Thanks to a lucky accident Ruth and I saw one of the most spectacular sights in northern Arizona last spring. I don’t think we’re unique. I suspect that a lot of people discover the Navajo Bridge and the Vermilion Cliffs accidentally. We were driving from Page to Prescott on Federal Highway 89 and somehow ended up almost back to Page on a high bridge over Marble Canyon with the Colorado River far below. We had been following Highway 89A, also called Alternate 89 on maps. 89A takes travelers to 67, the only road to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Higher than the South Rim, the North Rim is closed to visitors in the winter. If there’s another road to get to this bridge from Page, it must have been closed to regular traffic. In any event, we did get to see the cliffs and the bridge.
The Vermilion Cliffs is a 293,689 acres National Monument. There are apparently no roads for passenger cars into this vast wilderness of beautifully banded buttes and canyons, but 89A skirts the bottom of the Vermilion Cliffs for many miles after the bridge. There is no marble in Marble Canyon, which marks the western boundary of the Navajo Nation. One-armed explorer John Wesley Powell, one of the first non-natives to see the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, imagined that Marble Canyon’s gleaming multi-colored limestone looked like marble and gave it that name.
Northwest of Marble Canyon is the Glen Canyon dam, the lake named for Powell, and the town of Page. Southwest is the entrance to the Grand Canyon. Upriver from the bridge, Lee’s Ferry is a popular launching place for river rafters, trout seekers, and those beginning their journey through the Grand Canyon.
Two very scenic bridges cross the canyon on 89A. They look like twins. One was built between 1927 and 1929, is only 18 feet wide, and was the scene of many accidents until the other, the Navajo Steel Arch Highway Bridge, replaced it in 1995. The latter, begun in 1993, is 1 of only 7 roads to cross the Colorado River for 750 miles. Both bridges are engineering feats and worth seeing. The older one is now pedestrian-only and a good place to spot nesting and flying condors.
When the new bridge opened, the old rest area on the canyon’s west side became a Navajo Nation interpretive center. It was closed when Ruth & I were there. We were told that a restroom fire made this closure necessary but that it would reopen in the spring of 2015. To my knowledge that didn’t happened.
Seeing these bridges and the Vermilion Cliffs behind them is definitely a good idea for anyone exploring this vast, still largely undeveloped area.