Walking into The Wave, Coyote Buttes

Every so often along the way, I’d turn around and it’d be like looking at a completely different world.  The tricky thing about hiking through this remote and vast wilderness is that it is easy to lose track of where you are and where you came from.  Everything appears different when you move about and will look different as the sun changes position in the sky.

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Ever since I planned my first road trip to Utah, I’ve wanted to hike to The Wave, situated not too far away from the border between Utah and Arizona.  It is frequently photographed and to some degree, its additional claim to fame is scarcity — the fact that only 20 permits are provided each day.  True, it isn’t accessible to everyone but the positive aspect is that this policy not only preserves the area from being overrun with foot traffic — it also really allows you to feel and take in the environment and the feeling of isolation.

Back in November, just as I was gearing up for my hike up Kilimanjaro — I suddenly receive a notice from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that I had was selected from the lottery system for a permit to hike into the Coyote Buttes North area, which is where the Wave is located within.  Since my permit was for a specific day over the Easter long weekend and allowed for two people to hike in, I thought I’d offer it up to my friends first.  My last resort was to walk up to anyone at the ranger’s station and invite them along.  Fortunately, my friend and food blogger Lisa Sit, decided that she’d tag along and see why hiking was such a big deal.  Lisa’s experience with hiking was limited but I assured her that it wouldn’t be crazy.

That morning was a very early start for us.  I think we woke up at 5am and drove from Kanab, Utah to the Wire Pass parking lot.  Just to get to the parking lot was a fairly long drive because of the road conditions.  Although I noticed later in the day that quite a few people drove their sedans and sports cars to the Wire Pass parking lot — I highly recommend using an SUV or some sort of vehicle with higher clearance because the road is pretty rugged.  I was hoping to arrive soon after sunrise but the drive between the highway to the parking lot took longer than expected — we made it sometime between 7am to 8am which was good enough for me.

We had our gear ready to go and I decided for some reason at the last minute to forego my trekking poles.  It was definitely a brisk morning in late-March and the wind made it feel colder.  Once we started hiking and got some exposure to the sun however, it felt a lot warmer.

Still early that morning as we set off from the Wire Pass parking lot and trailhead.
Still early that morning as we set off from the Wire Pass parking lot and trailhead.
Quite windy and cold at this time but the landscape is stunning in the morning light.
Quite windy and cold at this time but the landscape is stunning in the morning light.

Even the initial landscape is amazing to me.  I was totally thrilled to be stepping into this more remote area but what was completely exhilarating for me was the fact that there was no map to follow.  We had a few visual cues that the BLM provided us with but other than that, I had a compass and a GPS.  We simply had to find our own way to the Wave which is the first time I have simply hiked into an area with no established trail.

It doesn't seem like the desert but we found ourselves crossing stretches of sand at times.  Given how windy it is, I imagine sand just builds up in different areas.
It doesn’t seem like the desert but we found ourselves crossing stretches of sand at times.  Given how windy it is, I imagine sand just builds up in different areas.
Our first major climb on the journey towards the Wave.
Our first major climb on the journey towards the Wave.

The initial part of our journey was relatively straightforward.  We followed a route that seemed pretty apparent.  It wasn’t until we had to climb over a rocky section that we continually stopped to survey our surroundings and make sure that we were heading in the right direction.

Being aware of and taking into consideration Lisa’s hiking experience, I would try to find less strenuous (and safer) ways to get to certain waypoints on the map.  This is one of the things that constantly remind me of the way we live, how we set goals, how we plan strategically at work in the office, etc.  We know we need to get somewhere so we know the direction we need to move towards — but how we do that is rarely ever that straightforward.  Often in these situations, just as in hiking in the wilderness — we need to navigate away from the target in order to make progress towards the goal.  In simpler terms, the path is not linear.

I can keep staring at this landscape for hours or days on end.  Simply unreal.
I can keep staring at this landscape for hours or days on end.  Simply unreal.

After trekking up, around and through certain formations -- we are presented with yet another grand view.  We're also directionless.
After trekking up, around and through certain formations — we are presented with yet another grand view.  We’re also directionless.

Every so often along the way, I’d turn around and it’d be like looking at a completely different world.  The tricky thing about hiking through this remote and vast wilderness is that it is easy to lose track of where you are and where you came from.  Everything appears different when you move about and will look different as the sun changes position in the sky.

It is nonetheless as if we are on a mini expedition.  Always something new to see and a new way to look at the world around us.  As we make our way closer to the where we think the Wave is located, we find ourselves thinking about the dinosaurs and how they may have lived in this part of the world.  It also reminded me of the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania and how a land once fertile and filled with wildlife — in addition to being the home to some of the early ancestors of the modern human — became dry and arid with a significantly more hostile climate.  I may only imagine a glimpse of what may have been history taking place on this land.

