Located within northern Arizona’s rugged and remote wilderness, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument encompasses a variety of diverse landscapes. While many areas here require a permit to explore – including Paria Canyon, The Wave (Coyote Buttes North) and Coyote Buttes South – there are still some gorgeous sights you can see without scoring a coveted permit.
The Vermilion Cliffs themselves are pretty extraordinary within their own right. The towering red escarpments are comprised of Jurassic-period sandstone that dates to around 165 to 200 million years ago. If you’re just passing through the area, the cliffs are a focal point along scenic Route 89A.
If you’ve got a day to explore, a lot of interesting sites lie just off the highway, including five we’ve highlighted below. We’ve also included a few easily accessible trails if you’re looking to get out of the car and do a bit more exploring.
Navajo Bridge (Marble Canyon)
Forming the western boundary of Navajo Nation, Marble Canyon encompasses a modest sixty-mile length of the Colorado River between two more prominent neighbors: Glen Canyon and the Grand Canyon. To the northeast of Marble Canyon, Glen Canyon stretches for 170 miles from southeastern Utah to the confluence of the Paria and Colorado Rivers at Lees Ferry. At the south end of Marble Canyon, the Colorado meets the Little Colorado, which marks the official start of the adjoining 277-mile-long Grand Canyon.
With hundreds of miles of these interlacing canyons, early western settlers had no direct route between settlements in Utah and Arizona. Consequently, pioneers had to travel upwards of 800 miles by wagon if they needed to reach the other side of the Colorado River.
When a ferry service began crossing Marble Canyon’s stretch of the Colorado River in 1873, it revolutionized transport between the two states. And while the crossing at Lees Ferry became central to regional travel for decades, safety concerns eventually arose as automobiles replaced wagons and motorized traffic steadily increased.
To alleviate these concerns, construction began on the Navajo (née Grand Canyon) Bridge in 1927. When the bridge opened to traffic two years later, it became the highest steel arch bridge in the world. The engineering marvel remained in use for sixty-six years, until contemporary vehicles finally warranted the construction of a higher-capacity bridge. When the new span opened just downstream in 1995, the original was repurposed as a dedicated pedestrian crossing. The walkway now offers visitors a stunning view of the canyon and surrounding Vermilion Cliffs.
Today, the Navajo Bridge consists of twin steel arches – one for vehicles, the other for pedestrians. The 834-foot-long structure spans a shockingly scenic stretch of the Colorado River across Marble Canyon and, in the winter and spring months, is a fantastic place for spotting California condors. When we visited in mid-April, we spotted four to eight birds on two separate occasions.
If you’re looking for a scenic spot that’s a bit further out from Page’s more crowded sites, the bridge is a great place to stop. The bridge is part of Scenic Highway 89A, and is about a 45-minute drive from either Page or Jacob Lake, the gateway to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. If you’re already planning to visit the North Rim or the southern portion of Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, you’ll inevitable drive right over the bridge.
Condor Viewing Site
In addition to its geologic and historic interest, Vermilion Cliffs National Monument also provides important habitat for the critically endangered California condor – one of the world’s rarest bird species. Here, the lofty cliffs offer not only protected roosting sites, but also a spot for the birds to effectively take flight. Weighing in excess of twenty pounds, the windy cliffs provide enough loft for the heavy birds to become airborne. Each fall, the local Bureau of Land Management and conservation groups cooperate to release captive-bred birds into the cliffs in an effort to reestablish the wild population.
The critically endangered condor was first placed on the federal Endangered Species List in 1967, when the total population dwindled to a mere 60 individuals. Without intervention, however, habitat loss, shooting, and accidental poisoning continued to imperil the species. When the population reached a low of just 22 individuals in 1982, it seemed increasingly likely the once-thriving California condor was destined for extinction.
Eventually, extreme conservation measures were taken. In the mid-1980s, all remaining wild birds were trapped and placed into breeding programs. While a number of birds have been reintroduced into the wild over the last four decades, the California Condor Recovery Program is still ongoing, and has proven to be one of the longest and most challenging wildlife recovery efforts to date. Because the birds don’t reach sexual maturity until 5 to 7 years of age – and lay only one egg every 1 to 2 years – increasing the population takes significant time.
In addition to breeding limitations, reestablishing the species in the wild long-term has pervasive challenges – most, human-induced. Because condors are obligate scavengers, lead poisoning is the leading cause of death. The birds unknowingly ingest the toxin when feeding on animal carcasses that have been killed with lead-based ammunition. Additionally, the intelligent birds are naturally curious. Consequently, litter and small pieces of trash pose some of the greatest threats.
