Isolated, yes. Beautiful, unbelievably so. Unexplored, certainly. The clear, cold nighttime sky was full of sparkling stars every night we spent on the edge of the cliffs as we looked out the front door of our restful lodging. Walking along the semi-marked trails made us feel like we were the first people to have set foot on the south side of the massive Vermillion Cliffs National Monument and Wilderness area.
I was surprised there was so much to explore. There is plenty of information about the northern side of the area, but little of the available information does justice to the beauty of the cliffs, or recreation opportunities available on the south side of Highway 89A, which is where we explored. We spent three days venturing up trails leading to old mine sites, corrals, rock formations and even to one of the cabins where Zane Grey spent time writing one of his novels.
A full moon setting over the high cliffs on our first morning at the cliffs was a sign of the beauty we would find in the days ahead. Every day we pulled ourselves out of a warm bed to catch the first rays of the sun and we were rewarded with spectacular sunrises, moon settings and colorful rock formations.
The good news about the monument and wilderness area is you can explore right off the main road and still get that “I am the first person here” feeling.
A Bureau of Land Management specialist for the area said there were some 71 gates or entrance points along Highway 89A, where you can just park your car and walk to the cliffs. Some are hard to find, which adds to the first-person-there feeling.
It is a place you can enjoy first-hand without feeling you need to backpack miles along a rugged trail to enjoy, yet you are miles away from anyone else.
One of our trips took us to an old mine. A relatively easy walk, a bit up hill, which follows the old mine road. The road climbed right up to the cliffs, taking us into the Chinle Formation and into some unusual rock formations.
Then again, almost anywhere you walk takes you to unusual rock formations and there’s even some petrified wood in the area.
Another one of Zane Grey’s famous cabins — where he wrote “The Heritage of the Desert” — is accessible with a high clearance vehicle. You can walk the sandy, old road if you want.
He described the area in his book this way “Vermillion Cliff shone red as a rose. The split in the wall marking the oasis defied its outlines sharply against the sky. Miles of the Colorado River lay in sight.”
That is the perfect description — miles of red cliffs and a deep canyon carved out by the Colorado River.
Many short hikes lead to interesting places. One hike took us to an old corral, but walking past that old corral led us to a box canyon full of wind-shaped rocks.
You know someone has been there before you, but as you walk along a faintly outlined sandy trail or follow an old road bed, you really think you are the first person to have discovered the formations that have captured your gaze.
On a hike up one beautiful box canyon, we were mesmerized by the formations when a shadow crossed our path. Startled, we looked high in the sky where a condor was soaring on the warm winter updrafts, having what appeared to be a great old time.
When walking or driving, you do spend a lot of time looking up. The jagged, multi-colored formations range in elevation from 3,100 to 6,500 feet.
The Vermillion Cliffs became a national monument through a proclamation by then President Bill Clinton in 2000. Today, it feels like the 294,000 acres of unspoiled land with thousands of miles of hiking trails and unpaved roads offer anyone who wants to take the time a private paradise of cliffs, box canyons, Colorado River overlooks and even condors flying in the blue skies of northern Arizona.
You could spend weeks exploring the 3,000-foot escarpment of the cliffs with its geologic formations all piled up like a seven-layer cake and still not feel you even touched the surface.
The sandstone formations of the monument’s rugged cliffs and canyons are easily visible off Highway 89A, but to really experience the beauty, the ruggedness, you need to get out of your car and take a hike. And for those seeking other forms of recreation, Lee’s Ferry is nearby where you can raft down the Colorado River or do some fishing.
In our short few days of exploration we discovered only a small fraction of the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, which is located mostly within the national monument and was designated in 1984.
Paria Canyon itself offers outstanding four- to five-day wilderness backpacking experiences, slot canyons, the famous wave area and so much more. The national monument is home to desert bighorn sheep, pronghorns and at least 20 species of raptors including California Condors, which have been reintroduced into the region.
Our trip of less than a week left us wanting to go back to spend much more time in the area that many people just drive through at 65 mph on their way to the north rim of the Grand Canyon or to Utah.
There are three places to stay, but don’t expect to find a new motel. We had an enjoyable stay at the Lee’s Ferry Lodge at Vermillion Cliffs, which has been under the same ownership for more than 25 years. Expect rustic but comfortable accommodations and a warm and friendly welcome from Maggie and her staff.
The lodge includes a quaint and cozy restaurant that sports a pool table, fireplace and about 35 different kinds of beer. The food was good and welcome after a day of hiking and exploring. The lodge is centrally located and made for a nice base camp to explore the Vermillion Cliffs area.