The Colorado River cuts one gorge after another as it crosses the high plateaus of southern Utah and northern Arizona. Travelers found the river a dangerous and difficult barrier until well into the 20th century. A break in the cliffs above Marble Canyon provided one of the few places where a road could be built to the water's edge. Until 1929, when Navajo Bridge finally spanned the canyon, vehicles and passengers had to cross by ferry. Zane Grey expressed his thoughts about this crossing—Lees Ferry—in The Last of the Plainsmen (1908):
I saw the constricted rapids, where the Colorado took its plunge into the box-like head of the Grand Canyon of Arizona; and the deep, reverberating boom of the river, at flood height, was a fearful thing to hear. I could not repress a shudder at the thought of crossing above that rapid.
The Dominguez-Escalante Expedition tried to cross at what's now known as Lees Ferry in 1776, but without success. The river proved too cold and wide to swim safely, and winds frustrated attempts to raft across. The Spaniards traveled 40 miles upriver into present-day Utah before finding a safe ford.
About 100 years later, Mormon leaders determined the Lees Ferry crossing to be the most convenient route for expanding Mormon settlements from Utah into Arizona. Jacob Hamblin led a failed rafting attempt in 1860, but he returned four years later and made it safely across.
Although Hamblin first recognized the value of this crossing, it now bears the name of John D. Lee, a colorful character who gained notoriety in the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre. One account of this unfortunate chain of events relates that Paiute, allied to the Mormons, attacked an unfriendly wagon train; Lee and fellow Mormons then joined in the fighting until all but the small children, too young to tell the story, lay dead.
When a federal investigation some years later uncovered Mormon complicity in the slaughter, the Mormon Church leaders, seeking to move Lee out of sight, asked him to start a regular ferry service on the Colorado River. This he did in 1872. One of Lee's wives remarked on seeing the isolated spot, "Oh, what a lonely dell," and thus Lonely Dell became the name of their ranch. Lee managed to succeed with the ferry service despite boat accidents and sometimes hostile Navajo, but eventually his past caught up with him. In 1877, authorities took Lee back to Mountain Meadows, where a firing squad and casket awaited.
Miners and farmers came to try their luck along the Colorado River and its tributaries. Charles Spencer, manager of the American Placer Company, brought in sluicing machinery, an amalgamator, and drilling equipment. In 1910 his company tried using mule trains to pack coal from Warm Creek Canyon, 15 miles upstream. When the mules proved inadequate, company financiers shipped a 92-foot-long steamboat in sections from San Francisco. The boat, the Charles H. Spencer, proved underpowered and was used only five times. The boiler, decking, and hull can still be seen at low water on the shore upstream from Lees Ferry Fort. Although Spencer's efforts to extract fine gold particles proved futile, he persisted in his prospecting here as late as 1965 and made an unsuccessful attempt to develop a rhenium mine.
The ferry service continued after Lee's departure, though fatal accidents occurred from time to time. The last run took place in June 1928, while the bridge was going up six miles downstream. The ferry operator lost control in strong currents and the boat capsized; all three people aboard and a Model-T were lost. Fifty-five years of ferryboating had come to an end. Navajo Bridge opened in January 1929, an event hailed by the Flagstaff Coconino Sun as the "Biggest News in Southwest History." Standing 470 feet above the Colorado River, it was the world's highest steel arch bridge at the time. No longer did travelers have to face a dangerous ferry crossing or detour 800 miles to reach the other side.
NAVAJO BRIDGETHE OLD AND THE NEW
A new, wider bridge for traffic has replaced the old Navajo Bridge across Marble Canyon. The old bridge, admired for its design and beauty, has been preserved as a pedestrian path just upstream from the new one. Now you can enjoy a walk 470 feet above the water on the old bridge's 834-foot length. (Do not throw anything off the bridge, as even a small object can pick up lethal velocity from such a height and hurt boaters below.) A 1930s stone shelter built by the Civilian Conservation Corps and a new visitor center stand just west of the bridges. Indoor and outdoor exhibits illustrate the history and construction details of both structures. You'll find local travel information for the Grand Canyon and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and a large selection of books, maps, videos, music (Native American and Southwest), and posters in the Navajo Bridge Interpretive Center; it's open daily 8 a.m.-5 p.m. from mid-April to mid-November. Navajo sell crafts on the old bridge's east end. Both ends of the old bridge have parking.
