Shooting The Wave

Introduction and Preparation

For those not familiar with The Wave let me first share a brief introduction to this fascinating area. Located on the Arizona-Utah border The Wave as it is commonly referred to is an area known by hikers, photographers, and lovers of the desert. It is an area of Navajo Sandstone which has incredible textures and patterns in the sandstone that are not seen anywhere else, at least to my knowledge, in the American Southwest. The patterns and textures form small ridges that swoop down in a small canyon forming almost psychedelic swirls and fairy tale like sweeping vistas.

The Wave is located in a special day use only permit area called Coyote Buttes North and as far as I can tell it is jointly managed by both the BLM and Vermillion Cliffs National Monument. Right now use is limited to about twenty permits per day for Coyote Buttes North and the permits are given out according to a lottery system. In order to reserve a permit in advance you need to apply for a lottery drawing three months in advance of the month that you want to visit. I believe there are ten lottery permits given away in advance and then there are also ten more lottery permits given out the day before on a walk-in basis at the BLM office in Kanab, UT.

The way the lottery is supposed to work is that if you win a permit in advance, you pay your fee, and then the BLM is supposed to send your permit to you prior to your permit date along with some accompanying access information. Well my permit date was for March 9th, so when the 1st of March rolled around and I hadn’t received my permit in the mail I decided that I should call and figure out what was going on. Fortunately for me I did call because apparently there was some confusion and mishap by the BLM and they somehow forgot to send my permit. So the solution that the BLM came up with was for me to go to the BLM office in Kanab on the day before my permit date and pick up my permit there. The problem was that Kanab is about forty miles further than House Rock Valley Road which is where I wanted to camp for the night. And of course since I was coming from Durango I already had about a five hour drive, let alone the hour and a half extra roundtrip I now had to drive to Kanab to get the permit.

Oh well, the fact is that I made it to the BLM Office on the 8th and I picked up my permit. There wasn’t much time until sunset after I picked up the permit so I decided to just head for camp and call it a night. On that note I have to say that Stateline Campground, which is located about nine miles from Highway 89 down House Valley Rock Road, is a really nice place to stay. In fact when you take into account that it is a free campground with six first come first served sites I would say that it just might be my favorite campground. The sites are very nice with fire pits and sun canopies in place over the picnic tables, like I said, very nice. The evening drifted by pretty quick as I packed up for the next days adventures and made fire over the campfire.

Approaching The Wave

The next morning, March 9th, I woke up at around five  and drove to the Wire Pass Trailhead which is where the normal access route to The Wave starts. I figured that the beginning of the hike in was along a Coyote Wash so it wouldn’t hurt to start the hike in the dark. Around 6am I started walking. After about fifteen minutes an old four-wheel-drive road leaves the bed of the wash on the right and steeply climbs a hill. According to the printed access instructions that I got from the BLM with the permit this old road is now the trail to Coyote Buttes North, so up I went.

After the trail tops out it heads out across the desert toward a sandstone ridge in the distance and once at the ridge there is a small sign that the BLM put in to show you where to walk up and over the saddle. Once over the saddle you end up dropping down on a fairly large expanse of fractured slickrock. Off to the right there is the massive butte which will remain on your right pretty much throughout the walk into The Wave. After walking for awhile across the slickrock you reach a large wash that separates you from two sand dunes on the far side. In order to access The Wave proper you have to make your way down into the wide wash and climb one of the sand dunes on the far side, there is pretty worn set of footprints going up the sand dune and at the top you will find yourself peering into the heart of the wave.

Shooting The Wave

When I topped out on the sand dune and reached The Wave it was about nine, I actually took an intentional side trip just before heading up the last dune and I have to say that the detour was worth it. I went looking around the wide wash just below the last dune and I found a little side canyon with some great morning light reflecting in. The area has been named Sand Cove and if I had to make a recommendation I would say to explore there prior to going into the Main Wave, I returned later in the day to the same area and the light was not good for shooting.

Anyway, after my jaunt into Sand Cove I walked back to the sand dunes and climbed up to the entrance of The Wave. So my first impressions of The Wave were exactly what I had expected, it was indeed beautiful, but since the main part of The Wave is pretty small there really isn’t too much left to the imagination after viewing a few of the classic shots on the internet. Don’t take me wrong though, there is still a lot of room for artistic expression among the sandstone lines and textures, but as far as the main part of The Wave goes, it’s definitely been shot.

