Holy Smokes, This Southwestern Desert Looks Like a Dr. Seuss Book
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument is like a mirage in the Arizona desert.
You are forgiven for not having visited Vermilion Cliffs, or perhaps not having heard of it at all. We're talking about Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, which sits in northern Arizona, as well as the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, which stretches up and over Utah’s southern border.
There’s a lot of local competition for your hard-earned vacation days around here—you're just about spitting distance from the Grand Canyon, Arches, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Petrified National Forest, and Lake Powell. Those are all incredible. But Vermilion Cliffs gives you every bit of the feeling that you’ve been swept into a Dr. Seuss illustration. Also, there are dinosaur tracks.
“We tend to think of these very dry desert places as being without any life, but one thing I’ve become interested in is how these actually do record evidence of quite a bit of life,” says Dr. Marjorie A. Chan, distinguished professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Utah. “If dinosaurs are present, they’re at the top of the food chain, so there has to be a host of other organisms beneath them.”
Known for red and white swirls of intricately layered Navajo sandstone hailing from the Jurassic Period, Vermilion Cliffs gets its distinct aesthetic from iron-rich oxide pigments within the rocks, which over time have been exposed by erosion and thundering dinosaurs. It’s kind of like the Badlands—just more Mars-like, and accessorized with endangered California condors.
Vermilion Cliffs might not have benefitted from all the PR exposure its neighbors enjoy, but as far as breathtaking vistas go, it absolutely holds its own. Here's everything you need to know to embark on a killer Vermilion Cliffs adventure.
Finding Vermilion Cliffs
Another reason you may not have heard of Vermilion Cliffs is that it takes a hop, skip, jump, and bumpy ride in a seriously sturdy car to get there. The national monument is pretty remote—there are no visitors centers, only two developed campgrounds, and nary a paved road inside the entire 293,689-acre expanse.
The nearest towns are Page, Arizona and Kanab, Utah, so make sure to stock up on food, gas, and water in one or the other before you head into the park. From Page, you’ll want to take Highway 89 south to Route 89A, then head north and cross the Navajo Bridge to enter. From Kanab, you can head straight south on Route 89A to enter from the west.
Alternatively, if you’re headed up from Flagstaff, it’s a two-hour straight shot. Take Highway 89 north until you hit Bitter Springs, then continue on Route 89A until you reach the national monument. Service is spotty at best, so a pre-downloaded Google Maps route will be your best friend.
Things to know before heading out
First and foremost: The landscape in Vermilion Cliffs is super fragile, so entry into regions like Coyote Buttes North/The Wave is limited and available via a public lottery. Note that you'll need a separate permit for each area you want to visit. Permits become available up to four months in advance, and if you can’t snag one ahead of time, you can also try your luck with the day-of lotteries.
It bears repeating that there are no paved roads in Vermilion Cliffs, and the land is rough: rocky in some places, deep and sandy in others. You’ll want a high-clearance vehicle for this excursion. If you can’t get your mitts on a solid rental (you wouldn’t be alone), consider joining a tour group like the Kanab Tour Company or Grand Staircase Discovery instead. Much better to risk having other people photo-bomb your selfies than getting stranded in the blazing hot desert with a busted-up ride.
Vermilion Cliffs is a hiker’s paradise, so bring your sturdiest shoes since many of the most iconic sights—including The Wave—are only accessible on foot. And as usual, when it comes to traversing any desert plain, don’t head out without stocking up on way more food, water, gas, and sunscreen than you think you’ll need.
Coyote Buttes North
Vermilion Cliffs National Monument is divided into a few main regions, some of which overlap. Coyote Buttes North is right along the Arizona-Utah border, and the Bureau of Land Management limits the number of visitors in order to protect the fragile ecosystem. Keep an eye out for more than 1,000—perhaps several thousand—dinosaur tracks imprinted into the sediment, dating back 190 million years to the Jurassic Period.
Just a hair over the border into Arizona is where, about a decade ago, Chan and some of her colleagues struck gold, so to speak. “There was one particular surface that seemed to have potholes in it," she says. "It was a little bit enigmatic. I thought probably there was some biological influence on that surface, but it was so obscured.”
They returned to examine it again and found what were undeniably dinosaur footprints. “Some of them, you can actually see the three toes," she adds. "They look almost kind of like bird prints, going up over the dunes.”