Information and Getting There
The Lees Ferry area and the canyon upstream belong to the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Grand Canyon National Park begins just downstream. Rangers of the National Park Service administer both areas. Navajo Bridge Interpretive Center (closed in winter) near the highway turnoff is the handiest source of information for Lees Ferry. The ranger station (on the left 0.4 mile after the campground turnoff, 928/355-2234) offers boating, fishing, and hiking information and sells some books and maps, but it is open irregular hours.
Entry fees for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which can be paid at a self-service station a half mile in from US 89A, cost $10 per vehicle or $3 per cyclist or hiker for seven days; admission is free if you have an America the Beautiful Pass.
A paved road to Lees Ferry turns north from US 89A just west of Navajo Bridge. Follow the road in 5.1 miles and turn left 0.2 mile for Lonely Dell Ranch Historic District or continue 0.7 mile on the main road to its end for Lees Ferry Historic District. A self-guided tour booklet, available on site as well as at the Navajo Bridge Interpretive Center and Carl Hayden Visitor Center, gives the history of the historic districts.
Lonely Dell Ranch
A log cabin thought to have been built by Lee, root cellar, blacksmith shop, ranch house, orchards, and cemetery survive at Lonely Dell Ranch, a short distance up the Paria River. A walking tour of the site is about one mile roundtrip. Shade trees provide a respite from summer heat, and tables invite a picnic. Day hikers can head up the Paria Canyon Trail from here, but overnight trips should begin at the upper trailhead in Utah.
Historic buildings on the Colorado River include Lees Ferry Fort (built in 1874 to protect settlers from possible Indian attack, but used as a trading post, residence, then a mess hall), a small stone post office (in use 1913–23), and structures occupied by the American Placer Company and the U.S. Geological Survey. The boiler, one of four used by Spencer's unsuccessful placer operation, was abandoned in 1912. A little farther upstream you'll pass the submerged wreck of Spencer's steamboat.
From 1872 to 1899 ferries used the area above Lees Ferry Fort to cross in high and medium water; they crossed below the Paria confluence in low water. In 1899 a cable strung across the river upstream made life easier for the ferrymen. A walk through the main historic district is about one mile roundtrip, or two miles roundtrip if you go all the way to the upper ferry site, now marked by ruins of ferrymen's stone houses and a remnant of the cable. It's possible to continue about a half mile farther on trails used by anglers.
Energetic hikers climb this unmaintained trail for fine views of Marble Canyon from the rim 1,700 feet above the river. The ingeniously planned route switchbacks up sheer ledges from just beyond Spencer's boiler. It's a moderately difficult hike to the top, three miles roundtrip; you should get a very early start in summer and carry plenty of water.
Cathedral Wash Route
This two-mile roundtrip hike follows a narrow canyon to a beach at Cathedral Rapid. Park at the second pullout, overlooking the wash, on the road to Lees Ferry, 1.4 miles in from US 89A and 3 miles before the campground.
Fishing and Boating
Rainbow trout flourish in the cold, clear waters released from Lake Powell through Glen Canyon Dam. Special fishing regulations apply here and are posted. Anglers should be able to identify and must return to the river any of the endangered native fish—the Colorado pikeminnow, bonytail chub, humpback chub, and razorback sucker. There's a fish-cleaning station and parking area on the left just before the launch areas. At road's end, you'll reach a paved upriver launch site used by boaters headed toward Glen Canyon Dam; Grand Canyon river-running groups use the unpaved downriver launch area. Powerboats can travel 14.5 miles up Glen Canyon almost to the dam. The Park Service recommends a boat with a minimum 10-hp motor to negotiate the swift currents. Boating below Lees Ferry is prohibited without a permit from Grand Canyon National Park.
You can use the plentiful campsites along the Colorado River above Lees Ferry. These sites lack piped water but are free. Remember to purify river water before drinking and pack out what you pack in.
The sites at Lees Ferry Campground cost $10 and have drinking water, shaded tables, and small trees but no hookups or showers; there's usually space available. Campers can use showers and laundry facilities beside Marble Canyon Lodge. From US 89A, take Lees Ferry Road in 4.4 miles and turn left at the sign. A dump station is on the right, 0.4 mile past the campground turnoff.
On to Below the Vermilion Cliffs