Paul Smit features, photos and text

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Note to the editor

The following information is extensive. My suggestion is to keep the information printed in the magazine to a minimum, favouring the text and photography, and offer the unabridged information block as a premium service for subscribers, in a website linked to the magazine.

This feature comes with a map showing the most important sites and the route in question.


INFORMATION Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, addendum to the article

In Search of the Wave


Text: Paul Smit, photos: Paul Smit & Mick Palarczyk



The Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area (VCWA), that encompasses Paria Canyon, Buckskin Gulch, Coyote Buttes and The Wave, is rarely included on road maps. It lies partly in Arizona, partly in Utah. The ranger station, where you can get route descriptions and guides, is on the crossing of Route 89 and the Paria River. It lies just over the border in Utah, so keep the time in mind as you arrive from Arizona! Utah operates on daylight saving time so is one hour later in summer.


EU residents staying for less than 90 days do not need a visa. You do need to be in possession of a return ticket to the USA.


By air: Las Vegas or Salt Lake City. There is no public transport in the area. This is the emptiest part of the USA, with deserts where temperatures can rise to 50° C in the summer. Hitchhiking is definitely not recommended.

Car rental

It is best to rent a car, as it also functions as a base camp, where you always have a supply of food, water and medicines on hand. How it is possible for the most car-oriented society to be such a labyrinth of terms and conditions, insurance, small print, things you need to know and huge price differences has yet to be explained. Anyway, rule number one: without a credit card nothing will happen. Rule number two: book the car rental along with your airline ticket, this results in hundreds of dollars of savings. Find the best combination of both and take a critical look at the supercheapest offers of one of the two. The important small print of the car rental contract is not on the site of the airline company, but on that of the car rental company. And not on the national site but on the site of the local office that the ticket provider works with. Offers and combination agreements change all the time, expect a full day of online research.

Look for a rental contract in which the extra driver is free (usually not the case). Always register your extra driver, otherwise you will not be insured when he or she is driving.

One important point to consider is, do you want to take out an LIS or ALI (Liability Insurance Supplement/Additional Liability Insurance)? Two different names for the same thing: a more extensive liability insurance. Liability insurance is already included in the basic package, but the salesperson will try to sell you the 'gold package' with all its supplemental insurance. As useful as this may be in the American cityscape filled with litigious star lawyers, in desert areas like the Colorado Plateau, this type of legal armour is excessive. Moreover, Americans drive, unlike their movie counterparts, very safely. Drive like an American and stick to the basic package, and it'll cost you half as much!

Another tip: if you rent the car for three weeks, return it after three weeks. You can extend the rental, but the fees are astronomical.

Some rental companies do not allow you to drive on unpaved roads. Don't discuss it, just do it (you have no choice) and run the car through a car wash before returning it.

Almost all rental companies will only rent you a car one day after arrival, for fear of accidents caused by jet lag or lack of sleep. This means staying overnight near the airport. Book the room well ahead of time (credit card required), as finding a room last minute in Las Vegas for example is impossible.


Permits can be arranged on the website:, again using a credit card. For a day walk through Paria Canyon or Buckskin Gulch you don't need a permit. You just register at the trailhead and pay $5 per person per day (make sure to have plenty of five dollar bills!). For overnight stays you do need to reserve a permit.

Permits are scarce for this area, and for Coyote Buttes North (there is also a South) too: only twenty per day. Make sure to book four months ahead of time! And respond quickly, all permits for a certain month can be gone in five minutes when the permit hunt for that month opens, so read the instructions well.

If rain is imminent on the day of your overnight permit for Buckskin Gulch, the ravine is very dangerous and you are out of luck: your permit does not move to the next day. Plan alternative routes in case.

Nature preservation

The sandstone formations of Coyote Butte are very fragile. The Wave is impressive enough to attract crowds like the Grand Canyon or the Taj Mahal, but it wouldn't be able to handle it. That is why so few permits are given out. And even if you are one of only ten daily visitors, your hiking boots still cause damage. Be like the Native Americans that once lived here. They left the bizarre sandstone architecture, those vulnerable remnants of ten thousand years of erosion, untouched.

