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Feature category: TREKKING FEATURE
Summary and excerpts
USA: Trekking through the Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness

In Search of the Wave

.Text: © Paul Smit
Photos: © Paul Smit & Mick Palarczyk



This spectacular trek through the uninhabited heartland of the Colorado Plateau searches for The Wave, following Paria Canyon and Buckskin Gulch and crossing Coyote Buttes. All these features can be found within the huge nature reserve Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, which isn't less beautiful then well known national parks like the Grand Canyon, Bryce and Arches.


Excerpts of the article

Deep in the heart of the Colorado plateau lies the Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area. An unknown, inaccessible and breathtakingly beautiful area, farther from human civilisation than any other region in the United States. This is where we you find the Wave: the best-kept trekking secret of the USA.

Mick and I have to make our way through the Cockscomb Fault, an 80-kilometre-long ridge that cuts through the earth's crust like an open wound. It saves us a 150-kilometre roundtrip. While the Kodachrome Basin still had tarmac, we've now been driving along a dirt road for the last twenty kilometres. The holes are getting deeper, the washboard steeper. A dust cloud approaches on the horizon. Ten minutes later a green SUV stops beside us. Grand Staircase - Escalante National Monument is written on its side, which is the name of the vast expanse we are driving through.

What's up?" We explain to the park ranger that we are on our way to Paria Canyon in the Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area; 65 more bumpy kilometres to go. "Will the road ahead be okay for our car?" He walks around the Sedan, tugging at his beard as he considers the matter. Then he lovingly places his hand on the bonnet. "If it's your own car, don't do it. If it's a rental, beat it up!" >>>

Paria Canyon

>>> The footpath ends five hundred metres from the campground and will not reappear again for the next five days. According to our Hiker's Guide, we should now walk along the dry riverbed, but there is a river running through it. No matter. We were expecting water, but a few kilometres farther up. The hiking shoes go off, the old tennis shoes back on, and except for at night by the tent, that's how it stays for the next four days. The valley soon narrows and on all sides there are shapes and colours you would sooner expect in dainty fairyland than in rough backcountry. The first kilometre is predominantly pink and white, then pale rose takes over, with red and yellow horizontal bands chiming in. It looks like a group of crazy sculptors have been at work here, slightly disturbed characters with a strange sense of humour. Overhanging cliffs lean on crooked pillars. Some walls are decorated with complicated patterns of indentations, holes and caves, again sometimes interspersed with pillars. Here and there giant teepees stand next to the river, named for their similarity to wigwams. But they actually look more like a woman's breast, nipple and all. The pink and yellow layers look so like cake that you could bite right into them. If you were to put one of these out in front of an art museum, it would soon become more famous than the glass pyramid in front of the Louvre. Dozens of these are scattered around the landscape. >>>

>>> Underneath all the crusty sand we can discern two backpackers, a man and woman. "It's hell there. We've been trekking through the Wild West all our lives, we're used to this, but for a second here we thought our trail had come to an end…" "We were stuck in quicksand all afternoon, up to our chests. >>>

Buckskin Gulch

>>> "Hell of a place!" whispers my hiking buddy Mick, looking around uncertainly. Not a hell filled with fire but with darkness. The underworld, full of curious colourful reflections and deadly silence. The longest slot canyon in the world - so narrow that our packs have to be squeezed through here and there - blows its cold unclean breath in our faces. >>>

>>> We keep going. The only sound is the splashing and squishing in the countless and unpredictably deep pools. Suddenly we hear a soft whistling. It's mentioned in all the books, and the ranger told us about it too: the greatest fear of any hiker in the Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area is presaged by a whistling sound, high and deep at the same time. In our thoughts we already can picture the ten-metre-high wall of water, sludge and stones coming straight at us. If it doesn't drown you, it will smash you against the canyon wall. Or you'll get smashed in the head by one of the football-sized rocks that are swept along by the current. We look at each other in terror: flash flood!!! Nowhere to hide, the desert floor is 120 metres above our heads. No one has ever survived a flash flood in Buckskin Gulch. Then we see a crow appearing around the corner, acrobatically wending his way between the curving rock walls, the rustle of his wings resounding everywhere. >>>

>>> "Do you smell that?" "What, the dragon with halitosis breathing down on us?" The crow flies ahead to investigate. He reappears at the edge of the Cesspool where he is pulling out something indefinable. A large pool full of stagnant water, rotting plant material and the carcasses of unfortunate animals that have tumbled down the ravine. We don't see them, we feel them, as we have to wade through the stinking mass, deeper still than in the Narrows. >>>

The Wave

>>> Then Mick arrives. He takes a seat near me, looking out over the giant turtles, the wave and the conical red mountains in the distance, and is silent.


.Translated from the Dutch by Elise Reynolds


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This feature has been published in OP PAD and VIVRE L'AVENTURE, leading outdoor magazines of the Netherlands and France, and in VOYAGE, travel magazine de luxe in Italy.

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