If there’s one place in our travels that has seemed a nearly hidden gem — a place where hardly anyone goes, yet is full of incredible beauty — it’s the confluence of the northern tip of Grand Canyon National Park, where miles of the Colorado River are protected before they enter the canyon, and the southern tip of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. It’s a serene place called Lee’s Ferry, where the Colorado gently winds through vermillion cliffs. Rafters hit the first rapid here to begin the 88-mile journey to Phantom Ranch, the historic camping oasis nestled nearly a mile below the rim of the Grand Canyon. Wild horses roam the hills and can be spotted frolicking in the riverbed.
But alongside the glorious beauty of the red rock set against the dark river and blue skies, long before it was the launching point for Grand Canyon rafters, this historic place was the gateway to Arizona. It’s the only place along the river for 700 miles that the riverbanks are directly accessible by land, making it an ideal crossing point, and today, the only place where you can get down into the deep cuts of the Colorado without hiking in.
On this episode of America’s National Parks, Lee’s Ferry, part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
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Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode.
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area – NPS Website
Grand Canyon National Park – NPS Website
Wilderness River Adventures – Grand Canyon Rafting Guide
If there’s one place in our travels that has seemed a nearly hidden gem — a place where hardly anyone goes, yet is full of incredible beauty — it’s the confluence of thr northern tip of Grand Canyon National Park, where miles of the Colorado River are protected before they enter the canyon, and the southern tip of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. It’s a serene place called Lee’s Ferry, where the Colorado gently winds through vermillion cliffs. Rafters hit the first rapid here to begin the 88-mile journey to Phantom Ranch, the historic camping oasis nestled nearly a mile below the rim of the Grand Canyon. Wild horses roam the hills and can be spotted frolicking in the riverbed.
But alongside the glorious beauty of the red rock set against the dark river and blue skies, long before it was the launching point for Grand Canyon rafters this historic place was the gateway to Arizona. It’s the only place along the river for 700 miles that the riverbanks are directly accessible by land, making it an ideal crossing point, and today, the only place where you can get down into the deep cuts of the Colorado without hiking in.
On this episode of America’s National Parks, Lee’s Ferry, part of the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
Here’s Abigail Trabue.
Franciscan’s were the first Europeans to view the future Lee’s Ferry in October 1776, though the first human inhabitants were the Ancestral Puebloans, whose history in the area dates back to at least 1125 A.D. The area’s history as a river crossing really begins when Mormon explorer and missionary Jacob Hamblin crossed the river for the first time in 1858. Hamblin was attempting to warn Navajos to stop raiding Utah. His men built a raft that could carry 15 men, their supplies, and horses across the Colorado.
Hamblin realized that the site could be the gateway to Mormon pioneering into Arizona, and convinced Mormon church president Brigham Young to establish a permanent crossing. Young agreed, and chose John D. Lee to build and run it.
Lee was trying to lay low, after playing a key role in perpetrating the 1857 Mountain Meadows massacre, where 120 pioneers from Arkansas were slaughtered by Mormons. Lee falsely accepted their surrender leading them to their death. In an attempt to make it look like an Indian attack, all but the very youngest were killed so that no one would talk. Federal authorities were seeking Lee’s capture, so he and his two wives gladly moved to the site an launched a ferry named the “Colorado” in January of 1873.
Between 1873 and1875, the ferry proved successful, as Mormon migration to Arizona and the southern territories increased, and its popularity grew, Lee wasn’t able to outrun the law anymore. He was captured by authorities in 1874 and eventually executed for his role in the massacre.
The responsibility for the ferry was temporarily turned over to Lee’s oldest wife, Emma. The Mormons continued to develop the site, and built what became known as Lee’s Fort in 1874, serving as a trading post and home to the ferry operators.
After construction of the St. George temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was finished in 1877, many couples from the south made the journey north to consecrate their marriages in the temple. The route became known as the “Honeymoon Trail.” A crossing cost $2 at the time for Mormons, and $3 for other travelers.
The Mormon church chose Warren Johnson to replace Lee as the operator of the ferry. Johnson, however, was entirely unqualified, having no experience in ferries, but Emma Lee helped ensure a smooth transition.
The Navajo people began to frequently utilize the ferry, and Johnson became friendly with them, establishing a positive relationship and trade. He quickly became an expert on river crossings and the Colorado River’s subtleties. His concern for safety led him to require wagons be disassembled to fit on a smaller raft during periods of high water, frustrating many travelers.
