Hiking the Wave in Arizona Zion National Park

Intentionally Expecting Nothing: a trip to The Wave and a few other amazing places.

When the unplanned and unexpected is the destination itself

Words and Images by: Andrew Lawrence

Often times we have a goal in mind when we travel somewhere, whether it be a specific place or landmark(s) or combination of the two. You don’t have to read for very long on any social media platform anymore and not see ‘#bucketlist’. My trip last August started off like this, similar to a few others in the past that I’ve done. The main goal of this trip was to hike in to see to see an amazing geological sandstone formation in Arizona called The Wave, made ‘insta-famous’ in recent years. When we have ‘goals’ like this it’s frequently driven by what someone else has told us, ‘You HAVE to see this place!’, or what we have likely seen in a pile of pictures and want to see for ourselves. In doing so, we often have developed some type of expectation in our minds. Now there is definitely nothing wrong with having a destination or goal in mind when traveling, especially when time is limited. However, more often than not I have found that the ‘expectation’ that has been preconceived can set one up for maybe not disappointment so much as a ‘huh, well…there it is..’ type moment where the picture or expectation we have made up in our minds isn’t so much the reality we end up seeing. Conversely, I have also found there more to be highlight after highlight on these trips from the unexpected rather than the planned.

road to zion arizona
Road to Zion

So, there I am, last summer, meeting up with a friend for a trip centered on going to The Wave outside of Kanab, UT just over the state border in Arizona. Other than that I really had no idea what to expect, and for me that was exciting. Now aside from the Wave being a site to see, the main reason this was the focal point of this trip was that a friend of mine from Washington DC had miraculously managed to secure a few permits to be able to hike in to see it. The Wave is a unique geologic feature in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, on the Colorado Plateau that is also infamously home to many very narrow and very deep slot canyons (spectacular in their own right!). To even be able to be allowed to hike in to see the Wave you have to win a lottery to get one of the very few coveted passes they issue to hikers each day. Some are issued in person at a parks office in Kanab UT and the others are picked from people who have applied (literally by the thousands) online each day. It was amazing to see this lottery play out on the day we visited the office to get our passes and some information on the area before we set out the next morning. There were over 80 people in a small room taking their chance to win one of 10 passes that would be issued that day for use the following day. 20 passes are issued each day, 10 of which are online and 10 in person from the daily lottery held at the Visitor Office. Needless to say, it’s understandable why something this challenging to get to see could be the base reason for a trip. We heard stories of where people have been applying for hiking passes for over 2 to 3 years and have still never won them.

So my friend contacts me, asks if I’m interested in doing a trip down there with the Wave being the highlight but that we would be seeing a few other things in the area. She had lined up an ATV tour near St. George, UT and being an experienced climber with canyoneering experience she suggested we maybe do a long day trip in a slot canyon in Zion National Park. I used to climb a fair amount years ago and am always up for an adventure involving a dose of adrenaline. All this sounded amazing and never having been anywhere near that area before I told her to count me! The plan was that we would meet in Las Vegas, rent a vehicle, drive to St. George UT to the accommodation that was lined up and use that as our ‘base camp’ for our week of adventures. And that is what we did. This was the point at which essentially having no expectation of what I was about to see and experience in the week to come set me up for highlight after highlight that I never could have predicted and made the trip many times more memorable and enjoyable.

A brief bit of back story on myself. I have a BSc in Physical Geography and chose that particular field of education because of my love of travel, different cultures, and my never ending fascination with the physical environment. So far I’ve traveled to 35 different countries on 5 continents. I’ve also been an avid photographer for a few decades now so my camera is never too far away. Little did I know what an incredible opportunity this trip would be to photograph seemingly endless breathtaking landscapes that I’d never experienced before.

Our first big day trip of three was an ATV tour just to the east of St. George, UT.

I had no idea what to expect on this tour and again, that might have been a reason I enjoyed it so much. The area we went was dominantly a red/orange-ish landscape that was very arid. A large part of the area we went was covered in sand dunes that were absolutely incredible! The guide we had was not only great at making sure everyone was safe but stopped frequently to let us take photos, have some water and snacks, and teach us about the unique environment there along with the native plant species that had adapted to the harsh desert conditions. From the top of the dunes looking north we could see a small man-made lake called the Sand Hollow Reservoir. It’s big enough for boats and given the hot dry environment a lot of the year there were definitely a lot of locals taking full advantage of it! Looking down from the top of the dunes the color of the water was amazing with a backdrop in the distance of Zion National Park and the mountains surrounding it. Looking to the west of the dunes we had huge uninhibited views of St. George and looking south the vista looking into Arizona seemed to go on forever! Really can’t recommend visiting these sand dunes and the Sand Hollow State Park area enough if you happen to visit. I’m usually one more for hiking but in this case given the landscape and the amount of sand to cross the ATV’s were super fun and easy to get around on! And definitely don’t forget to bring your camera or a GoPro!

