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BLM > Arizona > On-Line Recreation Permits > Paria Canyon Wilderness Area/Vermilion Cliffs National Monument > Paria Canyon Permit Area > Prehistory & History
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Vermilion Cliffs National Monument
Paria Canyon/Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Paria Canyon Permit Area - Prehistory & History

People of Paria Canyon - Those Who Came Before

The Paria River flows intermittently from its headwaters in Bryce Canyon National Park through Utah and Arizona to deposit silt and sediment in the Colorado River. The river basin has been used by various cultures for thousands of years.

Some archaeologists believe Paria Canyon was inhabited for at least 10,000 years before the first Europeans arrived in the 1770s. The nature of its geography probably made Paria Canyon a travel route between what is now southern Utah and northern Arizona.

From about A.D. 200 to A.D. 1200, the Anasazi occupied the region and may have had small farms and granaries in some stretches of the canyon. Paiute people later occupied and traversed much of the area 600 years before the first Europeans entered the mouth of the canyon. The word "Paria" is Paiute, and may mean water that tastes salty.

Most archaeological sites located in Paria Canyon are petroglyphs or rock art sites. Petroglyphs are images or symbols carved, incised, or pecked into the rocks while pictographs are painted on the rock. No habitations or large villages have been found in the canyon, leading researchers to conclude that the canyon was primarily used as a travel route in prehistoric times.

Paria Canyon rock artParia Canyon rock art

More Recent Residents

Two missionaries, Fathers Dominguez and Escalante, were the first documented European visitors in the region in 1776. They attempted to establish a route from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Monterey, California. On their return route to Santa Fe, after failing to reach California, the expedition camped several days at the mouth of Paria Canyon, which would become the site of Lees Ferry 100 years later. They succeeded in exiting the canyon through what is now Dominguez Pass, which is located high on the northeast rim of the lower canyon.  (Dominguez-Escalante Expedition Site)


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Lees Ferry was established in 1871 by John D. Lee, who was the first settler and operator of the ferry. Lee's diary mentioned how rugged Paria Canyon was in the late 1800s. Crampton and Rusho write that Lee, during his eight-day trip through Paria Canyon, struggled for two days and one night without stopping because a safe place to camp out of flash flood danger could not be found.

"We concluded to drive down the creek (Paria), which took us some eight days of toil, fatigue, and labour through brush, water, ice, and quicksand -- without seeing the sun for 48 hours."John D. Lee
John D. Lee
Utah State Historical Society

In 1870, the small settlement of Pahreah, which was located northwest of the modern-day Paria Contact Station, included 47 families, a church and a post office. This frontier settlement, like many in the West, was frequented by Native Americans, pioneers and the occasional outlaw. John Wesley Powell, the first director of the United States Geological Survey, in surveying the region, used the spelling Paria, which is the name found on modern topographical maps.

Jacob Hamblin, envoy for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, reported his observations about Pahreah on March 27, 1870.

"The settlement was progressing with a guardhouse and a small corral, where men can cook and lodge safely with 20-25 horses." (Feduska 6)Pahreah townsite
Pahreah Townsite
Utah State Historical Society

By that time, Pahreah also had vegetable farms, fruit and nut orchards, and cattle.

Unfortunately, severe flooding during the 1880s brought alkaline soil and entrenched arroyos and by 1889, only eight families remained at the settlement. By the 1930s the town of Pahreah had vanished. Near the abandoned settlement, now a ghost town being slowly swept away by the river, a western movie set was built. Here famous characters like Calamity Jane, Buffalo Bill and others came to life. Zane Grey, a famous western writer during the 1920s, had some of his novels filmed in the area, including Revelation, Heritage of the Desert, and A Biography of Buffalo Jones. Today, the ghost town and movie set can be visited by traveling 30-miles east from Kanab along U.S. Highway 89.

The Arizona Strip, a portion of Arizona geographically isolated from the rest of the state by the Colorado River, has always been a difficult area to access.

According to Crampton and Rusho (1992), Zane Grey described Paria Creek in 1907 thus:

"Dawn opened my eyes to what seemed the strangest and most wonderful place in the world. Paria Creek watered this secluded and desert bound spot."
Zane Grey
Zane Grey
Jane Foster

Crampton and Rusho (1992) also wrote that south of Paria Canyon in House Rock Valley, two men named Uncle Jim Owens and Buffalo Jones, established a Buffalo Ranch in the early 1900s.

"The original intent of the ranch was to produce hybrid offspring from buffalo and cattle called cattalo."buffalo ranch
AZ Game & Fish Department

The attempt failed, but today the buffalo herd is managed by the Arizona Game and Fish Department. The Buffalo Ranch is 22-miles south of U.S. Highway 89A, and can be reached by USFS Road 8910.

Water Development

Water is the essence of life in the West. According to James J. Ligner of the U. S. Geological Survey, the gaging station on the Colorado River at the mouth of the Paria River is:

"The most important station in the United States." (Reilly, 1997).

This remote gaging station was important in the development of the Colorado River Compact of 1922, an agreement among western states to divide the Colorado River into an upper basin, which is located north of its confluence with the Paria River, and a lower basin south of the confluence. The compact allocates the water from the Colorado River to individual states.


 Vermilion Cliffs National Monument 
Monument Manager:  Kevin Wright
345 E. Riverside Drive
St. George, UT 84790-6714
(435) 688-3200 
Hours: 7:45 a.m.-5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday 
10:00 a.m.-3:00 p.m. Saturday 
Closed Sunday