The Treasures Of Vermilion Cliffs - Wild Gems Where Erosion & Character Reigns Supreme
The Peace That May Be Found In SilenceThe Vermilion Cliffs, seen from Highway 89A during last light on a stormy day. Following the 3,000-foot escarpment of the cliffs, they reveal seven 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 behind.
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 revealing seven major formations in layered cake-like fashion is a geologic wealth in itself, yet they are just the beginning of the bounty they protect behind. 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:
Unlock Your Doors And Windows Of The SensesThis 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. The cliffs themselves 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 dinning.
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. One such homesteader in 1920 arrived here by accident or at least without intention on staying. Ziegfeld Follies dancer Blanche Russell, who left her career and headed west with her ill-husband, was the original homesteader. While traveling by on the way West, Russell’s car broke down here. 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.
Lees Ferry Lodge at Vermilion CliffsTucked 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. “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 ol’ burger. But it’s the porch I love most. Sitting there on a June evening as the twilight unpeels the afternoon heat and the sky spins through a color wheel – red, then orange, then melting into a molten puddle of gold – is the ideal way to kiss Summer full on the lips.” ~ Roger Naylor – “Boots & Burgers: An Arizona Handbook For Hungry Hikers”. Milepost 541.5 Arizona 89A, (928) 355-2231. www.vermilioncliffs.com
Coyote Buttes North and South:
Looking For My Distant SelfAs I packed up my equipment in the moonlit starry sky, I stopped one last time and captured this image as a capstone of my shining experience here, with the bright planet in the sky symbolizing my thoughtful moments while visiting. Perhaps the most treasured and sought after area in the Monument, Coyote Buttes is the shining star. It is divided into two areas: Coyote Buttes North and South, and visiting either of them require a good deal of planning and the purchasing of a difficult to attain 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 won four months 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:
Where The Trail Does Not ExistApproximately 2/3rds of this sometimes sinister hike is without the comfort of any sort of discernible trail, as you hike across a couple of miles of sandstone slick rock hoping your directional skills and GPS don’t fail you. Of all the geological features in both areas of Coyote Buttes, the most famous is only known as "The Wave". It is roughly a three-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.
Intoxicating Waves Of Desire.“The waves of desire in the world-ocean are intoxicating wine.” ~ Sri Guru Granth Sahib Having arrived at the entrance of this sandstone temple known as "The Wave" seven times now, the waves of desire that first drew me to this place still intoxicate me just as much now as they had the first time. With each visit my intoxication becomes complete once more, as I fill my cup with life and stay for awhile sipping generously again. “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, and you know instantly upon arrival that whatever you had to do to get here was well worth it.
My Wave My UniverseTo 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. 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 you 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. Curves of BeautyAbout 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:
The Control Tower Of Coyote Buttes"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. 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 - all slowly crumbling as they continuously erode from the forces of nature. Yet through all of this hard stuff, life lives in the most unlikely of places against the most unlikely of odds. When touring in this land of upheaval, there are no fixed paths here. You get to invent your own trail chasing the vivid earthly hues, swirling shapes and fragile layers. If you are lucky and have suffered enough while falling in love with this land, perhaps you will also discover your own personal trail to upheaval, and love it as well. The Spirit Of LifeWhat's a rock and a hard place when mountains are moving it? Elsewhere in Coyote Buttes, my eye was struck not just by the glorious reflected light into this rock's shadow, but kept there by the insistence of life. Oh such lessons this little bush could teach humanity for those who stop to appreciate.
Geological Ice Cream SundaeAs the sun began to fade, the landscape of erosion started to taking on multiple and subtle pastel-tinted hues. Gnarled, twisted, and polished rock transformed into a quiet cathedral, secular to the rites of nature—its geologic splendor forever etched into my memory. 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 phantasmagorical Sandstone Ice Cream SundaeTo put this rock form into perspective, the “small” tree at the base of it is roughly 15’ tall! Erosion carved, painted with warm hues, and utterly breath-taking, the landscapes that surround White Pocket eventually show up on every outdoor enthusiast’s life list. It has enticed me over and over again. 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 landscapes that surround White Pocket eventually show up on every outdoor enthusiast’s life list. The enchanting geology of the area has enticed me over and over again, because while nice to visit any time of day, 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.
Although it is not as “protected” as the other areas, the adventurous distance and difficulty of the sandy and rocky trail to drive there makes it a bit more prohibitive – thus it still tends to have most of that peaceful and remote feeling for you to immerse yourself in. Be advised that 4x4 and high-clearance is usually necessary to get there.
Buckskin Gulch & Paria Canyon:
Buckskin Gulch 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. Buckskin Gulch and its continuation into Paria Canyon is another of the crown gems of the area, yet completely different in its own way – and worth your time, if you have time. 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. Forces Of NatureAnother way of looking at slot canyons and fissures such as Buckskin Gulch is that it is really Nature's sewer, as evidenced by this log jam remnant left over from previous floods. To put this canyon and the height of the log jam into perspective, standing underneath it, the log jam is about 30 feet over my head. 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 I 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; however these permits are not as heavily contested, like the rest. 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. One should never adventure in here when these risks exist – otherwise be open to the idea of what a frog in a blender might feel like.
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. Another way of looking at slot canyons and fissures such as Buckskin Gulch is that it is really Nature's sewer, as evidenced by log-jam remnants left over from previous floods. 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!
Ancient AscentMoki Steps are a recurring feature found in areas of the American southwest. The steps consist of alternating hand and toe holds carved into vertical or near-vertical sandstone surfaces, such as in this rock-fall found 12 miles deep in Buckskin Gulch. 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. However one seems to have lasted the test of time, at least back to Ancient cultures that lived in the area. This is evidenced about 12 miles from the start of the hike, by a near 20 foot drop over a gigantic group of boulders that make the most formidable obstacle you will probably face here. It is here that ancient evidence of this passage exists, in the form of “Moki” steps.
Moki steps, sometimes spelled alternately as Moqui, 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. The size of these steps is actually quite small, due to the peoples of these cultures being considerably smaller than today. For anyone wearing a full-sized shoe or boot, these toe holds may not even be practical. Thought should be given to the idea of bringing a good rope, where it can be threaded as a hand or rappel line; although a good possibility exists that you may find a good rope already in position there, from previous hikers who chose to leave it for everyone’s benefit. 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:
The Mind’s Reflective Beauty Of NatureThe entrance to "The Wave" just after an early April Spring shower, allowing an uncommon reflective view of the sandstone textures and color. The appearance and interpretation of beauty in nature is a matter of the creative mind’s willingness to reflect upon the primeval. “The appearance and interpretation of beauty in nature is a matter of the creative mind’s willingness to reflect upon the primeval. Reflect not just upon the earliest ages in the history of the world, which over time evolved with brilliance into the weathered scene which appears before you. Simultaneously turn inward to your own primeval depths as well, for the appearance of what is beautiful must come from within, as you interpret the reflective history of your weathered self against it – a beauty as varied as Nature itself. Even if you return over and over to the same scene months or years later to be present to it again, its beauty will always be new and unique – but only if you slow down and look within again, for the world and yourself both have aged since your last visit” ~ Jack Mountain
After more than a dozen trips to this monumental area, exploring here consistently since 2009, I have created quite a collection of remarkable imagery. More importantly however in the process, this explorer discovered not just the rich terrain of the landscape, but also found within himself a new cache of reflective self-discovery and enlightenment against this mysterious and magical land he has treaded upon for so long. 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:
John caters to current connoisseurs and future 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 http://JohnMoreyPhotography.com/blog and contact him through his website if you wish at http://johnmoreyphotography.com/contact.html.
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