Monday, March 2, 2015

The Wave Rave

Remoteness is an attribute found in relative abundance across the Colorado Plateau, as geography, lack of roads, little water and a relatively harsh climate have combined to keep humans from populating the region in any significant way.  That said it is becoming more of a challenge to find the solitude that used to be a hallmark of the area, as more and more people learn about fantastical geological landscapes found here.

The Wave is a perfect example of this encroachment.  Located along the Arizona - Utah border in an area that is about as far from civilization as it's possible to be in the lower 48 states, the Wave has become a mecca much like Antelope Canyon for the photographer seeking to capture colorful and sinuous lines of cross bedded sandstone.

Inevitably stunning pictures of this beautiful rock formation quickly permeated the awareness of those who enjoy outdoor activities, leading to a hundred fold increase in the number of visitors over the last 10 years.  As is the case with many spectacular but ultimately fragile locations, the government agency tasked with supervising the area was forced to take draconian measures limiting the number of people allowed to access the area each day.

In this post I'll explain the process would be visitors must attempt in order to obtain a permit, as well as illustrate the some of the incredible beauty found in this area.

Vermilion Cliffs - Paria National Monument
The Vermilion Cliffs rise above the Colorado River

Created in 2000 by Presidential proclamation, the Vermilion Cliffs - Paria Canyon National Monument includes nearly 300,000 acres of rugged and isolated canyons, buttes, and cliffs in extreme northern Arizona and southern Utah.  It is one of several such monuments in the region which also includes the Grand Staircase - Escalante and Grand Canyon - Parashant National Monuments, all administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

In the Vermilion Cliffs Monument, there are several areas which have grown in popularity over recent years, including Paria Canyon, Wire Pass and Buckskin Gulch, and of course the Wave.  The BLM has instituted a permit system for all of these areas, and it can be somewhat confusing for the uninitiated.

The area that encompasses the Wave is referred to as Coyote Buttes North, and permits for this area are the hardest to come by.  According to a Los Angeles Times article, 48,000 people applied in 2012 for 7800 available permits.  Only 20 persons per day are allowed, and no overnight camping is permitted.  10 of the permits are allocated online up to 4 months in advance using a lottery system - use this link to check availability and begin the process of applying.

If the dates of your visit are known this may be a good starting point for trying to get a permit.  Unfortunately using this method you take your chances with the weather - if road conditions are hazardous or there is a possibility of flash flooding you may have to rethink your visit, and there are no rainchecks or refunds given for any reason..
If you are flexible with your travel plans and have an extra day to spend in the area there is an alternate way of possibly receiving a permit.  This involves an in person visit to the Kanab BLM office the day prior to your intended hike.  A lottery process begins each morning at 9:00 a.m. where the remaining 10 permits for the following day are issued.  Be aware that the already slight chances of obtaining a permit decrease exponentially during the very popular spring and fall seasons.

As the BLM office is closed on weekends, permits for the following Saturday, Sunday, and Monday are issued in the Friday morning lottery.  For those with really open travel itineraries this means you can enter the lottery for all three days in succession, modestly increasing the chance of being awarded a permit.

If you are fortunate enough to get a permit either online or in person, the rest is relatively easy.

Getting There

Driving to the trailhead usually requires a high clearance vehicle, and at times all or four wheel drive.  Like most of the primitive roads found in the region weather can significantly impact the condition of the route, and it may not be possible to get to the trailhead.  If heavy rain or snow are in the forecast, the road will be impassable and it is wiser to cancel the trip.  Check with one of the BLM Visitor Centers in the area for current road conditions before heading out.

House Rock Valley Road

This scenic 29 mile unmaintained dirt road runs south and north along the base of Buckskin Mountain (the northern extension of the Kaibab Plateau).  There is an entry point at either end, and which way you choose can be dependent on road conditions and weather.  If coming from Kanab on the north end, travel 38 miles east on U.S. Highway 89 to the junction with BLM Road 1065.  Turning south the road reaches Wire Pass trailhead at about 8 miles in.

Buckskin Mountain
Along the way you'll encounter Buckskin Wash, a usually dry channel that bisects the road.  If there has been recent heavy rain there is a strong possibility that the wash will flood.  Attempting to cross under these conditions is extremely hazardous, and may even result in death.  Even if the wash is not running full, it may be muddy enough to trap a vehicle.  Use extreme caution when negotiating the wash if water is present.

Another issue to be aware of is that the 8 miles of road from U.S. 89 to Wire Pass runs through a series of hills composed of shales and clays, which quickly turn to goo when wet.  Avoid this section if rain or snow are likely.

