I picked up the phone to hear my friend Gary say, "Guess what? I'm going to The Wave!"
"Wow. I am so jealous. I have been wanting to go for years."
"Jealous? You're going with me!".........and so our journey began.
North Coyote Buttes
For those of you who don't know "The Wave" as it's come to be known, is an unusual geologic formation in Northeastern Arizona. It lies in an area called North Coyote Buttes. To protect it (and unprepared tourists), the Bureau of Land Management only allows a total of 20 people per day to hike to the Wave. To get a permit, you must submit an application to the BLM online exactly 4 months in advance or show up at the Kanab regional office the day before and put your name in the drum to be drawn in the lottery. 10 permits are issued online and 10 are issued in person the day before. We spoke to one man who has entered the lottery 8 years in a row and has yet to get a permit. There may be 50 to 200 people applying for a permit on any given day. And no, you don't get your $5.00 back if you don't get a pass. Consider that a gift to the federal government. By the way, you don't get a "rain check" if the road washes out.
Gary had gotten lucky and pulled three permits online. One for each of us and one for our friend Ted. I should note that Ted, who maintains a blog called Ted's Outdoor World has documented hundreds- - perhaps thousands - of hikes and has an encyclopedic knowledge of just about anywhere you might want to go. For example, the day before on our way from Zion to Page, I mentioned that I had lost a lens cap from my camera on the hike back from the Subway. Ted said, "Up ahead in the town of Kanab, there is a camera store on the right just before the traffic light".
View from House Rock Road
Getting the permit is hard enough. You also have to get to the trailhead, This requires driving over 13 miles of dirt road, crossing some gullies, soft sand and other obstacles which could easily strand a passenger car and even a high-clearance 4-wheel drive vehicle, especially in rainy weather. Fortunately, Gary's Prius (and fearless driving) was up to the task.
The road, called House Rock Road is a turnoff from Highway 89 between Page Arizona and Kanab Utah (The turnoff is about 35 miles NW of Page). We stayed in Page the night before and got an early start, stopping only to grab a sandwich on our way out of town.
On top of a sandy hill near the start of the trail.
The trailhead is a dirt parking lot with a bathroom. Be sure to bring your own water - there is none at the trailhead. The first part of the trail is up a creek bed, then up a sandy hill. The air was in the upper 70's and very dry even in October. It was on my mind that two people had gotten lost and died of thirst on this trail the year before. I was happy to be hiking with Gary and Ted, especially since Ted had made the hike before. I quickly decided not to rely on Ted however, because he took us on one of his "shortcuts" that required some bushwhacking and didn't seem like a short cut by the time we rejoined the main trail. I had forgot his frequent mentions of shortcuts on his blog.
The trail skirts that outcropping to the right.
The hike is only about 3 miles each way plus whatever other wandering around you might care to do but much of the time is spent walking in sand or over rock, so it's not like walking 3 miles in a shady residential neighborhood. There are ups and downs but no major change in elevation. There can be strong winds, blowing sand, heat or cold (depending on time of year) and there is no shade. So yes, it's only 6 miles round trip but it is not a trivial hike.
It would be easy to get lost in that labyrinth to the left
Labrynth below the trail to our left
More sandstone cones
In the shot above, you can see a bit of trail in the sand. It's reassuring to see footprints after long stretches of rock.
Though I didn't know it at the time, the Wave is in a gully of the mountains we can see ahead and to the left.
Sand and brush slow our footsteps
The geology is getting interesting.
What we are looking at is cross bedded sandstone from the Jurassic Age. Yes there are dinosaur prints in the area. The layers of color were formed from winds blowing from different directions over the eons, bringing different colors of sand from those varying directions.
Continuing over rock
For much of the hike, there is that maze of sandstone humps in the valley below and to our left while on our right are a series of beautiful sandstone hills. During this section, we are making our own path across the slick rock.
Moon over the buttes.
