There are few more iconic photography destinations in the American Southwest than the Wave in Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, in Northwest Arizona. It’s a mecca for professional and aspiring amateur photographers, along with scores of regular wanderers who’ve done a little pinterest research before setting out on their southwest road trip. The undulating, seemingly unnatural natural curves and striations in the rock pull in visitors from around the globe, and its extreme exclusivity make its permits the hottest ticket in town (that town being Kanab, Utah).
Getting to the wave is easy enough, if the conditions are right. Accessible via a non-existent trail at a trailhead reached only through several dozen miles of dirt-road driving, it’s inadvisable to attempt the journey during a storm, or with the threat of a storm looming. With risks of road wash-outs and flash floods through the washes and canyons surrounding the area, along with the not insignificant dangers of hiking on wet slick rock sandstone, any amount of rain in the area makes it a particularly unwise time to attempt the six mile hike out to the unmarked location.
When I went in late November of 2014, however, I ignored all of these warnings, which may have been the main reason I was able to score a permit at the day-before lottery in the BLM office in Kanab. Arriving before 8am, I sat in the small conference room with a half dozen other hikers and waited patiently for them to call out my name, aware that I was likely to get one, but nonetheless nervous. I’d heard the horror stories…. Just one week earlier (Thanksgiving weekend) there had been over 200 individuals and groups waiting for just a dozen permits and maps back into the Coyote Bluffs section of Vermilion Cliffs, where the Wave was hidden away. Because there was a massive thunderstorm being forecast, and warnings that the trail and the access road would be shut down, most travelers and locals in the area had wisely avoided the lottery, but not me.
I got my permit and went out the next morning, leaving my campsite in Zion National Park before sunrise to make the long drive down past Kanab and the northern entrance to the Grand Canyon, to approach the trailhead from the southern end of the dirt road, a significantly longer, albeit safer, trip to the trailhead. I stopped a few times along the way, eyes open for California Condors and other wildlife, watching clouds wrap around the reddish pink rocks of the aptly named Vermillion Cliffs.
I reached the trailhead and set out, along a wide wash until I reached a ridgeline of slick rock, and then was left to the dozen or so pictures the BLM office had provided me for waypoints. There is no official map out to the Wave, no marked and delineated trail. Instead you get a foldout brochure with vague pictures of supposedly recognizeable formations, and confusing descriptions to stay right at one cluster of rocks that looks like any other cluster of rocks, or to find a saddle in the ridge when there are half a dozen dips that could qualify as such.
In the end, the Wave presents itself suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, as a small bowl, smaller than a football field, hidden away atop a steep dune and amidst a sea of unremarkable sandstone. When you get there, you truly feel a sense of accomplishment, and a sense of wonder, both at the beauty of the place, and at the fact that it was ever found in the first place.
Fortunately the rain never came, and I was left almost entirely alone in one of the most exclusive hiking destinations in the United States, free to climb on the rocks and take far too many pictures, the gray cloudy sky providing delightfully even lighting conditions and a nice texture to the sky. It was wonderful, and a truly special experience. Next time, if there is a next time, I would hope for a little sun, maybe some puffy clouds in an otherwise blue sky, and a whole day to watch the light and colors change in this magical spot, but that’s next time. My one experience at the Wave was fantastic in and of itself, and I couldn’t have asked for a better one.