Images courtesy of Luke Daniel Photo
We stocked the car with supplies the night before – Starbucks Double Shots in the cup holders, snacks and water in the backseat. Luke and I hit the road at sunrise, following Grand Canyon-bound traffic along Highway 89A through beautiful nothingness.
About an hour into the drive, we descend a long switchback into the Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness. The rising sun is partially obscured by an imposing ridge rising dramatically out of the Utah red dirt. Distracted, we miss our turn onto House Rock Valley Road. Considering it’s little more than a cattle path cut into someone’s ranch, I assume we’re not the first to do so.
We double-back and begin crawling along the road, doing our best to dodge boulders and straddle potholes. We pass a sign informing us we’re 19 miles away from the Wire Pass Trailhead and the start of our hike to the Wave.
Traveling this distance takes nearly an hour. Thanks to recent heavy rains, the road is washed out and deeply rutted in several places, making it difficult for non-4WD vehicles (like our Jetta) to maintain any sort of actual speed.
After stopping a few times to take pictures and check our tire pressure, we reach the small parking lot near the Wire Pass Trailhead. This trail serves hikers heading into Coyote Buttes North to see the Wave and those heading to Coyote Buttes South to see Buckskin Gultch. The half-dozen cars already parked in the lot have green and pink passes on their dashes, which are the permits issued only to Wave hikers.
After a final gear and snack check, we unfold our BLM-issued treasure map and begin navigating our way through Coyote Wash. About a half-mile in, we see a small path marked by a sign indicating our first turnoff point. The path leads us up a hill and across a plain of pale pink sand laced with tiny gold flecks that sparkle in the sun.
We follow the trail to the base of a large sandstone ridge. Per our map, we identify the small saddle that will allow us to easily cross to the other side. The term “small” is relative out here and I question the reliability of my shoes’ traction control up the side of a fairly vertical wall. But the rock is layered like stairs and the sandstone is rough, so we have no trouble climbing to the top.
From up here, we’re treated to the view of a lifetime. We can see all of the Coyote Buttes North area with its striped ridges, swirling buttes and teepee-like rock formations. For all intents and purposes, we’ve landed on the surface of Mars.
The BLM restricts the Coyote Buttes North area to 20 hikers per day not only to preserve the Wave from the damaging effects of heavy foot traffic, but also to provide a “true wilderness experience” for those on their way to and from it. Our “true wilderness experience” begins when the trail and the footsteps disappear. For a majority of the hike, we’re on our own to navigate our way through the great wide open with little more to keep us on track than the ridge to our right, a vertical crack in the rock in the far distance and two designated checkpoints in-between.
Though its only three miles each way, our hike to the Wave takes about two hours. Per Ranger Rick’s advice, we take our time to admire the scenery around us. We discover small puddles containing tadpoles and piles of perfectly round pellets of iron ore. Plus, each time we turn a corner or crest another dune, we see something that’s even more beautiful than what we deemed to be the most beautiful thing we’ve ever seen five minutes before. The cumulative effect of this kind of over-stimulation is a slowly blown mind.
The ridge on our right keeps growing taller and more wildly colored as we hike on. Red rock morphs into layers of white, yellow, purple and pink that move like oil on the surface of water. Seeing this ridge shape shift alone is worth the hike, yet the Wave still awaits us in the distance.
We climb up and down a couple of small sand dunes, doing our best to not lose sight of the crack in the distant rock wall serving as our north star. After navigating through another sandy wash and over one final dune, we come to the steep rock wall that leads into the Wave. Luke and I hold hands as we climb the final steps.
We enter from the side, where an impassable pool of water has collected. It beautifully reflects the thin layers of colored rock that swirl up, down and around smooth and rounded stone. The symmetry and chaos of it is both arresting and bewildering. A human hand could not paint with such detail and texture. Knowing this is the product of wind, rain and time reinforces the rare and fragile nature of this feature that attracts tourists from across the globe.
I climb around the backside of the Wave, up to the top lip of its highest wall. This is where 99% of the photos you see online are taken. I carefully walk down into an amphitheater painted in a dizzying blend of color and shape.
Luke emerges from around a corner to find me lying across one of the sloping walls, my face inches from the rock, studying its layers.
We spend quite a bit of time carefully poking around the feature, disappearing into alleys of deep orange striped with bright yellow. We locate one wall with a gnarly-looking blemish, where the layers collide, rather than flow in perfect harmony.
Outside the Wave is a wide wash that narrows into slot canyons. There is also a second, smaller version of the Wave back here. Our hope is to wedge ourselves into some of the slots, but our exploration is cut short by a deep pool of water, non-waterproof footwear and the sincere doubt that I will be able to land a running leap to the other side.
The hike back takes roughly the same amount of time, despite the fact that we stop less often for photographs. We’re in a state of sensory overload and I believe us capable of navigating our way back unaided by our reference map.
Classic rookie mistake. Even Ranger Rick warned us to not get cocky and use the damn map. His exact words, “You’ll veer off course chasing a rabbit you want to photograph, then start talking about what you’re going to do in Vegas later. Suddenly, you realize you’re lost and your map won’t do you any good.”
How right he is. I tried to steer us off course several times without realizing it. Once, it was to chase a desert Marmot (chipmunk). The other time, I was actually thinking about what we were going to do in Vegas later that night. This is why it’s important to have a partner who not only has a good sense of humor, but sharp navigational skills.