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A Stunning Trip through Coral-Hued Canyon Country in Arizona and Utah

Two national monuments, jaw-dropping views and Toadstool Hoodoos are a few of the highlights

spinner image a map of an arizona utah road trip over paria beach near lees ferry in marble canyon arizona
Alamy / Getty

Coral-hued cliffs. Sheer-walled canyons. Wind-sculpted spires. You’ll have these majestic rock formations plus wide-open spaces nearly to yourself on this three-day road trip through the striking red rock canyon country of northern Arizona and southern Utah. 

​The route delivers two national monuments, with the centerpiece — and the literal center of this 228-mile loop — being Vermilion Cliffs National Monument and its star attraction, the crimson-and-tangerine-walled escarpment of the Paria Plateau. You’ll trace the monument’s southern side while traveling westward, including making a stop at the historical Navajo Bridge.

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​On the return trip east to complete the loop, postcard-worthy views dazzle on both sides — the Vermilion Cliffs to the south and Grand-Staircase-Escalante National Monument to the north. This region of copper-colored canyons, sheared-off cliffs and water-chiseled rock formations wows with the same stark technicolor splendor of the five national parks that surround it, but with a dose of solitude not found in the more crowded parks.  

spinner image carl hayden visitor center at lake powell arizona
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Day 1: Page to Marble Canyon (40 miles)

Begin your journey in Page, 273 miles north of Phoenix on the Arizona-Utah border. If you drove through this area in the early 1950s, you’d see nothing but a vast, open stretch of high desert. The town sprung up in the late 1950s as a housing camp for the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam, which created Lake Powell. Today it bustles with road trippers en route to the Grand Canyon, anglers and boaters who ply the waters of the lake and outdoor explorers looking to visit slot canyons and other surrounding sights.

​Start your day with a huge helping of eggs and corned beef hash at the diner-style Ranch House Grille, where the chatty owners dish out tips on where the fish are biting and the best gas prices in town. The sandwiches are as hearty as the breakfasts, so order a turkey club or BLT to-go for a picnic lunch later.  

​Today’s journey will largely follow the path of the Colorado River (starting from the Glen Canyon Dam), where it departs Lake Powell about 3 miles from downtown Page. You’ll explore Marble Canyon, including the 60-mile stretch of the river from Lees Ferry where rafters launch trips into the Grand Canyon, to the confluence with the Little Colorado River, the Grand Canyon’s designated boundary. Named for its striped and water-polished cliffs, Marble Canyon was designated a national monument in 1969 before being subsumed into Grand Canyon National Park in 1975.

​Before leaving Page, drive across the Glen Canyon Dam Bridge to the Carl Hayden Visitor Center, which juts out from the cliff 110 feet above the dam, for an enlightening relief map of Lake Powell and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and interpretive exhibits on area geology and history.

​About 2 miles south of the dam on U.S. 89, stop at the Glen Canyon Dam Overlook, a little-known point with better views of the dam than you just saw from the bridge. Even if you can’t descend the 940-foot-long path to the overlook, you will see well from the trailhead.

​Four miles up on U.S. 89, you’ll reach Horseshoe Bend, the 270-degree curve of the Colorado River so familiar from screen savers and Instagram photos. A wide, wheelchair-accessible path (1½ miles round trip) leads to a viewing platform where you can gaze down on the deep-teal water swirling against tangerine-colored rock. 

​It’s about 21 miles to Bitter Springs and the turnoff to U.S. 89A, the start of the Fredonia-Vermilion Cliffs Scenic Road, then a little more than 14 miles to the Navajo Bridge. This stretch crosses the Navajo Nation, and you’ll probably want to stop at one of the pullout viewpoints to get your first glimpse of the crimson cliffs and shop at the booths run by Navajo families. 

​The Navajo Bridge was opened in 1929 to replace the ferry that provided the only Colorado River crossing. At just 18 feet wide, that bridge is now a pedestrian walkway (another bridge was built to accommodate traffic in 1995). As if the copper-colored chasm weren’t exciting enough, the Navajo Bridge is also a roosting spot for endangered California condors, which perch under the deck and garner whoops from the crowd when they unfurl their 6-foot wings and soar out over the river. In the Navajo Bridge Interpretive Center, open from the beginning of March to the end of October, see historic photographs of the construction of both bridges, as well as contemporary Indian crafts. Navajo artisans set up temporary craft booths outside the center, displaying beadwork, silver jewelry and other wares.  

​Spend the rest of the day savoring the silence and sandstone splendor of the Marble Canyon-Lees Ferry area. To get down to the river, take Lees Ferry Road from just past the Navajo Bridge. Stop at quiet Paria Beach, where there’s an edge of soft sand, or continue along the river to Lees Ferry itself, where you’ll find the original site of the ferry, a picnic area, bathrooms and signage explaining the historic significance of the crossing.

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​Maintained by the National Park Service, the Lonely Dell Ranch Historic Site preserves the simple pioneer life of the Lee family, who ran the ferry from the late 1800s into the 1920s. 

Where to stay: In the remote Marble Canyon area, three family-owned hotels occupy jaw-dropping settings that more than make up for the hotels’ lack of high-end amenities. You can walk from the Navajo Bridge to the Navajo-run Marble Canyon Lodge, which retains its Wild West ambience while offering a selection of budget-friendly rooms, apartments with kitchens and kitchenettes and seven two-bedroom, two-bath cabins. The registration area is wheelchair-accessible; a level, stair-free path runs through the grounds; and wheelchair-accessible rooms are available. 

