Trip Report - Coyote Buttes North 05.14.14
The uncomfortable heat of 80 people packed into one tiny room barely registered as I watched the BLM Ranger toss numbered wooden balls into a bingo machine. The man sitting next to me had just finished telling me how he and his wife had been to that very room six mornings in a row hoping to be drawn from the lottery. As more and more people crammed into the small room and dropped their applications on the ranger's desk, I decided I had no chance.
It was only on a whim that I was even there. I had spent the day before the lottery drawing in Monument Valley, with no further plans except that I needed to be in Flagstaff, Arizona in two days. It was already after sundown when I decided to make the 4.5 hour drive to Kanab, Utah and attempt the walk-in lottery for Coyote Buttes, where the Wave is located. Four and a half hours of driving, at night, through thick deer and elk territory with no plan of where I was going to sleep was nothing new to me, but still a bit unnerving. The permit drawing would be held at the BLM office in Kanab in less than 12 hours so I had to get going if I were to have any chance at obtaining one.
I knew how the permits worked; everything was based on a lottery system. Only 20 people are allowed to enter the wilderness area of Coyote Buttes North on any given day. 10 permits are drawn three months in advance from an online lottery, and the other 10 from the walk-in lottery, held the day before the permit is valid. I had entered the online lottery two months in a row already (along with several friends) and had no luck with that system. I knew chances with the walk-in system were slightly better (1 permit is easier to obtain than a group of 6) but still very slim.
At 9:00 sharp they closed the door to the lottery room, theoretically speaking - there were so many of us people had lined up out the door with no room to stand inside. When the ranger started drawing numbers the first group called had only three people, a good sign for me. Then a single person. When the ranger called out "Number six," my number, I didn't say anything for a moment as I had already convinced myself there was no way it would be drawn. I finally regained my voice to call out and claim the elusive permit.
Once the drawing was finished, they ushered all but the lucky 10 of us out of the room and collected the required fees ($7 per person). Then the ranger passed out maps of the area and began to explain the trail and how to find The Wave - seemingly the only thing to see inside the Coyote Buttes North. Most of the talk was precautionary: "Make sure you have plenty of water, at least four liters," and the rest of the usual desert safety topics. She also talked about the 3-mile long route with areas of "difficult route-finding across sandstone" and the strenuous nature of such a trail. Some of us actually started to think this would be a difficult hike.
After she finished scaring us all, I walked around the station a bit more and saw displays of Pueblo artifacts including old pottery, corn cobs, spearheads, and many more, including a large collection of potsherds (pieces of shattered pottery) you could pick up and examine, which I found very unusual. I guess it goes to show that so many have been collected from ancient places that there is no where left to keep them behind museum glass. So here they were, out in the open. In my opinion, a much better way to experience them.
I contemplated what to do with the rest of the day, as the permit was only valid for the following day (May 14th) and no camping is permitted anywhere inside the permit areas. I drove to the trailhead thinking I would hike Wire pass for a few hours, but ultimately ended up sitting around, reading, and just plain relaxing (something I've had very little of lately) at a beautiful campsite the ranger had told me of. I was just uphill from the Wire Pass Trailhead, where I would be starting early the next morning. I watched as cars came and went all afternoon, this being the main trailhead for Wire Pass, Coyote Buttes North and South, as well as parts of Buckskin Gulch.
I set up my sleeping pads early - no tent tonight - and set an alarm for 4:30 am, wanting to get well into the Coyote Buttes before first light. Of course, right before I was ready to crawl into bed, the full moon rose over the steep sandstone wall to the East, prompting more photos.
When I finally got around to lying down, the wind was still strong, but I had made a make-shift shelter out of a cooler and duffel bag to keep it off me. I awoke suddenly late at night to a strange sound, or rather, lack thereof. The wind had stopped, without even a hint a the slightest breeze, no crickets chirped and no sound echoed off the steep cliffs.
True quiet and stillness is hard to come by, and I lay there simply enjoying it - once I had convinced myself I had not, in fact, gone completely deaf. You've heard the term 'deafening silence?' Yep, that's a real thing. After my ears stopped ringing from the silence, I was left with what was, at first, a rather uncomfortable feeling of nothingness.
We are surrounded by so many lights and sounds and distractions these days it's easy to forget how to be still and just relax. Lying there in the moonlight and complete silence, I heard a noise start up from some distant place. At first I thought it was rockfall, then my mind went to earthquake as the rumbling grew louder. Finally I saw the blinking red and green lights of a passenger jet high up in the atmosphere. Soon after the sound of the jet had finally faded, I started to drift to sleep and was awakened by what sounded like a very large animal very close to me. I turned on my headlamp only to see a tiny mouse scamper away. The lack of any noise had made the smallest sounds seem absolutely monstrous. I laughed at myself for being tricked so easily, twice, and quickly fell back to sleep.
