High, dry, and lonesome, the valley stretches north into endlessness. East and west, sun-burnt sandstone cliffs and red-rock canyons rise into the crisp blue sky, as the deserted two-lane highway meanders through a landscape of golden sagebrush, willows, cottonwoods, and untouched wilderness.
You’ll find yourself in a place, so otherworldly, and at the same time, so truly rooted in the spirit of the last frontier, in tales of adventure, tragedy, and triumphs of the first settlers, that it has been called, "A portion of Earth’s original paradise." This is where your perfect day will begin: Lees Ferry.
Located on the Arizona Strip–an area in the extreme northwest corner of Arizona, isolated from the rest of the state by the Colorado River and impassible canyons–Lees Ferry received its name from the ferry established by the Mormon settler John D. Lee in 1871. On orders of Joseph Smith, Jr., Lee secured the location as the only possible spot to cross the Colorado River until 1928.
Given the ferry’s importance as a crossing point for thousands of settlers, bound from Utah for Arizona, it’s hard to believe that Lees Ferry has retained the feel of a "nowhere place." It might have to do with lying perched between two big tourist destinations. Up north, beyond Glen Canyon Dam, Lake Powell attracts millions of visitors from all over the world. Downstream from Lees Ferry, white water rafting trips through the Grand Canyon are booked out months in advance.
But there’s a stretch of emerald green, calm, gentle waters, running from Glen Canyon Dam to Lees Ferry, which appears to have been left untouched by the wheel of time. There you will embark on a journey to retrace the footsteps of those travelers who came before you and tap into your own frontier spirit. What better way to do that than to float this most beautiful stretch of river in a kayak?
A weekend in late September, at the end of the season, is the best time to embark on this exploration, when you’ll only find a few stragglers and fishermen on the river, when the water is still warm (75 degrees), the skies stark blue, and the sun low on the horizon, tinting the canyons maroon and purple.
Bring your own kayak and gear (be sure to include lifejacket, PFD, paddle), or rent one on your way up north from Flagstaff. If you arrive from the north, hit up the town of Page for gear, and then make your way down south. There’s no fee or permit for launching a kayak at Lees Ferry.
Although you’ll be floating smooth, calm waters, the current still makes it hard to paddle upstream in a day trip, so to have the best of both worlds–modern and historic–the Colorado River Discovery company provides backhauling services from Lees Ferry upstream to just south of Glen Canyon Dam, where you’ll be dropped off to then leisurely float downstream at your own pace. The full trip takes about six to seven hours, counting one hour for being hauled upstream and six for floating downstream without paddling. It’s best to make arrangements with the company before your trip.
Back on that lonesome two-lane highway, you will arrive at a small oasis, built of natural limestone, nudged against Vermilion Cliffs: Lees Ferry lodge. Established in 1929, this small abode offers cozy rooms and the friendly staff will make you feel at home, the moment you’ll turn off that deserted two-lane highway. I suggest checking into the lodge the night before the trip, so you can watch the sunset on the veranda, with a glass of wine and hors d’ouevres, or some homemade potato chips. Make sure to save room for dinner though. The restaurant’s special baby back ribs with homemade barbecue sauce, and the chef’s prime hand-cut steaks melt on your palate, not to speak of the exotic selection of beers from all over the world. During dinner, you can check out a detailed map of the river, supplied by the lodge. The staff will be happy to show you major points of interest on your journey, such as the beach, holding the famous ancient Puebloean Petroglyph panels, as well as letting you in on geographic and cultural lore of the area.
The next morning, wake up early to watch the sun rise over the canyons until they burst into flame. Walk around the premises, explore the Hogan, (designed and built by a local Navajo shaman), or sit on the Kiva Toh, a natural 40-foot limestone ring and watch for Condors, circling gracefully on updrafts off the cliffs. The California condor is an endangered species, reintroduced to this area, and the lodge houses biologists of the Peregrine Fund, working to conserve these beautiful birds of prey.
While you enjoy a hearty breakfast in the restaurant, the staff will prepare sandwiches, beverages and some snacks for you to take on your trip. Don’t forget your safety equipment, and don’t forget your camera!
Driving down Vermilion Cliffs highway, entrenched by the Echo Cliffs, rising 2,000 feet to the east above the valley floor, and the Paria Plateau, rising 3,000 feet to the west, think of the hordes of miners, scavenging the surrounding canyons and hills for gold.
