The Wave hiking trip (November 2006)

There are some places that one feels a deep desire to see, and it's different from person to person. The Wave in the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument area is one such few places for me. I first heard about it from a companion hiker in The Grand Wash trail of the Capitol Reef National Park . Then in a book about the Colorado Plateau by National Geographic, I saw a picture of The Wave that both mesmerized me because of its out of this world beauty as well as depressed me for my lack of photographic talent. From that day in the Spring of 2005, I was determined to find a way to see it in person.

This hike required a lot of research and preparation. I spent weeks searching for information about The Wave, both to know what it's like, how to sign up, and what to bring. Just the signing up part was quite a challenge. By being flexible, I was able to get a permit in November 2006. The online enrollment opens for about an hour before all slots of a month is taken … four months in advance. I signed up for my son and me. When he could not go because of an unexpected return to grad school, I got a nephew interested. But toward the last week or so before the trip, he bowed out due to business reasons. While apprehensive about the lone challenging hike from what I read on the web, my adventurous blood (perhaps considered by some as foolish) and the deep desire to see The Wave drove me to proceed with the trip by myself.

There were several things I had to do to get ready for the hike. Since the trail itself, unlike most others, has no real trail for most of the way, I had to dust off my seldom used GPS system to learn how to set waypoints (coordinates), and to track my path so I could retrace it. I also invested in a good pair of hiking boots with rubber soles due to the sloppy slick rock that I'd hike on that turned out to be an important investment. Since the hike date was late November, I also had to prepare for colder weather. Being a photographer, I have an additional issue with deciding which of my photographic equipment to bring and still didn't add too much weight. And so on. Yet, with all the preparation I did, there were still things that I was ill prepared for as I went on the hike…

My first unexpected issue was with minor injuries. A ping pong match months earlier still left a sprained ankle in less than perfect shape for hiking. And hiking just 2 days before this hike in Zion National Park caused my knee to hurt again whenever I walked downhill, requiring the assistance of a walking stick. Feeling not in good enough shape, over the following two days, I paid special attention to not taking on any strenuous hikes, hopefully resting the leg enough for the hike that I knew nothing about. This precaution paid off as my legs felt good enough and without pain on the hiking day. Another hiccup was entering coordinates to my GPS system. The coordinates given in the BLM instructions were in the typical degree/minutes/seconds format. However, my GPS system only accepts degrees/minutes.decimals. After some frantic Google search, I was able to confirm my guess of how to convert. Writing a simple Excel macro, I got all the coordinates into the GPS device. There was only one minor issue after the data entry – how to confirm that my computation was correct. There was nothing I could do but try it out on the actual hike, not the best option!

As if to challenge my resolve further, a snow storm blanketed southern Utah , and the forecast was for light rain, windy and cold for the day of the hike. Cursing my luck and wondering whether I could actually do the hike, I set out before dawn from Page to drive to the trailhead under ominous dark clouds. Dark clouds turned to rain and began to pelt the car as I approached the turn off. As I began to drove down the dirt road with an appropriate warning sign of “impassable when wet”, I rationalized to myself that wet is relative, and it must rain hard for it to be impassable. Being the person on this road, there was no confirmation one way or the other. After some 4 miles on this road, I started to notice some white stuff on the side of the road, which upon closer look, turned out to be snow. Fortunately, the snow was light enough and being in an all-wheel drive vehicle, I managed to reach the Wire Pass Trailhead without incident. As I had expected, there was no other vehicle at the parking area. Having gone this far, I decided to go ahead with the hike despite the light rain and wind all around.

Armed with 4 layers of clothing, my 2 camera bags, a tripod bad, a walking stick and an umbrella, I awkwardly hiked into the canyon was. My heart sank as I saw a barbed wire fence blocking the trail. I immediately thought of the warning from the BLM instruction that sometimes hiking might be prohibited under inclement weather. Fortunately by the time I reached the fence, the sign only asked hikers to close the gate to prevent cattle from wandering out of their areas. Phew! Within a mile, the visible trail ended. I fumbled with the instructions and my GPS device to figure out where to go next while holding the umbrella to keep the rain out. Seeing my first navigational point, I began to walk down what appeared to be a trail. Soon though, it was apparent that this trail was just a cattle path. So I had to make the first course correction. Just within a quarter mile, there was no more trail of any type as I began to negotiate the slick rock hillside. The rain turned to snow, along with the whirling wind all around me made hiking very difficult, let alone trying to take pictures. It was a strange feeling being alone in this wilderness under this terrible weather while forging ahead to reach a dream destination. Being blown off my footing a couple of times because of wind gusts, I began to wonder whether I ought to find refuge to wait for the wind to subside. Unfortunately, there was no place to take refuge in. With the wind changing direction continuously, hiding behind a big rock one moment meant I'd take the brunt of the wind force the next. So I pushed on, occasionally letting down the umbrella to make sure that I was still heading to the next landmark, but mostly keeping the umbrella in a horizontal position in front of me to keep snow from hitting my face. There was one blessing – the slick rock terrain was gently slope for the most part, making walking under this gusty wind condition less treacherous. Only a couple of times did I have to hike across a surface that had more than 30 degree inclines. The only real issue with hiking like this was there was no time to enjoy the surrounding, and it was hard to pay attention to where I had been in order to trace my way back. Within about two miles, I crossed the state line from Utah to Arizona . As the slick rock sloped down, I had to negotiate sand dunes and a wash before climbing back another mountain side. As the wind swirled stronger, I felt the snow was hitting harder at my face, but soon realized that what was hitting my face was actually a combination of sand and snow.