Like a jigsaw puzzle from the dinosaur age.
Like a jigsaw puzzle from the dinosaur age.
Wafer-like formations.  They may seem delicate but these are actually quite tough.
Wafer-like formations.  They may seem delicate but these are actually quite tough.

Wherever we looked, there was always something to be inspired by or to simply be in awe of.  The colours, the rock formations, the flowers, the vastness of the region we were standing in — everything for me just felt so much larger than me.  You can really begin to visualize it when standing close up with a variety of rock formations.

The hike itself was not really tough up to this point — it was primarily about footwork more than expending energy.  In addition, the morning was quite cool and windy so I can’t even say we broke a sweat.  That is, until we hit the sand dunes.  I didn’t expect such steep and large sand dunes but it was a struggle to hike these.  There were moments where for whatever reason, sand just started sinking and pouring inwards through some hole — which sort of freaked me out a little but we just stepped around that.  Don’t really want my leg falling through one of those!

Once we made it past the sand dunes, it was back to footwork.  We encountered some a few hikers who had arrived earlier and were just making their way out.  I was thankful that they pointed us to the entrance of the Wave because we had taken a longer route around.

A big sigh as we confront and tackle yet another sand dune.
A big sigh as we confront and tackle yet another sand dune.

Finally arriving at the Wave and just taking in the colours, textures, and yes ... a lot of wind.
Finally arriving at the Wave and just taking in the colours, textures, and yes … a lot of wind.

Our arriving into the Wave was a pretty momentous occasion.  I’ve tried to obtain permits for quite sometime and it was beautiful to have this rare opportunity to stand amidst such a peculiar rock formation.  We just walked around quietly taking it in and obviously, taking photos.  It was really really windy too — the Wave was practically like a funnel for the wind.

Funny enough, as I walked through and around the Wave — I finally had the opportunity to see what the colours were really like.  With the Internet and all the photographs showing up of the Wave, I’ve found that many photographers over saturate the colours in photographs which tends to exaggerate the intensity of the colours.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with artistic impressions and such, and I also acknowledge differences in lighting too — but I know the degree to which lighting can influence colours so it is simply interesting to compare what it really looks like for me in person.

An Obligatory Photograph of the Wave
An Obligatory Photograph of the Wave
A closer look at what the Wave really is.  A really fascinating geological rock formation.
A closer look at what the Wave really is.  A really fascinating geological rock formation.

Oddly enough, the most fascinating aspect of the Wave for me was what the formation resembled itself rather than the contrast and colours.  I loved the fact that I could “walk on the Wave” by walking on the ridge of each layer of the formation.  For me, it was a perfect place to clamor and jump around to see what sort of interesting vantage points I could take in while I was spending time in this special place.

Lisa, however, decided to take a nap.  Not what I expected but I think that is an achievement in itself too!  If only they gave our achievement badges for experiencing wilderness and hiking, like they do in video games.

We probably spent about 45 minutes to an hour in the Wave until an older couple arrived at the entrance.  It was good timing because there was still the hike back and I didn’t really want to hang around to share the Wave with more people.  I’ve gotnothing against them but the Wave isn’t really that large to begin with and I think beyond 3 or 4 people, it begins to feel crowded.

With that, we set off from the Wave — hoping to follow the path we had used to head back.

Photographed on our way back, one of my favourite photographs from the trek. We are so small relative to the world around us!
Photographed on our way back, one of my favourite photographs from the trek. We are so small relative to the world around us!
Some more stunning formations on the way back.
Some more stunning formations on the way back.

The way back felt completely different than our experience earlier in the morning.  It was hotter with the sun blazing down on us, but with the wind — it was still relatively cool.  That said, I can’t imagine hiking this in the middle of late spring or any time during the summer.  It’d be ridiculously hot.  Not my style.

In addition, with the exception of some notable visual cues or landmarks — everything looked different to us.  I think we took some detours on the way back but I continued to be blown away by what we saw.

I also didn’t realize in the morning how much sand there was to hike through.  I wish there were enough sand to sandboard down but the sand dunes here tend to be have some ruggedness and rocks to them.  On the way back, we noticed quite a few groups heading in so I was happy that we were out there earlier than most folks.  We knew who were actually heading to the Wave because they would have permits latched on to their backpack and a map provided by BLM in their hands.  Regardless, it just wouldn’t have been as pleasant and thrilling of a hike if we simply followed other people or had others following us to the Wave.

More sand on the way back.  Unfortunately.
More sand on the way back.  Unfortunately.
A very full parking lot!
A very full parking lot!