Our second adventure was to the iconic Zion National Park (NP) for my first ever major slot canyon hike.

This is another place that has totally ‘blown up’ with the dawn of social media and not without good reason as probably many of you reading this have seen. Zion is nearly indescribable for the first time traveler here. When we first arrived I can’t even begin to add up the amount of time I just stared slack-jawed at the raw beauty and uniqueness of this place, it hardly looks real. When you see a place like Zion for the first time you instantly realize why so many outdoor enthusiasts and environmentalists are so fiercely protective of these special places. I’ve been to Jordan in the Middle East and been to the Monastery and the Treasury at Petra, this is easily as spectacular but in its own way. One arid canyon-filled landscape is certainly not the same as the next! Its places like this with canyons so incomprehensibly deep from water erosion and weathering that you truly make you feel and appreciate the power of nature.

Slot Canyon Hiking in Arizona

Our mission this day was to get onboard a small tour excursion van and get dropped off on an upper plateau at the origin of Orderville Canyon. Orderville is what is known as a ‘slot canyon’ and it is difficult to describe in words what it is like to walk through one of these. They are incredibly narrow and deep caused by thousands of years of water erosion. We met the Zion Adventure Company van in the dark early hours of the morning just off the main road that goes through the small village of Springdale which borders on the south entrance of Zion NP. The sun was beginning to rise as we started out through the park gates of Zion NP and up Hwy 9, the Zion-Mount Carmel Hwy. We could have literally just done the drive up and out of the canyon, stopped, taken some photos and stood and stared for an hour, and I would have been happy! This place was crazy spectacular! A visitor will quickly run out of words and expletives for what you see out the window as you drive down the road here. I had never been on a road climbing vertical canyon walls like this before and the sunlight of dawn reflecting on all the cliff walls just made the white, red, tan and orange colours of the rock walls around us brighter and more vibrant than can be imagined! We finally got to where the van dropped us off and surprisingly we were the only two that got out. There we were, in the middle of Zion National Park, on a country road, it’s around 8am, and we’re watching our only link to civilization drive away. So awesome! We would not see another person until around 12 hours later.

Rappelling in Slot Canyon Arizona

Ahead of us laid an approximately 13mi (21km) hike/obstacle course that I could never have imagined. This is again where having no expectations just amplified this adventure to be so incredibly impressive. Don’t get me wrong, we knew what to expect in terms of obstacles and the gear required to accomplish this hike safely, we had done our homework, but never could I have guessed how breathtaking this place would be. I won’t go into all the details here because it’s difficult to do it justice in words, hopefully the photos will help. I will say that for the next 12+ hrs (we quite literally got to our shuttle bus at the other end in the dark!) we hiked, climbed, repelled, swam, waded, sat, stared, and at times powerwalked when we realized how far we still had to go, through a slot canyon that never seemed to end, nor did you want it too. With just my big camera alone I took over 800 photos that day. That doesn’t include my friend’s camera or our phones when we used them to snap a few shots. This incredible canyon zigged and zagged and as we went further and further it got more and more narrow and more and more deep. The walls went up 100’s of feet beside us on either side only revealing a sliver of blue sky. It was so much cooler down there than I ever would have thought too, especially for the sections where the sun wasn’t shining down directly on us. At times that direct sun and heat was a very welcome thing! As you get down further and deeper into these canyons often times what starts off as a trickle of a stream can become a much larger stream with small waterfalls and larger pools of water. In some cases where we couldn’t fix a rope we were forced to jump up to 10+ ft into these pools of water. It doesn’t sound like much but when you can’t see what’s in the water and you are VERY far from any help, it takes on a bit of a different meaning. You quickly get used to being soaked to the bone for the rest of the hike after being in the water the first time! This is when the sun is very welcome to help you dry out and warm up a bit although once your feet are wet that’s it for the day! This hike starts with very easy walking along a road and then a dry stream bed through forests of small juniper and pine trees but this easy going is misleading. Very soon after starting out you begin descending into the canyon and surroundings quickly change to towering vertical walls of sandstone made up of various shades of white, grey, browns, and reds. I’m not sure I was any less in awe at the end of the day than when we started, I don’t think there was a disappointing step the entire way! Around every corner was something new and mind-bending and of course worth shooting 20 more photos of! If we weren’t in water my camera was usually in my hand. Another super fun aspect to this hike was all of the obstacles. There were massive boulders to get over, cliffs and waterfalls that we had to repel down, waterfalls we had to jump off into pools that we had to swim through, and streams and a river we had to literally walk down for quite a distance. The Orderville Canyon itself eventually joins up with the Zion Narrows which is where all hikers will catch the shuttle back to Zion NP Visitor Centre. It was here that we saw other people again since we started off that morning.