After over 2 hours of slow hiking, I finally reached The Wave. The sight was just as I had imagined. There were sand stone buttes that were carved by twisting winds and sand that revealed rock grain patterns quite like wave patterns. There were many hues of red and yellow from dull to bright. Just about this time, the sun began to appear off and on behind the clouds, making the patterns much more vivid. The wind turned worse here since the buttes created wind tunnels, knocking just about everything down. My camera on tripod was knocked down. My bags were blown down the mountain side. I even lost my tripod bag. Even I had to stand in an inverted V stance to keep from being knocked down. Yet even in all this chaos, there is a strange silence of the mind as if I was supported by the giant and wavy buttes. As I admired the beautiful formations of the buttes and looking up to a natural arch at the top of the mountain, I felt grateful for having reached a place that I dreamt to see. Not typically known as religious, I felt like praying and so I did. Being a quasi Buddhist, I started praying to Buddha, but soon added God and higher beings. After a long minute of praying, I walked around the buttes, attempted to capture these beautiful images on “film”. Needless to say, I had a terrible time doing so because of the strong wind continuously blowing sand and snow to my face and my camera gears. After walking about for an hour, I tried to find a spot to have lunch. There was no luck. Everywhere I tried, the swirling wind would find a way to blow into my face. Eventually, I sat down on a flat spot where I got a tiny bit of warmth from darting sun rays. Eating was not as easy as what I had envisioned. As soon as I took the sandwich from its container, the bread was torn by wind force and as I tried to open my mouth to eat, I felt a gust of cold air along with some sand. After two bites of cold and sandy sandwich, I gave up the idea, and instead munched on a peanut bar. That was it for lunch.

Just after noon, I saw two tiny figures making their way across the sand dunes. After a long wait, I greeted my only two companions of the day – Jerry and Dianne from Georgia . We chatted for a while, then shot pictures of each other for a sense of scale. Without Jerry, I probably would not have any picture of myself since there was no way to keep the camera standing on the tripod. Eventually, they said good bye. As a photographer, I always want good lighting for my pictures. I lingered at The Wave, wondering whether I could stay in this cold place long enough for the twilight hours. Reluctantly, my common sense prevailed and I started my way back. This was a good decision since the way back looked foreign to me – I had not had much time to note the way back previously. Even with the help of the GPS tracking system, I still veered off course a few times. I could feel that my energy was draining. Toward the end, it took such effort to keep walking that I failed to notice the turn to the parking lot and overshot it by another quarter mile before making the detour back to the car. Luke warm tea and cold sandy sandwich inside an unheated car never tasted so good!

This hike was the most challenging one that I have ever done. It surpassed the unprepared 12-mile round trip on the trail of the Palisade Glaciers. There was a sense of venturing into the unknown and of achieving a long standing goal against the odds that made it enjoyable despite all the obstacles I encountered. The Wave is one destination that I would like to keep going back to. Its serenity and beauty along with the challenge getting there gave me the mental satisfaction unlike other places.

Follow this link for more pictures from The Wave

The facts about hiking to The Wave

While my own story may sound daunting, I suspect a day hike under more favorable weather would be much easier and more enjoyable. Below are some facts that may help those who want to embark on the same pilgrimage.

Getting permission to hike: Since BLM wants to keep The Wave in pristine condition, it limits the number of permits for day hikers to 12, with 6 available via online registration, and the other 6 granted on the business day before the hike. Information about getting permits is on this link: . Keep in mind that getting a permit online is a challenge in itself. Within an hour of the open registration period on the first day of a month, all permits four months later would be taken. Plan to be flexible and grab any day that you can. In my case, I wound up with a Tuesday after Thanksgiving, not ideal for arranging time off. You can also take a chance and show up at the Paria Ranger Station to get a permit for the following day. Depending on the season, it can be a hit or miss.

Prepare for the hike:

  • Wear sturdy boots with rubber soles for better traction.
  • For summer hiking, bring a lot of water since it's hot and there are no shade trees.
  • It's also best to have a GPS system. Many people make it without one. However for less than ideal hiking conditions such as mine, a GPS system helps both getting there and back. If you have a GPS system, make sure you learn to convert from degrees/minutes/seconds to the format that your GPS system uses.
  • Bring some emergency supplies if possible – flashlight; thermal blanket, whistle, first aids
  • Bring something to pack your trash and waste out. It's a day use only and leave-no-trace zone.
  • For photographers:
    • Don't bother with a tripod unless the forecast is favorable. Strong wind will make it useless.
    • You don't need telephoto lens for The Wave. A wide angle zoom lens would be ideal.
    • Bring a graduated filter so you can capture details of rock grains.
  • Check the weather for the day of the hike. Avoid bad weather day if possible. One can try the hike again per the instruction on the permit. Hiking would not be fun and can even be dangerous. If you go to take pictures, the condition makes it hard to make good pictures.

Hike day:

  • A car with decent clearance is enough to drive to the Wire Pass Trailhead parking area. This parking area is almost 9 miles off of Route 89 on a dirt road. Generally, the drive is not bad except in wet weather. I saw a section of the road re-plowed due to muddy run off.
  • I was going to post GPS coordinates, but since it comes with the permit, I think it's better to let the permit process take care of navigational details. It's best to keep this area pristine. For the same reason, people don't mark the slick rock trail.
  • If you have more time and energy than just for the hike to The Wave, you can also hike further down the wash to visit Buckskin Gulch. There are amazing narrows that go on for miles. I took several pictures at this place from a hike a year ago.