Many tourists admire the scenery from the road as they whiz from the Grand Canyon up to Zion National Park. If you don’t have time to stop, it’s an amazing scenic drive. The cliffs are made up of deposited silt and sandstone, and the glowing red color is unforgettable. But if you have time to explore, by all means pull over and do so!
The cliffs were made a national monument in 2000. They include over 290,000 acres of unspoiled land with very few facilities. Don’t expect a visitor’s center or even paved roads. You’ll need permits to explore most of the attractions in the area.
The most famous attraction in the monument has to be the Wave. It’s a sandstone rock formation, essentially a trough, about 62 feet wide; the undulating reds, pinks, and yellows swirl and bend to create strange shapes and images. The soft sandstone requires visitors to step lightly as they explore so they don’t disturb the ridges that create the wave effect. It’s famous for its photogenic properties, as well as the difficult hike required to gain access. For the best shots, visit around midday when there are few shadows to interfere. The Los Angeles Times’ Hugo Martin is quoted as saying, “You can’t call yourself a landscape photographer if you haven’t snapped a photo or two of the Wave.” Only a few permits are given each day, so make your plans well in advance.
Buckskin Gulch is the longest and deepest slot canyon in the Southwest, and may actually be the longest in the world. It’s 21 miles from start to finish, and although you can cover the distance in a day, most visitors backpack and take two days. You will need rope, you’ll be doing some scrambling, plus you may be wading or even swimming through stagnant pools, so it’s not a casual hike. However, the unique beauty of the canyon is unparalleled and it has become something of a hiker’s destination. The narrow, sandstone walls are rich in color and have that wonderful rolling quality for which the area is famous.
One of the less visited destinations in the monument, White Pocket requires 4WD to access, and you will be driving over deep sand at some points. But the eerie colors, shapes and textures of the landscape are a work of natural art. Those who do make the trip often find it more impressive than the famous Wave. It’s like looking at an alien world, and isolated enough that you will probably have the place to yourself. The hiking itself is not overly difficult, but it will take some intense off-roading to get there. It’s part of the South Coyote Buttes, a fragile landscape, and no overnight hiking is permitted. There are no established trails, so it is up to individuals to be careful of their impact. The brittle rock formations and delicate fins that make it so beautiful need to be protected. As with the Wave, only a few permits are handed out for this destination, but there is much less permit competition. Don’t look at this trip as a consolation prize for not getting to the Wave, however! It’s just as beautiful and outlandish, and a photographer’s dream.
If you’re looking for an experienced guide to lead you through the monument, which can really enhance the experience if you’re a beginner hiker, there are tons of tours and excursion companies that can help; Dreamland Safari Tours and Grand Circle Tours both get rave reviews. And, if you need a place to set up camp while exploring the area, Lees Ferry Campground makes a great base.