Navigating through Slot Canyon in Arizona

I could write an entire article combined with way too make photos on this hiking adventure alone. It was jaw-droppingly beautiful and one of the most fun hikes I’ve ever done. However, one thing to note and this is important, as a person will see by all the warnings at the park office, this hike is no joke! Warnings should be heeded and taken seriously. It is mandatory to have to go the NP office to get a briefing on hiking the area that we did. They will go through a questionnaire checklist with you for gear and knowledge, and they will most definitely drive home the point to every hiker the always very real and present danger of possible flash flooding in places like Orderville Canyon or any of the canyons for that matter. These are extremely deep and extremely narrow drainages and when there are large convective desert thunderstorms in the hills nearby (which are not uncommon) these slot canyons can become raging torrents of muddy water and debris traveling at speeds much faster than any person can run. In fact two days after we hiked here there were huge thunderstorms and the trails were closed by the Park’s service. It’s also imperative you have the right gear, along with adequate food, water and rope experience to attempt this hike. If you get educated and take the correct steps to safely prepare for this you are almost guaranteed the experience of a lifetime hiking a slot canyon such as Orderville. Also to note, the Springdale village at the south entrance of Zion does have some camping, hotels, stores and other amenities (a brewery!) in case you forget or need anything. Any of the local restaurants are definitely a welcome sight after this hike!

So far those are the two unexpected adventures we did that were not even the reason for this trip and I could have easily gone home ecstatic at this point with just doing them. However, now came the main event!

The Wave…

The Wave in Zion National Park

I had seen many photos of The Wave before and until my friend asked me to go I really hadn’t given it much thought or considered that I’d ever see it. It was all over social media, apparently passes were extremely hard to get, I was in Canada, it was in the middle of nowhere in northern Arizona, there are thousands of places that I want to see in the world that I don’t need to win a lottery to get a pass for so I never really thought I’d go. Then I get a phone call inviting me, passes are secured, and all I have to do is get down there. Well that changed everything and obviously I accepted. Now I had some expectation of what the Wave itself might look like but that was it (which by the way, didn’t look at all like what I had in envisioned in my head, despite all the photos I’d seen!). Here is what I didn’t have expectations of. I didn’t expect the incredible previous two adventures. I didn’t expect a drive through a spectacular desert landscape that had me stopping on the side of the road taking photos of full double rainbows after sudden thunderstorm downpours had passed by. I didn’t expect to end up in Kanab, UT with a bunch of strangers outside a cafe staring at the eclipse through glasses we were all sharing! I didn’t expect the entire drive to be an eye candy adventure in itself. The journey alone was so impressive and beautiful that I was really beginning to wonder how much better the Wave itself could be.

Hiking into the Wave
Approaching the Wave

The day finally came and again, we left very early in the morning from St George UT. We drove down through northern Arizona and back up into Utah to arrive in the small town of Kanab. Here you go to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Kanab Visitor Center and this is where you are issued your passes for the Wave and given a thorough briefing on the area, the hike, the weather forecast, the environment, and the rules around it. When you go into this area and hike to the Wave you quickly see how fragile this environment and its ecosystems are, it’s not surprising that they talk to everyone who is issued a day hiking permit to educate people and hopefully protect and conserve the area. (By the way, Kanab itself is cool little town with some great restaurants and again if there is anything you have forgotten in terms of supplies or water or to fill up your car all the amenities you could need are there.)

The Wave in Arizona National Park

So we get our bright pink passes that must be on your backpack at all times and we drive out of Kanab, east toward the trailhead. Again the drive heading east out across the desert environment is beautiful and it was a perfect sunny day with puffy white clouds here and there giving just enough shade once in a while so it wasn’t too hot. Eventually we turn off the hwy heading directly south on a sandy dirt road with many washout stream beds to cross on the way to the trailhead. Luckily today they are all passable and the road is in decent shape. We heard stories of how the streambeds can fill up quickly from flashfloods from thunderstorms which can also make the sandy/clay/silt road surface very slick and in many instances impassable.

