Curving sandstone formations dot the landscape. Sand dunes prevail throughout the area. And some of the most compelling images you have ever seen have come out of the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument. Even if you’ve never heard of the place before, odds are good that you are familiar with one of the many amazing slick rock formations in the Vermillion Cliffs…..The Wave.
Wind and sand spend each day working together in order to reform and reshape the land. Rock becomes sand, and the sand in turn works on the rock once more. Familiar formations become dust and fade into history, and new formations take their place. And occasionally water plays a larger role in the shaping of the scenery, but it is only occasionally.
Not as massive as The Grand Staircase Escalante, only 280,000 acres, the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument is still an extremely large area to explore. A good deal of the exploration can be done from House Rock Road, so we’ll start there to begin with!
House Rock Valley Road
Running between 89A in Arizona and 89 in Utah, House Rock Road is yet another unimproved road going through some awe inspiring scenery. House Rock Valley Road is normally passable by most any type of vehicle, however higher clearance vehicles are preferred. From the south off of 89A the road is normally “washboard” at best, and after 15 minutes of driving on it visitors may think their teeth will shake out. Not to worry, there have been no documented cases of teeth rattling out, but it isn’t the nicest road in the world. With that said, coming in from the North off of Route 89 in Utah, the road is even rougher with deep ruts, wash outs, and the “washboard” feel as well.
This is why it’s suggested that a high clearance 4WD is the preferred vehicle visiting the area. Still, pacing yourself in a low clearance 2WD can be done as well, just come equipped with a little patience for the journey.
Inside the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument
There’s plenty to see and do inside the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument. As a matter of fact, many of those awe inspiring images you’ve seen in AZ Highways or National Geographic come from the Vermillion Cliffs. “The Wave,” an iconic location for photographers, is one of the main destinations for visitors to the area. But there is so much more to see, and visitors shouldn’t restrict themselves to one specific location.
Below is a quick list of “must see” locations within the Vermillion Cliffs:
- North Coyote Buttes: Home of “The Wave.” Hiking into “The Wave” is not the easiest task in the world, and nobody should consider doing it solo. Permits are also required in advance to visit the area through an online lottery system (10 permits issued per day), and an “in person” system out of Kanab, UT. 10 permits per day are issued from there as well meaning a total of 20 people per day can enter The Wave. Visiting this formation will take a full day of hiking in and hiking out.
- South Coyote Buttes: Just to the south of “The Wave”, South Coyote Buttes offers a host of things to do. There are a few locations to visit, and each could take a day or more of your time. Paw Hole, Cottonwood Cove, & Lone Tree are all entrances to Coyote Buttes South. And from each starting point (we can’t really call these trail heads, as there are no trails) you can easily spend a day or more exploring. On our trips many days were dedicated to each area, and much of the area is still unexplored by this author.
- Wire Pass: Starting into the same riverbed as visitors to North Coyote Buttes, Wire Pass is an amazing slot canyon that is a short walk from the parking area for “The Wave.” Less than an hour of hiking will land visitors in a narrow slot canyon that is absolutely breath taking. And Wire Pass ties into Buckskin Gulch.
- Buckskin Gulch: Beginning in Southern UT, and crossing into Arizona, Buckskin Gulch runs over 13 miles, and is considered one of the longest slot canyons in the world. You can access it from a parking area in Utah along House Rock Road, or you can access it from Wire Pass (noted above).
- Paria Canyon: Buckskin Gulch eventually connects with the Paria Canyon. If you want to hike from Buckskin to the Paria, and then along the canyon you’re looking at a multi-day camping trip.
- White Pocket: Lying outside of the better known North & South Coyote Buttes is White Pocket. Another incredible location with amazing slickrock formations. Not accessed as easily as the other locations directly off of House Rock Road, White Pocket requires 4WD high clearance vehicles, period.
Note: North & South Coyote Buttes require special day passes issued over the Internet, or in person at the Kanab Ranger station. The other locations also require day permits as well, but they are not limited like Coyote Buttes, and some can be picked up and paid right at the parking area.
Some serious words of caution
Before we dive into talking about each of the areas you can visit while in the Vermillion Cliffs, safety issues need to be discussed.
The Vermillion Cliffs National Monument is an extremely remote area. Driving along House Rock Road you will almost immediately find that your cell phone doesn’t work, that there is rarely water anywhere in the Monument, and that if you choose to explore any of the areas you might not see anyone else all day. Well, except for the Wave that is, due to its popularity. But in our experience at Paw Hole, Cottonwood Cove, and White Pocket, we have been completely alone for entire visits.
