Pipe Spring National Monument sits in the midst of the Arizona Strip, an area of the state cut off from the rest of the state by the Grand Canyon and Colorado River. For more than 1,000 years, the titular spring has provided water for human settlements in this area of high desert.
In 1863, a Mormon rancher acquired the title to 160 acres around the spring, turning the area into a ranch. As the conflict with nearby tribes increased, settlers turned the ranch into a Mormon militia post and later a frontier fort.
In 1923, President Harding declared Pipe Spring a National Monument at the behest of Steven Mather, the first director of the National Park Service. Mather saw Pipe Spring as the perfect stopping point for tourists traveling in between the North Rim of the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park.
Now, as then, the monument makes for a great stop along the way north from the Grand Canyon towards Zion. Indeed, We recommend setting aside an entire day to make the trip. Be sure to stop along the way at Navajo Bridge, Vermillion Cliffs and the Kaibab National Forest.
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The History of Pipe Spring National Monument
This spring is the only source of flowing water for miles in any direction. It was very important to anyone living or traveling the Arizona Strip. Archeologists have traced human settlement in the area for more than 1,000 years. Human settlements go all the way from the Ancient Puebloans to the modern Kaibab-Paiute Reservation.
Leading into the mid-1800s, Paiute numbers had dramatically dwindled due to European diseases and raids by neighboring Navajos and Utes. So, the Paiutes welcomed Mormon settlers to the area, hoping to work together with them against a common foe.
The Mormon ranchers settled upon the spring, using it for their cattle operations. It was also a waypoint for travelers in the area. While things started out peacefully, the settlers soon blamed local Paiutes for raids by other tribes.
Conflict between the Mormon ranchers and nearby tribes was punctuated when James Whitmore, who owned Pipe Spring, and several of his herdsmen were killed trying to recover stolen cattle from nearby Navajo tribesmen. That inspired the creation of the stone East Cabin to serve as a Mormon militia outpost.
The Creation of a Tithing Ranch
Brigham Young bought the ranch from Whitmore’s widow and turned it into a “tithing ranch” for the Mormon church. Local ranchers often had more livestock than cash. They would donate livestock to the church for their tithe, a donation of 10% of income to the church.
Young and Anson Winsor, the ranch manager, designed the ranch house as a frontier fort. They built the house on top of the spring, meaning the ranchers would always have access to water during a siege. They designed all of the windows as firing ports. There are walkways over the entrances on either side to allow folks to defend the gates.
The ranch prospered, with 2,200 head of cattle in 1879, and produced butter and cheese in addition to cattle. It even had fruit orchards, a benefit of the spring. Eventually, drought and overgrazing ended the ability of Pipe Spring to continue functioning as a tithe ranch. It remained a working ranch, way station for travelers and telegraph station.
One of the more colorful uses of this fort was a hideout for polygamous wives. In the late 1800s, the Federal government passed several laws against the Mormon practice of multiple wives. In order to avoid Federal marshals, men in Utah would stash their “extra” wives at the ranch. Eventually, the Federal government caught on and threatened to confiscate the ranch. So, the Mormon church sold the ranch in 1895.
Visiting Pipe Spring National Monument
Pipe Spring National Monument is located just outside the town of Fredonia in northern Arizona on the Kaibab-Paiute Reservation. It is definitely off the beaten path unless you are traveling between the Grand Canyon and Zion.
When you get there, the obvious first stop is the visitor center, which was closed, unfortunately, due to COVID-19 when we visited. Still, the ranger was quite helpful and they had the park movie set up outside around the back of the visitor center.
While we were there, the rangers held a tour of Winsor Castle, the large stone ranch house which served as a frontier fort. We highly recommend doing the tour if you can.
From there, we were able to wander the grounds of the ranch, checking out the restored structures and take the half-mile nature walk, which had some really great views.
One of our favorite parts of exploring the park was the livestock kept there, including Wit, a Texas Longhorn, and Red, a retired mule from the Grand Canyon.
In all, plan on spending about two hours visiting this park.
Great Stops Along the Way to Pipe Spring National Monument
If you are heading north from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, this drive takes you through a rugged desert without a lot in the way of services. As you head north, make sure you have a full tank of gas. While you will find a few gas stations along the way, don’t chance running out of gas.
One of the things that becomes painfully clear as you begin the drive north is there are exactly two places to cross the Colorado River in Arizona: Page and Marble Canyon. We crossed at Marble Canyon and are so glad we did.
At Marble Canyon, you will find the Navajo Bridge. There’s a parking area on both sides of the bridge, with a visitor station for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The original bridge was finished in 1929 and was the first bridge over the Colorado River in Arizona. Before the bridge was built, the only way to get across the river was a ferry at the mouth of Glen Canyon.
A new bridge was opened in 1995 and the original bridge was kept as a pedestrian bridge.
We decided to stop at the bridge almost on a lark. We walked out on the bridge and almost immediately spotted a California condor. As we watched, we ended up spotting seven of these rare birds.
Indeed, there are only about 337 California condors in the wild and we got to see seven in one place! It was really cool to see.
The bridge also has spectacular views of the Colorado River as flows toward the Grand Canyon. It’s worth the stop.
Vermillion Cliffs National Monument
As you drive along US 89A, you are passing right at the base of Vermillion Cliffs National Monument. A Bureau of Land Management site, Vermillion Cliffs NM preserves 280,000 acres.
While you cannot really get into the national monument from the south (the cliffs are really imposing), you can get out and explore along the base of the cliff. Even so, the views along the drive are simply gorgeous.
We actually ran into a bit of a dust storm along the way. According to the folks at the nearby Cliff Dweller Lodge, the dust is a result from a major fire that happened in 2014 and the area is prone to minor dust storms since, especially in the spring.
As you head west along the highway, be sure to stop at the turnout for a look back at the cliffs. It’s more than worth the quick stop.
Driving Through Kaibab National Forest
As you ascend the up to the Kaibab Plateau, you will immediately notice the difference elevation makes. You will go from desert into forest quickly. As you pass Jacob Lake, which is above 7,900 feet, you will quickly see why the road to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is closed in the winter.
Even though it had been several days since the South Rim had seen snow, the area near Jacob Lake was covered in snow. It is truly an amazing difference less than an hour makes on your way west. It is also a stark reminder that elevation makes all the difference in getting around mountain passes out West.
As you continue towards Fredonia, look for great views that allow you to see the Grand Staircase, the massive sequence of sedimentary rock that stretches from Bryce Canyon National Park all the way to the Grand Canyon.
Final Thoughts on Pipe Spring National Monument and the Drive
Pipe Spring National Monument is one of those forgotten corners of American history that we love to explore. There is so much about the history of this place that is barely touched upon in history class.
While the park itself is small and you can easily visit it in a couple of hours, it truly is perfectly located along the way from Grand Canyon to Zion and makes the perfect place to stop along the drive.
Add in the other stops, like Navajo Bridge and Vermillion Cliffs, there is plenty of see and enjoy along the way, making for a really nice day in the car.