One of several hoodoo formations (right) greets hikers who complete the climb through Sand Hill Crack.
© Elias Butler
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Sand Hill CrackA nontechnical route to the top of the Vermilion Cliffs in Northern Arizona features scenic views, pioneer history and some very large birds.
By Michael Engelhard
in arizona's north country — far north — sandstone flanks the Colorado River like a misplaced slab of the Great Wall of China, forming the centerpiece of one of the state's newest national monuments: the Vermilion Cliffs, which is administered by the Bureau of Land Management. The prospect of scaling this 3,000-plus-foot-high bulwark can be intimidating — even on a mild spring day. Fortunately, any hiker in halfway decent shape can get to the top through a gap known as the Sand Hill Crack.
When you go, park near the fenced ranch house next to the trailhead, which is located off U.S. Route 89A in House Rock Valley. The home's rough stone walls are decorated with cowboy graffiti, and none other than Buffalo Bill Cody watered his horses at this place in 1902. The site also was a stopover on the Honeymoon Trail as Mormon newlyweds returning from the temple in St. George, Utah, camped under stars scattered above like juniper berries.
My hike began on a faint dirt road that took me into the foothills. Along the way, jackrabbits — their ears drawing attention like translucent pink exclamation marks — zigzagged among yucca spikes, saltbushes and blooming globemallow, while the morning light flushed the enormous cliffs in front of me.
A ravine parallels the trail toward the rainbow-colored Chinle sandstone swells, and, against all expectation, willows burst from a hillside above. Insiders know this oasis as Rachel's Pools, the homestead of a woman who lived on the site in a wattle-and-daub shack. The remains of the nearby rock corrals, somehow surviving on the bleached badlands in the distance, serve as testimony to pioneer resilience that is beyond my imagination.
After filling my water bottles at the spring, I tackled the gullied slope to the left, switchbacking to where the trail levels off and is marked by cairns. It then follows a huge sand slide to the base of the cliff, hundreds of feet below a northeasterly notch in the rim. The deep sand slowed me down, but I still outpaced some darkling beetles that struggled uphill.
From there, a breach opens in the cliff face, steep and boulder-choked. This is one of several ancient routes traveled by Ancestral Puebloans who farmed, hunted and gathered wild plants on the Paria Plateau. At this point, I took a short break to gear up for the toughest stretch of the hike, thankful I wasn't climbing in June or July.
Halfway up, I had lunch on a rock ledge and tried to catch my breath. Views opened onto Marble Canyon, the snowy North Rim of the Grand Canyon and flat-topped Shinumo Altar on the Navajo Indian Reservation. Swifts whistled by, reeling in updrafts.
I continued up a defile, past petroglyphs pecked into the desert varnish more than 800 years ago — some so crisp they looked as if they could have been created the day before.
Piñon pine and juniper trees welcomed me to the top, where I pitched my tent. While I was making camp, six gigantic black shapes glided along the escarpment's lip. To my surprise, the shapes were California condors, which were released nearby in an effort to re-establish the species in its former range. The birds flew close enough for me to see their heads and to hear the whooshing of their feathers. Although their eyesight is superb, I doubt that the condors' perspective of this landscape could have been more impressive than mine.
Trail Guideclick to expand
Length: Approximately 4 miles round-trip.
Trailhead Elevation: 3,000 feet.
Elevation Gain: 2,000 feet.
Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous.
Payoff: Views, condors.
Getting There: Turn north from U.S. Route 89A between mileposts 557 and 558, near the Escalante-Dominguez marker. Drive this fairly good dirt road about 2 miles toward the Vermilion Cliffs. Park south of the ranch house at Jacobs Pool.
Travel Advisory: Avoid this hike during summer months or lightning storms. Carry water, or treat water from the spring at Rachel's Pools. Take snacks and a good topographic map. Loose rock and sand might make climbing hazardous. In wet conditions, access might require four-wheel-drive.
Information: Bureau of Land Management, 602-417-9200 or 435-688-3200.
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