Rock formations at The Wave

We get to the parking lot and gear up to head out on the trail. At this point we are still in Utah but just a few hundred meters before the Wave itself you actually cross the state line into Arizona. The trail starts off down a washout streambed that is dry at the moment. We are surrounded by the brick orange/red landscape that is common in the area but never gets boring to look at. We go up and over two small hills and the path alternates between deep soft orange-red warm sand and walking over the huge sedimentary infinitely layered sandstone rock it originated from. Once we climb up and over the second hill called Rock Staircase Pass the various shades of the red, orange, rust, brown, tan, white and yellow and the endless forms they make sprawl out in front of us as far as the eye can see. The colour of the landscape here is so prominent that it is easily seen if you are zoomed out looking at the entire United States on Google Earth. It truly is impressive and so different that what I’m used to here living around the rain forests and Coast Mountains of western Canada. Once over this rock hill the trail turns straight south toward The Wave formation which is only a little over 2km away. This is one of the surprises that I didn’t expect coming to The Wave, I thought the trail would be a lot longer, a bit more of a ‘mission’. I think the mission more for this is actually managing to win a pass to go! For a day hike it is really quite short and I’d say relatively easy. Nothing more than trail hikers or light hiking boots are required. The formations that surround us now as we walk along are absolutely fascinating. I feel like I’m walking through a combination of the Flintstones and what the surface of Mars might look like! There isn’t a boring step to be had and we see so many interesting things as we move along, from delicate desert plants to all the crazy rock formations that never cease to fascinate. There were even rarely seen tadpoles in a pool of water right in The Wave itself! Seeing animal life like that was so surprising! Some of the bigger hills/mountains made of the colourful layers looked like playdough that had been moulded by hand and then frozen in time. The area is not really what I had imagined but I am still unexpectedly surprised at how beautiful it is and I find it hard to put my camera down. After a while we descend again, across another dry sandy streambed and then very abruptly upward up a sand dune and then a steeper solid sandstone rock section. A few minutes later the trail quickly levels out again in front of us and we are standing at the entry to The Wave! Although not what I had envisioned in my head or perhaps as large as I had thought for some reason, this place was awe inspiring and nothing like anything I’ve ever seen. It quickly becomes obvious why so many people apply for passes to come here and even more apparent why those passes are limited.

The colours of the Wave in arizona are amazing

This environment has been carved by water and wind for thousands of years. Not only is the presence of water very intermittent and often scarce for fragile plant and animal life and also good soil hard to come by, but the rock formations in many cases themselves are very delicate and easily broken, worn down, and eroded by human activity. You find yourself ‘treading lightly’ and really trying to not break off any rock structures that have been created from the various weathering processes. You will likely also find yourself just standing, and staring…almost dumbfounded. This happened to me numerous times on the hike nevermind at The Wave itself. It’s a truly beautiful place and so unique that a lot of people just seemed to go quiet, sit down and look around, trying to take it all in. I could have quite happily sat there for hours and just ‘been’. After a while we walk through and out the top of The Wave toward some other formations up past it that are also very much worth looking at as well. The entire area is just incredible and time will fly by once you are there and trying to look around every rock, gully, and formation. I can’t recommend enough to get an early start, you will be glad for every extra minute you can have in this place. Perhaps it’s the colours of the rocks, the heat coming from them keep you warm, or the silence of the desert, or all of those but whatever it is I found it very calming. I found myself wishing we had gotten there even earlier. There is no cell phone reception out there either, thank god, and you don’t miss it for a second. It’s a very special place.

Treading lightly in The Wave Arizona

The Wave wasn’t what I had expected and made up in my mind based on various photos but it was no less impressive. I couldn’t have been happier, as often is the case, with how the unexpected worked out and if you are curious about The Wave and surrounding area most definitely try to go! In fact, as I write this I am making my plan to go back down again in May. There is SO much to see in Utah, Arizona, and Nevada that even if you can’t get a permit for The Wave I still can’t recommend enough to get down there and check out anywhere else in the region. Keep your mind open and expectations to a minimum, you’ll be more than pleasantly surprised and most definitely not disappointed…and most importantly bring a camera, these are photos you will want to look back at!

Bring your camera to The Wave

About the Author:

Andrw Lawrence Vancouver BCAndrew Lawrence is a freelance photographer from Vancouver, BC. He has had a passion for shooting nature and adventure since he was a kid growing up in the Okanagan/Similikameen. Some of his top travel spots include Vietnam, The Galapagos Islands, Jordan and the Yukon, When he isn’t traveling the globe he can be found in the mountains surrounding Vancouver where he loves skiing, hiking and mountain biking. Andrew is always up for an adventure! Follow along on his Instagram here >>>