Vermillion Cliffs National Monument by Rob Samuelsen of BackcountryExpressions.com
The U.S. Department of the Interior is conducting a review of certain National Monuments designated or expanded since 1996 under the Antiquities Act of 1906 in order to implement Executive Order 13792 of April 26, 2017. The Secretary of the Interior will use the review to determine whether each designation or expansion conforms to the policy stated in the Executive Order and to formulate recommendations for Presidential actions, legislative proposals, or other appropriate actions to carry out that policy. Four of these National Monuments are in Arizona. My intent isn’t to politicize, but rather inform readers of my experience with each of these four locations.
The Vermillion Cliffs National Monument is commonly seen but rarely visited. Anyone traveling SR 89 to Page, Arizona or heading to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon on SR 89-A is mesmerized by the grandeur of these 3,000-foot brilliant scarlet red cliffs. There are scenic view pullouts for those wishing to breathe in the view or to capture the Kodak moment. During the golden hour, these cliffs glow soft and beautiful to those who are lucky enough to witness it. However, as beautiful as it is, the real beauty of the Vermillion Cliffs lies within.
On the eastern edge of the monument at the confluence of the Paria River and the mighty Colorado, there is a critical alluvial plain that provided the only viable crossing of the Colorado River for hundreds of miles. To facilitate that crossing, John Lee, banished from his Mormon community for his involvement in the Mountain Meadow Massacres, directed by Brigham Young, created a ferry in 1872 to help travelers make the critical crossing. Among others, many Mormon settlers in eastern Arizona traveled the 400 miles to the St. George, Utah temple to be eternally married. From this pursuit, the trail derived the nickname of the “Honeymoon Trail.” Today, for the observant, there are discrete markers along the southern flank that mark the original trail.
The western boundary is defined by House Rock Valley, a geologic separator of the Paria and Kaibab Plateaus. The Paria Plateau tops the Vermillion Cliffs while the Kaibab Plateau rises up over the Grand Canyon. The Honeymoon Trail turned north up House Rock Valley before turning west towards St. George. Initially a broad valley, it narrows on the northern end of its rugged 40-mile route. Selected for its remoteness, the BLM chose the Vermillion Cliffs for the reintroduction of the critically endangered California Condor. Condors are North America’s largest land bird with a wingspan of 10 feet and a lifespan of 60 years. Because of lead poisoning and habitat destruction, the world’s population of wild condors dropped to 27 individuals in 1987. With careful breeding and the Vermillion Cliffs reintroduction site, there are now more than 400 specimens living in the wild. Each year, condors hatched and raised in a captive breeding program are released high above House Rock Valley.
On the northern end of House Rock Valley is the BLM State Line primitive campground which straddles the Utah-Arizona state line, but also marks the end of the 800 miles long Arizona Trail – the same trail that traipses through Colossal Cave Park in Vail, Arizona! A mile north of the state line marks the trailhead for two iconic hikes; the Buckskin Gulch and the Wave. The Buckskin Gulch, the world’s longest slot canyon, is consistently listed as one of the ten best hikes in America and the Wave, with its swirling half pipe rock formation is famous to the world’s best photographers. Both hikes are limited by permit to 20 people per day. Evidenced by petroglyphs, this region has been visited for centuries.
Cutting through the northern edge of the National Monument is the spectacular Paria River canyon. While it may not officially be considered a slot canyon, it is certainly a close cousin. Its sheer walls, abundant amphitheaters, and prolific quicksand make this another interesting and challenging trek. Unlike the Buckskin Gulch tributary, the Paria River flows and there are abundant springs percolating through thousands of feet of sandstone. It is home to eagles and bighorn sheep as well as rattlesnakes and coyotes. From the Buckskin Gulch trailhead to Lee’s Ferry is 48 miles of ankle twisting, quicksand sinking, water-logging pure awe!
Not to be ignored is the top of the wild plateau. Only accessible by high clearance 4-wheel drive vehicles and wondrous sojourners are hidden wonders such as Pawhole, Cottonwood Cove, Red Pocket, White Pocket, Soap Creek, The Big Mac, Wrather’s Arch, Paria Needle, and Powell’s Monument. Each is special in its own way, but White Pocket is extra special. It’s vanilla and strawberry swirls mixed with prolific vermillion brain rock create a magical kingdom of colors, shapes, and shadows. It alone should be a national monument within a national monument. From the edge of the escarpment, you can see the mighty Colorado River 3,000 feet below. The river below is as beautiful as the rock formations are fantastic.
Known for its colorful swirls of slickrock, steep crags, and narrow canyons, the Vermillion Cliffs is a sherbet-colored magical playground for the true adventurer. There is nary a place that offers untouched adventure as preponderant as the Vermillion Cliffs. It’s fantastical, magical, and wondrous.