Driving into Paw Hole, Cottonwood Cove, or White Pocket require a 4WD high clearance vehicle. Period. Attemping to get into any of these locations with anything less will leave you stranded to be sure. And the closest towing service is out of Kanab, UT., and is not a cheap proposition. Additionally, you’ll have to get a message out for help first, and you could be waiting a long time.
From experience even high clearance 4WD vehicles can run into issues when going into these locations. A winch, sand ladders, and shovels should be in your vehicle. Additionally you should be hauling plenty of water into these locations for your use while exploring, and extra water in case you get stranded. Visiting these areas is serious business, and you should not take it lightly.
When traveling to any of these three locations keep in mind, there will be no cellular coverage at all. In our off road vehicle we carry a HAM radio in the vehicle, and a Hand Held HAM radio when we go out hiking, as several repeaters can access the area. A Spot Messenger is also along for the ride in case we get into serious trouble (it’s a satellite messenger), and a GPS as there are no marked trails at the locations. While it might sound like too many precautions, being prepared is worth it in these areas.
With all these cautionary notes, the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument is an amazing place to visit and spend a few days. You need to budget some real time in the area in order to see as much as you can. And if you don’t get a permit to head on into “The Wave,” that’s okay. It frees you up to explore some of the lesser known sites in the Vermillion Cliffs.
A few miles North of the Arizona / Utah border is a small marked parking area for Buckskin Gulch. South along House Rock Road you’ll find the parking area for “The Wave,” and self pay stations are available there for day passes. Make sure to get your day pass and pay for it prior to heading up to the Buckskin Gulch Parking area.
Hiking in from the official Buckskin Gulch parking area is pretty straightforward. Follow the normally dry riverbed east and then south. The sand is soft in the riverbed, and going is sometimes slower than you hoped for. The walk in, prior to reaching the canyon, is a long one that offers many interesting scenes for photography. During the warmer months the hike can feel a little oppressive as you’re exposed to the hot sun without a lot of shaded spots. Until you get into the actual canyon it could be a very warm, very dry hike indeed.
If you’re only out for a day, parking at the official Buckskin Gulch parking area isn’t recommended. The hike in the open is long and exposed, and for most folks over an hour will be spent walking in the open before you glimpse the canyon. Starting from the North Coyote Buttes parking area will get you into Wire Pass quickly, and then into the really interesting part of Buckskin Gulch!
Reaching the canyon you will be awe struck. Dramatic walls rising up on both sides of you, and then into the dark, cool canyon itself. In no time you’ll be well into the canyon, and you will come up to a merge point where Wire Pass connects with Buckskin. The dramatic rise of the walls will be familiar to most outdoor enthusiasts, as the canyon has been photographed so many times.
If this is a day trip, you might be wise to turn around at the junction of Buckskin & Wire Pass. Or you could follow Wire Pass back to House Rock Road and hike back to your vehicle that way. But going further along Buckskin will be too much for all but season hikers familiar with the area.
Since we’re already in the area, the next attraction to talk about would be Wire Pass. This short slot canyon makes for an extremely easy day trip, and visitors can quickly access Buckskin Gulch as well. The hike in is easier than the hike in from the Buckskin Gulch Trailhead, and visitors can enjoy the canyons in no time. This hike is recommended above doing the Buckskin Gulch parking area entrance.
From the North Coyote Buttes parking area, Wire Pass is only a 1.7 mile hike in. If you’re starting out early in the day you will most likely find yourself hiking in with the lucky permit holders on their way to “The Wave.” Quickly into the hike along a dry riverbed you’ll wave farewell to the hikers headed to the wave, and you’ll continue in the riverbed for a little longer. There’s plenty of shade spots along this hike, so even on warmer days it’s a comfortable trip.
The slot canyon itself creeps up on you. One minute you’re in open country, and in the next the entrance to the canyon is right in front of you. A large rock wall blocks the trail, and then you see the entrance into the slot itself. If it’s a warm day, prepare to cool off in a big way!
If all you wanted to do on your visit to the area was enter one slot canyon, goal accomplished. But you’ve been hiking well under an hour to get here, so keep on going. While Wire Pass is short, it leads you right into Buckskin Gulch in no time at all!
A half day can easily be spent hiking to Wire Pass and into Buckskin Gulch. Reaching the junction of the two canyons you can go north or south, it doesn’t matter. Either direction will lead into more amazing canyon country. Of course, heading North will send you up toward the Buckskin parking area, and once you’re out of the canyon the hike becomes a little dull. So, stay in the canyons and enjoy your tour.
Another word of caution while in the canyons.
As with any outdoor activity, there are dangers when hiking into canyons. Slipping and falling could leave you stranded in the wilderness. So watch your step while exploring!
