Southwest Adventure, Living & Travel

Lee's Ferry

Crossing the Colorado River

Over the past 230 years, people with European blood flowing in their veins have forged a sometimes strange history at the site called Lee’s Ferry, an isolated Colorado River crossing located some 10 miles south of the Utah/Arizona border, at the beginning of the Grand Canyon.  They may have viewed the site as an otherworldly kind of place, a landscape of another planet, an appropriate setting for unlikely events. 

Lee’s Ferry lies in a rocky but comparatively open valley, just upstream of where the Paria River empties into the Colorado River.  The Echo Cliffs, to the east, rise nearly 2000 feet above the valley floor.  The Paria Plateau, to the west, rises nearly 3000 feet.  The deeply entrenched Glen Canyon lies upstream, on the Colorado.  The deeply entrenched Marble Canyon lies downstream, channeling the Colorado River’s surging waters into Grand Canyon.  With the canyons on either side standing as impassable barriers, early travelers knew that they had to cross the Colorado River in the vicinity of the Lee’s Ferry valley, or they had to trek hundreds of miles up- or downstream to find another ford. 

Short movie on Lees Ferry Click Here

Travelers also could see that a crossing in the vicinity of Lee’s Ferry came with risk.  Recalling his feelings about the site, Zane Grey said, in The Last of the Plainsmen, “I saw the constricted rapids, where the Colorado took its plunge into the box-like head of the Grand Canyon of Arizona; and the deep, reverberating boom of the river, at flood height, was a fearful thing to hear.  I could not repress a shudder at the thought of crossing above that rapid.”

The Dominguez-Escalante Expedition

In late October of 1776, Franciscan Friars Atanasio Dominguez and Velez de Escalante, turning back from a futile and punishing 10-man expedition to find a route from the old missions of New Mexico to the newer ones of California, attempted to cross at the site.  Faced with the coming winter and plagued with hunger and exhaustion, they felt a strong sense of urgency in their drive to return home, back to New Mexico. 

Perhaps even as they heard the “deep, reverberating boom” of rapids downstream, two brave men of the expedition tried to swim across the river, challenging the width and the cold swift waters.  They failed, abandoning the effort.  Another man treked up the Paria River, searching for another potential ford.  He failed, abandoning the effort.  The Spaniards built a raft, which they hoped to pole across, challenging the width and the cold swift water.  They failed, abandoning the effort. 

Giving up at the Lee’s Ferry site, Dominguez and Escalante led their expedition upstream, struggling over cliffs and through side canyons until they finally found a safe ford at a place that became known as Crossing of the Fathers.  Travelers would favor the Crossing of the Fathers for most of the next century.  It now lies beneath the waters of Lake Powell. 

The Mormon Expansion

In the 1860’s, the Mormons, fired with the spirit of Manifest Destiny, eyed the Lee’s Ferry site as a gateway to expansion southward from Utah into northern Arizona.  In 1860, Mormon frontiersman and missionary Jacob Hamblin attempted to cross the river by raft at Lee’s Ferry, but he decided to abort the effort after he lost an animal to the swirling waters.  In 1864, he returned with 14 men to attempt another crossing, this time to warn the Navajos to stop raiding Mormon settlements in Utah.  After all, the reasoning went, the Mormons had come there entitled – indeed, obligated! – to appropriate and settle the land and invest it with democracy and liberty.  They thought of Navajos, and the Paiute of Utah, as no more than impediments to an inevitable Mormon expansion.  Again Hamblin and his men built a raft, and this time, they all managed to cross with their horses and supplies—the first successful fording at the site. 

Over the next few years, with endorsement by their President Brigham Young, the Mormons posted guards and constructed a small stone building and a corral at Lee’s Ferry to defend against Indian raiding, which had intensified.  They called the fortified hamlet “Fort Meeks.”  Hamblin tried, with little success, to establish a farm, clearing a plot of land, digging a ditch for irrigation water, planting a crop of wheat. 

In 1870, famed Civil War veteran and adventurer Major John Wesley Powell accompanied Young and Hamblin on an expedition from the Lee’s Ferry site up the Paria River then over to Pipe Springs, a historic fort that is now a national monument, and in 1871 and 1872, he used the site as a temporary encampment for his men during his second expedition to explore the canyons of the Colorado River.