When we finally made it back to the parking lot — it was busy and full.  Very surprising but apparently this may also be due to the fact that it was a long weekend and spring break with many families either taking time off to visit or travel together.

So looking back, would I do this trek again?  Definitely, but I would try a different route and explore more of what was out there.  I’d also start even earlier in the day to really take advantage of the time given to us with the permit.  It’s not everyday we get to hike into this area so we might as well make the most of it!

As much as I thought the Wave was amazing, I think the journey and the experience along the way made the most impact on me — even more so than stepping into the Wave.

Yes, my own obligatory photograph.
Yes, my own obligatory photograph.

Southern Utah and the Green Chili Experience

Earlier this year in mid-May, a couple of friends and I went on a 2 week road trip out to Utah and back to Toronto.  Travelling is always a form of spiritual and philosophical adventure for me.  That said, hiking the Angels Landing trail at Zion National Park and visiting Bryce Canyon National Park were a couple of the main reasons why I wanted to visit southern Utah (as well as to get my hands on some green chili again)

The approximate route

Earlier this year in mid-May, a couple of friends and I went on a 2 week road trip out to Utah and back to Toronto.  Travelling is always a form of spiritual and philosophical adventure for me.  That said, hiking the Angels Landing trail at Zion National Park and visiting Bryce Canyon National Park were a couple of the main reasons why I wanted to visit southern Utah (as well as to get my hands on some green chili again). Some of the most memorable experiences involved hiking the lesser-known areas like Kodachrome Basin State Park.  To make the distance, we drove non-stop for about 48 hours (give or take a few hours) from Toronto to Moab.  The photos below are merely a few highlights of the trip but you may check out the full road trip highlights album as well.

One of the most interesting aspects of this journey was how isolated you feel when you’re in the car for such a long time — particularly during the night.  You see other cars but all you hear is the music or radio, and the sound of your friends snoring as you put your endurance driving skills to the test.

Your true friend at this point is your music collection.

Thankfully it didn’t feel like that long of a drive till we got to Moab and we went straight into Arches National Park for a hike in Devil’s Garden.  Needless to say, May is just the beginning of the high season so there were plenty of tourists milling about making it difficult to take a photograph without someone wandering into frame.

Arches National Park

In contrast, when we ran out of Arches to escape the tourists and head directly to Deadhorse Point State Park, there were very few people.  Now, there were plenty of people taking a look at the view from the visitor center but very few hiked deep into the park.  Despite its name, Deadhorse Point was probably one of my favourite places to hike during this trip.  The only low point to this hike was the fact that I was getting some serious sunburns … and I don’t burn easily!

Deadhorse Point State Park

Sticking to state parks, we then dropped by Kodachrome Basin State Park.  A beautiful little state park with very few visitors, it is definitely a hidden gem. Apparently Kodak (known for the Kodachrome film) had at one point asked the state park to change the name; only to have it changed back when it realized it greatly added to its brand awareness. As much as I appreciate the beauty that the national parks offer, the state parks had provided me with the best experience when taking in the vast and unique landscape that is southern Utah.

Kodachrome Basin State Park

When we finally made it to Bryce Canyon National Park, it struck me how little time people spent truly enjoying this park.  My friends and I watched as hundreds of tour buses would stop and give tourists 15 minutes to walk around and take photos and then have them hop back on to the bus to move on to the next destination.  I was completely bewildered and saddened by this behaviour.  You travel however far across the world to see a natural wonder so awe-inspiring, only to take it in for 15 minutes from a distance and not get to walk into it and touch it.

To be honest, I am glad to rid myself of tourists but their behaviour makes me grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to truly enjoy the area.  Even then, I know I’ll return one day because I have barely scratched the surface.

Bryce Canyon National Park

Right after Bryce Canyon we head straight to Zion National Park.  The funny thing about long road trips and itineraries are that they don’t work very well together.  I’ve found that once I am on the road for a day or two, I start losing track of what day it has been and when I’m supposed to be where for what.  This actually happened — I had thought we were running late for a campsite reservation in Zion when we were actually a day early.  Suffice to say, it made some people a little grumpy but you learn to simply go with the flow when you take a lot of road trips.

Everyone must experience the drive into Zion.  No kidding.  It has to be one of the most beautiful drives I’ve had the opportunity to experience into a national park.  It isn’t really something you can capture on video (unless you are perhaps Google) but even then, there’s nothing quite like experiencing in person.

Below is a shot of the Angels Landing trail in Zion National Park.  This was my goal for the trip.  If I were to do one thing on this road trip, it was to hike Angels Landing.  Consider it a challenge to myself.  Going into the trip, I knew exactly what I was getting into but I had no idea how it would feel in real life.  Unbelievable.

