Saturday, July 7, 2012

Eight Miles in the Mid-day, Mid-June Desert Heat: The Wave and Part Two of a Desert Adventure

The red rock deserts of the Colorado Plateau and the surrounding parts of the American Southwest are among my favorite places on Earth for their stark natural beauty. Prior to this June, I'd never visited them during the heat of the summer, but when I finally won a permit to visit mystical, whimsical Wave, I loaded up on warm-weather gear and hopped a plane to Page, Arizona, for a relaxing eight miles of hiking in the baking desert sun.

The Wave is an area of Navajo sandstone slickrock exhibiting striking striations and ridges that resemble pulled taffy, located in northern Arizona in the Coyote Buttes North Wilderness Area. Much of the distinctive ridges in the sandstone are eolian in nature--that is, they were formed by differential deposition of wind-carried sediment during the Jurassic age up to 200 million years ago as large dunes drifted across the desert--and though not visible in the Wave itself, there are preserved dinosaur footprints within the Coyote Buttes from that same famous age.

Hiking to the Wave requires a special permit from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), something I'd been trying fruitlessly to obtain for six months. Though said permits are not particularly expensive--$7 at the time of this writing--they are limited to 10 per day online and 10 more per day offered in-person, both via a lottery system.  Demand is such that during peak seasons (spring and fall), applicants' odds of winning a permit via the online lottery are less than 10% for a given month according to the BLM.

Bird's eye swirls near the Wave
Let me stop for a moment and provide a little background information on the permit process, because if you're considering a trip to the Wave, you absolutely have to have a permit (unless you enjoy risking a fine and federal prosecution for trespassing!).  The two paths to a permit work similarly:

First, applications can be made online three months in advance, with a $5 application fee--and note that said fee does not apply toward the cost of the permit (should you win one), is not refundable, and cannot be rolled over to the following month's lottery when you inevitably fail to win a permit. Consider that $5 a gift to protect the Wave, because that's what the BLM will use the funds for. Prospective hikers select three preferred dates within the lottery month, then sit back and wait for the drawing to be held on the first of the following month (so an application made in December is for April, and the drawing will be held on January 1st). I'm not 100% sure that the days selected make a difference, but since the BLM does show how many people have applied for a given day, I suspect that selections do matter: hence, avoiding weekends and holidays will give you a better chance to win. When I checked the November drawing calendar at the time of this writing, several days had nearly 200 people trying to get one of those 10 permits, but a few days had only 30 or so (odds of 1/3 instead of 1/20).

Second, there are 10 additional permits per day available on a walk-in basis the day before a prospective hike. Applications must be made at the Grand Staircase-Escalante visitor's center in Kanab, UT, between 8:30 and 9:00 am (and keep in mind that Utah does observe daylight saving's time, unlike its neighbor Arizona). Here's the catch: winners drawn are groups of up to six people, verses individual winners, and there can be dozens of applications made on a given morning. Good luck!

Crossing the sandy "old road" near the start of the Wave hike
Because of the challenges of getting a permit coupled with the expense and time involved in reaching it (the nearest major airport is in Las Vegas, several hours away; flights to tiny Page, Arizona, or to St. George, Utah, are significantly pricier), I intentionally padded my schedule with an extra day on either end of the trip: one on the way to Arizona in case of flight delays, and one after my permit's date in case inclement weather forced a rain check or a go at the walk-in lottery. (Note: the BLM is doing away with the rain check system later this year, so if House Rock Valley Road is closed due to weather conditions, you'll just have to try the walk-in lottery.) I made the most of the extra time with a full day of hiking in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and a visit to Antelope Canyon--though in retrospect, hiking between 16 and 20 miles the day before the Wave (including quite an adventure getting back from Yellow Rock) wasn't the best idea.

A lot of people object to this difficult and frustrating permit process, and I can understand their displeasure that public land would be restricted from public access. However, not only is the wave a delicate formation which could not stand up to the kind of traffic seen at, say, Arches or Zion National Park, but it is actually a fairly compact site: even with the current limit of 20 hikers a day in place, it can feel a bit cramped and crowded at the peak light of the day. Thus I completely agree with and support the BLM's policy. Take heart: you will eventually win a permit if you persevere and are flexible with your schedule, and then you, too, can enjoy being one of the very few people to have seen the Wave in person.