John Doyle Lee

In 1872, 60-year-old John Doyle Lee, the man who gave his name to the ferry site, took center stage in a strange and tragic chapter in the history, not only of southern Utah and northern Arizona, but of the entire West.  Lee – a fanatic convert to Mormonism, a guard for the Mormon founder and prophet Joseph Smith, adopted son of Mormon President Brigham Young, faith healer for the church, husband of 19 women, and father of 64 children – came to the remote crossing with two purposes.  First, by order of the church, he would establish a regular ferry service for Mormons headed southward from Utah to establish settlements in Arizona.  Second, with the complicity of the church, he hoped to find escape from a dark and troubling past.

As he and some of his wives settled into their isolated new home – “Lonely Dell,” as it became known – and built a ferry for travelers, he always looked over his shoulder, wondering when law enforcement authorities might arrive.  He felt haunted by his leading part in the infamous 1857 Mountain Meadow Massacre – an event unlike any other in the history of the West – when Mormon zealots and Paiute Indian allies savaged a wagon train bound for California.  “as many as 140 men, women, and children, traveling in one of the richest California bound wagon trains ever assembled, had been attacked, besieged for five days, persuaded to surrender under a flag of truce and a pledge of safe passage, and then murdered,” in the southwestern corner of Utah, according to Sally Denton, writing for American Heritage Magazine.  The Mormons took revenge for perceived insults to their religion.  They, and their Indian allies, also took the booty of the wagon train. 

While the church tried to cover up its collusion in the tragedy, at least according to his Mormonism Unveiled; or The Life and Confessions of the Late Mormon Bishop, John D. Lee would become the scapegoat.  He suffered excommunication from the church.  “out of the Church I could find no joys worth living for,” he said in his account.  He lost his wives, divorced from him by the church.  “I afterwards lost my large ferry-boat at my ferry on the Colorado River.”  He saw that loss as “a great blow to me in my destitute condition.”  Finally arrested, he went to jail in 1874, some 17 years after the carnage.  He went before a jury, which convicted him in 1876.  He stood before a firing squad at Mountain Meadows, near the site of the murders, on a dreary morning in March 1877.  “At the volley,” said Denton, Lee “fell back silently onto [his] rough-hewn coffin,” the only person involved in the massacre who ever came to justice.

Travelers and the Crossing

In the two decades following Lee’s execution, the ferry “was used as a crossing point by thousands of emigrants bound for Arizona,” according to the Utah History Encyclopedia.  Moreover, miners began to explore the surrounding canyons and hills, part of the relentless quest to find gold in the West. 

“Several emigrant journals record the attendant agonies of using Lee’s Ferry as a river crossing point.  Roads on either side of the river consisted of bone-jarring, wagon-breaking rock, bereft of any soil.  At the river’s edge, travelers faced muddy banks, a fluctuating, sediment-filled, dangerous river, and a ferryboat that had been involved in several accidents…”

In the winter, when the river sometimes froze over, emigrants sometimes chanced a dangerous crossing over the ice.  In January of 1878, according to an article written by Anthony W. Ivins for the Arizona Historian, “the river was frozen from shore to shore, but, above and below for a short distance, the river was open and running rapidly.”  Emigrants pulled their wagons across by hand.  They led draft animals across one by one.  They dragged cows across on their sides, towing them by ropes tied to their legs.

Throughout the 55-year history of Lee’s Ferry operations, travelers inevitably faced serious risk in the river crossings.  They experienced many accidents.  In 1928, according to the Land Use History of North America Internet site, three men, driving a Model T Ford, lost their lives when an aging and worn ferry capsized, dumping them and their automobile into the rushing waters.  All three drowned.  No other traveler would ever cross the river on Lee’s Ferry after that accident.  It shut down permanently.

Fortunately, travelers soon had another choice, the nearby Navajo Bridge, begun in 1927 and completed in 1929, at the time, the world’s highest steel arch bridge.  In a moment, they could now cross an 800-foot-long span that had once been one of the most harrowing obstacles of any trail in the Southwest.  Modern travelers have still another choice, an even more modern bridge, constructed in 1994 next to the original bridge.  The new bridge not only accommodates 21st century vehicular traffic, it provides a walkway for pedestrians. 

Glen Canyon Dam

Today’s travelers will also find that the Glen Canyon Dam, completed in 1964 some 15 miles upstream, has caused significant changes from the Lee’s Ferry site through Grand Canyon. 

Before the dam, the sediment-laden river sculpted and re-sculpted canyon bottoms every year, especially during the floods of spring.  The water temperatures, according to the Living Rivers Internet site, ranged from near freezing in the winter to some 80 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer.  Spring torrents and warm summer waters replenished the nutrient base and created vital beach and backwater habitats for native plants and wildlife.  The native plant community included cottonwoods and willows.  The wildlife community included animals such as river otters and muskrats and several native fish species such as the Colorado River Squawfish, the Bonytail Chub, the Humpback Chub and Razorback Sucker. 

