Vermilion Cliffs – US Alt. 89, Arizona


As you drive east from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon on US Alt-89, you eventually drop out of the hills onto a wide desert floor.  Stretching out before you is something quite amazing: a huge red hill that’s not terribly high, but stretches out for miles.  What you’re looking at is a slice of the earth known as the Vermilion Cliffs.  And since there’s no way to drive over it, Alt-89 turns and runs along the base of it for miles and miles.

The Vermilion Cliffs is between Fredonia and Page, Arizona.  For a little perspective, check out this Google Aerial Map, zoomed in on the Vermilion Cliffs that border US Alt-89.

The view of the Vermilion Cliffs is so awe-inspiring, and so thoroughly consumes your entire field of vision, I tried to take a series of pictures and stitch them together.  It never works very well for me, but if you click on the image above, and view it larger, perhaps you can get some idea of what it’s like to behold.

At this point, you can see where you’ll be 15 minutes in the future, because the road stretches out in front of you.  Miles go by as you stare at the perfectly formed red wall on your left, instead of the yellow line in front.

Eventually, the edge of the great monolith curves to the north, and the road follows.  After an eternity of nothing, you come upon something quite interesting.

This stop at the side of the road is known as Cliff Dwellers Lodge.  You might expect, based on the fact that Native Americans have set up jewelry stands here, that these are the ruins of an ancient Native American settlement.  If so, you’d be wrong.

There are several buildings constructed under, next to, and near the giant boulders that litter the landscape.  The biggest is the original, constructed somewhere around 1920 by Blanche and Bill Russell.  They established a home here, as well as a trading post.  The next owner, Jack Church, added liquor to the available beverages inside the little rock house.  And finally, in 1943, a third owner, Art Greene Senior, took over, and used the lodge as a base for some of the first guided boat tours of the Colorado River.

You can read more about the history of this roadside stop at the website of the current Cliff Dwellers Lodge, which still welcomes guests in facilities that are, thankfully, more modern than the underside of a rock.  Also, Arizona State University has some historical photos and stories online.

At Cliff Dwellers, you’re free to wander around anywhere you like.  As you spend time looking at the oddly formed rocks…

… peering through windows…

… and climbing into some of the old stone buildings, it becomes easier to imagine why some otherwise perfectly normal people would decide to settle down here.  It’s hot, it’s dry, there’s not a tree in sight, and yet the place is unique, it has an allure.

And of course, a great view of that Vermilion Step.

As you continue up US Alt-89, the uniform walls of the Vermilion Cliffs turn jagged.  Alt-89 heads northeast here, headed for Lee’s Ferry, and Navajo Bridge.

Note: This trip was first published in 2007.

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