The Vermillion Cliffs, Highway 89A, is My Favorite Place in Arizona

This place is magical, sublimely quiet, with a mystical feeling beyond anywhere I have been in this glorious state.

Don Giannatti
Full Frame
7 min readJun 9, 2024

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A solitary paint pony grazes below the constant watch of the Vermillion Cliffs. Photo by the author.
A solitary paint pony grazes below the constant watch of the Vermillion Cliffs. Photo by the author.

Highway 89 North is like my home on a motorcycle. It is one of the constants of every ride I do. Well, almost every ride. Most rides… we’ll go with that.

I pick it up in Flagstaff and take it due north after filling the tank at my favorite Maverick station on the outskirts of Flag.

I frequently ride there in chilly or moderate weather, depending on the time of year, amid stunning extinct volcanoes covered in pine trees. In the summer, wearing long sleeves, in the fall, heavy jackets.

It smells delightful and is a pleasure, no matter whether it is summer or fall.

Just past the Sunset Crater exit, the road straightens out and falls off the mountains and onto the Navajo Reservation. Straight as an arrow (c'mon, it works here), the road heads before me with a consistent downward trend that brings the heat.

I have experienced 20 to 25-degree differentials from the mountains to the deserts near Bitter Springs. Warmer in the desert, for sure.

In fact, it is the tiny reservation town of Bitter Springs where I have to decide whether to stay on Highway 89 or veer to the left and take 89A along the Vermillion Cliffs and over the Kaibab Plateau into Kanab.

Unless I am heading to Colorado, that is an easy choice. Hell, I once took 89A and had to ride it back (100 miles) to eventually get to Colorado. Yes, it is really that amazing.

Marble Canyon and the Vermillion Cliffs beyond. A strong thunderstorm is forming over the top, and would soon drench the area. Photo by the author.
Marble Canyon and the Vermillion Cliffs beyond. A strong thunderstorm is forming over the top and will soon drench the area. Photo by the author.

After a long loop to the northeast after leaving Sheep Springs, I will finally get to the Mable Canyon Bridge. This is the narrowest part of the canyon and the best place to put a bridge.

I always stop and buy a necklace or earring set from the Navajo vendors set up along the road and near the Mable Canyon Overlook. I suggest everyone pick something up. The work is exquisite, and as real as it gets. My wife and daughters have quite a collection of authentic Navajo jewelry, and I wear a necklace from this area as well.

The Kaibab was experiencing snow, and I was headed that way on my bike. Photo by the author.
The Kaibab was experiencing snow, and I was headed that way on my bike. Photo by the author.

A dark and cold snowstorm is forming over the Kaibab Plateau to the west. I had to decide whether to chance it or take a warmer and safer route through Page.

After having a Diet Pepsi, and a bag of Chile Fritos, I knew my only option was to risk the snowstorm. Why go through the rest of my life thinking how cool it would have been to dare something challenging?

As I reached the Kaibab Summit, the temperature was in the high 30s, and there were flurries in the air.

I warmed myself up with a coffee at the Jacob Lake Inn and headed back out through a little thicker fall of flurries. Enough to leave snow on my motorcycle seat.

I had only ridden in snow one time before, and that was about as fun as wrestling an alligator with both hands bound, so I was very cautious about leaving the warmth of Jacob Lake and heading west toward Fredonia.

My worries were relieved when the snow seemed to slow down as I headed toward the dropoff of the Plateau and onto the high desert of Fredonia and Kanab.

Temps climbed to the mid-50s, and the rest of the ride into Kanab was peaceful and uneventful — without snow.

The Vermillion Cliffs rise over 3000 feet in elevation. Photo by the author.
The Vermillion Cliffs rise over 3000 feet in elevation. Photo by the author.

Once across the Marble Canyon Bridge, you can take a little side journey to the very edge of the mighty Colorado River as it begins to cut into the plateau and carve the Grand Canyon.

Lees Ferry was created to wagons and cars across the roaring river and onto the north side of the Grand Canyon.

It is very interesting to see the pulleys and some of the cables they used sitting in the sun, rusted, a reminder of the difficulties they faced in earlier times.

