Pipe Spring NM/Vermillion Cliffs NM, 2012

Last summer while doing research for places to visit on my summer road trip with my friends I started looking at places that I had yet to visit or hike. Since I planned on renting a truck, lots of new places were suddenly on the map...including Vermillion Cliffs National Monument. I didn't really know much about it as I could never drive any of my cars on the road, but with a truck it was worth some time. While searching some of the backpacking routes I came across the Coyote Buttes protected area on teh map and, a few searches away, saw pictures of The Wave. The pictures were beautiful, so originally I had thought to try and go there for a day with my sister. Weather canceled her trip, but that did not stop me from still longing someday to get to The Wave.

And so started months of lottery applications. Even for a single person party, it took over a third of a year to get an advance permit. And it was for February. So logistical planning had to begin...

I woudl be going alone, and I know for anything that requires wayfinding even for a day hike that increases the risk. So it was a lot of preplanning like I'd not done before for a backpacking trip, much less a day hike...learning how to preprogram a GPS, locate NOAA forecast weather maps based on coordinates, finally getting an emergency blanket in case I got lost in the cold...

And who knew about the weather. The weekend before my trip rains had gone through dumping snow on high elevations. Would the trailhead be accessible? Would the rocks be covered in snow? Seeing the snow level in the forecast and figuring out how to find altitude for GPS coordinates online, it didn't appear that it would be snowed under. So...trip on...and looking at the low temperatures for the campsite, get a puffy to try and stay warm.

Then Wednesday rolls around, time to call about road conditions now that the storm has passed. The access road to the north is impassable. Only accessible from the south. Is it accessible for passenger cars? No one could answer. And to get there I have to leave tomorrow. So it's time to hop on down to the car rental place and see if they have a 4x4. Last time they didn't but, wouldn't you know, there is a Silverado pickup with 4x4 in their lot. Having gone through all this planning already...and not knowing when I'd be able to get a pass from the lottery again, truck is rented. I'm going one way or the other.

Along the way driving to the south end of Rock Valley Road, I made good time and stopped by Pipe Spring National Monument. An old center of a Mormon tithing ranch, it served as kind of a crossroads for decades in the area and was "coopted" by Mather to serve as a stop off point for some of the first tourists going to the Grand Canyon. Though small the living structure was very well preserved and there are ranger offered tours every 30 minutes of the inside. I was the only person there, but they still ran the tour anyway. The ranger saw I liked taking photographs so was kind enough to let me go at whatever pace I wanted while explaning the history. The structure was filled with donated furniture and other items from the same period, all arranged according to the original purposing of the rooms of the house slash town center. But daylight was running out and I certainly didn't want to chance unknown dirt roads in the dark, so the need to flee came quickly.

Driving the winding road through the Kaibab National Forest I ascended and the land was covered in snow. Not a fun sign. Perhaps the entire area would be blanketed with snow. I kept looking at the odometer as I was going east, knowing there were only a few more miles to go. Suddenly the "steep hill" road sign started a quick descent. The preprogrammed GPS proximity alarm for the road intersection beeped and there I was. And no snow! Getting ready to drive into Vermillion Cliffs. The first mile or so of the road was great, as good as the roads to my uncle's place, so I thought "gee, could have brought the car." That changed after the second cattle guard. The road became quite rutted with portions of mud, and boy was I glad I had a 4x4 then! With the sun going down I was treated to some great light off of the west cliffs, lighting them on fire. The campground was wonderful as well. For a primitive campground it was certainly one of the nicest I've seen with great tables, structures to shield you from the sun in the summer. Aside from lacking water it's probably better than most full campgrounds I've been in!

It got cold during the night and I woke up to frost throughout my beard, and both inside and outside the tent. Very good thing I had that puffy! A cup of mate and some eggs later, the tent got packed up and was ready to go. And then I started the hike into Coyote Buttes North heading to The Wave. It is one of the most fun hikes I've done through the canyon country. Even going in it seemed like an artist's palette of all of the different styles of sandstone formations I'd seen through my various travels, right up there with the Muley Twist trail. It was a fun navigational exercise; even with a GPS it really was necessary to match the pictures to the landscape at points to find the optimal, or even the correct rough path; I'd be impressed if anyone could find it with just a compass and a topo! Progressing along the trail the formations both immediate in the buttes and distant along the ridges started to become more complex, layers tightening and changing direction, slight changes in color, a bit of yellow being introduced into the palette. Hoofing it up a hill maybe a hundred feet, suddenly there it was. The Wave.

It truly is one of the most striking sandstone formations I have ever seen. Looking almost wind and water eroded, layers go from thick to hair thin, and the range of color between each layer is staggering. They fold in undulating patterns looking as if some bizarre plate tectonics worked just there to form minature mountains. Looking up to the top of the ridge an arch sits above it like a crown. It is a thing of beauty.

While up there I realized how nice it was to have the access restrictions. While impressive The Wave is within a relatively small space. There are enough small side "canyons" and places to go that even without about 9 of us up there not everyone was always in the same place...great for pictures! At least two other people up there were photographers as well and it was fun sitting there, looking at changes in the light, making sure we weren't in each other's shots, actually taking turns being in each other's shots to give a sense of just how large things are, really a lot of fun. It really was the first time that I've "geeked" out with other nature photographers in the field and was a lot of fun...especially when one photographer from Mexico pulled out a functioning Polaroid. Take that Instagram, she packed in the real deal!

Hiking back I continued to enjoy all of the little minutae of the landscape, the rings drawn by the grasses blown in the wind, lone trees stuck up against impressionist sandstone backdrops, and even one other solo hiker trying to learn a new GPS. Other folks wondering if the frozen road they could pass in the morning would now be impassable mud in the late afternoon. But I was off to retrace those rutted roads and visit my uncle off of his, comparatively, dirt superhighway, and exchange some stories about a weekend and a hike that turned out just right.

The Photographs

Picutres were from the a900 system with the 24-70, 16-35, 70-300 lenses and a Peleng circular fisheye. At The Wave I used a teleconverter to mount the manual focus Minolta fisheye and 85mm Varisoft lenses for some shots as well. I went here to take pictures, so might as well play!

Click "Next" in the upper right to begin.

I also brought along my Lytro camera which has had some new fun with post-picture panning added in! Some of my favorite Lytro shots can be seen by clicking on that link.