Nothing prepares you for your first view of The Wave
It took years, but we finally got to surf the Wave.
The Wave is a Navajo-sandstone rock formation in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah and northern Arizona. It is a surreal landscape with baroque bands of red, yellow, ochre and pink sandstone flowing across the rock in curves so fluid they appear to be moving, like a wave.
The unique terrain is so fragile and fantastic that only 20 hikers a day are allowed access, by a lottery through BLM. Ten permits are issued online and 10 in person at the BLM Visitor Center in Kanab, Utah, but for online permits you must apply four months in advance.
In 2015, more than 70,000 people from all over the world applied online, and 4 percent received permits. Barb and I had been applying for five years, and this spring we finally got a permit for four hikers. The honey months to hike are April, May, September and October because the weather is best, and Barb won the lottery for May 1.
We invited our friends Greg and Sue Davis to join us, and we drove three days to get there. When we arrived, it had been raining for days, and a BLM ranger said the previous day the dirt road had been impassable, so several permit holders couldn't drive the eight miles into the trailhead. I told him I had a 4-wheel drive Toyota Highlander, but he said we'd get stuck or slide off the road. The only people getting in had Hummers.
We called around to guides and outfitters and finally found Kyle Walker, at Grand Circle Tours, who hooked us up with Yermo Welsh of Seeking Treasure Adventures, who was willing to take us in his Hummer.
On the drive in we plowed through pools of muddy water three feet deep, and one time the Hummer started to slide off the road. From the trailhead it is about 3.5 miles to The Wave, and because it is a Wilderness Area, there are no signs or marked trails.
If the weather is good, you can drive to the trailhead with a 4-wheel-drive vehicle, but hiking into The Wave requires good navigation skills. Starting out, we crossed a wash that was still wet and soft from the rains. Yermo, a former archaeologist, explained the history of the area and its geology, the Native American peoples who lived there, and pointed out fresh mountain lion tracks leading up the wash; we had missed the cat by only a few minutes.
As we approached The Wave, our anticipation reached fever pitch, but nothing prepares you for your first sight of The Wave. Photos and words are inadequate. I thought I was on an alien planet. The rains left mirror pools in the narrow canyons, whose reflections created geometric images. Every view offered a different perspective. The rock seemed to be flowing like a living being. The striations and colors were astounding. I kept touching the rock, caressing it, to remind myself it was real.
We had to traverse around the “entrance” to The Wave, because the pool was too deep to wade, so we edged across the curved walls, but the sandstone provided sure-footed traction.
A narrow slot canyon leads to the heart of The Wave, and it stopped us in our tracks. Rod Serling’s monologue from "The Twilight Zone" expressed my feelings: "You're traveling through another dimension, not only of sight and sound, but of mind: a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination."
Elegant curves ebbed and flowed in a sublime grace like movements of a symphony; it was a spiritual experience. The landscape seemed to be a liquid form, and we all sat down and gazed in reverent silence.
We ate lunch on a curved bench while gazing at this geologic fantasy. We had the place all to ourselves. I scrambled all over the sandstone taking pictures. We also spent several hours exploring the rock formations above and beyond The Wave, including the Second Wave and a Star Wars landscape from Tatooine.
It was well worth the five years it took to experience this special place.
Carlyle Stout lives in Ashland.