VERMILION CLIFFS NATIONAL MONUMENT, Ariz. – Small wooden balls click rapidly in a whirling bingo basket, as 78 hikers wait to see if their numbers will roll out to win one of 10 permits to visit a rock formation known as The Wave.
Some had been contemplating the hike for years. Only 20 people are allowed to visit The Wave each day, with 10 chosen in an online lottery four months in advance and the other 10 picked in this daily 9 a.m. lottery. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management limits access to protect The Wave’s delicate red sandstone formation and to prevent overcrowding at the designated wilderness site.
“Fortunately or unfortunately, The Wave has kind of caught on as a fun hike,” Kathy Spellman, a visitor information assistant with the BLM, explained to the room of hopeful hikers in May, where cheers went up as the numbers were announced.
“The hike out is very nice,” she said. “It’s six miles round-trip, so it’s not too long, not too short. You can go in there and it’s not a marked trail. The trees don’t have names on them. There are not little rocks along the edges of the trail, so you can feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere.”
The Wave’s dramatically flowing contours in bright orange, red, pink and yellow, are a prized image among landscape photographers, who can be seen lugging tripods across the desert wilderness. The fiery swirls have been emblazoned on postcards, posters, maps and computer screensavers.
“It’s just become such a ubiquitous, iconic photo,” said Kevin Wright, monument manager of Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, where The Wave is located in the Arizona backcountry near the Utah border. Among “people that love the outdoors and have these bucket lists, I think it’s become something to check off their list.” About a third of visitors are from other countries, particularly Germany, with an upswing from Japan and China in recent years, according to Wright.
Last year, 48,264 people applied to visit The Wave, said Spellman, who works at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Visitor Center in Kanab, Utah, where the drawing is held for hikes that take place the next day. That’s compared to 7,300 permits awarded in a year, based on the 20 allowed each day. To reach The Wave, lottery winners drive the 46 miles from the drawing site in Kanab to the trailhead.
The colorful, contoured landscape at Vermilion Cliffs is more than just something to marvel at; it’s how you find The Wave. Permits come with a map and directions that include compass points.
The map also has 12 photographs of key navigational points with dotted lines showing the way with sandstone ridges and other stony landmarks. Six photos capture main points on the way; six illustrate the way back. Each photo also has written directions to help get from an area shown in one photo to the next.
Hikers are warned about sun and heat. At least a gallon of water per person is recommended, as well as salty snacks and sunscreen. If you’re not handy with a compass, the photographs alone may not be enough to navigate the unmarked way. Some get lost, either on the way or when trying to return. The area is remote, so losing your way can lead to an unexpected night on the rocks. One photographer who stayed to take a picture of The Wave at sunset got lost in the dark and died after falling into a slot canyon.
Guides can be hired to provide a ride in a four-wheel drive vehicle across the eight miles of dirt road that leads to the start of the hike. First-timers can also hire guides to accompany them on the trail to make sure they won’t get lost. The BLM has a list of registered guides who don’t need an additional permit to accompany permitted hikers.
An early start is a good way to get ahead of the heat. A dirt footpath leads to a washed out stream for the first half-mile (nearly 1 kilometer) of the trip. Soon, the landscape opens up into a vast area of reddish rock, dotted with green sage bushes. About two-thirds of the trip is in Utah before hikers cross over the Arizona border.
Sandstone buttes and huge mesas surround the area throughout the richly colored geological upheaval. The work of powerful tectonic force through the ages is on full display. Panoramas full of jagged red rock project out of the sand. Beyond them, towering hills of rosy stone loom in the backdrop. Some may find the scenery along the way as stunning as the destination.
Small, swiftly moving lizards put on vigorous territorial push-up displays, urging hikers to move along, but that’s about the only thing that disturbs the serenity except for the occasional small group of hikers. Once you are there, it’s easy to appreciate the 20-hiker daily limit.
After about two hours of walking, a black crack in a ridge that serves as a landmark becomes visible. The Wave is just below it. The steepest incline of the hike takes place right at the base of The Wave. You have to climb up into it. Once you reach the top of the incline, it’s a short walk.
Suddenly, you’re standing in a tall bowl of long thin lines, stained in searing oranges, yellows and reds. It conveys a sense of the dynamic movement of wind and water that has been long at work on the stone from the Jurassic period. Part of the thrill of visiting is wandering around to drink in various angles, which provide a smorgasbord of images for a photographer. The colors change noticeably as varying degrees of cloud cover pass and time goes by.
Gerald Bryant, director of the field research institute at Dixie State University in St. George, Utah, says the sand composing The Wave was deposited 180 million to 190 million years ago, based on analyses that date the area using fossil pollen and volcanic ash deposits.
“The sandstone is weakly cemented and ongoing processes of erosion are important to its present configuration,” Bryant wrote in an email. “Though the bulk of landscape incision and sediment removal has been accomplished by running water, many of the delicate surfaces have been sculpted by wind.”
The Wave was not well-known in the decades before Vermilion Cliffs was designated a national monument in 2000. “Nobody knew really where The Wave was,” Spellman said. “Friends had to tell friends. It wasn’t on the Internet. Somebody would give you a secret map, hand drawn with circles, and you’d go up to a desk and people would say: ‘Oh yeah, go on in there.’”
But nowadays, Wright said, it’s not uncommon to have 150 people take part in the daily drawing, particularly in April, May and June. Fewer apply in winter, and a hot forecast in summer can also cut the numbers.
Those caught hiking without a permit face tickets ranging from $125 to a couple of thousand dollars. “People will find out about those people, and they turn them in,” Spellman said.
Up to six people can be represented by one bingo ball in the drawings, but if only two spots remain and a group of four is chosen, they have to decide which two can go. On occasion, a whole group passes, and cheers can be heard as renewed possibilities open up for others and the drawing continues.
The disappointment can be palpable for people who don’t win. Still, with destinations like the Grand Canyon’s North Rim, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park and other natural wonders located an easy day trip from Kanab, there are plenty of great alternatives.
Karla Costa of Chicago didn’t get selected in a drawing in May. Next time, she says, she will try the online lottery. Despite missing out on The Wave, Costa noted the many other places to explore. “If it does not work out in the morning, we just, you know, hit the road,” she said.
If You Go...
THE WAVE: Located at Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, in Arizona, just over the Utah border, with drawings for 10 permits for next-day hikes held daily at 9 a.m. at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Kanab, Utah, about 46 miles (74 kilometers) from The Wave trailhead. Permits cost $7. Online lotteries for another 10 daily permits are held four months in advance: http://www.blm.gov/az/st/en/arolrsmain/paria/coyote_buttes/permits.html.