Lees Ferry is only 5 miles south of the infamous Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado, just a few miles south of Page, Arizona. I would love to someday take a boat from Lees Ferry down to Marble Canyon Bridge. And back again. Stunning landscape.

You can see the road to Lee’s Ferry cutting through the middle of these huge stone structures above. This may be one of the most picturesque 6 miles. Starting just north of the Marble Canyon Bridge, it follows the face of the Vermillion Cliffs, winding its way down to the river level and the entrance to Pariah Canyon.

The cliffs from along Highway 89 at Antelope Pass Vista. Photo by the author.
The cliffs from along Highway 89 at Antelope Pass Vista. Photo by the author.

Occasionally, I take 89 to Page when I am heading to Colorado. And still, the Vermillion Cliffs are a big part of the landscape.

Going up the side of a mesa at a 9% incline takes me from the desert to the top of the mountains east of Marble Canyon. Just before the road turns east and we lose the vista below, I like to stop and look over the wild and rocky world below.

In the photo above, you can see the Vermillion Cliffs in dappled sunlight across the horizon. To the left side of the image is the Kaibab Plateau with snow-covered elevations.

In the middle of the desert below, you can see the crack of earth that is Marble Canyon, essentially the beginning of the Grand Canyon, roughly 30 miles to the southwest.

This is ancient land—prehistoric land full of the history of earth’s making.

I wonder about the ancients who lived here. Did they stand upon this mesa, looking out at the cliffs and wonder at the beauty before them?

I like to think they did.

I do.

Stopping at House Rock Valley Overlook is a must for me whether I am heading to the cliffs or coming from them. Photo by the author.
Stopping at House Rock Valley Overlook is a must for me whether I am heading to the cliffs or coming from them. Photo by the author.

Taking 89A from Marble Canyon west, the road runs parallel to the majestic mountain.

I think I could photograph every rocky, meandering canyon wall for a month and still not be satisfied that I had gotten all the images possible.

The image above was taken from the lookout as the road begins climbing up the side of the Kaibab Plateau. In only a couple of miles, the temperature will drop 20 degrees, and the land will become pine-covered forests.

This is the last view of the Vermillion Cliffs heading west.

I hope you all get a chance to take this wonderful road, see the cliffs, have a great lunch along the way and just wander around the foothills where possible.

If you go:

Have lunch at Lee’s Ferry Lodge or the world-famous Cliff Dweller’s Lodge. I’ve stayed at both places, and they are grand. Small, intimate hotels with great food.

Jacob’s Lake Inn has terrific burgers, and you can head out to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon should you choose to take that route.

Otherwise, you can head to Hurrican, UT, or make a right at Fredonia and mosey on up to Kanab for the night. Both places have great restaurants and cozy motels.

A few facts about the Vermillion Cliffs:

Geological Features

The Vermilion Cliffs are a massive escarpment of eroded sedimentary rocks, primarily sandstone, rising to 3,000 feet (915 meters) above their base.

They display vivid colored layers of red, orange, and white sandstone that have been sculpted by erosion over millions of years into mesas, buttes, and deep canyons.

Notable features include the Wave (a swirling sandstone formation), Coyote Buttes, Paria Canyon (a long slot canyon), and Buckskin Gulch (one of the longest slot canyons in the world).

Wildlife and History

The monument supports a variety of desert wildlife, including raptors like the reintroduced California condor, desert bighorn sheep, mountain lions, and reptiles.

Evidence of human presence dates back to the Ancestral Puebloans and Southern Paiute tribes, with rock art and archaeological sites found throughout the area.

Whether you venture by car, truck, van, or my favorite way, motorcycle, you will love every moment of the drive.

This photo of me is by Carol Rioux: light-painted in Calgary, BC.

Hi, I’m Don Giannatti, a photographer and mentor for up-and-coming photographers. You can find me on my website, Don Giannatti, and at my Substack site, where I also publish for creative people. All subscribers to my Substack have access to a free, long-form workshop on the business of commercial and professional photography.

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Don Giannatti
Full Frame

Designer. Photographer. Author. Entrepreneur: Loving life at 100MPH. I love designing, making photographs and writing.