Looking back past deadwood towards buttes
More buttes to the right
Looking back at the trail that skirts the buttes
What you don't see in the photo below is an arroyo leading up to the left behind me. That's the reason for all that sand below. The maze ahead and to the right is where that arroyo drains. Gary is following me up the hill towards the entrance to The Wave.
Gary approaching The Wave
Beautiful buttes and yellow flowers near the entrance to The Wave
You can see how we have climbed top from the arroyo.
The trail is a little exposed here - best to watch where we are stepping.
Another sandy section as Ted and Gary approach the Wave
Climbing up towards the entrance
Approaching the entrance pool
Entering The Wave - Magic!
After the steep climb up from the sandy arroyo below, we entered through striated buttes into a short bowl of geologic wonder. As hot and tired as we were, we were instantly elated to find ourselves in this magical place.
Above the Wave, you can see an arch at the crest of the hill. Ted tried to climb up the mountain but Gary and I discouraged him from the steep and slippery climb. We didn't want to carry him out.
Looking back on the pool at the entrance to the Wave
Since there were a few hikers in the Wave itself, we decided to give them some space for photos and turned right up a side channel. When I refer to The Wave, I am talking about a rather small arroyo (It is only 118 feet the long way) carved out of the rock that leads down to that pool at the entrance because that is what most photographers have called The Wave. Actually, there are a number of interesting features in the immediate area, all of it from the same geologic formation.
People have variously described the look of the striated sandstone as being like pulled taffy or striated muscle within the body of the Earth. It is the result of millions of years of various colored sediments blowing in from different directions and then buried deep in the Earth and compressed by thousands of tons of rock above. Shifting deep within the Earth under tremendous pressures, the layers compressed and folded. Gradually, the land rose and eroded (at first from water and then from wind) to reveal to twisted shapes and colors we see today.
To the right of the entrance is another water channel
It appears to be blocked by sand but isn't.
Continuing up the side channel
We decided that this would be a good time for lunch. It was around noon and we were hot and tired. Apparently, I was a little addled from the heat because when I took a bite from what turned out to be Gary's sandwich (he and I had switched by mistake) and he said, "Hey, that's my sandwich", I stared at him uncomprehending and took another bite. I think he still holds that against me to this day. When I realized what I had done, all I could do was laugh. That didn't help. It's never good when you're the only one laughing.
View from our lunch spot
Close up of the striations
Beautiful colorful cones
Further to the West
Looking back on Gary as we head Southwest and above the Wave
One of the challenges of being at the Wave is thinking clearly. I knew I may never be here again. I wanted to capture everything I could and not miss the experience by having my head stuck in a viewfinder. We were hot, tired and probably dehydrated from our hikes in the previous days up Angel's Landing, the Zion Narrows, The Subway and Antelope Canyon. I decided I should get a few detailed shots of the rock while I was there.
If I ever go again, I will at least have an idea of what is there and perhaps I will be better able to pre-visualize and plan my shots. My hope is that this blog will help you do the same.
Details in the rock
More details - what caused that?
SW and above the Wave
The "Hamburger" - You can see why someone named it that.
After heading West for a while, we circled left back up over the top of the formation. Gary was up ahead and I could hear him yelling, "Hey guys. Wait 'til you see this!" He had found a beautiful pool.
Pool above the Wave
This may be my favorite shot from this hike. I loved this pool. Water is so rare in the desert. In developing this shot, I had to work to bring out the blue in the water as it is pretty turbid with red dust.
After getting our fill of photos and video here, we continued past the pool and down into the Wave from the top. This provides the classic view.
It's worth noting that the little arroyo that comprises the Wave runs approximately North to South. In the photo below, I am looking North at about 1:30 PM. The sun is at my back and the whole area is illuminated. Much earlier or later and one side of the Wave or the other would be in shadow.
Gary, Ted and me
Me heading down into The Wave
As you can see from the photo above, it's not that big. A couple of passing Japanese tourists took the photo for us. All together, I would say we saw about 8-10 people, including the ranger who came out and checked everyone's permits.