Back in the saddle again--looking down from a saddle crossed on the way to the Wave
Assuming you do win a permit like I finally did--and let me say, June was not my first choice given the temperatures involved!--once you make payment, the BLM sends you the permit itself (and a little bit of wire to run through its grommet and attach to your backpack or self), a parking pass (the Wire Pass trailhead would otherwise require a $5 fee, even for America the Beautiful pass holders), several cautions on the dangers of heat in the desert, and a little brochure which lays out the path to the Wave, with both photographs of landmarks as well as GPS waypoints. Since there is no formal trail to the Wave, this brochure is absolutely essential; in the past, up to 20% of hikers failed to locate the Wave! Take the BLM's directions, a good map, a compass, and a GPS, or else follow fellow hikers to avoid getting lost in the largely-unmarked wilderness between you and the Wave.

I'm going to hop on another soapbox for a moment. The BLM recommends you carry at least a full gallon of water on the hike; to the average dayhiker, this may sound excessive, but given the best time to visit the Wave is midday, and that it's going to be hot and dry no matter what time of year you visit, I would err on the side of caution and bring as much more water as you can carry. Two full gallons (that's about 7.5 liters) would not be out of the question if you can manage to load that much up and carry it comfortably. By the end of my hike, I was rationing my water--walk a tenth of a mile, take a sip, then walk again--and would have done much better had I had another two liters or so with me at the time. It's a long hike of about three miles each way, plus any exploration done around the Wave itself. Food is something else to bring along; I had trail mix and some assorted snacks with me but still ended up absolutely famished by the end of the hike, and hunger pangs are not pleasant piled on top of thirst and the heat.

I realized after my hike that this slickrock slope is the same one seen in the cover photo for Hiking from Here to WOW: Utah Canyon Country, a useful guide for many great hikes on the Colorado Plateau
And yes, it is hot in June in the Utah and Arizona desert! My first choice would have been to do the Wave hike in early March, but as I mentioned before, I'd been trying for a permit for over six months before finally winning one for June. With air temperatures over 100, direct sun falling overhead, and hot sandstone baking underfoot, that means dressing appropriately: I wore a lightweight convertible trail shirt--sleeves down on the hike out to protect me from the sun, then rolled up for the hot hike back--and cotton convertible hiking pants (same operational orders as the shirt), both light-colored to reflect the sun. A hat is a must, preferably one which combines breathable, wicking fabric with a wide brim and ear and neck flaps to give added protection from the sun. Sunscreen is another necessity, as are a good pair of sunglasses; for much of the hike, even if you're not being bombarded from above (and if you go in midday, you will be), the sun reflects off the rock and sand to burn you from below. Finally, I suggest an evaporative cooling neck wrap (or two!) to help keep your body just a degree or two cooler in the brutal desert sun.

The hike begins at the Wire Pass trailhead, located some 8.5 miles south of US 89 from a turnoff near mile marker 26 in Utah. This can be an easy turn to miss, particularly if coming from Page to the east, as it's located just past a sharp turn in the highway. House Rock Valley Road is typically fairly rough, frequently washboarded, and possibly rutted out--much worse in condition than is the Cottonwood Canyon Road through the Grand Staircase--and should be driven only by high-clearance vehicles if there's been any recent rainfall. The road is the main reason hikers would need a rain check for the Wave, as it can be impassible in rare wet weather. At the Wire Pass trailhead, there are restrooms but no water available--so definitely make sure to have plenty more water in your car for your return. There's also a trail register which you must sign and in which you must record your permit number; don't forget to sign out after the hike so that rangers don't have to go looking for you.

Twin buttes and colorful crossbedding in the Navajo sandstone
Hiking boots really aren't necessary for the trip, though the BLM recommends them to avoid a twisted ankle. Here's the deal, though: you don't want to walk around inside the Wave itself with hiking boots, as you could easily damage the beautiful formation you've come to see. That means either carrying a pair of sneakers with you (on top of that camera gear and the gallons of water you'll need), or else just wearing lightweight trail shoes for the whole hike and being careful. There are really only a couple of sections of slickrock slopes you'll traverse where extra ankle support comes in handy (less if you stick closely to the BLM's outlined route), and at that, high-top tennis shoes would probably be okay. My low-rise trail shoes were absolutely fine except for one stretch where I'd gotten off-course on the hike back and descended a steeper slickrock slope than necessary.

