Death Valley Jim does the Paria Canyon Wilderness & Vermilion Cliffs National Monument (Part 1)

South Coyote Buttes
Storm clouds outside of Williams, AZ move in on me at Keyhole Sink.

Storm clouds outside of Williams, AZ move in on me at Keyhole Sink.

 

Sometimes adventures aren’t meant to happen the way you plan them, or they just might not be meant to happen at all. I had planned to hike the Paria River Canyon near Lee’s Ferry, AZ over a week in the beginning of July, the forecast was looking like I would have perfect weather for the duration of my backpacking trip; until the day before I was to leave. I was on the phone with my mom back in Pennsylvania, when I pulled up the forecast to see a string of thunderstorms now posted for every day of my trip. I didn’t back down, and left as planned; bound for Lee’s Ferry.

From Joshua Tree, CA to Williams, AZ the weather was perfect. Once I reached Williams, I could see massive storm clouds ahead; Flagstaff had to be having it’s ass handed to them. I stopped briefly outside of Williams to hike to the Keyhole Sink Petroglyphs in the Kaibab National Forest. During the short trek, the dark clouds moved in above me, but failed to drop any precipitation.

After my short detour, I was back on Highway 40 speeding toward Flagstaff.  Just outside of the city, the pavement  went from dry as a bone to wet as a slip-and-slide. The temperature on my in dash thermometer dropped from the 90s down into the high 60s in what seemed like just a few miles. Turning off onto East Highway 89, everything was new territory to me. The temperature continued to plummet, now into the mid-50s as I passed Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument.

It didn’t stay chilly for long, as the landscape transitioned from green mountains to red rock desert; the scenery was breath-taking as I entered The Navajo Nation. The sky cleared a bit once I was on the desert floor, and I had smooth sailing all the way to Lee’s Ferry.

Weaver Ranch House at Lee's Ferry, AZ

Weaver Ranch House at Lee’s Ferry, AZ

 

Jerry Johnson Cabin at Lee's Ferry, AZ

Jerry Johnson Cabin at Lee’s Ferry, AZ

 

Samantha Johnson cabin at Lee's Ferry, AZ

Samantha Johnson cabin at Lee’s Ferry, AZ

 

The Orchard at the Lonely Dell Ranch. Planted here in 1965, the NPS now maintains it. Lee's Ferry, AZ

The Orchard at the Lonely Dell Ranch. Planted here in 1965, the NPS now maintains it. Lee’s Ferry, AZ

 

I arrived around 5pm Mountain Time, with plenty of daylight to burn, I hiked up the Paria River Canyon to the old Lonely Dell Ranch. I was impressed with how much care and preservation efforts have went into maintaining it. Approaching it, I thought for sure someone lived there and would be chasing me off with a big old rifle; but it didn’t happen, the place was abandoned, but clearly well taken care of. More on the Lonely Dell Ranch in an upcoming feature.

I met a gentleman from Germany here, he was coming out of the canyon. I asked him if he had just completed the entire Paria River Canyon, which he replied, “yes, in two and a half days.” We chatted for a bit about the hike, and he warned me that there was no water for the first 40 miles or so, that all the springs had dried up. He also provided me with his flip map of the canyon, and marked a few places that he wanted me to check out. We parted ways after about thirty minutes, and a photo of him with an old rusty beater truck.

Returning to my Jeep, I wasn’t sure what to do with the remaining daylight hours. I really didn’t want to get into anything crazy, so I just drove around the Lee’s Ferry portion of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Stopping and hiking off a mile or two from the road, investigate the area and come back.

Lee's Ferry in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Lee’s Ferry in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

 

Lee's Ferry in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Lee’s Ferry in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

 

Lee's Ferry in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Lee’s Ferry in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

 

As the sun began to set, I found a camp spot in their rather disappointing campground. I couldn’t believe that they actually wanted $12 per night for a camp site the size of three parking spots. Each camp spot had a picnic table, awning, and grill. None of which looked like it had been maintained anytime recent. I decided to forego the fee, if they came around and kicked me out, so be it…I wasn’t paying. I tried to enjoy my dinner, but the wind had begun whipping, and a series of dark clouds rolled in.

From my camp site (parking spot) I had a lovely view of the Colorado River, and as the sun would pop in and out from behind the clouds the light would dance along the red canyon walls before finally disappearing behind the mountains.

Sunset at Lee's Ferry and the Colorado River.

Sunset at Lee’s Ferry and the Colorado River.

 

Sunset at Lee's Ferry and the Colorado River.

Sunset at Lee’s Ferry and the Colorado River.

 

Sunset at Lee's Ferry and the Colorado River.

Sunset at Lee’s Ferry and the Colorado River.

 

Not much in the mood for setting up any sort of camp, I crashed out in my Jeep for the night; only awakening once to someone’s high beams shinning directly at me for what felt like a half-hour, but was likely just a few minutes.

First light arrived around 4:30am; I was up with it, ready to spend a day exploring around the area a bit before the Paria River Canyon backpacking trip that was to begin the following morning. This would also give me the opportunity to keep an eye on any weather patterns in the area, allowing me to make as much of an educated decision as possible regarding the possibilities of thunderstorms and flash flooding in the following days.

Since I had to visit the Paria Contact Station in Utah to pick up my permit, I decided that the best plan would be to make my way in that direction. I left Lee’s Ferry and traveled east on Highway 89A toward Jacob Lake for approximately 27 miles. I then left the pavement,  turning north on House Rock Road.  House Rock Road would eventually dump me out on Highway 89 in Utah, not far from the Paria Contact Station. But first, some fun!