Some of these pothole-looking tracks are more than a foot long, but for the most part, you’ll see three-toed prints no more than three or four inches long. Look for them on the way to The Wave when you approach from the North. “Most people would probably walk right by it if they weren’t looking for it,” Chan says. “I probably wouldn’t even recognize it if I had to find it again.”
You can apply for a hiking permit here, and you absolutely should—because of the dinos, sure, but also because Coyote Buttes North contains...
This is objectively Vermilion Cliffs’ number one draw. If you’ve seen any photos of Vermilion Cliffs before, you almost certainly saw the Wave. Sitting juuuust south of the Utah border, this is the moneymaker, so to speak. The thing people hike in from far and wide to marvel at, or at the very least, to Instagram. Best of all, the limit on the number of hikers allowed in at once means that this isn’t one of those tourist attractions you’ll arrive at only to be boxed out by a menacing throng of selfie sticks—you can indeed have the Wave to yourself.
The Second Wave
Don't call it a comeback.
Melody Arch and the Grotto
Like the Wave and the subsequent Second Wave, this site is located within Coyote Buttes North. Melody Arch and the Grotto sounds a bit like an indie folk band, but the arch is actually named after Melody Thomas, the photographer responsible for putting it on the proverbial map.
Another icon in the Coyote Buttes North area, the Alcove lies just 20 feet or so below Melody Arch, but you’d never know it from above. If you find it, congratulations, because not everyone does. To access it, locate Melody Arch first, then eyeball about 100 feet southeast and aim your boots thataway. If you hike in from Wire Pass, you can complete an eight-mile loop that’ll take you through the Wave, Second Wave, Melody Arch, and the Alcove—not a terrible way to spend an afternoon.
While you're wandering make sure to drop your head from time to time—if you've got a sharp eye, you might also spot remnants of ancient plant life at the base of various sand dunes. “When people are looking [for tracks], most living things will have been preserved toward the bottom of the dune, where it starts to get flatter,” Chan says. “You can kind of think of a sand dune as a field. Let’s say it starts raining, and water starts accumulating in the low areas; so those low areas are typically where there was more moisture, and therefore more organisms, and there’s not much sand moving directly on top of it.”
Coyote Buttes South
Wanna hike through here? Go for it, as long as you’re confident in your fitness and ability to read a map. This region facilitates exceptional hiking but contains no actual designated trails. You’ll need a permit to enter this area as well, so don’t sleep on that application. The BLM allows 20 people to hike through each day—check out their guide to crossing the region here. And don't forget to bring plenty of water.
The group of sandstone domes known as White Pocket is the most iconic feature of the Paria Plateau, which lurks a few miles southeast of Coyote Buttes North and The Wave. It encompasses about one-square-mile, and stands apart because the rocks here are not Vermilion—they’re a sparkling whitish gray. You don’t need a permit to hike in, but there are no marked trails here, either.
This famed slot canyon runs through the northern section of Vermilion Cliffs National Monument inside Coyote Buttes South. Paria is Paiute for "muddy water," as Paria Canyon follows the Paria River. Petroglyphs abound—make sure not to touch or otherwise deface them in any way. Major geological features within the canyon include Moenkopi Formation, Chinle Formation, Moenave Formation, Kayenta Formation, and Carmel Formation. You’ll need a permit for overnight trips.
Ready to double down on your Vermilion Cliffs adventure? Extend your Paria Canyon hike right into...
In southern Utah, to the North of Coyote Buttes North, lies Buckskin Gulch. It is the deepest slot canyon in the American Southwest and, at around 15 miles, is conceivably the longest slot canyon anywhere in the world.
Can it be hiked? It can, and you’ll need to apply for a permit to do so, and also probably bring some rope for a couple of the tricky spots. Buckskin Gulch should only be hiked by those who understand flash floods and take them seriously. If it’s gonna rain, don’t risk it.
Technically this spot is slightly over the border of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, but it’s literally right there and way too fun not to mention. You can tackle the hoodoos in an easy 1.5-mile hike. And throughout your Vermilion Cliffs exploration, allow yourself the joy of getting excited about witnessing—in a responsible, non-destructive way, of course—such mind-blowing surroundings.
“There’s this serendipity of exploring, maybe stumbling on things that indicate evidence of past life. It might be anything—root structures, small little burrows of organisms, kind of wormy-looking,” Chan says sagely. “You get that sense of discovery, that sense of wonder.”