Off the beaten path: Vermillion Cliffs National Monument

So, who knew that National Monuments were such a big deal on our national political stage? You may have forgotten amid the daily…er…activity coming out of the White House, but a while back, President Trump ordered a “review” of 25 National Monuments, as designated by Presidents (via the 1906 Antiquities Act) going back to 1996, amid talk of “giving control of the land back to the people.” Much as I’d like to, I’m not going to get into the political argument here, because, well, I am an unabashed lover of national parks and monuments and that’s that.

Instead, let me introduce you one of the monuments on the list, which I had the good fortune to visit on my trip out to Southwest Utah a couple of months ago.

I’ve already written about exploring a tiny part of the unbelievably vast and wonderful Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (which is also on Trump’s list). But this visit was unique in that I didn’t know I was heading into a National Monument. In fact, I didn’t really know where I was heading, period.

After quite a few days of planning our own itineraries, this part of our trip was surrendered entirely to a tour company (Dreamland Safari Tours –  I highly recommend them), which made me unreasonably happy. For a day, someone else was going to drive us; I didn’t have to worry about navigating or finding a good place to eat or what activity we were going to do next. We just got in our suburban and let our guide, Steve, drive us out to the middle of nowhere.

Now, it turns out that we were heading south and east from our base in Kanab, Utah, into the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona. Apparently, somewhere near this part of the country, there is a famous place called The Wave; it’s so popular the lottery to get permits resembles that of Hamilton on Broadway. We, however, were heading in a different direction, to explore South Coyote Buttes and White Pocket. Those words meant nothing to me, honestly – I really didn’t know what we were about to see, but I had faith that it would be awesome, like most things we encountered on this trip.

So anyway, 6 of us piled into our monster vehicle and settled in for a 2 hour drive on a chilly, misty, cloudy day. We headed far, far out onto a dirt road, and when we stopped to let the air out of our tires in anticipation of a bumpier ride, we got to view these gorgeous red cliffs, that it turns out, are the Vermillion Cliffs for which this monument is named. Supposedly you could see endangered condors here sometimes; we didn’t.

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Photo by Shawn Bagci

This was our last chance for an outhouse, and then we headed deeper into the Monument, the road becoming more and more rutted, and the terrain more and more remote. We passed farms scratched out of the desert, saw jackrabbits, and even had to slow down for some horses that were sharing our road.

Eventually, we arrived at the trailhead for South Coyote Buttes, which was unremarkable – just a path through red sand with various shrubs and bushes surrounding us. We had about a mile to hike in, all flat, and still, I really didn’t understand what were about to encounter.

Then…this came in to view:

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Photo by Shawn Bagci

As we got closer, I realized the formations were all some variation of this incredibleness:

South Coyote Butte (3 of 30)

I don’t even have a frame of reference to describe these formations; they’re unlike anything I’ve seen before. We could tell they were shaped by water – sometimes it felt like we were walking on the ocean floor – and we could only imagine what the colors would look like on a clear day. But on this day, the peaks and swirls and lines were shrouded in fog that moved in and out around us, hiding and revealing a magical landscape that we could wander mostly at will. The light changed constantly; sometimes the base color was red, sometimes orange, sometime lavender. There were no trails; we just wandered and took pictures and slid down the sand and scrambled up the sandstone and generally had a blast. Here are just a few of my favorite shots:

South Coyote Butte (18 of 30)

This was the entrance to a section called Hogwarts:

South Coyote Butte (12 of 30)

When is saw this one, I immediately exclaimed – that’s the Sorting Hat! Which was not as big a deal to my fellow travelers, who apparently were not Harry Potter fans:

South Coyote Butte (14 of 30)

South Coyote Butte (7 of 30)

I was completely enchanted by this little arch:

South Coyote Butte (25 of 30)

Our guide said this section didn’t have a name, so we dubbed it The Kremlin:

South Coyote Butte (23 of 30)

This is the Yellow Wave. A smaller version than the more famous one, apparently, but clearly the best:

South Coyote Butte (28 of 30)

South Coyote Butte (8 of 30)

South Coyote Butte (27 of 30)

South Coyote Butte (29 of 30)

We eventually and reluctantly had to head back so we could get to our 2nd destination and have lunch. Which we did, bouncing on more rutted dirt roads as snow began to fall.

Now, it’s worth pointing out that we were expecting rain, but snow? Not on the itinerary. So, when we got to the parking area for White Pocket, our plans for a picnic were scuttled by a wet, slushy mess coming down. So we ate in the car – a sandwich buffet that, like always happens when you’re hiking, tasted divine. And then we set out to explore White Pocket.

It was snowing so hard that it wasn’t easy to get a sense of the entirety of this area, and full confession; I was really cold during this part of the trip, so I wasn’t paying as much attention. But my memory is of a large, ocean-liner like formation on the right, and a lumpy, brain-matter-like formation to the left. The place must be utterly stunning with a blue sky and sunshine, but did I mention we were basically in the middle of a snowstorm? Yup.

But intrepid folks that we were, we weren’t going to let a little snow slow us down. Except when it got all slushy and slippery on the gray rock…that definitely made us step more carefully. My favorite moment of this trek was when Shawn, my hiking partner, decided to go scramble up one of the tougher parts to get up out of a canyon, and the rest of us took a slightly easier route. I’m usually a follower when we’re out on hikes – it’s just my nature. But I was ahead of the group, and our guide basically waved me on and told me to find my own way out of the canyon while he waited for the others. “Just go right at that waterfall and you’ll be fine!” So up I went. There really was a waterfall pouring down the rock (it’s not there normally, but the snow/rain changed the entire nature of the place) making it really slippery. It took me a while, but I got myself up there and stood all alone, turning a slow, awed circle amid the silence until Shawn appeared on the ridge far above me.

I mentioned it was cold – I put my camera away for most of White Pocket, so the following cool photos are all by Shawn:

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Then it was back to the car and the blessed heater, and a long drive back to Kanab through a pretty serious snowstorm.

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As we drove, I couldn’t help but think about the math of this little trip. See, a permit is required to visit South Coyote Buttes, and according to our guide, the Bureau of Land Management issues about 40 of those a day. So, just for fun, if each group has 6 people in it, that’s 240 people a day who get to see what we saw. When you think about the volume of tourists that make their way through national parks and other attractions in our country, it’s a pretty elite club we joined that day. I found myself feeling incredibly grateful to know that such remote, amazing, unusual places exist, and that they are being protected. And that somehow, I got to see them.

Someday, I hope I get to go back, and maybe bring my niece along with me. Hopefully these magical places will still be protected when that day comes.

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