Established on November 9, 2000, the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument sits just below the Utah state line in Coconino County, Arizona. The U.S. government already managed many of the lands within park boundaries before creation of the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument.
Bordered by the Paria River to the north, Glen Canyon to the east, and the Vermilion Cliffs to the south, this monument has few buildings or signs to let you know it even exists. The land itself is the wonder, with canyons, rivers, and other worldly rock formations galore.
The monument covers 293,689 acres. Much of the land is flat stretches of desert for miles across the Paria Plateau. The Coyote Buttes and Paria Canyon offer plenty of diverse opportunities for adventures within the park.
In his presidential proclamation officially recognizing the area as a national monument Bill Clinton said, “amid the sandstone slickrock, brilliant cliffs, and rolling sandy plateaus…lie outstanding objects of scientific and historic interest.”
The cliffs themselves form some of the most interesting rock formations in all of North America.
At 3,000 feet, the Vermilion Cliffs stretch 30 miles along the SE border of the monument. Formed primarily of sandstone, limestone, and shale, sedimentary rock layers reveal the rich history of the area.
While many have attempted to climb the cliffs, only a few choice areas give hikers their best shot at doing so. Due to sandstone and slick shale, hiking paths to the peak are very limited.
Plants & Wildlife
Aside from the beautiful landscape, the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument boasts an impressive array of plants and wildlife.
At least 20 types of raptors soar the open desert sky and have been identified—golden eagles, peregrine falcons, and red-tailed hawks to name a few. The largest mammals to roam the Paria Plateau include the mountain lion, desert bighorn sheep, and pronghorns.
Scientists believe the earliest settlers in the Vermilion Cliffs area go back at least 12,000 years ago to the Native Americans. Within the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument reside some of the oldest rock art sites (petroglyphs) in all of the United States.
Petroglyphs depicting mazes, armadillos, and various other animals date back to Pueblo Indian ancestors.
In 1776, the same year the United States celebrated it’s beginnings as a nation some 2,000 miles to the east, the Dominguez-Escalante Expedition became the first modern group to explore the Vermilion Cliffs. They were tasked with finding an overland route from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Catholic missions in California.
Later in the 1860s Mormon explorers crossed this area and built one of the first permanent ferries (Lee’s Ferry) to transport people across the Colorado River.
Areas of interest
The Coyote Buttes form the NW corner of the Paria Wilderness/Vermilion Cliffs National Monument.
This area happens to be the most popular among tourists, largely due to the Wave hike. The Wave is an eroded Navajo sandstone rock formation full of distinct ridges due to years of natural erosion from water and wind.
While hiking to the Wave is possible, permits limit access to 20 people a day. The hike itself is approximately 6 miles.
Though far less visited, White Pocket is another fantastic option for tourists. Situated in the South Coyote Buttes, this vast desert dreamland is full of otherworldly rock formations. Off the beaten track, a 4WD vehicle is recommend to access this area as deep sand covers the road after a certain point.
Buckskin Gulch, the largest slot canyon in the entire world, is also located in the Coyote Buttes. Visitors can hike Buckskin Gulch but a permit is required.
The Narrows section of the hike stretches for 12 miles and rises up to over 400 feet. Because of flash floods and tall canyon walls, water typically pools at the base of the canyon walls. Hikers need to watch weather reports before entering the canyon and be prepared for mud and water at any time of the year.
To the far SE stands one of the first permanent ferries ever constructed to cross the Colorado River. Mountain explorer John D. Lee helped build the ferry in 1873.
Lee’s Ferry Campgrounds is a great starting point for surrounding sites: Navajo Bridge, Cliff Dwellers, Jacobs Pool, and the Dominguez-Escalante Interpretive Site.
While not technically inside of park boundaries, the Navajo Bridge (two parallel steel bridges crossing the Colorado River, one modern and one historic) opened in January of 1929.
This amazing structure is a short 6 miles south along US 89A from Lee’s Ferry. This was significant because it was one of only a handful of other ways to cross the Colorado River. Upon completion it was the largest steel bridge in the world for a time.
Due to larger, newer vehicles, the old bridge became unsafe for use. The new bridge was constructed just down the river and opened for traffic in 1995.
Cliff Dwellers is 15 minutes SW of Lee’s Ferry along US 89A. The site of ancient abandoned adobe dwellings with the Vermilion Cliffs in the backdrop is worth the quick drive.
Condor Viewing Site
The California condor bird is known for its amazing average adult wingspan of over 9 feet. Listed as the largest bird in North America, California condors are scavengers. They feed off the carcasses of large dead animals.
They rely on their site and their size to find their next meal. Their huge wingspan allows them to travel over 100 miles a day if necessary to find a meal. Once endangered, this black bird has made a solid recovery in recent years. California condors can now be spotted in the wild in Arizona, California, and New Mexico.
A special viewing area for the California condor sits inside the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. From Lee’s Ferry, take US 89A south for approximately 33 miles until you reach House Rock Valley Road. Take a right on House Rock, and then travel 3 miles north until you reach the viewing area.
Where to stay
A couple of different traditional lodging options exist in or near the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. Marble Canyon Lodge, Lee’s Ferry Lodge, Cliff Dwellers Lodge, and the Jacob Lake Inn are all open year round to travelers.