Catch the Wave

In Utah's desert, lucky hikers explore a vivid sandstone formation's swells and dips

January 06, 2008|By Hugo Martin | Hugo Martin,Los Angeles Times

BIG WATER, Utah — BIG WATER, Utah-- --So there I was, standing with about 30 other hikers, jammed into a room in a one-story government building in southern Utah.

The day before, I had flown to Flagstaff, Ariz., rented a car and driven more than two hours to Page, near the Utah border, then gotten up early for a 30-minute drive to 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 let out a breath and grinned. They -- and eight other hikers in quick succession -- had just won a permit to hike into this wilderness.

"That's it, folks," the BLM worker announced.

This lottery determined who got to see the Wave, one of the most-photographed rock formations in North America.

Hikers and tourists from around the world are fixated on this slice of sandstone, an obsession fueled by the thousands of glossies 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). 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 was drawn here by cynicism. I expected an up-close tour of the Wave to fall way short of the hype. I submitted my lottery application by e-mail in July along with my $5 fee and learned a few days later that I had won one of the 10 online permits for Sept. 12. 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 get caught plodding through the desert in midday heat. The temperatures in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness can shoot from hot to infernal in a few hours.

Even though I had a well-marked map 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, blue jeans and work boots, Steve Dodson looked more like a 51-year-old Woodstock roadie than an outdoor guide.

We drove down a washboard road, gravel and dirt spewing in our wake. He braked at the Wire Pass trail head, a gravel parking lot about eight miles south of U.S. 89.

From here, we began a three-mile trek 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. 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 wind-blown sand carving smooth curves and swells that look like cresting ocean waves.

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, 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 this weird, dreamlike world of swirling colors and psychedelic patterns. 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.

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