Coyote Butte's Wave - "Stone Tsunami in a Sandstone Ocean"
"Our winter adventure took us into a unique world of slickrock and sandstone where the strange and wonderful are commonplace."
You need to get lucky to visit the magnificent Wave formation in Coyote Buttes North, one of the world's most well-known and surreal landscapes. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) which manages the Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, issues permits for twenty individuals per day, half by an advance online lottery, and half by a daily on-site lottery. Yet hikers and photographers from all over the world fight for the scarce permits. Therefore you are a winner before even setting foot on the trail. How to obtain BLM Hiking Permits for Coyote Buttes, including "the Wave".
[Photo, left: The author strolls through the heart of the Wave.]
It turns out that getting a mid-winter permit is a bit easier, and we showed up in January at the BLM field office in Kanab, Utah, holding permits for both North Coyote Buttes (the Wave hike) and South Coyote Buttes on consecutive days. Obviously, there are reasons that winter permits are easier to obtain. The BLM agent informs us that after a major snowstorm and a week of very warm weather, the main access road (House Rock Valley) is a muddy quagmire. Three vehicles had slid off the road the previous day. It's a dilemma: if you miss your hike due to a muddy road, there are no rain checks or reschedules. You are out of luck.
Conversely, the conditions for accessing Coyote Buttes South are improved with damp conditions. During most of the year the network of high-clearance, four-wheel drive roads can be difficult sand traps. The extra moisture packs the sand and makes driving easier. We are scheduled for Coyote Buttes South for the first day and will go through with this trip, then check out the driving conditions to Coyote Buttes North the following day.
[Photos, right and below right: Hiking on slickrock through Coyote Buttes North en route to the Wave, on a brisk below freezing winter morning. Note the three "teepees" in the background. They are the most common formations in Coyote Buttes.]
The day of our Coyote Buttes North trip has broken much colder, well below freezing, and we head out to House Rock Valley Road with the hope that the muddy road will be frozen solid. As we reach the dirt road the temperature hovers around 20°F (-6.7°C) , and the road is indeed frozen. It is most important that the temperature stays cold for the return drive in the afternoon.
We safely arrive at the Wire Pass Trailhead where trails access both North Coyote Buttes and the equally surreal Buckskin Gulch. We were last at this place in April 1981, when we hiked the Buckskin Gulch and Paria River all the way to Lee's Ferry, more than forty miles of very challenging backpacking.
The interpretive signs at the trailhead offer some good information:
Wire Pass Trailhead interpretive sign: You’re about to embark on an unforgettable adventure. The stunning scenery of Coyotes Buttes attracts hikers from all over the world. Buckskin Gulch is a winding chasm of stone and spectacular cliffs. Either fork will lead you through a fascinating geologic story. From this trailhead, you can access two separate destinations: Buckskin Gulch, or Coyote Buttes and the Wave.
Keeping It Wild interpretive sign: You'll find no designated trails, developed campsites, signs, or facilities inside the wilderness boundary. The terrain is rugged and hiking conditions can change with the weather. Hikers should be in good physical condition and know how to navigate in a primitive backcountry setting. "May your trails be crooked, winding, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds." – Edward Abbey
As we prepared to leave the Wire Pass Trailhead and hike to the Wave, the temperature was a brisk 21°F (-6.1°C). However the bright sun and very dry air made it reasonably comfortable. I dressed in layers, four over shirts, plus hat and gloves, to shed later as the day warmed.
There was no official trail after passing through a fence a short distance down Coyote Wash. The BLM provided a guide sheet with a number of photos and directions to the Wave. We also carried topographic quad maps and a compass. It turned out that there were many footprints in the sandy areas and rock cairns (small piles of stone left by people, indicating a trail) on the slickrock (ground consisting of sandstone, not soil or sand). However the BLM literature claims that rangers periodically dismantle the informal cairns to preserve the wilderness character of the area. In any case, the provided directions were easy to follow.
[Photo, left: A strange fossil-like sandstone formation that resembles the skeleton of some giant creature. One of the many fantasies in sandstone found in this region.]
After shortly climbing out of the wash, the route passed through a nondescript, sandy desert with the obvious ridgeline of sandstone formations about a mile distant. Soon we cross a wash and climb through a small saddle in the ridge, entering a completely different world, one entirely of rock. The ground beneath our feet is entirely slickrock, and bizarre, multihued formations abound. The early morning sunlight enhances the colors. Stone teepees dominate the rocky hillsides which are crossbedded in an endless variety of patterns. One huge crossbed resembles a fossilized skeleton of a whale or some huge animal.
