Catching the Wave

In one of America’s great wilderness areas, a stream of smooth, curvy outlines are etched into the mountainside. They call it the Wave.


The US has always been spoilt with mesmerising rock canyons, but none of them are quite like this one. Just north of the famous Grand Canyon, near the border between Arizona and Utah, wavy lines have been carved into rock by the passage of time. It looks like some kind of caramel swirl: the way it contains several colours; the way it tweaks its way around bends and corners.

Unlike many other natural sights around the world, where unregulated tourism and an overload of visitors put the attraction itself at risk, the authorities are wary of jeopardising the health of their talismanic site. Only 20 people are allowed to visit it each day. They are given permits that effectively work as entrance tickets, awarded through a lottery. Needless to say, competition is tough.

Many of those who miss out on permits still choose to hike in the surrounding landscape: the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, a protected area that in 1984 joined the National Wilderness Preservation System, created by the Wilderness Act of 1964. It is a desolated terrain; rocky and dusty, characterised by deep valleys, narrow gorges and sandstone arches. Animals residing here include deer and big horn sheep, a sheep famous for, well, big horns.


To keep the wilderness wild, the authorities have insisted on removing sign posts, maps and other facilities. Even pathways are non-existent. “Once you get off the roads there is really nothing,” says William James, owner of Dreamland Safari Tours. “You are walking across the rocks, so there are no defined trails.” To avoid getting lost – and people do – many hire tour guides. Others get their own map and attempt to navigate their way through. Most visitors are hikers and backpackers. But due to the area’s unusual rock formations – not to mention the Wave – it is also a favourite among geologists.

En route, dangers lurk. The wilderness is notorious for flash floods, which can occur at any time of the year. (Though they are most likely to strike between July and September.) They are unpredictable, and last between eight and 12 hours. For days afterwards, the wet conditions can create quicksand and swampy areas. The floods create a high number of riverbeds to cross, and those embarking upon a trip will have to prepare for wet feet. No wonder ‘Paria’ in the old Paiute Indian language translates as ‘muddy water’.

Flash floods need not necessarily be threatening. James says they pose little danger in open landscapes. “Flash floods are quite easy to avoid,” he says. “It’s not like a tsunami wave coming at you.” However, he says, “If you’re in something like a slot canyon, you’re in bad trouble.” In these canyons, depending on the volume of water, flash floods can gather an overwhelming force. Another danger is the materials they carry with them: in one gorge, debris has been discovered 15 metres above the stream, lodged between the canyon walls.


Apart from that, the main danger of the wilderness is to lose one’s way, or to fall victim to the harsh environment. “The main dangers are simply getting lost and exposure to the elements,” says James. “The area can get very cold and hot, and there are no obvious sources of water around.”

Once you have wandered through the terrain, the Wave is the undisputed highlight. And so the inevitable question quickly becomes: how was it formed? David B. Loope, professor at the University of Nebraska, says it was carved by wind erosion. “That is pretty unusual, because flowing water is the main process that shapes the Earth’s landforms,” he says. “The best evidence for this conclusion is found in the abundance and form of little step-like ridges – about one centimeter high – that are carved onto the rock surfaces by the wind-driven sand grains.”

A central part of this development is the fact that the Wave is made of Navajo sandstone, which is soft and easy to shape. “This has made it quite vulnerable to wind erosion,” explains Loope. “As this erosion starts, the breakdown of the wind-deposited Navajo provides abrasives of the proper size that are needed for further erosion.” And so the rock particles broken loose by the wind become the tools through which nature creates this masterpiece. Indeed, today, Loope says, you can see a big pile of dune sand just below the Wave, an accumulation of the grains that cut the landscape. That is, if you’re lucky enough to get a permit.

Photos: Tu Le, Francesco R. Iacomino, Sierralara [all via].