My only concern about this trail is its popularity and just simply how it works (i.e. it is in certain parts only capable of handling single-file traffic.  The trail itself is straightforward but the fact that there is very little room to maneuver is what makes it hazardous if people must get around one another.  There was one instance where one group of hikers I came across were sitting around and taking up room on the path.  Everyone knows they need to move out of the way but how to do that safely, is a different question.

So what’s the lesson?  Don’t go during peak season.  Be warned if you do. 🙂

Two things you should do after the Angels Landing hike is reward yourself.  First with this t-shirt, and then second with a cold beverage while resting under the large trees in front of Zion Lodge.  For us, we added a third one and that was to reward ourselves with a hearty meal that included traditional green chili.  Anyone who is in the southwestern United States must simply seek it out and try it — it’s pretty much a required component of travelling through this part of the country — in my eyes anyways.

Looking down at the trail back from Angels Landing - Zion National Park

I also highly recommend anyone interested in doing Angels Landing to take a look at the videos that Kolby Kirk (The Hike Guy) had posted from his experience.

Antelope Canyon had made the list of “to dos” for this road trip ever since I was staying at a hostel in San Francisco in late 2011.  The guy kept raving about it and if anyone were to look up photos on Google, they would see plenty of jaw-dropping photographs.  My research had indicated to me that peak season (even in May) would be pretty bad but nothing could have prepared me for what I experienced.

Throw hundreds of people into Upper Antelope Canyon and what you see is a human train moving very slowly through a narrow canyon.  Everyone clamoring to take photographs of beams of light that shine through into the canyon (they occur at a very specific timeframe) is simply impractical.  The poor guides are trying to maintain some sense of order while photographers — amateur and professional — are feeling increasingly frustrated or stressed as a result of their inability to take the photograph they want.  Space is limited and so is time as each tour group must move through the canyon at a certain pace and traffic goes both ways!

There were some instances where I thought there would be a brawl taking place between photographers.  While the professional photographers were definitely irritated (and I can see why), I sympathize with the guides because they have such a tremendous responsibility to maintain order and peace as tourists try to mob one another just to take a photograph like the one below.  I think Antelope Canyon may possibly be the most photographed canyon in the world… do we seriously need more photos?  Go figure.  I have a feeling digital photography may contributed to this dilemma.

My opinion?  Visit at your own risk.  Enjoy the experience, but don’t expect to take amazing shots.  If you want a less crowded experience, visit the Lower Antelope Canyon and it’s less expensive too.

Upper Antelope Canyon

Happily escaping the insanity around Antelope Canyon, we ended up in Monument Valley.  Without a Navajo guide, you are not permitted to access much of the valley so I had arranged for a full day tour with Kéyah Hózhóní tours a Navajo guide company that had made quite a good name for itself amongst photographers.  On arrival, I was saddened to find out that the founder whom I had exchanged emails with to arrange the tour had passed away.  The tour still ran nonetheless and we were privy to a beautiful sunrise.  We had to wake up at 3am for this but it was completely worthwhile and I am grateful to those at Kéyah Hózhóní who kept things running and allowed us to see some of the beautiful land within Monument Valley.

Monument Valley in the morningMonument Valley

During our tour with Kéyah Hózhóní, there were a couple of photographers from California and they had pointed out that during one of the most memorable scenes in the movie Forrest Gump somehow solidified itself as part of the landscape.

Forrest Gump's Run ends here

If you make the visit, be sure to search for this reference to Forrest Gump. I did not expect to find this sign but I am thankful to have met the couple from California and the kindness they showed us.

There were so many great and memorable experiences through out this two week journey but I didn’t expect such an awesome Cosmosphere in the middle of Kansas.  Definitely some hidden treasure there.  I only wish I had the opportunity to watch Tornado Alley — an IMAX film that was showing.  Unfortunately because one of my friends had to make it back to Toronto on time to attend a wedding, we were running short on time.

Kansas Cosmosphere

That said, the more active part of the trip couldn’t have ended at a better point.  Just before the Cosmosphere, we had gone sandboarding in Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes.

Sandboarding at Great Sand Dunes

The most interesting aspect about this road trip was really who I was with.  Travelling alone, I often have expectations but they change rapidly as the journey evolves.  In this case, two friends wanted to come along but they both had very different expectations and very different styles of travel.  Even with the numerous heads up and words of caution about how I travel (minimalist), sometimes I guess people need to experience it for themselves.  The great thing about the road trip however is that you end up — for better or worse — changed from the experience.

I’ve found that whether you change for the better or worse is heavily dependent on the reflection process during and after the journey.