Friday, September 4, 2015

The Wave

Distance: 5.5 miles round trip
Elevation: 4,875 ft - 5,200 ft
Elevation Gain: 325 ft (net) 730 ft (cumulative)
Date Hiked: 27 April 2015
Bathroom at Trailhead: Yes, with emergency water
Dogs: Off leash, but NO water
Special Permit Required: Daily lottery

The Wave is one of the most sought after destinations in the American Southwest. That divot on the right side is purported to be a dinosaur "slide".
A hike to THE WAVE in northern Arizona's Paria Canyon/Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness is an improbable and totally unforgettable journey to one of the most photographed places in the American West. You can't just go there, however, you have to win a daily lottery (official link on how to enter) for one of the 10 walk-in or 10 online slots allowed each day. People try for years and never get in. We won two walk-in slots on our second try.

Parking area
Heading up the wash into Buckskin Gulch
The walk-in lottery is held at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) visitor's center in Kanab, Utah every morning between 0900 and 0930. You show up before the lottery, fill out a permit request, and then hang out with 100 or more other hopeful souls while bingo balls twirl enticingly in a bin. Everyone's attention is glued to that wheel. Around and around, the numbers of destiny whirl.

Turn off, now marked with a sign
Looking east after cresting the first hill
Having done this a million times, the rangers know how to work the anxious crowd. They told tales of past winners, all of whom had good karma going for them. They helped others fill out their forms. They did not lock anyone in the bathroom. They were just driving by. They did not bring any permit money. Ennui, nonchalance, and "I won't win" are the attitudes that allow the stars to align. The probability of winning is so low that winners often need respiratory assistance.

Heading towards the saddle
Looking northeast from the saddle. It is barren country.
The exhilaration of winning is quickly over because immediately thereafter the rangers provide an unnerving "come to Jesus" lecture about how unlikely it is you will ever return from the Wave. They look you in the eye, assess your abilities, and pointedly ask..."will I be having to find and drag your desiccated carcass out of back country tomorrow?" Most lie and say "Oh No!" Like anyone is going to give up their once in a life time spot!

Why the drama? The route to the Wave is over terrain most never experience. It is vast, barren, hot, disorienting, and downright deadly under certain conditions. Additionally, the Rangers see people with little or no hiking or desert experience. Even experienced hikers can get lost in the seemingly endless rock formations that lead to the Wave. There was one near and two actual fatalities in 2013. This promoted that installation of a few signs.

Most of the route is across rock.
The rangers do provide a brochure showing the route with pictures but emphasize that getting back is not easy even with pictures and the new signs. If you have a GPS, bring it. If you have a map and compass, bring that too. If you have neither, consider hiring a guide in Kanab.  It was true, getting back was not easy and we had a GPS track to follow. The terrain looks the same in all directions.

Heading towards the Twin Buttes
The trailhead to The Wave is located down House Rock Valley Road (BLM Road 1065), which can be accessed from the north 38 miles out of Kanab, Utah or from the south 13.5 miles out of Jacob Lake, Arizona. Unless it has recently rained, the northern route is preferred. While this road is passable with a passenger car, having a 4x4 will increase your chances of getting there. Only a little rain can turn the road into a harrowing luge run.

Towering sand dunes
The trailhead for the Wave also serves Buckskin Gulch, which is a good alternative outing if you don't win the lottery. The route crosses the road and then enters the river bed that is the entrance to the gulch.  0.5 miles up, the route leaves the river bed and ascends a small rocky hill. From there the route travels across a wide, shrub covered valley. Directly ahead is the sandstone ridge that is so difficult to cross on the return trip. The small saddle that marks the best crossing point is very obvious from this side but not so obvious from the other.

Walking across this rock is like being grilled to death.
After crossing the saddle, the route is sloped and filled with conical hoodoos, the remnants of prehistoric sand dunes. Route finding is necessary since there are no cairns and only a couple of recently added signs that get easily lost from view.

Looking down into the final sand-filled valley. The Wave is up the cliff straight ahead.
Eventually, the route leaves the firm sandstone and descends into a broad sandy valley dotted with the occasional Cottonwood. The Wave is located across this valley and up the cliff face beyond. It is quite the sandy scramble to get into the entrance to the Wave and there is no best way to approach it. The occasional zigzag, upwards lunge, and sandy slide are all required.

Inside the Wave
The entrance to the Wave is like entering a canyon. The walls tower on either side and unique striated rock patterns begin immediately. The famous photograph of the Wave is taken after walking through the entrance, through the Wave itself and up a rock amphitheater on the other side. It is not uncommon to see a queue of people lining up to take pictures with some hogging the interior. After seeing this, I understood why BLM limits the number of daily permits to twenty total (10 online, 10 walk-in).

Looking down on the Wave from just slightly above
While the Wave itself is otherworldly and incredibly photogenic, there are other areas in and around that should be explored. Fossilized dinosaur tracks have been recorded on the way to and near the Wave and scenic vistas abound.

The Wave is actually just part of a series of large dunes.
Morning is the best time to photograph the Wave, since it is still in shadow.  This is a good thing since the hike is a dry, hot affair even at 50 degrees. All that rock retains heat and radiates it back to the foolish mammals that dare to walk where only "thunder lizards" have walked before. I can't image what it would feel like at 100 degrees. No one should take this hike lightly.

The exit to the west, which leads to some stellar views.
One of the rangers expressed their amazement at how much allure the Wave holds for people. She thought there were prettier, more remote places on Earth, but none seem to hold the mystic of the Wave. It is included in most screen savers or nature calendars. It is profiled in travel magazines and listed amongst the 500 places you should visit before you die.

Standing outside the Wave proper to the west.
I think the BLM has created half of this mystic with their visitor restrictions. There is something about human nature that drives us to want what only a few can have. The other half of the mystic comes from visitors who return from the Wave with pictures that race around social media and the internet.

Hiking above the Wave. The colors change to a lighter yellow.
Personally, I was mesmerized by sitting in the warm cocoon of the Wave's smooth solidity. It was like being snuggled by Mother Nature while being dazzled by color and pattern. The size and age of the Earth are hard to grasp. Sitting in one small place where so long ago the same sun had warmed the same sand, made it all seem so much more tangible. Who knows. It was if nothing else wickedly cool!

Water often collects in pockets around the area.
Proposed Lottery Changes (July 2015):

The BLM has issued a draft business plan containing changes to the Coyote Buttes permit system. Permits for ten people per day would be issued via an on-line semi-annual lottery. One lottery would be held on December 1st for the months of January-June, and one on June 1st for July-December. Lottery applications would be accepted during the two months prior to the lottery date. The semi annual lottery would go live for the July-December 2016 period. The walk-in lottery would be replaced by an on-line lottery held two days in advance of the permit date. Permit for ten people per day would be issued via this two day lottery. The two day lottery would go live March 15, 2016. This will fundamentally change the user experience.


KT said...

We won the lottery a few years ago after having to scrap a rim-to-rim hike at the Grand Canyon for I wasn't feeling well. Loved the hike...totally worth doing Wire Pass/Buckskin Gulch too!

Donna Nuce said...

Beautiful photos Sylvia! Thanks for the share!

sylvia murphy said...

Thanks Donna! It was an amazing experience.