That being said, there is a HUGE amount of area to explore in and around the main part of The Wave. After arriving on top of the dune I spent about an hour cooking breakfast and shooting a small corridor or canyon on the west side of the main part of The Wave. The side canyon was illuminated by some really nice reflected morning light and of course the oatmeal and the coffee tasted mighty good when sitting next to such a spectacular place. I kept walking out into the heart of The Wave and checking to see if the morning shadows were gone yet but even after I had finished breakfast and was all packed up the heart still had some pretty harsh shadows that I didn’t think I wanted in my shot. So off I went, I decided to do another little side hike and exploration, this time I walked back out the entrance to The Wave and did a little exploring around some teepee formations I has seen on my way in. It was fun to do some exploring and the rock has such amazing textures everywhere here, but it seemed to me that the midday light was not really giving me the mood that I wanted for these teepees. However I figured that since I was now sweating in the heat of the midday sun maybe the shadows would be gone from the heart of The Wave, so I walked back in, and there it was, the perfectly illuminated heart, with no distracting shadows.


After making some attempts at expressive images of the heart I decided to do some exploring around the area. I had some descriptions of a few different areas around the main Wave proper so I started out with the intention of finding the Second Wave and then hoping to find the Boneyard. I started my exploration by walking up the main chute of the Wave to a large flat area above which has some really nice brain rock. The decision I had to make was to either go out looking for a way up to the top of Top Rock or to continue with my intended search for the Second Wave. I opted for the search so I continued up past the brain rock and started skirting the edge of the butte, with great views down into Sand Cove. After another forty-five minutes of searching and exploring I found the Second Wave, of course the sun was still pretty high in the sky so although the swirling patterns were very nice, I think that evening light would of done a lot better at accentuating them. None the less, I stopped here and shot for a bit, made lunch, and contemplated my next direction.

This time I decided to try to find a way down the steep sandstone on the edge of the butte and see if I could find the Boneyard and then make my way into Sand Cove from the top. I had read a description of this route so I knew it was possible but I wasn’t real sure at this point how to navigate down into the wash below. As it turned out when I got closer to the edge of the butte it was steep, but not quite as steep as it seemed earlier and with a little careful walking it was pretty easy to get down into the wash below.

At this point I figured that Sand Cove was just a short ways down the wash from me however I wanted to see what there was up a little farther. So I started walking up the wash through the sand and finally onto some sandstone. After about thirty minutes the heat started pulling at me a little and started feeling like I might be hitting the dreaded “wall,” so I opted to turn around and head back to the spot where I had scrambled down from the butte. From reading the description of the Boneyard it seemed to me that in order to get there I had to walk up the sand dune that was right across from where I had scrambled down the slickrock earlier so up through the sand I went again.

Sure enough, I found the box rocks of the Boneyard, but the sun was still pretty high in the sky so I made a couple of images and then turned tail and retreated back to the wash and then down into much needed shade of Sand Cove. After sitting down in the shade, eating a bit, and drinking some water I started thinking about what to do next. My original plan was to shoot the Boneyard until sunset and then try and race the sun on the way out and back to my truck. But as I sat there I started to really feel the heat of the day and the miles that I had walked in the sun.

The Confession and the Retreat

As I sat there in the shade I started to realize that I was pretty spent and my energy reserves were pretty low, along with my food reserves and water. I had read somewhere on the internet prior to the trip that a lot of people recommend to wait on hiking into the Wave until about 10am since the Main Wave really isn’t good for photography until midday when the shadows aren’t on the sandstone. They say that it’s best to wait to walk in until mid-morning so that you don’t wear yourself out. I’ll admit it, by the end of my explorations beneath the sweltering sun, as I sat there in the shade of Sand Cove, I was done. I felt pretty guilty about not shooting sunset somewhere in the area, but the fact was that I was running out of energy and I was a little bit worried about finding my route out and back to my truck in the dark. So there you have it, my confession, I started walking out about 4;30pm and I was back at my truck by six, well before sunset.

Oh well, the fact is that I had an awesome day of shooting and exploring, and I didn’t have the energy left after all of my wandering around under the hot sun to deal with route-finding out of there if I wouldn’t have made it out before the sun went down. Another day perhaps I’ll shoot sunset out there, or maybe I’ll just hike out early again and enjoy the crackle of a fire at Stateline Campground as I cook a steak watching the sky change to purple over the Arizona desert.


3 thoughts on “Shooting The Wave

  1. Sweet! I had never heard of this place before but it looks and sounds like it’s amazing! Thanks for sharing. It!

  2. Pingback: After The Storm « Ryan Cary Photography Blog

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