It is not a long or particularly difficult walk to the Wave, only about three miles from the trailhead. We soon arrive at a large wash with another long ridge of sandstone on the other side. A very steep sand dune leads up to the Wave which is hidden from view. This strenuous climb leads into a new world of stone. It is dominated by the so-called Liesegang Bands (see description below), the sharply defined colorful ribbons of sandstone of which the Wave consists. It appears suddenly, and stunningly. Its name is quite appropriate.
[Photo, right: Part of the Wave appears golden in the early morning sunlight.]
The Wave is largely in shadow at this morning hour with bands of red and white predominating, with a little bit of blue and perhaps yellow. The upper parts in sunlight appear golden. Behind, the sandstone ridge rises for hundreds of feet, with Melody Arch easily visible at the top. It is one of the most surreal scenes I’ve seen in over thirty years of hiking the American West.
[Photo, right: The ridge rises hundreds of feet behind the Wave. Note Melody Arch at the top of the ridge. Strong hikers with scrambling skills can reach the arch.]
The so-called "Wave 2" formation is supposedly hidden in the ridge a few hundred yards away. However we pass it up, as it's simply too cold with the shade and rock. There are Wave-like formations all over the place anyway. We climb back down the sand dune and hike in the wash for a while, where there is more sunlight. The wash soon narrows, and there is a bit of flowing water running from a small spring. Interestingly, the streambed is encased in ice. The canyon rapidly narrows to a crack, and we arrive at a pour-off too steep to pass. We could get around it by scrambling up one of the sidewalls but have had enough at this point. It’s just too cold, and time to head back.
When we arrive back at the trailhead, the car's thermometer reads 38°F (3.34°C) (in the sun). The road is still largely frozen, and we make it back to the main highway easily. It would be nice to come back again when the weather is a bit more comfortable. There is still much to see, including Wave 2, Melody Arch, and the Dinosaur Trackway, not to mention the many other spectacular sites without names.
Of course, the chances of winning a permit during nicer weather (spring and fall) are quite slim and purely a matter of luck. The rigid permitting system is completely justified: there were very few other hikers around, almost no aircraft or other noise, and the place is absolutely pristine. It is a true wilderness experience. If we are lucky, we'll be back again someday.
[Photo, above left: A bizarre closeup of the Wave. Photo, above right: The large wash below the Wave eventually narrows to a slot.]
How Did It Get This Way? The Formation of the Wave and Coyote Buttes.
From the interpretive signs at the trailhead:
How Did It Get This Way? Amazing Colors and Shapes – Coyote Buttes is the name on the USGS topographic map, but there are popular names like the Wave, Teepees, Hoodoos, and Sand Cave. Coyote Buttes is an area of unparalleled beauty with surreal swirls of sandstone in multicolored hues of red, pink, orange, maroon, white, and yellow.
The Jurassic Navajo Sandstone Formation is the foundation of Coyote Buttes, Nearly 200 million years ago, this region was a sandy desert where huge dunes migrated across the landscape pushed by seasonal winds. Prevailing winds of that ancient Jurassic time can be determined by examining the cross-bedding (layers) in the sandstone.
What we see today are some of the original crossbedded dunes shaped into dramatic landforms and exposed by erosion from eons of runoff. The spectacular ribbons of various colors called Liesegang Bands, were formed by movement and precipitation of oxidizing materials such as iron and manganese by ground water. Thin veins or fins of calcite cut across the sandstone, adding another dimension to the landscape.
During summer monsoons, interdune oases would form – and where there was water, there was life. Today, the sandstone shows traces left by ancient burrowing insects and small three-toed dinosaurs foraging for food along the banks.
"Leave it as it is. The ages have been at work on it and man can only mar it." Theodore Roosevelt, 1903
Lower panels, left: 200 million years ago, when dinosaurs roamed over the land, this entire region was a huge, sandy desert where fierce winds whipped the sand into dunes. There were small oases where life congregated.
Lower panels, center: Over millions of years, younger deposits covered the sand dunes. Eventually the sand was compacted and cemented by minerals, forming the sedimentary rock layers geologists call the Navajo Sandstone Formation.
Lower panels, right: Beginning 15 million years ago, with the uplift of the Colorado Plateau, erosion of younger rock layers exposed the original dunes, showing the layers and cross-bedded formations we see today. An amazing array of dramatic shapes define the eroded Navajo Sandstone.
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