Sunrise over the Navajo Nation from highway 89A

Sunrise over the Navajo Nation from highway 89A

 

Abandoned ranch along House Rock Road.

Abandoned ranch along House Rock Road.

 

Barn or outbuilding at the ranch.

Barn or outbuilding at the ranch.

 

Abandoned ranch along House Rock Road.

Abandoned ranch along House Rock Road.

 

My first stop was an abandoned ranch just a few miles from the highway. I have no idea of the ranch’s history, but it’s setting was picturesque at this time of day, with the soft light of the sun radiating from behind the red rock cliffs. The ranch house, the only piece of architecture still standing, it’s red stone chimney. A small barn or outbuilding has managed to maintain it’s integrity, along with the fencing and corrals around the property.

Continuing on my way, and just a few miles past the ranch I encountered a herd of eight horses grazing on sagebrush  near the roadway, I don’t know if they were wild or owned by someone in area. I got out of the Jeep and quietly walked around it (my Jeep). I had to get at least one shot of this perfect moment. I snapped a photo, and the horses began walking toward me, several of them got right up in my face, so I loved on them, petting their snouts. This wasn’t my first encounter of this type, but it always surprises me; maybe I’m a horse whisperer. I took full advantage of the situation, getting off a full series of stunning photographs.

An incredible horse encounter!

An incredible horse encounter!

 

I wish that they would fit in my Jeep!

I wish that they would fit in my Jeep!

 

We became friends very quickly.

We became friends very quickly.

 

Back on the road, I decided to venture off to South Coyote Buttes and Paw Hole. I took the trail marked specifically marked “Paw Hole,” a sign posted several feet up the road warns that if you don’t have 4 wheel drive, not to go any further. I can’t stress enough, heed to this sign! The road becomes very sandy quickly; this is one type of terrain that I hate driving on, I even find that my Jeep can have a difficult time traversing deep sand.

The Coyote Buttes area is an exposure of cross-bedded aeolian Jurassic Navajo Sandstone. The different coloration of the sandstones is a result of various iron oxide pigments within the layers of stone.  Some of the formations resemble honeycombs because of their rugged spiral shapes. I spent a considerable amount of time hiking between some the buttes, photographing their various characteristics.

South Coyote Buttes

South Coyote Buttes

 

South Coyote Buttes

South Coyote Buttes

 

South Coyote Buttes

South Coyote Buttes

 

When hiking back to my Jeep, I noticed a small white stone lying under some sagebrush. It was very out-of-place, all the other stone in the immediate vicinity was either red, orange or black.  Upon closer inspection I realized that it was a small deer point arrowhead. It was in perfect condition, maybe an inch long and half an inch wide. I examined it closely, noting the small notches along the shaft of the arrow. This was real craftsmanship, I can only image the length of time that went into making just one arrowhead. Concluding my examination I returned it to it’s place among the sagebrush, the temptation to snatch it up was certainly there, but that would be greedy of me to deprive someone else the opportunity of discovery.

The Anasazi Indians are known to have inhabited this area from 600 A.D. to 1200 A.D.. The Paiute people followed, making their home here for up to 600 hundred years before the first white man stepped foot here. It is more than likely that arrowhead is from the time of the Paiute habitation.

Deer Point arrowhead found at South Coyote Buttes.

Deer Point arrowhead found at South Coyote Buttes.

 

Stay tuned for part two…

About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.

12 Comments

  • Those early people are no longer called Anasazi. The word is an insulting word that in Navajo means killer who stinks like rotten meat. The Hopi find the term offensive to their ancestors. You might want to use Hisatsinom.

    • Jessie, I always appreciate your feedback. Thank you. I don’t intend to change the word Anasazi however, historical record calls them Anasazi, as does current information put out by the NPS and BLM. I intend no disrespect in my use of the word.

  • First off Jim, your photos are just getting better and better. These are top shelf!

    What a gorgeous area this is. Sometimes, an unanticipated change of plans, ends up being a good thing.

  • Stunning photos, very good writing. Nits, and I hope you don’t weary of me. I do it in hopes that I’m helping the written word. Graph 11: .. Left the pavement, turning … comma, not a semi-colon. Also, ‘dump me out’, I’m pretty sure, not ‘dump be out’. Graph 13: I think you mean you walked around them, not around it. By the way, those are wild horses, no one owns them. They’re not shod. And every time I’ve come up on wild horses, they look like they’re going to kill me. Graph 15. I hesitate to critique form, but if they’re not in a small area, what else would they be in but a large area? I’d re-work that sentence.

    All offered in constructive criticism. I’d scratch this post.

  • You just stepped into another world. Remote, peaceful, desolate, it sounds like everything you would enjoy. If you plan on going back to Vermilion Cliffs or anywhere in the Southwest Desert, I suggest MIchael R Kelsey Non-Technical Canyon Hiking Guide to the Colorado Plateau book. It’s an excellent guide for ideas and he has some amazing places to hike to and the Indian rock art is amazing. We found several panels using his book and even a couple on our own. That was exciting, If you ever get a chance, The Wave in Coyote Buttes North is awesome. Only problem with that is you have to win their lottery for a ticket. Paw Hole is close to being just as pretty though. Love your pictures and descriptions, makes me want to get back there :-)

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