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Lees Ferry: A Day Trip on the Colorado River Where the Grand Canyon Begins

February 10, 2021 /
Lees Ferry arizona

Warning: Due to COVID 19 some information in this article (e.g. operating hours) may not be up-to-date.

We are now in the vast and famous Glen Canyon in Arizona. More precisely, we are on the banks of the Colorado River, at the mouth of Paria Canyon and below the monumental Vermilion Cliffs, about 45 minutes from Page, where the rushing river has carved natural wonders such as Horseshoe Bend and Lake Powell.

Today we want to tell you about Marble Canyon, and in particular about Lees Ferry Launch (also known as Lees Ferry), a place full of history and secrets that almost all the itineraries on the road ignore, in favor of the most famous attractions nearby. You may be asking yourself what’s so exciting about Lees Ferry? What if we told you that we are going to tell you all about the clearing where the Colorado River began to carve what we know as the Grand Canyon?

We are in the heart of Marble Canyon (a smaller section of Glen Canyon), near the Navajo Bridge. Highway 89A (a variant of the much more popular Highway 89), which starts in Fredonia and wraps around Vermilion Cliffs, passes over Marble Canyon. Lees Ferry can be reached via a detour from the main road into the heart of the canyon. What will you find when you get there?

Let’s go find out together.

Lees Ferry: Where the Grand Canyon Begins

Let’s get rid of all mysteries surrounding this place. We will go ahead and explain what Lees Ferry is and then give you detailed directions. Marble Canyon and Lees Ferry area is located on the southern side of Glen Canyon, which begins at Canyonlands and Capitol Reef, Utah, and ends right here, before becoming the Grand Canyon.

The special thing about Marble Canyon is that we are talking about one of the few sections of the entire Glen Canyon where the Colorado River is easily accessible and navigable. It is difficult to do it anywhere else on the river, along the previous 700 miles in which the river flows through the tall walls of the rift that divides Arizona and Utah.

Lake Powell Cruise
The exception is Lake Powell, whose narrow canals can be explored on a cruise. We talked about it in our article about Lake Powell.
Marble Canyon lees ferry

Due to its fortunate geographical position, this area has been exploited over the centuries. From 1872 to 1920, numerous gold diggers, Navajo and pioneers sailed and crossed the river at this point, and even today, from the small pier of Lees Ferry on the riverbank – which gives its name to the place – tourists and fishermen set off on boats, eager to explore the narrow Marble Canyon.

But this is only one of the merits of this charmed natural area. Around the pier, there are interesting itineraries that you can follow to discover the history and natural beauty of the area. But first, let’s figure out how to get to Marble Canyon and Lees Ferry.

Directions to Lees Ferry

At Kanab, a point of reference for those who visit Bryce Canyon, Highway 89 forks off. While one road continues north of Vermilion Cliffs and reaches Lake Powell and Page, the other goes south and when it reaches Fredonia, it goes east, and it arrives in Page on the opposite side, from Bitter Springs (fyi: the section of Highway 89 from Bitter Springs to Page had been closed for construction, but recently the road has reopened. Highway 89 passes by, for example, Horseshoe Bend).

marble canyon arizona89A, the old highway from Fredonia, is an exceptional scenic road that allows you to view from a distance the incredible Vermilion Cliffs, which is a park that is notoriously difficult to visit. In fact, after Jakob Lake, on the left, you will find House Rock Road, a dirt road that takes you on a bumpy ride to the heart of Vermilion. However, it is not a type of excursion that should be taken lightly. After about an hour from Fredonia, you will arrive at Cliff Dwellers Lodge, where there are some ancient Native American settlements. As you explore this area, you may encounter peculiar mushroom-shaped rocks that are typically found in the canyon.

The road continues towards Page. As you are approaching a gas station and the Marble Canyon landing strip, turn onto Lees Ferry Road, and you will soon arrive at your destination.

Things to Do in Marble Canyon (Lees Ferry Area)

You can have a great time when you spend a day visiting Marble Canyon, at Lees Ferry Launch and beyond. Here are the activities you can choose from:

Lees Ferry: Discovering the Colorado River

lees ferry mapThe main activity at Lees Ferry is to sail on the river, and perhaps that is why you came here. After parking your car, head to the pier and let the boatmen guide you through the silent and breathtaking walls of the Marble Canyon on a boat.

Near the boat ramp, where the river bed widens, there are also some places to go swimming. Be very careful. Only dive in the designated areas, otherwise, the rapids of the Paria River – which flows into the Colorado River right here – will drag you all the way to the Grand Canyon!

Finally, if you love fishing, this is the place to go. Many fishing enthusiasts come to the shores of the Colorado River at Lees Ferry. Apparently, this area of the river has an abundance of fish.

An Adventure in Cathedral Wash Slot Canyon

Along Lees Ferry Road, before the campsite and the pier, as you are driving, you will start to see strange rock formations (including a well-known balanced rock) and, after 1.3 miles, you will find the beginning of a trail that goes inside Cathedral Wash, a small slot canyon that branches off from the Colorado River. The hike inside Cathedral Wash takes a total of 3 hours. Gear up well and prepare for a walk in the wild (watch out for snakes!) through the towering rock faces of this narrow and rigorous natural corridor.

Hiking Trails

  • Take a short walk to Lonely Dell Ranch, the residence of the Mormon family who ran the pier, located right at the beginning of the other canyon in the area shaped by the Paria River. As we said in the article about Vermilion Cliffs, two very long trails inside the Paria Canyon also start from here, White House Trailhead and Buckskin Gulch Trailhead, but these are very long and tiring hikes, suitable for those who have a lot of time and the right gear to explore the area and sleep in the campground for several nights;
  • At the pier, you can take the Spencer Trail, a 2.2-mile trail that climbs up one side of the canyon and offers a splendid view of the river. The trail is dedicated in memory of Charles H. Spencer, the most famous gold digger in the area, who tried his luck in this part of the Colorado River in 1910;
  • From the pier, you can also walk to Lees Fort, a historical structure that stands as a reminder of the clashes in the late 19th century between Mormons and Navajo in the area.

marble canyon hiking

Where to Stay near Marble Canyon

If you don’t feel like sleeping at the campground at Lees Ferry, the nearest city with the best selection of accommodations is Page. Find the best place to book an overnight stay by clicking on this link:

All accommodations available in Page

Bernardo Pacini
Bernardo Pacini

I am an editor and copywriter and have published some poetry. Besides traveling, my interests include literature, experimental music and good food

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