Travel

Holy Smokes, This Southwestern Desert Looks Like a Dr. Seuss Book

Vermillion Cliffs National Monument is like a mirage in the Arizona desert.

Sumiko Scott/Moment/Getty Images
Sumiko Scott/Moment/Getty Images
Sumiko Scott/Moment/Getty Images

You are forgiven for not having visited Vermilion Cliffs, or perhaps not having heard of the place at all. The name encompasses Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, which sits in northern Arizona, and the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, which stretches up and over Utah’s southern border.

There’s a lot of local competition for your hard-earned vacation days around here-we’re just about spitting distance from the Grand Canyon, Arches, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Petrified National Forest, and Lake Powell. Those are all incredible. But Vermilion Cliffs gives you every bit of the feeling that you’ve been swept into a Dr. Seuss illustration. Also, there are dinosaur tracks.

Known for red and white swirls of intricately layered Navajo sandstone from the Jurassic period, Vermilion Cliffs gets its distinct aesthetic from iron-rich oxide pigments within the rock, which over time have been exposed by erosion, and also dinosaurs. It’ll put you in mind of the Badlands-just more Mars-like, and accessorized with endangered California condors. Vermilion Cliffs might not have benefitted from as much PR as its neighbors, but as breathtaking vistas go, it absolutely holds its own.

“We tend to think of these very dry desert places as being without any life, but one thing I’ve become interested in is how these actually do record evidence of quite a bit of life,” said Dr. Marjorie A. Chan, Distinguished Professor at the University of Utah’s Department of Geology & Geophysics. “If dinosaurs are present, they’re at the top of the food chain, so there has to be a host of other organisms beneath them.”

See for yourself.

How to get to Vermilion Cliffs

Another reason you may not have heard of Vermillion Cliffs is that it takes a hop, skip, jump, and bumpy ride in a seriously sturdy car to get there. The national monument is pretty remote-there are no visitors centers, designated campsites, or paved roads inside the entire 293,689-acre area. 

The nearest towns are Page, Arizona, and Kanab, Utah, so get your supply of food, gas, and water in one or the other before you head out. From Page, you’ll want to take Highway 89 south to Route 89A, then head north and cross the Navajo Bridge to enter. From Kanab, you can head straight south on Route 89A to enter from the west. Alternatively, if you’re headed up from Flagstaff, it’s a two-hour straight shot; take Highway 89 north ‘til you hit Bitter Springs, then continue on Route 89A until you reach the national monument. (Pro-tip: A pre-downloaded Google Maps route will be your best friend.)

Know before you go 

First and foremost: The landscape in Vermillion Cliffs is super fragile, so entry to regions like Coyote Buttes North/The Wave is limited. You’ll need a separate permit for each area you want to visit! Permits become available up to four months in advance; if you can’t snag one ahead of time, you can also try your luck with the day-of lotteries.

It bears repeating that there are no paved roads in Vermillion Cliffs, and the land is rough: rocky in some places, deep and sandy in others. You’ll want a high-clearance vehicle for this excursion. If you can’t get your mitts on a solid rental (you wouldn’t be alone), consider joining a tour group like the Kanab Tour Company or Grand Staircase Discovery instead. Much better to risk having other people in the background of your pictures than getting stranded in the blazing-hot desert with a busted-up ride.

Vermillion Cliffs is a hiker’s paradise, so bring your sturdiest shoes since many of the most iconic sights-including The Wave-are only accessible on foot. And as usual, when it comes to traversing any desert plain, don’t head out without stocking up on way more food, water, gas, and sunscreen than you expect you’ll need.

JTBaskinphoto/Moment/Getty Images
JTBaskinphoto/Moment/Getty Images
JTBaskinphoto/Moment/Getty Images

Coyote Buttes North

Vermilion Cliffs National Monument is divided into a few main regions, some of which overlap. Coyote Buttes North is right along the Arizona/Utah border, and the Bureau of Land Management limits the number of visitors in order to protect the fragile ecosystem. Keep an eye out for more than 1,000-perhaps several thousand-dinosaur tracks imprinted into the sediment, dating back 190 million years to the Jurassic Period.

Just a hair over the border into Arizona is where, a decade ago, Chan and some of her colleagues found “one particular surface that seemed to have potholes in it. It was a little bit enigmatic. I thought probably there was some biological influence on that surface, but it was so obscured.”

They returned to look at it again and found what were definitely dinosaur footprints. “Some of them you can actually see the three toes-they look almost kind of like bird prints, going up over the dunes.”

Some of these pothole-looking tracks are more than a foot long, but for the most part, you’ll see three-toed prints no more than three or four inches long. Look for them on the way to The Wave when you approach from the North. “Most people would probably walk right by it if they weren’t looking for it,” Chan said. “I probably wouldn’t even recognize it if I had to find it again.”

