When people connect that place to this area and a trip out here, it becomes tunnel vision. It's limited, forbidden, exclusive. Because of the number of permits, it makes it more desirable. People call and say, 'I want to go to The Wave or nothing.' —Dreamland Safari Tours owner Will James
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — A geological gem awaits hikers in the wilderness along the Arizona-Utah border. Swirls of searing reds, oranges and yellow fold into a bowl that visitors from around the world seek out on an unmarked path past sandstone buttes and sage brush.
It's said to be one of the most photographed spots in North America, but The Wave in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument isn't without dangers. A series of heat-related deaths in 2013 led to an outside review of safety risks, increased patrols and a new radio transmitter. A new proposal to change the way permits are doled out could free up even more people to talk to visitors about ways to avoid peril.
"This is not just a nice little stroll in the park on a hot day," said BLM spokesman Dennis Godfrey. "It's a dangerous situation, and you better be prepared."
Getting to The Wave initially takes a stroke of luck. Only 20 people are allowed to visit each day, with 10 chosen in an online lottery four months in advance and the other 10 picked in a walk-in, bingo-style lottery in Kanab, Utah.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the monument, wants to shift the walk-in lottery to a 48-hour online lottery and have the public apply twice a year for the semi-annual lottery, instead of monthly. That would allow the handful of people who handle the walk-in lottery to instead meet with hikers and stress the importance of having plenty of water, salty snacks and sunscreen, especially in the summer when temperatures are in the triple digits.
A public comment period on the proposed changes closes Aug. 17.
Officials say the proposal, which includes fee increases, is meant to address a budget shortfall, partly due to the $50,000 more a year spent on field patrols. The number of permits for The Wave won't change. The BLM limits them to protect the delicate sandstone formation and prevent overcrowding.
The six-mile, roundtrip hike to The Wave is unmarked and cellphone reception is spotty at best. Permits come with compass points, directions and photographs of key navigational points. Guides can be hired without an extra permit, but visitors are free to go alone, even without any hiking experience. Many rely on GPS devices.
The Wave is a small part of the wilderness area, a 2-acre "pinprick" in a special management area that has other breathtaking views and similar strata in the permitted area, says BLM spokeswoman Rachel Carnahan. But it's the big draw, she said, with applicants last year far outnumbering the 7,300 permits available.
"It's become an iconic image that people have latched on to and become really recognizable," said Dreamland Safari Tours owner Will James, who is among the commercial guides. "When people connect that place to this area and a trip out here, it becomes tunnel vision. It's limited, forbidden, exclusive. Because of the number of permits, it makes it more desirable. People call and say, 'I want to go to The Wave or nothing.'"
James said eliminating the walk-in lottery could increase competition for the permits online and slow tourist traffic to Kanab, where wanna-be Wave hikers hang out as they try to win one of the coveted 10 daily permits.
Kyle Walker, who owns Grand Circle Tours in Page, suggested the BLM increase the fees further and institute a ranger-led hike to ensure people are safe in the wilderness.
New trailhead signs went up following the trio of deaths in 2013 at The Wave, more warnings were posted on a BLM website and safety brochures were translated for foreign visitors. An outside review found the BLM's safety plan to be solid but recommended some tweaks.
It's hard to say whether the efforts paid off, Carnahan said. There's been no major incident at The Wave since May 2014 when a mildly diabetic California man was found unconscious and out of food and water. He was rescued when a worker noticed his expired permit on display in his car in the parking lot.