Vermilion Cliffs National Monument and the rugged Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area within it are located in Arizona, immediately south of the Utah state line. Established in November of 2000, the Monument celebrates its 15th anniversary this year. This remote, unspoiled 294,000-acre national treasure is most often and conveniently experienced by tourists driving the Arizona Strip along Highway 89a, following the 3,000-foot escarpment of the Vermilion Cliffs themselves.
The towering cliffs reveal 7 major formations in layered cake-like fashion. It is a geologic wealth in itself, yet they are just the beginning of the bounty they protect.
For those with more ambition, and with proper planning and reasonable fitness, another world lies beyond. Above and behind the cliffs in the Paria Plateau are deep sinuous canyons and captivating sandstone formations, where erosion reigns supreme and the weathered character of the landscape inspires imagination, wonder, and exploration – and if you are lucky, perhaps you will know yourself better in the exploration of it. With elevations in the range from 3,100 feet to 6,500 feet above sea level, Vermilion Cliffs, Coyote Buttes, White Pocket, as well as Buckskin Gulch and the Paria River Canyon are among those hidden gems worthy of visual plundering.
Highway 89A and the Cliffs Themselves:
The cliffs are often enjoyed as a side-benefit of travels to other nearby areas. For those traveling to and from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon from most places in Arizona, this is the route and it is truly a visual pleasure to drive. For those who love world class fishing and white water rafting, Lee’s Ferry on the Colorado River running through Marble Canyon marks the beginning of the cliff area. In between the two locations, Highway 89A provides several points of interest, grand views, and surprisingly great dining.
Along Highway 89A can be found the old “Cliff Dweller’s Lodge”. Captivated by the red cliffs and endless blue skies, it makes sense why some would chose to homestead in such an unrivaled environment. This area with its geographical isolation and solitude, offered a unique way of life for travelers seeking the mythological and romantic freedoms associated with the great American West.
This is part of the Blanche Russell Rock House, located near the Old Cliff Dweller’s Lodge on highway 89A. As if it were some sort of divine intervention, Russell built a meager shelter against a gigantic boulder, framing an amazing landscape, and gradually built a life serving the public on route to visiting the Grand Canyon.
Also tucked against the ferocious escarpment of towering rock walls, Lees Ferry Lodge offers motel rooms, a restaurant, and bar with an amazing beer selection. I can never drive by without grabbing a bite and a brew and to relax for awhile on one of my favorite porches in the world. Carved by eons of erosion to expose a bouquet of colorful strata, the cliffs provide your meal with an unforgettable backdrop. You can’t go wrong with ribs, steaks, the delicious smoked trout platter, or big old burger. (source: “Boots & Burgers: An Arizona Handbook for Hungry Hikers” by Roger Naylor)
Coyote Buttes North and South:
Coyote Buttes is the shining star of the region. It is divided into two areas: North and South. Visiting either of them require a good deal of planning and the purchasing of a difficult to obtain hiking permit. To preserve the peaceful wilderness experience for visitors, as well as to limit the impact on these fragile sandstone formation areas, only 20 people in the entire world are allowed into each area, per day.
Half of the daily permits are awarded 120 days ahead of time through a competitive online lottery process, while the remaining half are similarly won when showing up at the field office in Kanab, Utah, the morning of the day before you wish to visit. It is the extreme scarcity of these permits, coupled with the grandness of the terrain, which makes the area so sought after.
The Wave of Coyote Buttes North:
Of all the geological features in both areas of Coyote Buttes, the most famous is only known as “The Wave.” It is about a 3-mile hike through alternating deep sands and expansive masses of undulating cross-bedded sandstone, often giving the hiker no obvious trail. Map skills and a GPS are essential here for safety, as well as a great deal of water during the hot months – the area can be deadly and unforgiving for those who don’t plan well and don’t know their limits. It is best to always hike with a friend here.
“The Wave” itself consists of intersecting layers of eroded sandstone to comprise the rock formation. Initially formed long ago by water erosion to create the U-shaped troughs, wind has taken over as the primary erosion in its older age. As you finally arrive and begin to walk into the heart of “The Wave,” joy replaces whatever you were previously thinking about.
If you relax long enough and thoughtfully immerse yourself in every wonderful aspect of the terrain and sky, you may begin to consider something else against this glorious landscape of erosion. You see only through time, exposure, and massive upheavals of its foundation could this landscape not only be born, but age with increasing beauty as the world around it showers its weathered experience upon it. With that in mind, you may start to wonder about your own self-erosion through time, exposure, and the massive upheavals of your own life – will the weathering of your character and soul age so gracefully and beautifully as this landscape you stand upon?
One can only hope as you reflect upon the universe and come to terms with your miniscule function and time within it.
To be in “The Wave” of sandstone swirling colors and texture is a treasure in its own right. But to behold a sparkling sky of diamonds pulsating above it, while the sandstone is lit up by the half moon’s light is truly a humbling perspective.
The entrance to “The Wave” just after an early April Spring shower, allowing an uncommon reflective view of the sandstone textures and color.
About a ¼ mile hike from “The Wave”, the same layered sandstone ribbon that moves through it reveals itself again, in what is loosely known as “Wave 2”. Beauty moves in curves here.
