So there I was, standing with about 30 other hikers, jammed into a room in a one-story government building in the tiny Utah town of Big...
So there I was, standing with about 30 other hikers, jammed into a room in a one-story government building in the tiny Utah town of Big Water.
Inside the crowded room, a staffer with the Bureau of Land Management began to drop numbered bingo balls into a small cage. The room fell quiet as he turned the crank. He let one ball pop out of a hinged opening and picked it up.
“Number one!” he shouted.
A young Seattle couple grinned. They — and eight other hikers in quick succession — had just won a permit to hike into this southern Utah wilderness. This lottery determined who got to see the Wave, one of the most-photographed rock formations in North America.
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“That’s it, folks,” the BLM worker announced.
Hikers and tourists from around the world are fixated on this slice of sandstone, an obsession fueled by the thousands of glossy photos that fill hundreds of guidebooks and online galleries.
To keep the Wave from being damaged or overrun, the BLM allows no more than 20 visitors a day (10 from the on-site lottery and 10 from an online lottery), and during the peak spring and fall seasons, the odds of winning that treasured permit can be as high as 1 in 10.
You certainly couldn’t call me a Wave fanatic. I expected an up-close tour of the Wave to fall way short of the hype. I had secured my permit months in advance by playing the BLM lottery online, a decent alternative to the drop of the bingo ball. I submitted my application by e-mail along with my $5 fee and learned a few days later that I had won one of 10 online daily permits. I was ready to be underwhelmed.
Once the crowds at the BLM office dispersed, I knew I had to hurry. I didn’t want to plod through the desert on the three-mile hike to the Wave in the searing midday September heat. The temperatures in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness can shoot from hot to infernal in a few hours. Even lizards look for cover.
Even though I had a well-marked map with color photos to guide me, I didn’t want to take a chance on getting lost. So I hired a guide.
In a tie-dyed shirt, blond ponytail, bluejeans and work boots, Steve Dodson looked more like a 51-year-old Woodstock roadie than an outdoor guide. I met him at his restaurant, the Paria Outpost, about a half-mile from the BLM field office near Big Water.
We drove down a washboard road, gravel and dirt spewing in our wake. We headed to the Wire Pass trail head, a gravel parking lot about eight miles south of U.S. Highway 89.
From here, we began hiking across a rust-colored, nearly shadeless desert. The BLM suggests hikers carry at least a gallon of water for the trek; I brought a little more than that and wished I had more. We started at 10 a.m., and already I felt my shirt melting on my back.
Our hike followed a dry wash for about a half-mile before it cut through red sand dunes. Dodson told me he couldn’t remember how many times he had been to the Wave. He assured me that the photos don’t do it justice. As a professional guide, he doesn’t have to mess with the BLM lottery, but he supports the permit limits even though they tend to stifle his business.
“The wildlife experience is greatly enhanced with seclusion,” he said. “That’s why I like this area better than any other place.”
I was still skeptical. Could the Wave really be worth this trouble?
As we hiked, he listed other strange rock formations near the borders of Utah and Arizona, but the Wave, he told me, was different.
Geologists use words like “diagenetic coloration” and “stratigraphic relationships” to explain its colors and stripes. They might dumb it down and tell you that the Wave is made of Jurassic-age Navajo sandstone — 190-million-year-old sand dunes turned to rock. Stacked one atop another, the dunes calcified in vertical and horizontal layers.
Iron oxides bled through to give the sandstone a salmon color. Hematite and goethite added yellows, oranges, browns and purples. It was all underground until water seeped through a huge vertical crack in a ridge above. The water cut a channel that was scoured over thousands of years by windblown sand carving smooth curves and swells that look like cresting ocean waves.
Badlands and slickrock
The farther Dodson led me toward the Wave, the more the landscape changed. We marched through dry, flaking badlands, freckled with shrubs and an occasional juniper tree. We scrambled over red slickrock, scouting out our first landmark, a set of buttes. We rested in the shade — the temperature was pushing 100 degrees — watching a peregrine falcon hunt on the side of a red-and-beige mountain etched with ridges that look like stretched muscles.
After a few minutes, we headed south, looking to a tall, gray ridge on the horizon for a huge vertical crack that marked the entrance to the Wave.
Imagine walking into a vat of cinnamon taffy. That’s what went through my mind as we entered the Wave, a weird, dreamlike world of swirling colors and psychedelic patterns in the rock. Maybe it was the desert heat, but it all looked like gooey taffy, stretched over huge mounds and 50-foot canyon walls. The surrounding buttes were heaps of melting rocky road ice cream.
The Wave’s undulating walls are lined with burnt sienna, pink, gray, turquoise and pale green. The bands mostly run horizontally, but at spots they zigzag and shimmy before falling back into their previous pattern.
Just as Dodson was telling me that the Wave gets more visits from Europeans than Americans, along came Susie Shults from St. George, Utah, who had brought her boyfriend to see the stony wonderland. It took her three tries at the lottery to win a permit.
When she first walked into the Wave, Shults said she imagined herself flying, swooping down along the rocky surface, soaking up the colored bands and banking off the undulating canyon walls. I understood what she was feeling. This place is a hallucination set in stone.
While Dodson took a siesta in the shade of a small outcropping, I followed Shults and her boyfriend to another phenomenon, known as the “Second Wave.”
This stone feature is flatter, like an ocean swell, but tinged with brighter colors. To the west, we spotted a brown, bulbous rock shape that looked like a cheeseburger.
By 2 p.m., the other hikers had vanished into the desert. Dodson and I stayed to see how the afternoon light played on the colored rock. It took nature 190 million years to create this place. The least I could do was take my time enjoying it.
Overhead loomed a swirling caramel overhang. At my feet, I examined a slab of red rock that looked like a tie-dyed masterpiece of lemon yellow and auburn. I sat down in the base of a sunburned sandstone wave, resting my back on the cresting wall. I sat there for what seemed like an hour, naming the images I saw in the rocks, like a kid watching clouds take shape in the sky.
Eventually, I called to Dodson and gave the Wave one last look.