Posted by: kerryl29 | September 12, 2022

Return to the Desert: The Wave

As detailed in the most recent entry in this series, we camped at Stateline Campground the night before our permitted day at Coyote Buttes North. It was, again, very cold overnight, though not as bad as it had been at Cottonwood Cove the evening prior. (For instance, the water bottles inside the vehicle didn’t completely freeze.) We camped at Stateline because it’s just a couple of miles from the Wire Pass trailhead–which serves as the jumping off point for the hike to The Wave–and we wanted to hit the trail as early as possible. We’d talked about hiking in early enough to photograph sunrise somewhere along the way, but ultimately we decided to wait until twilight to begin the hike. It was another blue sky day, so it wasn’t as though we were going to miss out on some epic sunrise. Besides, we didn’t have a sunrise spot picked out. There was no way to scout the area in advance, given the permit restrictions.

It was plenty cold when we set out–we were undoubtedly the first people to hit the trail that day–but we warmed up as we moved and the air temperature rose pretty quickly as the sun crested the horizon.

The hike to The Wave is 3 1/2 miles each way, but it isn’t particularly difficult. There’s some elevation change, but nothing too onerous until you come to the large rock “mountain” that includes The Wave, when climbing a moderate sand dune is necessary. It’s always a bit of a slog to climb a sand dune of any height, but this was nothing like the experience we had at Coyote Gulch the previous spring. It only took a minute or two to surmount this dune.

In any event, the most difficult thing about The Wave hike is the absence of signage. Coyote Buttes North–like the South tract–is officially designated as wilderness, so really isn’t a true marked trail. There are several tiny signposts with arrows, which allow you to be certain that you’re headed in the right direction, but cairns aren’t allowed in Coyote Buttes North. Most of the hike is over slick rock or sand. I’ve done some open desert hiking on a few occasions and the experience is closer to that than dealing with a marked trail; there’s greater reliance on physical landmarks than on the few man-made markers for route finding.

After surmounting the sand dune, we found ourselves on the plateau that includes The Wave. We walked right into and through the amphitheater that includes The Wave and I gaped at it for a few moments. Our plan had been to wait until the sun was on as much of the formation as possible, which wouldn’t be until high noon, hours away. Our first destination was another rock formation, known semi-officially as “The Second Wave,” which is located about a half mile farther along on the plateau.

I almost didn’t make it to the Second Wave without photographing something else. One of the misconceptions, I think, about Coyote Buttes North is that The Wave is the only feature of interest. This is simply untrue. The Second Wave–which Jason, who had been there before, assured me was worth reaching while it would still be in full shade–is just one example of extremely interesting subject matter. And, as I alluded to above, there were multiple compelling spots along the way that had already caught my eye. We wouldn’t run out of photogenic subjects on this day.

We arrived at the Second Wave–reaching it requires dropping down a relatively steep, but short, rocky decline (it’s not nearly as difficult as it may sound–no scrambling was required)–and I took a moment to take it all in. There’s a bit of a danger here of being visually overwhelmed, as there’s so much to photograph and the formations are so singular. After I’d walked around and examined things a bit, I retreated back to the spot where we’d climbed down, while Jason worked an area closer to the part of the formation that gives the Second Wave its name.

The Second Wave Intimate, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

The colors, lines and shapes here are simply fascinating. To make matters even more enticing, we began to see the evidence of some reflected light in spots.

The Second Wave, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

I moved back and forth between compositions of a “three-quarters” style to shooting down the numerous fins and grooves.

The Second Wave Intimate, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Second Wave, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

And the ever-changing light had a dramatic impact on the subject matter.

The Second Wave, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Second Wave, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

The sun began to encroach on the Second Wave and we made plans to return to this spot at the very end of the day. In the meantime, I wanted to hustle back to one of the areas that had caught my eye on the way in. We still had plenty of time before we wanted to photograph The Wave, proper.

The spot that had intrigued me was a colorful bowl, of sorts, with several isolated bits of vegetation. This area remained in open shade–though that wouldn’t last for long–with some reflected light punctuating the colors.

Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

There wasn’t a lot of time available before we lost the light at this location, but I did take enough of a look around to find a notch in the rocks, covered by lichen, that made a pleasing foreground, with a shrub, somehow growing in a deep crack of a bright, giant orange boulder, in the background. I managed to jam my tripod into a notch and set up a stacked series, resulting in the image you see below. The shadow line–created by the sun rising over a formation behind my shooting position–was already creeping down the rock wall in the background. Another few minutes and this image would be gone.

Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

We returned to The Wave. It was still a bit too early to photograph it, so we spent some time exploring a narrow alcove-a virtual slot canyon–adjacent to The Wave.

The Alcove, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

It was late enough in the morning by this time that other visitors to Coyote Buttes North had arrived, and occasionally someone would come through the alcove, so we had to be patient to obtain photographs without someone encroaching on the scene.

The Alcove, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Alcove, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

I’d wanted to spend some time looking at tight abstracts in the alcove, but it was impossible to set up in the slot without making it extremely difficult for anyone to go back or forth through the passage, so I rather reluctantly gave up on the idea, and we returned to The Wave amphitheater.

