Into Utah

Thursday, December 31, 2009 (New Year’s Eve)  

When I first saw pictures of The Wave, I was impressed by the curvy shapes of sandstone carved by erosion, the smooth lines, and the blend of warm colours. The Wave is located in Coyote Buttes in Vermilion Cliffs National Monument, in northern Arizona right on the Utah border. It involves a 10 km return hike through the desert without clearly marked trails. The tricky part is that they limit the number of people that can go by issuing permits with only 10 groups allowed to obtain permits four months in advance, and another 10 the day before. The permits are issued by lottery as usually there are more people wanting to go than permits available.

And so, or early in the morning I set out from Page to drive to Kanab, Utah, a couple hours away to be there at 9 AM when the lottery for permits occurred. I had phoned the day before and learned that on Thursday they would be releasing permits for Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday because of the New Year’s holiday. This meant there would be 40 permits available, and that the woman told me that if I was flexible on days I had a reasonably good chance of getting one.

As I drove, it was still dark, and I could see a big around the full moon right ahead of me setting behind some buttes, so I stopped my car and shot some long exposures. There was a lot of snow on the ground in many places hanging to the few trees, and a hoar frost clung to many of the plants. When the sun came up the sky was blue, but Kanab itself sat in a thick fog.      

Setting full moon, southern Utah - © Richard McGuire

I found the office that issues the permits, and there were already about a dozen people there. We all selected the days we would prefer, and were told we could switch dates immediately before the draw, if it looked like certain days were full and others were not. I chose the Monday, knowing this would give me a little time to visit other parts of Utah, visiting The Wave on the way back. We counted down to 9 a.m. when the lottery would occur. Although more people trickled in, by luck none of the dates were completely full, and so everybody got their pick without a lottery happening. At 8:59, I joked that there was a bus arriving in the lot, which cost a few chuckles, but fortunately didn’t happen. In fact, the woman said this was one of the few days when everybody got what they wanted without a lottery.       

After breakfast of huevos rancheros at a local diner, I continued to drive back to Page via the scenic route to the south. This cross through mountains and there was some packed snow on the roads, but the driving wasn’t bad and the snow glistened on the pines. Descending the mountain, you could see the bold outline of Vermilion Cliffs rising from the desert as a big massive body of sandstone.       

Closer to Page, I came to the turnoff for the walk in to Horseshoe Bend, which I had tried to photograph the previous day. It was much sunnier, so I tried again, hiking the half-mile to the cliff’s edge. This time the view of the river 1,000 feet below was very clear. There were numerous Japanese tourists taking pictures of the view and some went right to the edge of the cliff and leaned over for their shots. I suffer far too much from vertigo to try that, so I edged closer to the cliff on hands and knees and got on my belly. Even then, the only way to see the bend in the river, is to actually lean over the edge. Even on my belly, I felt dizzy even attempting this and was unable to shoot a picture this way. At last I attached the camera to my tripod, lay down with the tripod and extended it out over the edge as though it were a long pole with the camera aimed at the right few with a super wide lens. I triggered multiple exposures with a cable release, and got some shots without actually hanging over the edge myself.       

Horse Shoe Bend, Arizona -- the obligatory shot

Horse Shoe Bend, Arizona - © Richard McGuire

By now it was getting later in the afternoon, and I had a long drive ahead of me as I planned to drive all the way to Moab, Utah for the night, and hoped to drive through Monument Valley during the day. It was a long drive through the desert on a fairly rough paved road, but traffic was not too heavy, and even though it was getting late I made a reasonably good time. That is, until I came to Kayenta. Here, the road ran right through the town, and speed limit dropped drastically. I slowed down, but not enough. Suddenly there was a cop car behind me flashing his blue and red lights. He ticketed me for speeding, taking a long time to issue the ticket. By the time I finally got going again, it was starting to get dark.
Monument Valley had some attractive buttes and mesas sticking up from the flat desert. But from the main road there were few places to stop and so the photo opportunities were very limited. I understand that to really see the best views you must visit the Navajo Tribal Park, but as it was getting dark this was no longer an option. I stopped and took a few photos of the sun setting behind the buttes and the full moon rising ahead, but I don’t think I did the area justice.   

It was quite cold as I set up my tripod for some long exposures in a few of the pull offs. At one, a car stopped right in the area I was photographing. I waited a while, and it still stayed, so I picked up my tripod and walked past it to photograph with a clear view. Behind the car a young Navajo man was pissing a big stream. He greeted me as I walked past and struck up a conversation. He’d obviously had a few drinks. He asked me about my photographing, and in where I was from, and I told him I was admiring the beauty of the land. He said he was always from this area, and the land was very special to him and his ancestors.       


Monument Valley, Arizona, at sunset
Monument Valley, Arizona, at sunset – © Richard McGuire


It was a long drive the rest of the way to Moab, and I got the feeling I was missing some spectacular scenery in the darkness. I arrived and checked into the local Motel 6. I was tired, and then sat up for a while going through my pictures and sending e-mails, but didn’t pay attention to the new year and decade.  



About Richard McGuire
Richard McGuire is a part-time photographer and photography enthusiast based on Ottawa, Canada.


One Response to “Into Utah”
  1. Ann says:

    Thank you for visiting Kane County, UT! I am so happy to hear that you were able to visit the “Wave” and the pictures you took are breathtaking!
    Again, thank you and we hope you revisit soon!
    Happy Trails from all of us here at the Kane County Office of Tourism

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