​A little more than 3 miles up U.S. 89A, timber-framed adobe Lee’s Ferry Lodge has 10 comfortable and budget-friendly rooms, simply furnished with knotty pine beds and Navajo rugs, each with its own patio. Guest rooms are not wheelchair-accessible, but all the rooms are on the ground floor. 

​Four more miles on U.S. 89A, Cliff Dwellers Lodge is a favorite with kayakers and anglers, offering boat rentals and guided fishing trips in addition to 20 moderately priced cabin-style rooms, some accessible.

spinner image hiker standing under jacob hamblin arch in coyote gulch grand staircase escalante national monument utah
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Day 2: Marble Canyon to Kanab, Utah (78 miles)

Hit the road continuing west on U.S. 89A, the Fredonia-Vermilion Cliffs Scenic Road, which marks the southern boundary of the 280,000-acre Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. For the first 28 miles, the road traverses House Rock Valley with the Paria Plateau rising like a red-walled fortress just beyond, edged with the jagged buttresses of the Vermilion Cliffs. Stop at the Dominguez-Escalante Interpretive Site 16 miles west of Lee’s Ferry Lodge, where the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) erected a marker explaining the history of the Dominguez-Escalante expedition, a group of explorers and Franciscan priests who camped in this area in October 1776. 

​You might notice your ears popping and the landscape changing over the next 20 miles as you climb 2,500 feet onto the Kaibab Plateau. Dense thickets of ponderosa and piñon pine shroud the road as you pass Jacob Lake, elevation 7,900 feet, the turnoff for the North Rim of the Grand Canyon 31 miles to the north up Highway 67. (Note: Highway 67 to the North Rim is closed in the winter.) 

​Past Jacob Lake, the road begins to descend the plateau’s west side, and the panorama below provides the most dramatic bird’s-eye perspective of the whole drive. Stop at Le Fevre Overlook to marvel at the immensity of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (GSENM) below, an expanse of layered sandstone sculpted by wind and water to expose sequences of stair-stepped layers. 

​Coming into Kanab from the plateau’s vast emptiness, you’ll immediately notice the rough-and-ready bustle of this hardy pioneer fort and Mormon settlement turned outdoor recreation hub, where everyone seems either on their way to a national park or just returning from one. 

​If you arrive early enough, take a self-guided tour of the Maynard Dixon Living History Museum, about 19 miles north of town on U.S. 89. Here you’ll see the rustic log cabin and studio where the groundbreaking Southwestern artist painted some of his best-known landscapes and local scenes in the last years of his life. The adjacent Thunderbird Gallery showcases contemporary Southwestern art.

​Dine at Rocking V Café, which pays tribute to Kanab’s cowboy roots with dishes such as bison tenderloin and mac ’n’ cheese. Upstairs, the Rafters Gallery presents revolving exhibits by local artists.

Where to stay: At the northwest edge of town, Canyons Lodge takes full advantage of its location to feature views of the surrounding red rock country from all of its 44 rooms. Prices are moderate considering the amenities, which include a large seasonal pool, bicycles free for guest use and outdoor seating areas with gas fireplaces. Accessible rooms on the ground floor are available. 

spinner image rock formations known as the toadstool hoodoos at night in staircase escalante national monument utah
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Day 3: Kanab to Page (74 miles)

Fuel up for the day with muffins, scones and high-octane espresso at Jakey Leigh’s Coffee Shop. As you leave town, heading east on U.S. 89, stop at the Kanab Visitor Center to pick up maps of GSENM and view an exhibit illuminating the geology and archaeology of the area you’re about to drive through. 

​You won’t know which direction to turn your head as you drive east on U.S. 89, which slices between the two immense national monuments, each a horizon-stretching expanse of creamsicle canyon country. To the north, the almost 2 million acres of rugged GSENM stretch nearly to Moab, Utah, while the now-familiar Vermilion Cliffs line the southern horizon. 

​It is from this side of the cliffs that hikers access rainbow-hued Paria Canyon, which requires a lengthy, although relatively level, hike to reach. The trail starts at the White House trailhead, where you can obtain the required day use permit by scanning a QR code. Serious hikers make the full flat, 14.9-mile out-and-back trek, which requires walking in water for part of the hike when the canyon narrows. But you can do the first portion of this hike as an out-and-back of any length, turning around when you wish.

The highlight of this stretch is a visit to the Toadstool Hoodoos, an otherworldly expanse of mushroom-topped rock towers 44 miles east of the Kanab Visitor Center. From the trailhead parking lot on U.S. 89, walk about 1½ miles round trip on a level, sandy path to a bowl-shaped canyon studded with unusual chalk-white and ocher formations.  

​The Big Water Visitor Center, about 12 miles past the Toadstool Hoodoos continuing east, is shaped like the whorl of an ammonite for good reason — the circular building houses an extensive paleontology exhibit of dinosaur bones and fossils along with a large mural bringing the late Cretaceous period vividly to life. Watch a video about the region’s contributions to paleontology, which include the discovery and naming of 15 new dinosaur species since 2005. Study the topographic map of the entire GSENM, then head outside to the courtyard to see life-size dinosaur statues and a dinosaur dig replica. 

​As you pull into Page for the evening, one more highlight awaits: dinner at Bird House, where fried chicken rises to new heights, crisped in rich buttermilk and accompanied by a selection of sides, from mashed potatoes and gravy to house-made pickles and bacon-flecked broccoli salad.

Where to stay: Check into the eight-room Red Rock Motel, one of several modest, retro-chic roadhouses strung along the Street of Little Motels. This historic district on 8th Avenue preserves housing originally built for the workers who raised Glen Canyon Dam. For more modern amenities, the reasonably priced Days Inn & Suites by Wyndham Page Lake Powell has accessible guest rooms and parking, closed captioning and TTY devices.

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