Images from the Film Archives – 2001
For many years, Coyote Buttes was a place known to only a few photographers who never divulged its location. But after quite a bit of research, I was able to discover where it was, the difficulty in reaching it, and most importantly, that a permit was required to visit this wonderfully magic place that I had only seen in photographs. Word was slowly getting out, and obtaining a permit required visiting an online application portal for specific dates 6-months in advance, beginning at 12 noon on the first of every month!! Luckily, I was off from work on that day, and I was home, ready to apply as soon as the screen said permits were available. I got a permit right away and I thought I would immediately try for another on the day following my successfully acquired permit, but in those few minutes, all the permits for the entire month were gone, being only 10 were allowed for each day!! Amazing!!
By the time I left on the trip to that area on the border between Utah and Arizona, I had found more information, and even a map showing the long drive over dirt back roads to get to the trailhead. Stopping in at the ranger station on the day before my permit, I was shown pictures of certain landmarks to look for along the 3-mile, overland (no trail) desert terrain to find it. He said it was a somewhat dangerous hike and pretty easy to get lost out there. In fact, several years later, I read of an older husband and wife who never made it back to their car; their bodies found a few days later. Now, permits are distributed strictly by monthly lottery to applicants, but still only 10 per day.
After the serious talk from the ranger, it was with a bit of anxiety that I headed for the trailhead the following night/day. Driving there in the dark hours of early morning, it was an ominous sight to see an 18-wheeler laying on its side along the curve in the highway where the turnoff for the 8-10 mile dirt road led to the trail. Filled with just a bit of trepidation, I drove slowly by the wreck, and headed into the unknown wild desert lands, bumping along the dirt track, not knowing exactly where the trailhead was, just keeping an eye on the odometer to look more intently as I got nearer to where it should be, and not drive past it. But I did find it, packed up my gear and signed in at the trailhead. I wondered to myself if anyone really checks each day to make sure everyone who has signed in was accounted for at the end of the day. If I did get lost, would anyone really come looking for me any time soon? As I began the hike all alone, I could hear the loud crunch of gravel underfoot in the dry wash, yet the quiet was almost overwhelming as I hiked in near darkness, my headlamp throwing out a beam in search of whatever lay ahead. As per ranger instructions, I eventually made my way up a canyon wall that topped out to a broad, shallow valley of mostly pink sand and sandstone. Still a long way to go, as the day brightened slightly, I spotted the last landmark at least another long mile away, and made my way toward it until I found what was the final climb up a rock slope to discover I was actually at the Wave, one of the crown photographic jewels at the time!!
Photographing began right then where I found a small pool in the shade reflecting the striated rock ahead in the early sunlight, and I used a soft split ND filter to even out the light as best I could and a warming filter to counteract the blue the film would pick up being in shade. I spent the entire day there, wandering through the labyrinth of slots and swirling sandstone, photographing, and just soaking up the wonder of it all. I found a small pond on a ridge higher up from The Wave that reflected a rounded mound of eroded stone (above), and explored further up along the cliffs to discover a long swirl of yellow rock that was side lit in grand relief very late in the afternoon, while the opposite canyon wall was in shadow, showing up almost black in the chromes I took. Later, I would learn that this formation was called the Second Wave.
Staying as long as I could to assure there would still be some light for a bit of safety, I reluctantly packed up for the long trek back, and wondered if I would ever be able to revisit, considering how difficult it might be to obtain a permit. As I set out back to the car, I promised myself I had to try again.
As it turned out, I did get a permit the following year with the help of my wife, since I was working the day permits opened. In that year, I made the same hike and visited The Wave again, afterward continuing another mile, to the area called The Teepees, before returning to the Wave for the late afternoon light. I also made it to South Coyote Buttes that year, to see first hand another area of magical swirling sandstone and color.
But on the hike back that first year, there was more difficulty finding my way than I had earlier that morning; landmarks seen from the opposite direction were unrecognizeable. At one point, unable to make my way down a cliff into a wash to continue back to the trailhead, I became a bit panicked as it grew much darker. After several aborted attempts, I managed to maneuver my way down somehow, followed the wash to a sandy bench, recognized it with telltale tracks, and the rest of the hike back was much easier to follow, even though by then it was almost dark.
It was a very long and exhausting day, but I was really pumped up as I drove along that dirt road back toward the highway, soaking in the memories and wildness of that place, with all the windows wide open, and a CD blasting as loud as I could bear!!