You can apply for a hiking permit here, and you absolutely should-because of the dinos, but also because Coyote Buttes North contains…

Adam Jones/DigitalVision/Getty Images
Adam Jones/DigitalVision/Getty Images
Adam Jones/DigitalVision/Getty Images

The Wave

This is objectively Vermilion Cliffs’ biggest draw. If you’ve seen any photos of Vermilion Cliffs before, you almost certainly saw photos of the Wave. Sitting juuuust south of the Utah border, this is the moneymaker, so to speak. The thing people hike in from far and wide to marvel at, or at the very least to Instagram. Best of all, the limit on the number of hikers allowed in at once means that this isn’t one of those tourist attractions you’ll arrive at only to be boxed out by a menacing throng of selfie sticks-you can indeed have the Wave to yourself.

Christian Heinrich/Getty Images
Christian Heinrich/Getty Images
Christian Heinrich/Getty Images

The Second Wave

You heard me.

Alex Mironyuk/500px Prime/Getty Images
Alex Mironyuk/500px Prime/Getty Images
Alex Mironyuk/500px Prime/Getty Images

Melody Arch and the Grotto

Like the Wave and the Second Wave, this site is located within Coyote Buttes North. Melody Arch and the Grotto sounds a bit like an indie folk band, but the arch itself in fact named for Melody Thomas, the photographer responsible for popularizing it.

Doorways to the past/Moment/Getty Images
Doorways to the past/Moment/Getty Images
Doorways to the past/Moment/Getty Images

The Alcove

Another icon in the same Coyote Buttes North area, the Alcove lies just 20 feet or so below Melody Arch, but you’d never know it from above. If you find it, congratulations, because not everyone does. To access it, find Melody Arch first-then eyeball about 100 feet southeast and aim there. If you hike in from Wire Pass, you can complete an 8-mile loop that’ll take you through the Wave, Second Wave, Melody Arch, and the Alcove. Keep an eye out for those dino tracks!

And when you’re walking around, if you’ve got a sharp eye you might also spot remnants of ancient plant life at the base of various sand dunes. “When people are looking [for tracks], most living things will have been preserved toward the bottom of the dune, where it starts to get flatter,” Chan said. “You can kind of think of a sand dune as a field. Let’s say it starts raining, and water starts accumulating in the low areas; so those low areas are typically where there was more moisture, and therefore more organisms, and there’s not much sand moving directly on top of it.”

Adria Photography/Moment/Getty Images
Adria Photography/Moment/Getty Images
Adria Photography/Moment/Getty Images

Coyote Buttes South

Wanna hike through here? You should, yes-if you’re at least reasonably confident in your fitness and ability to read a map, as this region facilitates exceptional hiking but contains no actual hiking trails. You’ll need a permit for this area as well, so don’t sleep on that application. The BLM allows 20 people to hike through each day; you can check out their guide to crossing the region here. You’ll need to bring your own water.

Westend61/Getty Images
Westend61/Getty Images
Westend61/Getty Images

White Pocket

The group of sandstone domes known as White Pocket is the most iconic feature of the Paria Plateau, a few miles southeast of Coyote Buttes North and The Wave. It encompasses about 1 square mile, and stands apart because the rocks here are not Vermilion-they’re a shining whitish gray. You don’t need a permit to hike in, but there are no marked trails here, either.

Lee Frost/robertharding/Getty Images
Lee Frost/robertharding/Getty Images
Lee Frost/robertharding/Getty Images

Paria Canyon

This famed slot canyon runs through the northern section of Vermilion Cliffs National Monument-inside Coyote Buttes South. Paria is Paiute for “muddy water,” and Paria Canyon follows the Paria River. Petroglyphs abound-make sure not to touch or otherwise deface in any way. Major geological formations within the canyon are Moenkopi Formation, Chinle Formation, Moenave Formation, Kayenta Formation, and Carmel Formation. You’ll need a permit for overnight trips. If you’re ready to double down on your Vermilion Cliffs adventure, you can extend your Paria Canyon hike right into…

Michael Schwab/Moment/Getty Images
Michael Schwab/Moment/Getty Images
Michael Schwab/Moment/Getty Images

Buckskin Gulch

In southern Utah, to the North of Coyote Buttes North, lies Buckskin Gulch. It is the deepest slot canyon in the American Southwest and, at around 15 miles, is conceivably the longest slot canyon anywhere in the world. Can it be hiked? It can, and you’ll need to apply for a permit to do so, and also probably bring some rope for a couple of the tricky spots. Buckskin Gulch should only be hiked by those who understand flash floods and take them seriously. If it’s gonna rain, don’t risk it. Look how much other stuff you wouldn’t get to see. 

Carlos Fernandez/Moment/Getty Images
Carlos Fernandez/Moment/Getty Images
Carlos Fernandez/Moment/Getty Images

Toadstool Hoodoos

Technically this spot is slightly over the border into Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, but it’s literally right there and too fun not to mention. You can tackle the hoodoos in an easy 1.5-mile hike. And throughout your Vermilion Cliffs exploration, allow yourself the joy of getting excited about exploring-in a responsible, non-destructive way-your unmarked surroundings.

“There’s this serendipity of exploring, maybe stumbling on things that indicate evidence of past life. It might be anything-root structures, small little burrows of organisms, kind of wormy-looking,” Chan said. “You get that sense of discovery, that sense of wonder.”
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Kastalia Medrano is a travel writer and editor. You can find her on Twitter at @kastaliamedrano, and Venmo tips at @kastaliamedrano.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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