At the ferry, around 10 am, the Colorado River Discovery crew will haul you upstream to just south of Glen Canyon Dam. As you’re being pulled upriver, the steep, imposing cliffs of Glen canyon build a narrow gateway for the river to pass through.
In an hour’s journey through emerald green water, you’ll get a sense of what’s to come before you’ll arrive just south of Glen Canyon Dam. Second highest dam in the United States, it rises before you at 710 feet, competing with the natural canyon walls. After a last nod, you’ll turn your back on it, and begin the most important part of your trip: Your own personal frontier experience.
As you drift down the calm, gentle waters, you’ll pass starkly carved red walls, royal arches, grottos and alcoves, set against the abundant green of cottonwood, willows, tamarisks and Russian olive. You’ll witness a teeming wildlife, and fish jumping off the water. Within this bountiful nature, imagine the different groups of people who roamed this area before you. Explorers like Major Wesley Powell, (Lake Powell bears his name), who embarked on a voyage that covered almost 1,000 miles through uncharted territory of the Grand Canyon, which until then was only heard of in fantastical legends. Or think of Sharlot Hall, a bold artist and first woman ever to hold territorial office, who was sent to this stretch of land to decide if it should remain with Arizona or be ceded to Utah. Based on what she saw, she determined that–without a doubt–this area had to stay with Arizona.
When you reach Petroglyph beach on the left hand side, just by Horseshoe Bend, stop for lunch, and explore the Petroglyph Panels, depicting bighorn sheep, birds, animal tracks, and human figures and handprints–all of which date back to archaic and prehistoric Indian cultures (mostly Navajo), who roamed and lived in the canyons. After exploring the panels, take some time to find a spot on the beach, and let the quiet soothe your soul. Maybe stick your feet in the water and let this source of life energize you, like it energized the travelers before you, shaping their lives, and being shaped by the stories they left with the river. As you sit there, you’ll gradually find yourself enveloped in this circle of life, and here, in the middle of nowhere, you will feel that you are somewhere. That you belong.
Later that day, back at the lodge, when you sit on the veranda, watching the sunset with a glass of wine, this moment will feel like a dream. A dream of exploring a portion of Earth’s original paradise.
What & Where:
Lees Ferry Lodge is located 120 miles north of Flagstaff, Arizona, at the edge of the Vermilion Cliffs National Wilderness Area, on Hwy 89A, 3.5 miles west of the Navajo Bridge, which spans the Colorado River (Lees Ferry Lodge, Marble Canyon, AZ 86036; 928-355-2231 or 800-451-2231) http://www.vermilioncliffs.com/
Colorado River Discovery provides backhauling services from Lees Ferry upriver to just south of Glen Canyon Dam. Please call their office at 888-522-6644 or 928-645-9175 for more information and reservations. http://www.coriverdiscovery.com/
They also offer a variety of rowing and rafting trips.
Kayak rentals in the area:
Four Season Outfitters (107 W. Phoenix Ave, Flagstaff; 928-226-8798)
Cañon Outfitters LLC (2020 Border St, Page;888-452-2666)
Safety Equipment list:
– drinking water
– high energy snack bars
– emergency blanket
– walking shoes for exploring
Other things to do in the area:
Lee’s Ferry is a great place to enjoy year-around, with or without family. In the summer, you can embark on a white water rafting adventure through the Grand Canyon, or enjoy some prime fishing, not to forget the historic and scenic hikes around the Grand Canyon’s Northern Rim, which are best done in the spring, when all the wildflowers are in bloom.
For more information on the Arizona Strip/ Lee’s Ferry/Glen Canyon National Park: http://www.desertusa.com/colorado/GlennNRA/du_gcnra_map.htm
- This article was the 52 Perfect Days 2008 Travel Writing Contest 5th PLACE HONORABLE MENTION
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Born and raised in Ettlingen, a small German town nestled in the Black Forest, I left my home at the age of 19 to pursue screenwriting in Los Angeles. A graduate of UCLA film school as well as the American Film Institute, I finally surrendered to my wanderlust and passion for culture shocks, and have since transitioned into travel writing, with a focus on holistic travel. I live with my husband, filmmaker Jared Drake, and our reindeer Bruce, in the secluded hills of Topanga, California.