Dangers and safety measures

Do not take the flash flood danger in Buckskin Gulch and the Narrows of Paria Canyon lightly. Get the latest weather report from the ranger station before you set out. Barring this, if you see even one little cloud in the sky in July, August or September, don't go. Quite a few outdoors hikers have died in Buckskin Gulch.

Do not go walking without a stick. In Paria Canyon (especially in the Narrows), quicksand does occur. Moreover the water is clouded and the depth varies treacherously. Also take a rope, it will be useful for pulling backpacks up and down.

Lack of drinking water is a common cause of casualties in backcountry. In October take at least two litres of drinking water per person per day, in the summer four. If you use natural water (there are a few springs at the conjunction of Buckskin and Paria, often dry, find out!) always filter it, even if it is only to brush your teeth with. First filter it through a clean handkerchief (otherwise the water filters become useless straight away), then through virus-filtering filters, or else you can boil it. You will find drinking water at the ranger station. The easiest way to transport it is in collapsible water containers. Always stock the car with full jerry cans.

All things considered, if you are going on a hike of several days and the weight of your luggage is not made up mostly of water, you are doing something wrong!

Best time of year

October, for the entire Colorado Plateau. The summer's storms (which last till mid September) are over then and with them the biggest chance of flash floods. The temperature is 20°-25° C during the day, at night there might already be a light frost. April, May and June are also suitable times. Avoid July and August, when both rivers have on average one flash flood every week and intense heat, doubling the weight of the drinking water you need to carry as compared to April, May and October.

Overnight stays

Whitehouse Campground near the ranger station offers the most luxurious commodity you will find on the trail: a toilet (without water). For the rest you will have to camp wild (permit required). Never camp out in a narrow part of the canyon or near water. Take your waste products and toilet paper with you (paper doesn't decompose in the desert) and bury your faeces. You can find out more about suitable spots for wild camping on the Internet.

Food and drink

Not far from the ranger station in the direction of Kanab you will find Paria Canyon Guest Ranch (website: The locals here are pure Seventies, from their hair down to their clothes. Are they being retro-hip or hopelessly outdated? Locals here, incidentally, include everyone who drives up to 75 kilometres in their SUV or pickup for a beer. This place has a nice atmosphere and delicious homecooked food, all you can eat. You can sleep here, camp, and buy guides and outdoor equipment. There is no TV or computer, they pick up their email from 20 kilometres further down the road.

Maps and guides

Favourite: the Hiker's Guide to Paria Canyon ($ 8.00 at the ranger station) also has a map and includes information about the Buckskin Gulch. The only useful map that shows the trail to the Wave can be found on the Internet (see addresses below). The most practical information can be found on the Internet anyway, not in hiker's guides.

For trails through the larger area: Falcon Guide Hiking Grand Staircase-Escalante & the Glen Canyon Region ($ 14.95 on site, £ 8.35 on Travelling by car: Lonely Planet Travel Survival Kit 'Southwest' (Arizona, New Mexico, Utah) (£ 11.99 on For me the most beautiful photography book of the region is Stone Canyons of the Colorado Plateau (published by Harry Abrams, £ 12.95 on with photography by Jack Dykinga and an introduction written by Robert Redford. This book was instrumental in a political tug-of-war that resulted in the institution of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by President Clinton. A wise and timely step, as Bush Jr. would not hesitate to let the mining lobby have its way. Now this National Monument is the largest sanctuary in the USA and an essential link between the smaller protected areas like Bryce, Grand Canyon and the Vermillions Cliffs Wilderness Area. A wonderful book about this area is Heart of the Desert Wild (Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument), published by the Bryce Canyon Natural History Association ($ 24.95 at the ranger station).

Useful addresses

Everything is connected to the Internet (the official site, for arranging permits and finding useful information)

In case you can read German, don't miss this very practical site: Arriving on this site, follow these links: Nordamerika > USA > Coyote Buttes/Paria Canyon. (including a hiker's map of the last bit of trail leading to the Wave!)

And much more can be found by typing in 'Paria Canyon', 'Buckskin Gulch' or 'Coyote Buttes' in a search machine. You will find enough information for days of anticipatory fun.


Translated from the Dutch by Elise Reynolds




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