Terrain below the entrance to the Wave
The hike to the Wave is about three miles one-way, with portions in a deep sandy wash (ugh) and a few cross-country stretches of sandy terrain leading to slickrock for the final mile or so. Because of my late night the evening before and my aching legs after adventures in Grand Staircase-Escsalante (note to self: do not hike over a dozen miles the day before attempting the Wave), I skipped a dawn hike into the Wire Pass Narrows and showed up at the trailhead around 9:30 am Arizona time. The best light on the Wave itself is from mid-day through early afternoon, with parts of the main formation in shadows up until about 12:30pm during the peak of summer, so it's not unreasonable to leave the parking area as late as half past ten--though I will say that much of the slickrock traversed prior to the Wave itself would be best photographed in the early morning "golden hour" light not long past sunrise.

Fortunately though the hike is three miles across the arid terrain, there isn't a lot of up-and-down to it, with only 350 feet or so of elevation gain in crossing a couple of buttes and ascending to the entrance to the Wave; the hike itself is a good bit easier than the one to the summit of Yellow Rock, for example. Patches of sand, particularly the first stretch of Coyote Wash and the "old road" leading up from it, are the worst challenges encountered. Just follow the BLM instructions. I ended up getting a bit turned around on the final stretch of the route (between "Point 6" on the BLM's map and the entrance to the Wave) and followed the slickrock slopes to the west without descending and crossing an intermittent stream bed at its widest point--thinking that by so doing I could avoid some trekking in steep sand--but this diversion leads to a point marked "Sand Cove" on USGS maps of the area, which though photogenic in its own right is separated from the Wave by a steep canyon whose eastern side is not climbable by hikers.

A nice bit of (fleeting) shade at the Wave
As I got closer to the Wave itself, the slickrock around began to show evidence of the striations which make the Wave such a special place, as well as undergoing a color shift from oranges and yellows to more reds as expected in the Navajo sandstone layer with white features blended in and showing through, giving the terrain a melted ice cream appearance.

When I first arrived at the Wave--after backtracking from Sand Cove to cross the dry stream bed and ascend to the entrance--there were perhaps six or seven other hikers present. The Wave is very popular with European hikers, having been "discovered" in a couple of German nature films and coffee-table books in the early 1990s, and indeed the majority of my fellow visitors sprachen Deutsch. One gentleman had hiked all the way in with a medium-format camera--truly the gear of a serious photographer given its cost and bulk.

I took a break in the shade cast by the Wave's eastern rim while waiting for some of the other hikers to disperse and give me a clear photo opportunity. Sitting there and sipping from a bottle of Gatorade, I refilled my belt pack water bottles and crushed the now-empty plastic bottles to take up less room in my pack, had a snack, removed the legs from my hiking pants (ceding sun protection for coolness), replenished my sunscreen, and read for about thirty minutes as the sun slowly climbed over the Wave and eroded away my little patch of cool shelter.

Hikers enjoying the view of the Wave from above
As I mentioned previously in lauding the BLM's 20-hiker-a-day limit, the Wave is a fairly compact site for all the hiking required to reach it. During the peak time to visit (midday), that can mean waiting out several other visitors before getting the site to oneself, or getting a photo composition which doesn't include another human being. Still, the vast majority of these hikers are here to admire and bask in the wonder of Nature that is the Wave--presumably the same reason you are!--and there's time to share. Enjoy the rewards of those three miles through the desert before facing just as long a trek back.

Striations and crossbedding in the main corridor of the Wave
According to my copy of Hiking the Southwest's Geology: Four Corners Region, the Wave's petrified dunes formed when they occupied a desert along the west coast of what is today North America during the Jurassic age, as prevailing winds drove vast layers of sand across the area in what would now be an east-to-west direction. Beneath hundreds of feet of accumulated sand, minerals in the water that seeped through the dunes gave the formations their striking coloration, and deformation of the still-wet dunes before they set into layers of sedimentary rock created the Wave's unique whirls and twisted striations. Plate tectonics carried this dinosaur-age desert inland, and erosion carved down through the rock to expose the ancient dunes again.

