How I Missed Catching The Wave

One of the gems of The Great American West is a geological formation known as “The Wave.” It’s well-known among hikers and landscape photographers, but not among the general public. The Wave is located in northeastern Arizona near the Utah border in the Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness. The Wave has been on my photography bucket list ever since I saw the amazing image Scott Kelby made of it several years ago.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Scott Kelby, he is the #1 best-selling author of a number of books on the subjects of digital photography, Adobe Photoshop, and Adobe Lightroom. He is also my favorite instructor on those subjects, and he is the President of KelbyOne, an amazing educational resource for photographers. On top of all that, Scott is a rock star of the photography world. Scott has graciously agreed to let me reproduce his photo of The Wave here.

© 2007 Scott Kelby
© 2007 Scott Kelby

Question: If The Wave is on my photography bucket list, why am I posting Scott’s image? Why don’t I post my own photo? Because I’ve never seen The Wave in person. And, it’s unlikely that I ever will.

Why? I’ve certainly been to other locations in the vicinity of The Wave. I’ve been to Horseshoe Bend, Lake Powell, the Grand Canyon, Lower Antelope Canyon, Upper Antelope Canyon, Arches National Park, and various other unnamed rock formations and canyons on nearby Navajo lands. I’ve been to Page, Arizona, referred to by photographer Gary Ladd as “the visual hub of the universe.” So if I’ve been all around The Wave, why haven’t I visited it?

The reason is that The Wave is a very delicate formation of swirly, striated, eroded Navajo sandstone. Because of the fragility of the geologic formation, the United States Bureau of Land Management limits the number of visitors to The Wave to 20 people per day. Entrance to the area is by permit only. Ten of the permits are allocated by a lottery conducted 4 months in advance of the desired permit date. Ten more are allocated by lottery at 9:00 a.m. on the morning in question, Monday through Friday, at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Visitor Center in Kanab, Utah.

I have participated several times by long distance in the lottery, trying to win a permit. The way it works is that I picked a date 4 months in the future when I was willing to travel from Houston, Texas, to Kanab, Utah. I filled out an online application, paid a non-refundable $5 application fee, and waited to hear the results of the lottery. In each such case, there were over 700 online applicants for the 10 available permits on the dates I requested. Needless to say, I didn’t win. And each time, I was $5 lighter.

Now, I know some of you are already thinking that I should have tried to game the system, either by buying someone else’s permit or by submitting numerous applications for the same day. Neither scheme will work. Applicants are limited to only one try per calendar month. A transfer of a permit from one person to another will result in the permit being forfeited, and both parties barred for one year from participating in the lottery.

Well, then, why not drive to the Visitor Center in Kanab, Utah, and participate in the in-person lottery on the morning of the date desired? In the first place, it is a little bit of a drive for me from Houston to Kanab (about 1,400 miles, or 22 hours by car). The second reason is that there are usually between 70 and 90 other people who have made the drive to take part in the lottery for the 10 in-person permits.

For the 20 permit winners, there are 4 trails in to The Wave. None of the trails is marked, although the Visitor Center does hand out photocopied maps with GPS coordinates, waypoints, and compass headings. The shortest unmarked trail is approximately a 3-mile hike from the trailhead to The Wave, through fairly rough desert terrain. As an interesting sidelight, I’ve learned from several sources that each day, approximately 6 or 7 of the people who pay their money, win the lottery, travel to Kanab, Utah, and start out hiking to The Wave never find it. I’m guessing they weren’t Boy Scouts!

Am I giving up? No! I’ll get there someday. In the meantime, I’ll have to content myself with admiring Scott’s photo.

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