The bigger concern in slot canyons is of course flash flooding. And while the riverbed is dry when you enter it, it could fill with water rocketing through the slots in no time at all. All canyons in the southwest are best avoided during monsoon season. Flash floods hitting the canyons could cost you your life. So before setting out, check the weather reports. If any rain is expected in the area, even a few hundred miles away, take a pass on your canyon visit.
Several years ago while visiting Wire Pass I noted a tree lodged way above me in the slot canyon. The year before that tree was not there. So during a flood it was wedged well above where I stood. That’s how high the water went in the canyon during a flood. Definitely not something to take lightly!
North Coyote Buttes & The Wave
If you’re fortunate enough, really persistent, and don’t mind trying over and over again, you might just land yourself a permit or two into North Coyote Buttes. And there’s only one reason why visitors want those sought after permits. The Wave.
From the main parking area (still on the Utah side of the border), the hike into The Wave is approximately 3 miles. “Approximately” is used here because there isn’t a true marked trail to the formation, and with extra wandering you could be looking at an 8 mile round trip when all is said and done. A GPS will come in very handy here, plenty of water, and the map provided by the BLM service. Be sure to check out the BLM’s website for the latest updates, closures, or advisories.
Hiking into The Wave you’ll find yourself walking along a normally dry riverbed, through some sand dunes, and out onto the slickrock that makes up the formation. The entire area is a photographic gem, so don’t just fixate on taking the standard “Wave” photo. If you’re lucky enough to score permits make the most out of the trip.
Setting out early is advised. Bring plenty of water along, and food for the day. If you’re going in, plan on spending the full day exploring the formations and enjoying yourself. And part of your enjoyment should be making sure you’ve brought adequate supplies for the day. There have been several recent deaths due to lack of supplies (read water), and the area can offer up extreme temperature variations. Honestly, the best seasons to plan your visit are late Fall, Winter, and early Spring to avoid the extreme heat.
There are many guides out there to The Wave, so we’re not going to spend a lot of time on the details of the hike in here. It is extremely popular with photographers the world over, and has been documented to death. One of the things we look for in our trip planning process are places that aren’t visited as often, and so we’ll spend some more time on the less visited South Coyote Buttes.
The Paw Hole area, like “The Wave,” is another part of Coyote Buttes requiring a special day permit. Unlike North Coyote Buttes, South Coyote Buttes is much easier to get permits for. Online or in person at the Kanab BLM office, you should be able to get permits relatively easily. With that said, this area is more difficult to get into due to it’s location.
From House Rock Valley Road visitors can park at the “Lone Tree” parking area and hike up and into Paw Hole. The trouble is, from Lone Tree it’s a good distance of hiking with no clearly defined path into Paw Hole. Your best bet is to ignore the Lone Tree parking area altogether and drive up to the Paw Hole parking area. From House Rock it’s a short 2.5 mile drive, but you must have 4WD, and you must be prepared to get stuck. There is a longer route to both Paw Hole and Cottonwood Cove from the south which is easier on your vehicle but takes considerably longer to get in.
Further information on accessing Paw Hole, Cottonwood Cove, and White Pocket will follow below.
Reaching the Paw Hole parking area you’ll find yourself looking at amazing sandstone teepees to your immediate north. Like The Wave, there are no marked trails here, so you can explore whatever you like. If you’re not hiking on the slickrock, you’re shuffling through sand dunes. And this can get exhausting fast, so be sure to stop often and gauge your exhaustion. Keep a GPS with you, and make sure you know how much of a hike it is back to your vehicle.
It is extremely easy to get lost while wandering through the dunes and slickrock. That’s why a GPS has been mentioned multiple times in this article. On this author’s first trip into Paw Hole we nearly lost a party member who wandered off to photograph something “over that way.” He wasn’t carrying enough water, he did not bring a hand held radio along, and when he finally made it back to the Jeep you could see the fear in his eyes. For the rest of the trip he was never more than 15 ft away from me.
There are too many formations to count or name in South Coyote Buttes. No guide has ever “covered them all.” And with that in mind, it’s up to you to explore the area and create your own adventure. If you’re properly equipped you should make a day out of it. Being completely honest, you could take several days at this location and still come up wanting more.
Only a few miles east of Paw Hole lies Cottonwood Cove. And like everything else in the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, this is another breathtaking location. Teepees to the north, incredible slickrock to the east and west of the parking area, and too much ground to cover in a single day. In an attempt to “get it all in” this author spent 3 days camping in the area, and yes that required 3 day permits in order to do it.
