have no service it may connect with another carrier.
If using maps on your phone, download maps before you go. Take a paper map with you, and know how to read it.
The time on your mobile phone may "jump" an hour when nearby the Navajo Nation. Arizona does not observe DST and the Navajo Nation does, so you may observe an hour change back-and-forth on your phone if your connection bounces between cells along the Navajo Nation border. Businesses in Vermilion Cliffs and the Lees Ferry area observe Arizona state time.
Due to the remoteness, Wi-Fi is likely not available at destinations along US 89A.
- Westbound — US 89A west:
- North Rim of the Grand Canyon — with a view that is not as crowded as the South rim and is only open during the summer.
- Town of Kanab in Canyon Country, Utah — with Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument nearby.
- Note: If continuing west, mind RVs and trailers: the route becomes hilly with sharp corners as it approaches Jacob Lake.
- Eastbound — US 89A east, then US 89 northeast:
|Routes through Vermilion Cliffs National Monument|
|END at N E ← Kanab ← Fredonia ← Jacob Lake ←||W E||→ Bitter Springs → END at NE S|