In 1876, a party led by Daniel H. Wells, counselor to Brigham Young, wanted to hurriedly cross the river to return to Salt Lake City after visiting the Arizona settlements, but Johnson thought the water too high and turbulent, recommending the wagons be disassembled and placed aboard the smaller skiff. Wells was impatient and refused. His party began crossing on the larger boat, and the first two trips across made it safely, but the river wasn’t so forgiving on the third. Bishop Lorenzo Roundy succumbed to the Colorado’s current, along with a handful of wagons and provisions.
Johnson tried to convince the church to provide for a smaller, easier to manage one-wagon capacity ferry, but was refused. Instead, they provided him with a 47 foot boat. He knew it was a disastrous idea, so he built his own one-wagon ferryboat in the winter of 1886.
The ferry wasn’t entirely a lucrative business for Johnson. He had to do the work of several people, tending to crossings and managing the farm. Some travelers would pay for their crossing with their labor, which he encouraged. He built shacks for their overnight stays. He convinced his brother-in-law, David Brinkerhoff, to be his partner, and had him take over the farm so he could focus on the ferry.
Johnson, like Lee, had two wives. Polygamy was falling out of favor with the Mormons, as it was constantly a point of friction between the church and the government, and Johnson knew it. The church produced a manifesto in 1890 that effectively ended their defense of the practice. Not wanting to give up one of his two wives and their families, he left the ferry in 1896, settling in Wyoming where he lived the final years of his life paralyzed after he broke his spine in a wagon accident.
In the late 1800’s, flecks of gold were spotted in the sands near the ferry, leading to a period of prospecting that rarely produced enough gold to exceed expenses.
In 1899, Robert B. Stanton built a mile-and-a-half long road along the river above the ferry and installed a dredge to extract gold, but by 1901, Stanton abandoned the operation.
Around the same time, Charles H. Spencer hoped to use high-pressure hoses to remove the gold from around Lee’s Ferry. He had a San Fransisco company build him a steamboat, the “Charles H. Spencer,” to transport coal along the river as fuel for his equipment. It was 92 feet long, 25 feet across and had a draft of 18 to 20 inches with a boiler powered 12-foot stern paddle. The parts were manufactured in San Francisco and shipped by rail to Utah, where they were conveyed by ox-cart to the mouth of Warm Creek, where the boat was assembled. When the boat arrived, it was clear that it didn’t have the power to face the Colorado river. It was permanently docked, then sank during a flood. The structure was stripped of its lumber, and its boiler remains in the river today. Spencer’s entire operation ended by 1913.
With the emergence of train travel, crossings at Lee’s Ferry slowed drastically in the early 1900s, mostly transporting locals. The LDS church sold the ferry to the Grand Canyon Cattle Company in 1909 and the state of Arizona took it over a year later. By the 20s, it was decided that a bridge would be constructed over Marble Canyon just downriver, which would eventually render the ferry useless. On June 7, 1928, an accident killed three men, including Warren Johnson’s grandson Adolph, and the ferry closed for good, even before the bridge was finished.
In the1930s and 1940s, as sport fishing became popular, the site saw a resurgence as a recreation destination, and in 1972, Lee’s Ferry joined the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
Lee’s Ferry is about 45 Miles from Page, Arizona, a haven for outdoor travel. From Page, you can visit many parts of the Glen Canyon Recreation Area, and surrounding sites, including the famous Horseshoe Bend overlook, the waving rock of Antelope Canyon, the historic Navajo bridge, and of course, Lee’s Ferry.
Lee’s Ferry is one of the few places you can park a car for multi-day hiking and rafting trips, and there’s a small first-come, first served campground with water and a dump station, but no electricity. There are plenty of trails to explore, as well as rock formations, and some of the historic mormon structures.
Rafting trips that set in at Lee’s Ferry can go for as long as 6 or 7 days, traveling 188 miles to Whitmore Wash. The trips include world-class whitewater and serene stretches of river winding through the heart of Grand Canyon National Park. On some of the longest trips, after Lava Falls rapid, a helicopter takes you over the rim to a ranch for a shower and lunch before your return flight to your car.
Marble Canyon is at the entrance to the Lee’s Ferry Site, where you can cross the historic Navajo bridge, and just might catch one of the California Condors hanging out on the superstructure. There’s lodging and fuel nearby.
This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to hit the subscribe button, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group for national park lovers. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.
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