Pulling into the Cottonwood Cove parking area the first thing that jumps out at first time visitors are the amazing Teepees off in the distance. They’re further than you think, and there is a lot of “sand dune” between you and the formations. For your first trip in stick closer to where you parked and enjoy the formations to your west and east.
Some of the most incredible formations lie just west and north of where you’ve parked. Making your way across the sand dunes to the formations west of you will provide for an amazing first day. Several extremely famous photos from the west have come out of Cottonwood Cove.
Wandering the slickrock in Cottonwood Cove feels very similar to the White Pocket formation, a few miles further to the east. The colors in Cottonwood are very different, but the sandstone in both locations contain similar patterns. Walking up onto many of the formations is relatively easy, and a great break from walking through the dunes!
The western formations can easily take a day or two of your time. They keep rolling out from where you initially entered the area, and you can actually follow slickrock back to The Wave from here. Of course, your permit is only valid for South Coyote Buttes and you’d be violating BLM policy if you wandered up to The Wave. Your time is better spent focusing on the formations you’re visiting, and trying for a North Coyote Buttes Permit later.
To the east of the parking area is a smaller set of formations that are a very quick walk from where you parked. Exploring these formations could be accomplished in a half day easy. And if you’re patient and wait for sunset you’ll be glad you stuck around.
One of the “famous” formations from Cottonwood Cove can be found in this area, “The Queen,” which looks like a chess piece of the same name! But rather than just looking for formations that have already been well documented, spend your time exploring and create your own body of photographic work. It’s great to see famous icons, it’s even more fun if you create a few of your own!
Several miles to the east lies White Pocket, a personal favorite location to camp and photograph. Unlike South Coyote Buttes, this area does not currently require permits from the BLM. Due to it’s remote location and difficulty of access, permitting hasn’t hit the area yet. But if the area continues to increase it’s number of visitors per year we could see a permit required there sooner than you think. So make sure to practice the motto, “Take only pictures, leave only footprints,” in order to keep this area open to the public without permits.
White Pocket has been the focus of this author’s photographic work for years. And on this site is a full article, “A Photographer’s Guide to White Pocket.” Rather than taking more space in this article, I suggest you read the full article as it covers access, camping, and more (18 minute read).
The paria canyon
Finally, we come to the Paria Canyon. Accessing the canyon is relatively easy, as the entrance is not along House Rock Valley Road. Instead it can be accessed from White House Landing, near a BLM Ranger station off of Route 89 in Utah. While the canyon starts out in Utah, it makes its way into the Vermillion Cliffs, and finished out near Lee’s Ferry (where white water adventures in the Grand Canyon begin).
Most visitors to the area will only scratch the surface of the canyon. While day hikes can get you into the canyon and to the junction with Buckskin Gulch, to see the whole canyon requires several days of hiking and camping. If this is your plan, you would be wise to check in with the BLM regarding permits, overnight camping in the canyon, and weather conditions. This is not a trip you do on a whim, rather you should take some time to do some serious planning before undertaking the full hike.
Getting into the vermillion cliffs
There are two primary ways into the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument. One, from White House Landing and into the Paria. The second way to see everything else written about here, is by traveling along House Rock Valley Road, and a few side roads for South Coyote Buttes and White Pocket.
From 89A to 89, House Rock Valley Road only runs 30 miles. While it is a longer drive from the southern access point (on the Arizona side) it is a smoother ride if you are bringing an RV in. While washboard, the Arizona side has fewer washouts and can handle some RV’s. Additionally there are several boondocking sites off of Pinetree Rd.
If you’re coming from Kanab after picking up your permits, by all means access from the north on route 89. Within 10 miles riding south on House Rock you will arrive at State Line Campground, which is a short hop from the Wire Pass / Coyote Buttes parking area.
camping in the vermillion cliffs
If you’re tent camping you are in luck. The Vermillion Cliffs is loaded with remote camping opportunities. If you’re RV’ing, it’s another story altogether.
For tent camping it’s a pretty simple story. If you’re on BLM land you can camp. With one caveat- You cannot camp within the North Coyote Buttes or South Coyote Buttes permit areas. That means no camping at “The Wave,” Paw Hole, Cottonwood Cove. Outside of those permit areas though you will find many dispersed camping sites. And you’re welcome to camp there.
Additionally, right on the state line of UT / AZ is a great little BLM campground, “State Line Campground.” There are limited sites, but it is a free stay. It’s also the terminus for the Arizona Trail. There are multiple tent sites, and several sites for RV’s. While travel trailers, 5th Wheels, Truck Campers, and Class C’s have been noted at State Line Campground, caution is advised. The roads in are rough, and if you don’t want to damage your RV you may consider other options. Under no circumstances would we recommend bringing a Class A in from either side!