Because of their continued vulnerability, condors are carefully tagged and tracked by wildlife biologists. If you spot a condor in the wild and are able to make out its ID tag, you can visit https://condorspotter.com and get information about each individual. The website provides each bird’s age, sex, hatch date and location, as well as a list of biological relatives – essentially, an online family tree. It’s seriously cool. The handful of birds we were able to ID included: Z1, T3, N6, X0, and VC. We were particularly intrigued by N6, whose maternal grandfather appears to be one of the few remaining birds that was alive in the early-1980s. Not only that, but his avian ancestor (“AC-4”) appears to still be living in the wild at the age of forty-two in southern California.
In northern Arizona, the area encompassing Vermilion Cliffs National Monument and neighboring Marble Canyon has been designated a Global IBA (Important Bird Area) for the California condor. Each fall, typically at the end of September, The Peregrine Fund and BLM work together to release captive-bred condors into the wild for their first flight at the Condor Viewing Site within Vermilion Cliffs National Monument.
In just two days at the Vermilion Cliffs, we were able to spot two dozen condors – more than were surviving the year I was born. The birds glide was the most incredible grace, and their 9.5-foot wingspan is really a sight to behold. While there are still numerous obstacles to overcome in the birds’ recovery – regrettably, most caused by our own negligence – the California condor population is slowly rebounding. As of 2019, the population stood at 518, with 337 birds flying in the wild from central and southern California to southern Utah and northern Arizona.
- When scouring Arizona’s soaring Vermilion Cliffs in search of the endangered birds, look for the ‘whitewashed’ cliff faces. The staining is a spattering of waste product, and a pretty reliable sign that the birds are roosting in that section of rock.
- The cliffs are both tall and fairly far away from the viewing area, so you’ll want a pair of binoculars, a spotting scope, or a camera with a good telephoto lens (our pics were shot with a 500mm). There is a view finder at the picnic site, but you may want your own equipment… especially for photography.
- If you’re interested in seeing the condors in northern Arizona, timing is important. While the birds can be spotted year-round, the best time for seeing them at Vermilion Cliffs is winter and spring. As spring ends, the birds move south into Marble Canyon and then to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim for summer. During fall, many condors then move to the Kaibab National Forest, north of the Grand Canyon.
Cliff Dwellers Ruins
Just off Route 89A outside of Marble Canyon, a unique set of ‘ruins’ sits at the base of the rugged Vermilion Cliffs. While its name conjures up images of ancient Native American residences, the homestead’s origins are completely unrelated and rather unexpected. Some of the details seem somewhat speculative. However, the stone dwellings are believed to date back to 1920, when a couple of marooned travelers decided to set up camp amongst the striking cliffs.
The two ill-fated road-trippers were Bill and Blanche Russell. Supposedly, the couple was traveling west when their car broke down. Intrigued by their chance new surroundings, they decided to build a homestead within the field of wildly-shaped boulders. Whether their makeshift house was by choice or by necessity of being stranded, the couple built a shelter amongst the rocks and became known locally as the Cliff Dwellers. To make ends meet, the pair set up a trading post along the highway, offered roadside lodging in similarly built rock dwellings, and settled in for the long haul. Today, you can still see the remains of the original structures nestled amongst the stones.
Just a few miles between the Cliff Dwellers site and Navajo Bridge sits another collection of eye-catching boulders. The most eye-catching is called Balanced Rock, an enormous stone whose position seems to defy gravity.
Thousands of years ago, a massive boulder fell from the cliffs above and landed on the hard, sandstone terrain. As years of erosion and weathering carved away the surrounding sediment, the boulder acted like a massive umbrella, protecting the compacted soil immediately beneath its canopy. What’s left today is a huge rock that is precariously perched on a small pedestal of hard-wearing, compressed sandstone.
If you’re interested in exploring the area beyond just Balanced Rock, the neighboring Cathedral Wash Trail is a three-mile out-and-back that follows a dry wash to the Colorado River. You can also check out the historic homestead of Lees Ferry, just four miles further up the road. Here, you’ll find an easy, two-mile trail that skirts the banks of the Colorado, as well as the more challenging Spencer Trail that follows an old mule path to the top of a scenic ridge. The latter clocks in at five miles with 2,000 feet of vertical.