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Scenic Drives

Drive to the Colorado River via Lees Ferry

Lees Ferry is one of the only places along the Colorado River between Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Mead where drive-up access to the river is available.

Imagine being able to see and touch the Colorado River in its entirety only a few hundred feet from where you parked your car.

It’s not as epic as a Grand Canyon backcountry experience, but it is an exciting day trip for those unable to hike upwards of ten miles or want to see the Colorado River without putting in much more effort than a tank of gas. Lees Ferry marks the very beginning of Grand Canyon and like life in general, sometimes the beginning of anything is the best part.

Lees Ferry is located about 15 miles below Glen Canyon Dam, which obstructs the once natural flow of the Colorado River through Grand Canyon. It is about 110 miles from Flagstaff, Arizona by way of U.S. 89, which runs north to Page. Take the turnoff west on U.S. 89A at Bitter Springs to Navajo Bridge. Turn right at the Park entrance ($15 per vehicle) and follow signs for five miles until you drive up to the river.

Lee's Ferry River Access
Lee’s Ferry River Access Photo: Courtesy of Terry Gunn,

What to do at Lees Ferry

Lees Ferry offers a National Park Service campground, ranger station and public launch ramp in the shadow of the Vermillion Cliffs. There are a few amenities just outside of the Park in Marble Canyon.

Beautifully colored cliffs and location make Lees Ferry a perfect launch site for Colorado River whitewater rafting trips. Of course a permit is necessary to float down the Colorado River, but there are plenty of other activities to participate in.

A must see is the confluence with the Paria River. This sediment-rich tributary supplies sand to the blocked-up Colorado River.

If you like a hearty hike, try out Spencer Trail. Just past the forts of Lees Ferry near the launch ramp is the start of the route. Over 4 miles in all, this trail awards you with stunning views of the Colorado River and the Vermillion Cliffs. Although steep and strenuous, this trail is well maintained.Camping here can be risky business because of the strong winds and it is recommended that you stake your tent well into the ground. Or just bring your Airstream trailer.

Fishing is extremely popular and it is also a great location to spend time along the banks of the river. Sandy beaches are great for afternoon picnics and hyper dogs or children.

History of Lees Ferry

Lees Ferry is the ancient settlement of Mormon pioneer John D. Lee, who established a ferry here in 1871. There are many archeological sites in the region as well, proving ancient American Indian tribes lived and thrived on the lands in and around Lees Ferry.

There are many old buildings surrounding the banks of the river where settlers and miners passed through in the early 1800s and 1900s. Take the dirt road next to the bridge to reach a ranch house and cemetery to get a feel for life before electricity.

Erosion at Lees Ferry

The difference between the upper and lower parts of the Grand Canyon is simply erosion. Slow geological processes carve through the rock of the Colorado Plateau. Closer to the Utah-Arizona border, the Colorado River is barely cutting through some of the upper formations that make up the Grand Canyon at its deepest point.

We can see the Kaibab Limestone and the chocolate-colored cliffs of the Moenkopi Formation at Lees Ferry, but we can see a whole two billion year history in stone at the deepest reaches of Grand Canyon further downstream.

Even though the Colorado River is down cutting the Grand Canyon at a slow rate year after year, much of the major erosion is due to debris flows and rock fall. Gravity forces rocks to fall down along the cliffs and slopes of sides of the canyons at faster rates than water can, both all processes create the canyon we see today.