History and Stats
The area has a rich history going back to the 12th century when it was used by the Anasazi, Navajo, and Paiutes. It was first discovered by Europeans in the 18th century when the Spanish Dominguez-Escalante expedition was looking for an overland route through the Southwest.
Settlers in the 19th century, mostly Mormon, recognized that the river could be crossed fairly easily by boat. In 1870, John D. Lee, seeking refuge from the law for his participation in the Mountain Meadows Massacre, sought to set up a continual ferry service. He and his family built a small homestead called “Lonely Dell” in 1873, and “The Colorado”, the first of many ferry boats, was launched. Four years later, Lee was finally arrested by US law enforcement and was put to death by firing squad at Mountain Meadows in 1877.
In 1879, the ferry was purchased by the Church of Latter-Day Saints and would change hands several times. The area would become a commercial hub, due both to a small gold rush in the area occurring in the 1880s and the fact that it was one of only two places to cross the dangerous Colorado (the second, 40 miles away, used by the Dominguez-Escalante expedition, is now underwater, below the surface of Lake Powell). Lee’s Ferry remains the sole connection between Utah and Arizona.
In 1929, the Navajo Crossing Bridge was completed, towering 467ft above the Colorado. Only months before, a ferryboat had been transporting material for construction, but sank in a tragic accident where three men drowned. The ferryboat would not be replaced.
In 1995, a second bridge, identical in style to the first (but 470ft above the river) was opened to better handle the rigors of modern traffic. The original bridge remains open to equestrians and pedestrians.
More history can be found here.
Date Founded: 1972 as part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
Size: 120 acres
Elevation: 3,100ft, while the surrounding plateaus range from 4,500 to 7,000 ft.
Visitors: 4.5 million as of 2017
Fees: Entrance Fees are on a weekly basis and range from $12 (single, bicycle or on foot) up to $30. *We will note that these fees are covered completely by the America The Beautiful Pass, which applies to over 2,000 different sites.
As we were researching for this guide, the mission statement found for Lee’s Ferry was slightly different from the standard mission of all National Parks:
“To provide for public use and enjoyment and to preserve the area’s scientific, historic, and scenic features.”
For reference, here is the mission of the National Parks:
“To preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”
Lee’s Ferry is the starting point for Grand Canyon rafting trips, as well as passage to Lake Powell and canyoneering trips. It is considered the beginning of the Grand Canyon. The US Geologic Survey also has its longest-running stream gage measurement on site.
The area is the point of ingress for river rafters and boaters in the area, and a small Ranger station overlooks the campus.
The remains of Lonely Dell, which is on the register of National Historic Places, features a self-guided tour through the orchard and Lee homestead, which would later be re-purposed by future tenants as a Mormon colony.
Navajo Crossing Footbridge offers a fantastic view of the river below. The Interpretive Center (Open 9-5 MST April-October) on the West side offers a gift shop and history of the area. It also details the effort behind rehabilitating the California Condor population and the captive breeding program that brought the majestic bird back from the brink of extinction.
On the Navajo Nation side of the river, there are craft stalls offering the wares of native artisans.
Marble Canyon, a small hamlet (pop. ~300), is a short drive away, while the city of Page (pop. ~ 8,000) is roughly an or so hour away.
There are 54 sites within the campground, all equipped with wind break-shaded picnic tables and charcoal grills. Some of the sites are larger and designed with RVs in mind. Flush toilets and potable water are available. Camping Fees are $20 a night, though some discounts are offered with various ATB Passes.
Novice: it’s the desert, so it’s rocky, windy, hot during the day and chilly at night. Be prepared to cook over a fire or stove, as the food options in nearby Marble Canyon are limited.
This was one of the more serene and contemplative sites we had on the trip, due in part to it being the off-season. The Vermillion Cliffs are spectacular, and there are a number of impressive geologic formations right along the entrance road. Dipping our toes into the Colorado was icing on the cake.
Things we’d like to try next time
There’s an amazing amount of hiking trails in the area, including slot canyons and the Wrather Arch. These trails are not maintained, and some may require permits from the Bureau of Land Management.
- Lonely Dell isn’t purported to be haunted, but it’s very spooky.
- The rightly famed Horseshoe Bend is in between here and Page. Come early, come patient and bring water. The parking lot, trail and cliff itself is a seething zoo. It’s hot and dusty, and uphill both ways, though there is a shaded gazebo midway. There is a new trail and facilities currently under construction (as of late 2017). Be careful at the edge!
- Keep your eyes peeled for California Condors as their numbers soar. Their huge wingspan is unmistakable.
- There are lots of ravens as well, and they rightly have a reputation for having outsized personalities.
- Fishing is very popular in the area, and more information can be found here.
What were your experiences at Lee’s Ferry? Did you spot a Condor? Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments!
Read more about our experience at Lee’s Ferry at the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area here.