Elsewhere in Coyote Buttes:
Besides “The Wave”, the rest of both sections of Coyote Buttes contain a vast and Dr. Seuss-like collection of weirdly twisted and striated sandstone, occurring in forms of beehive-shaped buttes against rolling waves of petrified sand dunes.
Mixed in with all of this are other bizarre formations, contorted into unlikely towers, caverns, arches, domes and fragile fins. They are all slowly crumbling as they continuously erode from the forces of nature. You get to invent your own trail chasing the vivid earthly hues, swirling shapes, and fragile layers. If you are lucky enough while falling in love with this land, you will also discover your own personal trail to upheaval and love it as well.
The Control Tower is one of the most beautiful sandstone features within Coyote Buttes South. Vivid earthly hues, swirling shapes and fragile layers makes this and many other nearby features a must see.
While the lure for permits to visit “The Wave” and other geological features of Coyote Buttes might be difficult, the area of “White Pocket” to the east does not require permits to visit. Smaller in size, the swirling, twisted, multicolored natural rock-art here will fill the senses beyond all expectation, and makes a great fall-back option if you are in the area and cannot win the permits you came up for.
White Pocket is a wonderful collection of colorful cross-bedded cliffs where the formations heave and drip like some kind of geological ice cream sundae melting in the sun. Erosion carved, painted with warm hues, and utterly breath-taking, the enchanting geology of the area has enticed me over and over again.
The lighting in late afternoon tends to hold the most sway. As the sun begins to fade, the landscape of erosion starts to take on multiple and subtle pastel-tinted hues. Gnarled, twisted, and polished rock transforms into a quiet cathedral, secular to the rites of nature—its geologic splendor forever etched into my memory.
Be advised that 4×4 and high-clearance is usually necessary to get here
To put this rock form into perspective, the “small” tree at the base of it is roughly 15’ tall!
Buckskin Gulch & Paria Canyon:
Buckskin Gulch and its continuation into Paria Canyon is another of the crown gems of the area, yet completely different in its own way. It is touted as the longest and deepest slot canyon in the Southwest with intimidating, sheer-walled narrows that extend for 13 miles before meeting the Paria River.
Many will hike into and out of that confluence in one day by paying for a day pass at the trail head. Others prefer to take their time, making only 5-8 miles in a day, so they can have time to properly appreciate every narrow twist and turn, log jam, and mysterious formation or pictograph. And some will continue the hike, following the Paria River all the way down to Lee’s Ferry, a combined total of roughly 38 miles.
When hiking through and spending one or multiple nights, permits are required and have the same restriction as the rest of the permitted areas – 20 people per day. This is an extremely dangerous place when there are risks of storms or flooding, as some of the narrowest and impossible places to escape from can stretch many miles at a time.
When it comes to the kind of forces of Nature that carved this canyon – dangerous and torrential flash flooding – there are characteristic effects of these forces which may amuse you. At times while spending multiple days living in this canyon, I found many log-jams ranging from waist high, requiring climbing over or crawling under, to others that exist up to about 70 feet above – imagine that!
Another characteristic from Nature’s forces of flooding here is that you will occasionally encounter rock-falls where the floor drops out anywhere from 4 to 20 feet, requiring some scrambling to get down and continue. Some of these change or are altered over time by each flood, thus making the canyon change from one visit to the next. It is here that ancient evidence of this passage exists, in the form of “Moki” steps.
Sometimes spelled alternately as Moqui, these steps are a recurring feature found in areas of the American southwest previously inhabited by ancient cultures. They are alternating hand and toe holds carved into vertical sandstone surfaces. For anyone wearing a full-sized shoe or boot, these toe holds may not even be practical. While clearly this part of the trail has not changed much since these ancient steps were carved, please remember that floods have formed this canyon and the nature of it can change quickly and dramatically, so be prepared for circumstances not described.
Final Thoughts about the Area:
After more than a dozen trips to this monumental area, exploring here consistently since 2009, I have created quite a collection of remarkable imagery. I truly hope I weather as gracefully and with as much strong character as this place, during the continued erosion of my own life.
For more information about planning a trip to area, go to http://www.blm.gov/az/st/en/prog/blm_special_areas/natmon/vermilion.html
About John Morey:
Despite his Tempe address, John finds inspiration when he is “roughing-it” in the Arizona outback and beyond, moving through the wild back-country capturing moments both epic and small, showing how little difference there is between the two. He photographs anything nature-related, yet also finds that capturing natural human moments in nature qualifies too. Published in Arizona Highways Magazine, and multiple times in the Arizona Republic, travel books, and international travel blogs, his work was also recently selected to help honor the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act of 1964 – including promotion at the Smithsonian Museum Of Natural History.
John caters to connoisseurs and collectors wishing to display natural, contemporary-art imagery in their home or businesses. His original works are available through licensing, open-edition prints, and his luxurious “limited-signature print editions”. As an affordable alternative for anyone, also with tax advantages for business clients not typical in fine-art purchases, Morey custom designs innovative “art lease” options to suit each client’s special needs. He also teaches photography one-on-one and leads private photography excursions, but sharing the natural world with others is always his primary objective. To catch up with John, visit his blog at JohnMoreyPhotography.com/blog and contact him through his website.