Another option which mitigates some of the possible road hazards is to take the southern approach from U.S. Highway 89A.  The route is longer (21 miles to the trailhead) but the road surface is primarily gravel based and somewhat less prone to washouts and flooding.

Wire Pass Trailhead

Once you've reached the starting point for the hike, finding the trail is fairly straightforward.  Incidentally, all successful permit applicants are given a map with landmark pictures and a route description.  This illustrated guide was prompted by multiple deaths in the summer of 2013, when hikers who became disoriented in the slickrock desert died from heat related illness.

BLM issued route description for the Wave
Beginning across the road from the modest parking area with pit toilet amenities, Wire Pass trailhead is also the entry point for two other hikes - Buckskin Gulch and Paria Canyon.  The distance from the parking area to the feature known as the Wave is just over 3 miles each way.

Beginning of Wire Pass trail with flash flood warning sign
Shortly after crossing House Rock Valley road the trail drops into a dry streambed named Coyote Wash and heads left (north) with easy walking surrounded by an attractive landscape.

Coyote Wash

Coyote Wash
Staying in the wash for about 1/2 mile brings the hiker to the next waypoint, where the trail climbs out of Coyote Wash and heads generally east across a sandy, shrubby flat.  The junction is marked with a sign for Coyote Buttes North as seen below.

Coyote Buttes North trail sign

Sandstone walls above Buckskin Gulch are a prominent landmark

The trail meanders eastwards over a sandy bench providing the first good look at Coyote Buttes for which the area is named.

Coyote Buttes

The trail soon crosses a northern spur of the Buttes over a low saddle and then makes a turn to the south (right).  Apparently this is an area that easily confuses some hikers on the return journey as the guide emphasizes becoming familiar with landmarks in the immediate area to help identify the way back.

Begin heading south, keeping the ridge to your right and staying more to the upper section of the slope.  The terrain here is mostly slickrock and sand which descend to the east at a shallow angle into a jumble of small ravines and washes, and staying high offers the best vantage point to see the route ahead.

A bit further out on the southern horizon is a useful benchmark called the Teepees.  These colorful and interesting sandstone pillars lie beyond the Wave, but a hiker with an intrepid spirit and a good sense of the land could easily make a cross-country pilgrimage to see them up close.

The Teepees
The guide issued by the BLM is a useful aid to anyone who has never been here, or maybe to those folks who have no sense of direction, but for the most part stay near the ridge and continue south until you get a glimpse of the white sandstone formation seen below.

Closeup of the formation above the Wave
The area known as the Wave lies just below the northern face of this sandstone monument, and the large vertical crack or seam seen here is like a giant indicator pointing to the destination.

Before reaching the Wave, the trail crosses another large dry streambed called Sand Cove Wash, and then takes an upward slant on a moderately steep and sandy hill.  At the top another short wash leads to the Wave itself.

The Wave

A fairly interesting notion about the Wave is that most people have seen one or more iconic photographs, and in their imagination the feature probably seems like it would extend over a great area.  Truth is, the Wave is actually very compact and easy to see all at once.

I've been fortunate to see it when no one else was around, and that privilege allowed me to experience the solitude and symmetry of one of natures great works for a brief time.  But when the other 19 permit holders for the day show up, the illusion quickly vanishes as each person scrambles for the perfect image.

The Wave

As much as I enjoy the stunning visuals offered by the Wave, there is a lot more to see in Coyote Buttes North than this relatively tiny (but spectacular) setting.  For instance, most people never look up and see the small arch that is perched on the rock formation above the Wave.

Arch above the Wave
When I was there recently, I spent more of my time scrambling around and on the sandstone monument above the Wave, which afforded me some wonderful pictures of the surrounding area.

Looking north

The Wave from above - see the people?

Looking through the arch

An alien head frozen in stone?

The area surrounding the Wave has many attractive features

Small arch

From the highest point I could see across the Paria Plateau to the south, over Buckskin Gulch to the north, and even all the way into southern Utah where Powell Point looms over all.

Powell Point in southern Utah - the highest step in the Grand Staircase
Hiking to the Wave is easy, given you're in reasonably good shape and don't mind a simple cross country trek.  The hard part is getting the required permit.  Once you're there enjoy the phenomenon known as the Wave, particularly if you can arrive early or stay late and enjoy having it all to yourself.

But don't forget the rest of Coyote Buttes North.  There is a lot of country out there, most of it as interesting as the Wave, and although there are no established trails that should not stop the well prepared traveler from exploring the nooks and crannies.  I know I'll be trying my luck again in the future, trying to beat the odds and get that permit.

1 comment:

  1. Never fail to thoroughly enjoy your writing and pictures, Eric.