It was basically high noon at this point, with as much direct light on the entire formation as possible, given the angle of the sun at this time of the year, so I set up to take the “classic” wide shot before moving on to what really intrigued me–the abstracts.

The Wave, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

The photo immediately below is from the same basic angle as the image above, but omits the sky. I was standing something like 15 feet below my initial position for the photograph below.

The Wave, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Then, I went to work on some abstracts. I converted many of the ensuing images in this set to black and white, because the contours stand out better in monochrome than color. But the next group of images will be a mix of the two renditions.

The Wave Black & White, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Wave, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Wave Black & White, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Wave, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Wave Intimate Black & White, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Wave, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

When we finished at The Wave, we decided to explore the wider formation that included the plateau. There are ways to get up to areas far above The Wave, but as best we could tell, they all require scrambling (i.e. the use of both hands). As we were carrying heavy packs of photo equipment and tripods, after much exploring, we decided to forego the exercise. After a couple of hours, and much hiking, we returned to the area around The Wave and spent some time working on intimate abstract compositions.

The Wave Black & White, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Wave Intimate, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Wave Intimate, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Wave Black & White, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Wave Intimate, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Wave Intimate, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Wave Intimate, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Wave Intimate, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

We slowly made our way back towards the Second Wave. We stopped at a couple of spots, that caught our eyes, prior.

Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

When we arrived back at the Second Wave, it was a revelation; the scene was dramatically different looking than it had been that morning. Now, early in the evening, the formation was bathed in direct low-angular light. We had no more than 15 minutes–and probably not even that–before the sun dropped below a ridge and the entire scene would be in full shadow, so we had an incentive to work quickly. As was the case on our first visit, we had to work cooperatively to avoid getting in one another’s way, but it was even more difficult now because of the long shadows our bodies and tripods cast over the scene.

I rendered each of the small number of images I made here–save one–in both color and monochrome and will present both renditions.

The Second Wave, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Second Wave Black & White, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

While Jason was working a wide scene, I found an area of rippled, glowing rock and managed to find time to tease out a couple of intimates.

The Second Wave Intimate, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Second Wave Intimate Black & White, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Second Wave Intimate, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Second Wave Intimate Black & White, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Before we departed the area, I produced one final image, from up on the ridge above the Second Wave, as the shadow from across the canyon slowly spread across the formation.

The Second Wave, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona
The Second Wave Black & White, Coyote Buttes North, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

I wished there had been more time as I’d already identified several compositions, visible from up on the ridge, that I would have liked to render, but the light was disappearing before our eyes.

We had entertained some thoughts about staying out until sunset, but there hadn’t been a cloud in the sky all day and we still had a 3 1/2 mile hike (actually more like four miles from the Second Wave) to get back to the trailhead. Doing that in the dark seemed…unwise…so, we kind of high-tailed it back toward The Wave, down the sand dune and across the slick rock, keeping our eyes on the relevant physical formations to guide us. We had, best guess, no more than 30 minutes until the sun would officially set.

We made good time and make no wrong turns. We were hiking the final stretch–a dry wash–as the last ambient light was fading, but we saw the headlights from a vehicle on House Rock Valley Road ahead of us, so we knew we were very close and on the right track. We emerged onto the road in the twilight.

We decided–rightly, I think–that rather than spend another extremely cold night camping, to drive back to Kanab and get a nice, warm hotel room. Our plan had us driving to Death Valley the following day anyway, so there was absolutely no reason to camp. So that’s what we did.

Our adventures in Death Valley National Park would begin the following day and will be the subject of the next installment in this series.


Responses

  1. Incredible place, and incredibly wonderful photography.

    • Thanks very much!

  2. Gorgeous images and great comps, Kerry. I was interested to see that I liked the b&w conversions over color in virtually all cases. Do you “roll your own” b&w conversions or do you use something like Nik Silver Efex?

    It is too bad that access to this area must be so restricted. I can see where one could easily spend 2-3 days (or more) there.

    • Thanks, Steve.

      I use various Silver Efex presets as starters for b/w conversions (which one depends on the nature of the image), though I almost always do a fair amount of tweaking to the final image.

      Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, generally, is a great destination. Even if you can’t get a permit for The Wave (Coyote Buttes North), you can almost certainly get one for Coyote Buttes South and there are areas of the Monument (White Pocket, for instance) which don’t require a permit. The key is having a vehicle which will allow you to access the more remote areas, like CBS and White Pocket; 4WD and high clearance are required, because deep sand is an issue in places. Also, to photograph these locations in the best light, you almost have to camp. It requires too long a drive in (on iffy roads, in the pitch dark) otherwise. (That is NOT the case for the hike to The Wave, BTW.) But, if you can deal with these issues, this is a great place to base yourself for the better part of a week, particularly if you can snag a permit to The Wave.

  3. Gorgeous compositions! 🌞

    • Thanks very much!

  4. The days of camping in that weather are done for me. I love the close-ups of the lines, colours and textures.

    • Thanks, Jane.

      FWIW, I have no intention of camping in that kind of cold again either. (It was MUCH colder than we had expected.)

  5. Wonderful images! That second wave is as striking as anything else here, pictorially speaking. The textures and colors are amazing. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Your pictures are mesmerizing!


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