Worn out as I was from the prior day's adventures and the three miles to the Wave, I still managed the energy to explore the immediate vicinity and take in the Wave's beauty from several different perspectives. Photographer Laurent Martres gives a good overview of several of the nearby sights in his Photographing the Southwest vol. 2: Arizona, including the "north saddle" and its view of the North Teepees off in the distance and the "Second Wave," a more yellow-and-orange formation adjacent to and slightly above the main Wave.

Martres is quite right in suggesting that photographers will want to take advantage of every focal length in their pack and try out many different angles; I made extensive use of my wide-angle Canon 10-22mm for more-traditional landscape shots encompassing the Wave and its surroundings, of course, and I really worked my walkabout Canon 24-104mm f4L lens heavily as well at both its wide and telephoto ends. If I'd not opted to leave it behind due to the extra weight, I think I'd have even found good use for my big 300mm birding lens--though for interesting closeups of geological features more than for the usual wildlife images. The only living animals I encountered aside from fellow hikers were a couple of swallows and many different lizards, the latter of which were typically quite approachable and not necessitating a long lens at all.

Leaving the Wave
Originally, I'd considered staying well into the late afternoon or perhaps sunset, but ran into the problem of water: after all that climbing and hiking around the Wave, I was down to a bit less than half the water I set out with at a hair under two liters and only then into the hottest part of the afternoon. Perhaps had I a bit less camera gear on my back and another gallon of water with me, or maybe a portable sunshade of some sort which I could rest beneath for a few hours, I'd have stuck around.

The North Teepees seen from above the Wave. Martres describes a hike to the teepees themselves, but I was wiped out and had to save that one for another time!
Deciding that I would inevitably make another visit to this magical place--one which I could share with my wife Beth, I hoped--I set off for the return to my car and the long drive back to civilization and a big, delicious beer or two along with something to eat that wasn't made from dried oats and raisins.  The BLM instruction brochure actually lists a series of landmarks and waypoints for the return trip as well, and I wish I'd followed them rather than figuring I could just set my GPS to backtrack along my approach route--because as the BLM says on their "Point 9" description, traveling uphill to the west or downhill to the east from their suggested route will "only cause delays in your return." Yes, the BLM is correct indeed, as I ended up crossing the Twin Buttes on the wrong side (to the west), which presented me with a very steep slickrock descent followed by a longer-than-necessary walk through a wash filled with deep sand and only further wore me out on an already-long, hot day of hiking.

I did manage to visit one of the locations Martres describes in his book--quite by accident with the detour I took!--from which artist Michael Fatali captured his "The Bone Yard"--but was not there in the best light of the day (I'd opt for early morning or late evening). Well, that's yet another reason to pay the Wave a return visit.

Leaping lizards!
Fortunately, I was less than a mile away from the car as the crow flies, because I had really started to run low on water and had to start rationing myself to one or two sips held in my mouth at a time, rather than indulging in the long gulps I wanted to take but which would have wiped out my two remaining water bottles in short order. I worked out a system of walking a tenth of a mile, then stopping to take another couple of sips. I even managed to find a couple of small patches of shade along the route back to rest up and cool down, but wow, it was brutally, incredibly hot out in the desert that afternoon!

That last half a mile along the deep sand of Coyote Wash was some of the hardest hiking I've ever done and had my dogs barking and me completely out of water for about the last quarter of a mile or so. When I got back to the car, I checked my GPS trip odometer and found that my hike had encompassed a total of a bit more than eight miles in the desert sun. After signing out at the trail register, I sat down, cranked up the air conditioning, and proceeded to chug a liter of hot Gatorade followed by a half gallon of water, topped off my bottles, and started back up the bumpy drive along House Rock Valley Road for US 89 and eventually the town of Kanab.  I'd had another adventure and seen another one of the hidden wonders of our natural world, had paid a pilgrimage to a spot every serious landscape or nature photographer must, but by then, I was really happy to be heading for civilization.

Until the next time my yen for travel and nature strikes, of course.

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