Since the dam, the Colorado River flow runs at controlled levels, clear and cold, about 47 degrees Fahrenheit all year, with water drawn from the chilly bottom of the lake.  The river no longer adequately replenishes nutrients and backwater habitats.  It leaves beaches diminished.  Invasive plants such as the Tamarisk and Russian Olive have forced out the cottonwoods and willows.  The wildlife community has changed, with invasive species crowding out native species.  Several species, including the Colorado River Squawfish, have disappeared.  Ironically, Rainbow Trout, a species introduced to the river system, have thrived in the cold clear waters below the dam, making the Lee’s Ferry stretch one of the premier sports fishing locations in the Southwest.  It attracts anglers from across the world. 

“The odd transformation of Lee’s Ferry to international fishing haven is just the most recent in a long, colorful, and sometimes bizarre history of human endeavor that has focused on this modest gap in the labyrinthine canyons of the Colorado River,” says Kelly.

Exploring the Lee’s Ferry Area

While Lee’s Ferry, located near Page, Arizona, bears a patina of offbeat history, you will find that it also offers a diversity of outdoor experiences, ranging from historic site visits to camping to hiking to fishing to a great Southwestern boating adventure.

You might begin a visit to the area at the Lee’s Ferry and Lonely Dell Ranch Historic District, administered by the National Park Service.  At the ferry site, you can buy a “Walking Tour Guide” that tells you the history of the crossing, including the story of a miner who did his unsuccessful best to extract gold from nearby clay hills.  You can see the remnants of his efforts in two stone buildings, a steam boiler, and, during low water, a partially submerged paddlewheel steamboat.  At Lonely Dell, once a refuge made green by the hard labor of fundamentalist Mormons, you can visit historic buildings, a still-productive orchard and a pioneer cemetery.  In this lonely corner of the Southwest, 41 babies made their appearance in this world, according to Kelly, and 22 people made their departure.  At the nearby Navajo Bridge, you can find information about the region at the interpretive center.  You can see an exhibit of the 1928 construction work.  You can walk across the old bridge, 470 feet above the Colorado River, and see Marble Canyon, where Zane Grey heard the “deep, reverberating boom” of rushing waters at flood stage.

You can camp at the National Park Service Lee’s Ferry Campground, where you will find 54 well-maintained, if sometimes unlevel, campsites perched atop a small (and often windy) mesa that offers impressive views of the Colorado River.  The campground has running water, sinks and flush toilets, but no showers, electricity or recreational vehicle hookups.  A campsite, available on a first-come-first-served basis, costs $10 per night.  If you have a boat, you will find other campsites along the river upstream from Lee’s Ferry. 

You can hike a number of trails of varying difficulty and lengths in the area, including, for instance, the two-mile round trip River Trail, which begins at a modern boat launch ramp and follows an old wagon road upstream to an early crossing site; the usually unmaintained but still passable Spencer Trail, which rises for some 1700 feet up a cliff behind Lee’s Ferry; the some two-mile round trip Cathedral Canyon hike, along various routes, which leads through a slot canyon down to the river; and the 45-mile-long Paria Canyon Trail, which starts at Lonely Dell Ranch and follows the Paria River upstream into Utah. 

If you plan to capitalize on the world-class fishing in the waters near Lee’s Ferry, you will, of course, need a license.  According to the National Park Service Glen Canyon National Recreation Area Internet site, you must use artificial lures or flies only, no natural baits.  You can keep only a single trout, provided that it exceeds 22 inches in length.  You will have to release smaller trout and any endangered native species. 

At Lee’s Ferry, you may launch into one of the Southwest’s supreme adventures, a professionally guided whitewater raft trip down the Colorado River through Grand Canyon.  Your commercial outfitter, permitted by the National Park Service, may offer a variety of trips of various lengths, using boats ranging from paddle rafts, to motorized rafts to dories.  Your guide, by requirement of the National Park Service, will have, not only extensive experience on the river, but will also hold a Grand Canyon Guides License, a Food Handlers License and Wilderness First Responder Certification.  You will need to plan ahead.  The National Park Service limits the number who can make the journey.

For detailed information about Lee’s Ferry and the surrounding area, contact:

National Park Service
Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
PO Box 1507
Page, Arizona 86040
Phone  1-928-608-6200                  


National Park Service
Grand Canyon National Park
P.O. Box 129
Grand Canyon, Arizona 86023
Phone 1-928-638-7888





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