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Vermilion Cliffs National Monument

Hikers in Paria Canyon. Photo by Mark Miller.Wilderness Protection

Wilderness affords the highest level of protection for the variety of ecological and archeological treasures of the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, one of Arizona’s newest public lands. The Arizona Wilderness Coalition proposes six wilderness additions—approximately 169,000 acres—to the Monument’s existing Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area. The proposed wilderness excludes approximately 120 miles of the Monument’s road corridors, which will retain for visitors ample mechanized access to the Monument’s interior and many scenic overlooks.

Crimson 2,000-foot escarpments guard the majestic Paria Plateau, the heart of the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. Above the cliffs, rolling sand dunes, grass-lands and woodlands, and colorful sandstone buttes guild the expan-sive Plateau. The Paria River Canyon—renown for its grandeur, inviting grottos, and challenging hikes—divides the monument into isolated regions. Buckskin Gulch, a 12-mile long stone incision, provides a stimulating, intro-spective path to the Plateau's innermost realm.

The Paria River drains the Paria Plateau, the heart of the 290,000-acre Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. The Plateau is one of the lower large steps in the “Grand Staircase,” consisting of brilliant, relatively uniform Triassic and Jurassic rock layers such as the Chocolate Cliffs of Moenkopi sandstone, Chinle shale, red Moenave and Kayenta formations, and the massive, wind-deposited Navajo sandstone.

Species Diversity

Pinyon/juniper woodland, shrub lands, and limited upland grasslands dominate the Paria Plateau, also referred to as the “Sand Hills.” The Bureau of Land Management considers portions of the Monument as important habitat for the North Kaibab deer herd, which may seek lower elevation pastures in House Rock Valley during winter. The agency has worked with the Arizona Game and Fish Department to restore desert bighorn sheep to the Paria drainage. These releases have successfully restored bighorn sheep into the lower Paria and upper Grand Canyon areas.

Recent efforts to reintroduce the endangered California condors appear successful–the magnificent birds now roost and nest in the Vermilion cliffs. The threatened Brady pincushion cactus occurs around the base of the Paria Plateau. This unique and tiny cactus spends most of the year just beneath the soil surface. During spring rains, the plant swells and partially emerges, then blooms at night with showy white flowers. As late spring drought develops, the cactus shrinks back underground, remaining hidden until the next spring.

Gray wolves, a critical keystone species in many ecosystems, once inhabited the Southwest, including the Paria Plateau. Unfortunately, the last known gray wolf of the Grand Canyon region fled across the Plateau trying to escape from pursuers, and reintroduction efforts in the Southwest have been unsuccessful for a variety of political reasons.

Cultural Significance

In the 12 th century, Virgin Branch Pueblo II and III—also referred to as the Anasazi people—occupied the Paria Plateau and its surrounding vicinity. A relatively high density of archeological sites, including 30- to 50-room pueblos, lie scattered across Paria Plateau. Although groundwater on the Plateau is scarce, these ancient people used rainwater from natural catchments and small, constructed reservoirs.

The Monument has a rich history of exploration and settlement that spans more than two centuries. In 1776, the Dominguez-Escalante Expedition descended into House Rock Valley and camped near Jacobs Pools at the base of the Vermilion Cliffs. They proceeded on to the mouth of the Paria River and spent a week trying to ford the Colorado River near Lees Ferry. Jacob Hamblin’s 1858 expedition was the first of thirteen visits to the Hopi Nation. Hamblin recognized the need for a ferry at the mouth of the Paria River, and in 1864, was the first to successfully cross the Colorado River. In 1871, the notorious John D. Lee established what would come to be known as Lees Ferry. The region also boasts a rich cowboy history and currently offers opportunities for ranching, hunting, fishing, river running, and ecotourism.


Potsherd hunting has done considerable damage to the Paria Plateau’s archeological resources. In one of the few cases to be investigated, a potsherd hunter excavated and looted 34 pits and trenches in two large prehistoric sites.

Off-road vehicles continue to pose a considerable threat to the Monument’s wildlife, archaeology, vegetation, and tranquility. A network of primitive roads beckons off-road enthusiasts and continues to impact the area’s cultural and natural resources. Existing paved, fenced highways may block wildlife movement, particularly pronghorn antelope.

Water development has altered or destroyed the ecological integrity of springs and ecosystems along the east and southeast flanks of the Paria Plateau. Livestock grazing, trampling, and trailing degrade vegetation—including the threatened Brady pincushion cactus—soils, and site stability.


-Arizona Wilderness Coalition mission statement