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.
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.
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.