When I awoke at 4:30 am to the intrusion of my alarm, I quickly realized the wind had picked back up, and shifted directions. In full force it was bypassing my makeshift barricade and the early morning temperature was around 31 degrees. My 20 degree bag was not enough. I threw on a down jacket, started the car, and had to warm up before getting breakfast or rescuing my sleeping bag from the sandstorm developing outside. I ate a quick breakfast, drank an entire liter of water, and hit the trail with coat and headlamp at 5:00 am. Immediately after starting out, I switched off the headlamp to enjoy the light of the full moon, which, along with the first faint glow of morning, was bright enough to see the trail and landmarks to guide the way. Route-finding proved easy enough, and little time was wasted looking at the map.
I was within a quarter mile of the Wave formation when the red rock to my right began to glow a deeper, more magnificent color than I have ever experienced in years in the desert. This band of rock in particular has a very high amount of Hematite, a type of Iron Oxide, that makes it a very deep red. Coupled with the early morning light, though still diffused, made for a truly magnificent sight.
I was the first person to approach the infamous Wave formation that morning, having long since passed the only other person to imagine starting so early. I topped a small hill, turned to see the first direct light hitting the Vermillion Cliffs behind me and stood in awe, not even thinking to pull out my camera. When I came around the next corner, entering the Wave, I could not believe my eyes. It's no wonder to me why this place is so incredibly sought-after.
Layer upon layer of reds, oranges, yellows, pinks, and many more colors mix and pile upon each other to create something truly spectacular. The many layers of sandstone formed over hundreds of thousands of years and have been carved out by wind and water. Now the formation contains bands of colors twisting and turning as some disappear and new colors take their place. They roll over each other and run every which direction into what really does resemble a series of waves. It’s as though you’re viewing an ocean’s many waves and currents, transformed into solid rock. It’s hard to image the time and processes it took to form and carve these magnificent formations and buttes.
I have no idea how much time passed before I took the first photo that morning. The formation was in shadow until nearly noon so I was in no hurry, simply enjoying the beauty and solitude of the area. I set up the tripod and captured a few angles before the next visitor joined me in the formation. We said nothing to each other for some time, aside from the few words said early in the morning when I passed him near the trailhead. We simply smiled and nodded to each other as he entered, taking it all in. We set up tripods on opposite ends and moved around each other as we walked. I had a sense that he too enjoyed the solitude and said nothing to him until well after the sun had come out and the next visitors were heading up the trail toward us.
After the first photos were captured I wandered the area, knowing the sun would not light up the entire formation until much later. I explored petrified sand dunes, saw an arch, photographed many small buttes and towers, and saw countless cacti in bloom. Bright, beautiful purple and yellow flowers of the Prickly-Pear cacti were all around. The blooming cactus is, as I see it, the perfect representation of the desert Southwest; breathtaking beauty perfectly protected by harsh, often painful means.
As the sun rose higher in the sky I wandered back to the Wave to take countless more photographs and fill memory cards. More and more people crowded in the area and I became very thankful for such a strict permit system. There would be no sense of solitude in this wilderness if not for the 20 person limit per day. Finally around 12:30 I decided I had taken enough photos and angles of the formation and was going to make my way back to the trailhead. There was, as the ranger had said, a lot to explore in the buttes along the trail. However, as I filled and shouldered my pack, a volunteer ranger rounded the corner speaking to another visitor about going up "above the Wave." I joined the conversation and learned of the Alcove, where a hole in the sandstone wall was perfectly aligned with the rock 'Teepee' formation to the South. I joined up with a couple in their 50's who were also interested in finding it, and started up the steep sandstone.
Interwoven rock layers provided a makeshift staircase all the way to the top, and a bit of wandering found us on top of a shelf looking down into a deep cut in the sandstone. Within this nearly cave-like feature was a single sand dune unlike any I had ever seen. The ranger had spoken a bit about the dune and we decided it was certainly worth visiting. We began to backtrack to find our way off the high point and found the helpful volunteer and his friend, also on the way to the sand dune and the Alcove.
We found the dune quickly and proceeded to photograph every inch of the enormous cave-like feature cut from stone by years of strong winds. The other four headed on to visit the Alcove, while I stayed back to play in the sand some more. When I decided to move along I was covered in sand from head to toe and had somehow managed to fill every pocket with the stuff. While my camera had been left higher on the sandstone, even that was coated in fine sand in a short time.
When I found the Alcove the ranger and his companion were just leaving, but I stayed and talked to the couple for some time. We all took photos in the window and around the Alcove before they too started back. I drank what was left of my water and started back, deciding it was time to go. It was nearly 6 miles to the trail-head from here, and clearly the four liters of water I had packed was not enough.
One more stop before making it back to the Wave was prompted by a German fellow who showed a few of us where to find another formation, dubbed the Second Wave. Not as exciting as the first but still deserving of being photographed.
If not so near to the ever popular Wave, any of these formations would undoubtedly be a destination of their own. Dwarfed by the popularity of their neighbor, they get little, if any, credit. As I continued toward the trailhead, the light had changed dramatically on the Wave so, of course, more photos were in order. Now still three miles from the car and out of water for some time, I had no choice but to pass up what is likely a lifetime worth of opportunities photographing the other formations hidden throughout Coyote Buttes.
I suppose another attempt at a permit is in order.
Thanks for reading! You can see more images from this hike and others at: www.dcranephoto.com/Travel