Filed Under Exploration

Crossing of the Fathers

With the help of their Native American guides, Spanish Franciscan priests Atanasio Domínguez and Silvestre Vélez de Escalante made a difficult crossing of the Colorado River.

In 1776 an expedition left from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to find an overland route to the Catholic Mission in Monterrey, California. Native Americans guided Franciscan priests, Fathers Escalante and Dominguez through the Colorado Plateau. Their journey consisted of crossing through vast canyon lands and fording many rivers. They took a large number of horses, mules, and donkeys to pack goods and to trade with Native Americans. Their journey lasted for just over a year.

They traveled from Santa Fe north into Colorado’s Western Slope to present day Grand Junction. Then they headed west past Green River, Utah, towards the Wasatch Front. They ended their journey at Utah Lake near Provo. Disappointed in their pace and failure to find an easy route to California, they began a return journey on an alternate route. They traveled south to present-day Cedar City, Utah, and then cut east along the edges of the Grand Staircase region towards Glen Canyon and the Colorado River.

The Crossing of the Fathers is where Native guides led the expedition across the Colorado River. It was difficult to find a safe crossing of the river in the Glen Canyon region. After a thorough search, they came to a narrow spot. In a translated journal, the Fathers described their difficult situation, “in order to have the mounts [mules, donkeys, and horses] led down to the canyon mentioned, it became necessary to cut steps with axes on a stone cliff.” After safely taking the animals down the stairs, they next looked for a safe crossing of the river. They found a relatively easy spot to swim across that had little flow. On November 7, 1776, they crossed the Colorado River to continue their journey back to Santa Fe.

In the ensuing 200 years few followed that specific crossing location. Native peoples of the region knew and used many other crossings. In fact, the Escalante and Dominguez route is one of the only mentioned crossings of this section of the Colorado. Farther north there were easier cliffs to descend and a slower meandering river section that Native Americans used. Today the Crossing of the Fathers lies underneath Lake Powell. Many amateur explorers have tried to find the route the Spanish Fathers took and have searched for the original staircase that was carved into the side of the cliff. Today, the site is most likely covered by the waters of Lake Powell., though falling water levels may someday reveal its location.


Canyon Country
Canyon Country This is a possible location where Native Americans guided the Spanish Fathers across the Colorado River. This bend is near the location and shows where Richard Sprang looked for possible crossings. Source: Northern Arizona University Cline Library Richard W. Sprang Collection.
Crossing of the Fathers Sand Bar
Crossing of the Fathers Sand Bar In the same expedition in 1958, Tad Nichols found another possible spot where he thought the crossing occurred. The Spanish Fathers journal mentioned finding a sandy location on the north side of the Colorado River. Source: Northern Arizona University Cline Library Tad Nichols Collection


GPS coordinates for monument at Glen Canyon Dam visitor center: N 36° 55.157 W 111° 27.605 For Padre Bay, Lake Powell: 37°04'49.0"N 111°18'48.0"W


Alex Anthony, Northern Arizona University, “Crossing of the Fathers,” Intermountain Histories, accessed April 15, 2024,