The Vermilion Cliffs National Monument is on the Utah-Arizona border and encompasses the Paria Plateau, the Paria Canyon, Coyote Buttes and a significant stretch of the Vermillion Cliffs, the second step of the Grand Staircase. It includes wildly beautiful and other worldly landscapes, especially in Coyote Buttes.
After well over an hour’s drive over the monument’s clay and sandy roads, we arrived at South Coyote Buttes Cottonwood Cove area where we immersed ourselves in a phantasmagoria of geometric shapes, undulating forms and beautiful colors, predominately red and then green but including ochre, gold, peach, salmon, tangerine, purple, black, white, grey, pink and turquoise.
Although we were in a relatively small area, we felt as insignificant, trivial and humbled as we did rafting through the Grand Canyon’s Granite Gorge ten years earlier.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) manages the monument and limits Coyote Buttes access to 40 visitors per day: 20 permits into Coyote Buttes North (The Wave); 20 into Coyote Buttes South. The area is primarily exposed Jurassic Navajo Sandstone whose variable coloration results from iron oxide pigments within the layers.
We were not lucky enough to win the very competitive Wave lottery, but we did manage two permits to South Coyote Buttes where the lottery is less competitive because access requires a four-wheel drive, high-clearance vehicle and experience driving in deep sand.
Rather than risking a $1000 tow out of deep sand, we opted to go with the local, family-run Pariah Outpost and Outfitters who have 17 years experience guiding in the area. And, boy, was that a good decision.
Of the 20 folks with permits that day, only six made it to the spectacular Cottonwood Cove area. The rest either got stuck in the sand or were only able to hike in to the less interesting Paw Hole area because they lacked a proper vehicle.
Mike, a 66 year old retired professional wildlife photographer who grew up as a cowboy and wrangler, was our guide. We were joined by two pleasant Swiss tourists, Iris and Walter, for our five-hour Cottonwood Cove meander.
Mike is an engaging raconteur who reminded us both of someone we knew. We couldn’t place that someone for days. A week later Patty nailed it: Robert Duvall playing Augustus McCrae in Lonesome Dove!
Dinosaur fossils and ancient artifacts
We also experienced a little paleontology and archaeology. There is a dinosaur “trackway” or “trample surface” in Cottonwood Cove. While sand covered most of it, Mike did point out a fine dinosaur track. There are also Indian artifacts. Mike showed us a shard of pottery and a beautiful arrowhead he estimated to be 10,000 years old. Because removal of artifacts is forbidden, he re-hid the arrowhead in the sand to share with future clients.
Speaking of dinosaurs, later in the trip about 15 miles away at the BLM center in Big Water, UT, we met Merle Graffam who discovered the area’s first dinosaur fossil while out for a walk. Subsequently, he discovered five more. Turns out that Merle not only discovered dinosaur fossils but a new species which is now named after him, Nothronychus graffimi. In addition, he is credited with exposing the richest vein of dinosaur and ancient reptile fossils in North America. Today, discoveries are made on a daily basis and some 4000 specimens have been excavated. Not bad for an untrained paleontologist!
We ended the day just east of the House Rock Road entrance to the Vermillion Cliffs NM wandering among the Paria Toadstools. These exotic formations are a variation on the hoodoo. According to the trailhead placard: “A toadstool is a spire-like feature with a boulder perched atop a pedestal rock, like a mushroom, or ‘toadstool.’ It forms when softer rock erodes away, leaving a column sheltered from the wind and water.” Just crazy.
What a day and what an exotic landscape. Exhilarated, we returned to Kanab, UT and the Canyons Lodge where we enjoyed another wonderful meal prepared by Chef Shon at Sego, a restaurant we’d recommend to anybody from anywhere.