Further down into The Wave
Looking up (West) from inside the Wave
Heading back towards the entrance
We stayed for several hours at the Wave, trying different shots and some video. As the shadows began to fill the Wave, I looked down into the arroyo on the return trail and found Gary napping. He was probably famished from having only a partial sandwich for lunch.
Coming back down into the arroyo
Daisies in the arroyo
Heading back, buttes on our left
As we were heading back, we came across a man who asked if we had seen a woman ahead of him on the trail or at the Wave. We told him we had not, though we had seen the ranger and she was behind us.
He said that his wife decided to go back over a ridge to take a few photos and then didn't return. He was obviously concerned as he hadn't seen her in a couple of hours.
We were concerned as well and offered to help by spreading out and calling on our way back. We convinced him to come with us, fearing that he would become a casualty if he went looking on his own.
Layer cake of rock on our way back. Shadows getting longer.
By the mound below, I asked Ted if he was sure we should be veering right when I thought we should veer left. He pulled out his GPS way finder and said, "This is the right way." As he put it back into his pocket he muttered, "Unless it's wrong."
Thanks a lot Ted. You inspire confidence.
Mound by the trail
We called and called but unfortunately, we never found the guy's wife. We walked him all the way back to the parking lot but she was not at his car. We promised to (and did) call the ranger station as soon as we got cell service. That turned out to be an hour and a half later when we pulled into Kanab. The rangers were gone for the day. Kanab being a small town, the police station was also closed. We did check with the ranger station the next day to find out if there was a missing persons report. There was not, so we assumed she got out safely.
Deer on House Rock Road
The photo above shows the best maintained section of House Rock Road. You can see Highway 89 in the background. The shadows were getting long at this time of day.
After trying to call the ranger station and contact the police, we went on from Kanab to Mt Carmel Junction (at the intersection of US 89 and SR9), just East of Zion. The Best Western Plus at Mt Carmel is particularly nice and the adjacent Thunderbird Cafe is good, American style food. I had roast turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing and gravy followed by apple pie. The "Ho-Made Pies" are okay but no where near as good as the ones at Fruita. That night though, I was so hungry that everything tasted amazing.
Sunrise the next morning from the Mt Carmel Best Western
If you never get to go to The Wave, I hope this account will at least give you a sense of the place and the journey. If you are able to go and do photography, I have a few suggestions:
1. Try not to go during the Summer. October was hot enough for us.
2. Carry plenty of water (at least one gallon per person), hat, some food, a light (in case you get lost and are there at night), etc. You won't have cell service and your phone's GPS won't work. If you think you might get lost, use a satellite-based GPS and for greater protection, an emergency beacon. It's not a complicated hike. It's just mostly rock and therefor unmarked.
3. Do a little shot planning first so you know what you are looking for and what lenses to carry. I brought a 16-35mm and a 70-200mm lens. I think I used the 70-200 once.
4. It is very bright out there. Don't expect to be able to see your LCD screen. I always use my viewfinder and know my settings (I shoot Manual Mode. If you shoot in "P" or full auto, you shouldn't have to look at your LCD screen). If you do have to use the LCD screen to shoot, try putting a dark cloth over your head and the camera to see better.
5. I always carry a tripod. It allows me to use a smaller aperture and longer time for greater depth of field. The one I carried has a ball head for smoother video. Of course, that makes it heavier.
6. In full sunlight, I didn't need to use a graduated neutral density filter as the sky and foreground were similarly bright. A polarizer could be helpful to bring out some color detail. I didn't use one.
7. Speaking of color, I have seen a number of oversaturated photos of The Wave. In my opinion, turning the buffs, oranges and tans of the sandstone into harsh reds and yellows just looks garish. The skies look almost too blue as it is, being in such clear desert air. Saturation or vibrance makes it look alien. On the shots Prepared for print, all I did was remove dust spots and blur the sky to create separation and the illusion of greater depth in the image. That was enough.
I wish you luck getting a permit.