As noted above, tent campers can have a field day in the Vermillion Cliffs. There are also several good boondocking sites for RV’s on the southern part of House Rock Valley Road, and right off of it a short distance in on Pine Tree Road. Often there have been travel trailers and 5th wheels right off of House Rock Valley Road on Pine Tree Rd. The road is extremely rough, and care should be taken going in. From this author’s own viewpoint, I’d rather park my Airstream outside of the Vermillion Cliffs and just start the day earlier.
4×4 Adventure campers towing adventure trailers can also have a field day like tent campers. With off road ready tent campers, truck tops, etc, you can get into Cottonwood Cove, Paw Hole, and White Pocket with ease. And there are plenty of places to park for the night outside of the permit areas. Several fantastic rigs have been spotted near White Pocket over the years, making me wish for an “off road” Airstream!
RV camping outside the vermillion cliffs
Fortunately there are several great options noted on the map above for RV campers. Lee’s Ferry, Lone Rock Beach, and Wahweap are all a reasonable distance to the Vermillion Cliffs. Wahweap offers full hookups, and you’re located right next to Lake Powell. Lone Rock is a boondocking location, and at $10 per night is well worth it. And the campground at Lee’s Ferry puts you in an incredible location!
Accessing South Coyote Buttes & White pocket
Finally, we have a special section on an easier route into South Coyote Buttes and White Pocket. While some may suggest taking the shorter route from Lone Tree, we’d like to offer an alternate route. It is a longer ride, but much easier in case your vehicle does not have as much clearance as a fully decked out Jeep.
The journey from Route 89A in Arizona to White Pocket is less than 25 miles long. However, you will be driving for quite a while to make the 25 miles. While the first 10 miles are on well packed dirt roads (House Rock Valley Road to BLM 1017), you’ll soon find yourself in extremely soft sand as you make your way to Poverty Flat Ranch, and then on to White Pocket. Be prepared to spend some “behind the wheel” time, but also be prepared to stop here and there for photographic opportunities. This trip shouldn’t be rushed!
Once you get off of House Rock Valley road onto BLM 1017 you’ll still have some well packed dirt roads under tire (aka Pine Tree). Enjoy this, as in a few miles you’ll be cutting north and getting into the unpacked sandy driving that will bring you to a crawl.
The ride between BLM 1017 and the Poverty Flat tank is a long one, even if mileage is short. The bulk of the time will be spent in the sand, and occasionally rock outcroppings will pop up in the road to give a little extra traction right when you seem to need it most. Fortunately, while you’ll be gaining ground, the incline isn’t too steep, so fear of getting bogged down in the sand is limited. Keep in mind, road conditions change season by season, so you might encounter different conditions on your trip into the pocket.
Reaching the Poverty Flat Ranch you’ll see many old ruins, fences, an old windmill, and finally a large water holding tank on your left. Park here for a few minutes to take in the scene. To your north you’ll see Cottonwood Cove in the distance, to the west Paw Hole, and to your east you’ll see the White Pocket Monolith. Yup, you can see White Pocket at a distance for the rest of the ride in. Keep your eyes open, but also pay attention to the road!
From the tank, continue north to Cottonwood Cove. Or cut east on to Paw Hole. You’re close to both, and still a distance to White Pocket. The tank is your marker for all three locations.
Approximately 5.8 miles from the tank White Pocket can be found. Bear right from the tank on the obvious road. You’ll follow along a fence for a good distance, then you’ll cut right at an old corral. There are places to park in the area if you’d like to stop again and take more photos. Since you’re so close, what’s an extra stop or two?
Leaving the corral area you will encounter deeper sand. Hopefully you’ve aired down your tires, and if you have you should get through without incident if you keep a steady pace and don’t loose momentum in the deeper sand. Worse case scenario, a set of sand ladders will get you moving easily! Oh, and be sure to watch for deeper ruts in the road. My first trip in I didn’t watch the changing conditions close enough and launched two passengers and gear into the air several times.
Once you climb a short but steep section and take a hard cut to your right you’ll be reaching the height of land. The White Pocket Monolith will be visible off to your left, and it’s quite a scene. This is your last major decision point. From the height of land you have a long grade down toward White Pocket, and you should ask yourself if you should park a the top and walk a few miles in, or if your vehicle is doing great. If you haven’t had issues so far taking the vehicle in should be okay. But you really need to be certain!
Along the entire way leaving BLM 1017 to White Pocket you’re going to come across several fences and gates. Someone will have to exit the vehicle to open the gates, and reclose them after you pass through. Don’t leave the gates open! Please be courteous enough to leave things as you found them!