Yellow Van Travels

Cliff Dwellers Arizona

As we traveled South from Utah to the Grand Canyon we entered Arizona and soon passed the most interesting and odd collection of giant boulders arranged randomly along one short section of the road. There was a small sign indicating that this was called Cliff Dwellers. I love roadside attractions and having never seen cliff dwellings before I was naturally intrigued by this place. Meagan is not as in to stopping randomly as I am, she would rather we knew where we were going to stop before we go, so she said we could not stop right then, but on our way back through we could.

So when we were on our way out from the Grand Canyon I tried to find out where this place was and what it was. I couldn’t remember exactly what it was called so I searched things like cliff dwellings in Arizona. I didn’t know this at the time but this site actually has nothing to do with Native Americans, or even actual cliff dwellings. There are real honest to goodness cliff dwellings in Arizona, and the Internet knows more about them then they do about this strange place. As a result of this my searches didn’t turn up much, but I knew we would see it on our way through so we could stop when we saw it.

Turns out to get to it from the Grand Canyon’s South Rim you actually have to cross over the Colorado River on Highway 89A in a place called Marble Canyon. Then you will be driving through the scenic vermillion cliffs and nestled at the base of them just past a restraunt also bearing the name Cliff Dwellers you will find this interesting place of both geological and historical phenomenon.

What you will see:

This one looks like an ice cream cone

The main thing you will see that will clue you into the fact you are at Cliff Dwellers, Arizona is the huge strangely shaped boulders. When you see this scattered around the base of the vermillion cliffs look for the turnoff. Its just a dirt patch to the side of a set of very large boulders, so don’t miss it. there are no formal parking stalls, so pick a place, but try to be courteous and not block anyone else in or get you car in people’s pictures.

The boulders are all around but there is plenty of space so it is a great place to stretch you legs. When we were there we saw a port-a-potty off to the side but we did not use it so I can’t vouch for its state. In and around the largest of the boulders you will see what remains of a house. The weather and local vandals have not been kind to this house, so take caution in checking it out. When we visited a section of the roof in the second room was caved in. Meagan didn’t want us walking around in there, but it reminded me of exploring abandoned houses when I was a kid.

In front of the main house. You can’t really tell from the pic how big that boulder is.

Several of the other boulders are also homes to the remains of buildings. Walking around them and looking in you get the feeling that this place is strange, and the improbable shapes of the boulders give it an almost alien feel.

You can take as much time as you like wandering through the boulders. I also climbed a couple of them, although I think there would have been even better bouldering material up toward the area where the port-a-potty was.

Why didn’t I go explore these other boulders? Believe me, I would have loved to but after we had been in Cliff Dwellers for a little while the storm we had left the Grand Canyon to avoid started catching up with us. There had been about three other cars at the site when we arrived but they had all driven off by this time and drops of rain stated to spatter the boulders around us. I suggested that we just hide inside one of the boulder-buildings, but Meagan wasn’t keen on that suggestion. So we got in our car and took off. Unfortunately the storm would really catch up to us in Utah.

The History:
After we had stopped at the site I was able to do a better internet search with information gleaned from a nearly unreadable sign placed at the base of one of the largest boulders. There isn’t much information about it, but these are the facts I found thanks to the sign, Trip Advisor reviews, and this article from AZ Central.

The Yellow Van looks out from inside one of the boulders

So what is this place? Well for one it is a geological erosion phenomena and I know people who would stop just for that. But there is a set of history even closer to our own time period that makes it even more interesting to me. So what is the story of the strange, charming, and almost alien place where it is clear that people once lived?

The story goes that Blanche Russell who had been a dancer in the Ziegfeld Follies, had given up dancing to care for her ailing husband and was taking him to the South West for his health when there car broke down next to these huge rocks. This was during the Depression. Many people lived then in ways we can’t imagine now, and when the Russell’s car broke down apparently they decided they might as well live under these strange rocks.

They set up a house next to the biggest one, expanding it from a lean-to as they went along. This is the building that remains somewhat intact to this day. They started selling food out of it and called it The Old Cliff Dwellers Lodge. The restaurant eventually added a gas pump to service not only travelers but their cars. An interesting fact for us is that it is said to have serviced Mormon couples on the Honey Moon Trail to the St. George temple. Since we are Mormon, we found that interesting, but I have been unable to confirm if the dates from the Honey Moon Trail really do overlap with the Old Cliff Dwellers Lodge.

The place changed hands a couple of times while still staying in operation, and other buildings were built around the boulders. But eventually the isolation and the danger of the rocks falling became too much and it was abandoned.

There is something in this place though, even in its abandonment that makes you want to know about,  to try and picture the lives of the people who lived here. It is a testimony to the grit and tenacity of the depression era generation that some of them would not only live but in a way prosper while literally living between a rock and hard place.