Wild Wild (South) West
Journal Post #18: April 10th 2023, Sedona Arizona
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“How to drive in deep sand?” we typed in YouTube while tucked in bed in an Airbnb in Kanab Utah. Anxiety and excitement in the air. Just a few days before we were the lucky winners of a lottery to visit a wilderness area in South Utah. Only 20 people a day are allowed into The Coyote Buttes South, which is part of the 112,500-acre Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness area. The United States Congress has designated these wilderness areas since 1964, specifically 803 wilderness areas covering more than 111.7 million acres! Official wilderness areas have the highest form of protection of any federal land, and are not to be confused with National Parks or National Forests.
National Parks are well managed recreation areas because of the large number of visitors. National Forests use minimal regulation to keep the environment in as good of condition as possible. Wilderness Areas require strict rules to maintain an untouched condition.
The wilderness designation adds a legal layer of protection onto existing federal land. For instance, unlike other federal lands, wildernesses areas cannot have roads or other infrastructure. Basically, wilderness areas are - duh - wild. That said, not all wilderness areas require daily permits or allow as little people as Coyote Buttes, so this one is extra wild.
I am into this, so I was very excited when we won, but in truth we didn’t know much more about the place; how to get to it, what to do there, etc. Once you win the permit, you have to accept it, and this is where things become clear.
SO MANY WARNINGS!
“Roads leading to the permit area have deep sand and sharp rock. Experience driving in deep sand is important.”
“Every year, groups get stuck and stranded after attempting the drive without adequate experience or vehicles.”
“There are no designated hiking trails. Most of your time in this area requires hiking in deep sand.”
“You will very likely see no one or have only occasional contact with other visitors.”
“You should be in good physical condition and have good backcountry hiking and navigation skills.”
Okay, but we still wanted to go. Ahem, I still wanted to go… and somehow I convinced Alan we can do it. So, we click on “accept permit”.
When we picked it up the following morning we were given a basic map with the driving route to get to the trailhead - about 20miles in sandy roads - and were told that by law they couldn’t tell us about any landmarks or things to see, because of the wilderness designation.
“There are no trails, just wander!” the guy told us with a smile.
“Exciting!”, I said, “…and a little scary”, I thought.
He continued, “Just make sure you have an offline GPS so you can get back to the car! And bring extra water and food to leave in the car in case you get stuck in the sand and have to spend the night”
Me: *swallows hard and avoids Alan’s gaze*
We are fortunate to own a car that in theory should drive through mostly anything. (Side note: the only reason we own such a car is because it rents well and pays for itself, in fact we specifically got it for this reason, but that is a story for another day!)
But, there is more than owning a 4WD car though, you have to know how to drive it. And truth be told we had never taken the thing on more than a dirt road. So that night we watched YouTube videos on how to drive in deep sand, and searched online for some ideas regarding how long we should spend in the area and what should we look for in terms of cool structures and such.
The next day we embarked on the 2hr journey to reach the trailhead. Once we hit the sand we went slowly but steady. Many of these sandy roads converge in several intersections and you gotta know which to take, or could end up in an even worse deep sandy road.
We had spent time the night before chatting with our Airbnb host, who was previously a tour guide, about the road.
“Turn left when you see the stone house, then right when you see the corral, then left when you see the old water pipe, then keep straight on the next intersection! be sure not to go to the left, that is a very deep sand road that I have had to rescue many people from! If you see old farm equipment on your right then you are good!”
My head spun while I furiously tried typing the main landmarks and what not to do in a what’s app message.
The instructions seem easy and clear *now*, but at that point they sounded complicated and scary. I clutched at the little map we had the entire way there, watching for all the signs to make sure we were on the right road. And not going to lie, there were some anxiety producing sections, but overall it was a lot more straightforward than I imagined. Phew!
Once we arrived, we both let out a sigh of relief, at least now we knew what was left, just the way back!
Once we were composed enough to be able to take in the scene, even from the “parking lot” - not more than a sandy area with a sign - we felt the strangeness of the place. Far from civilization, far from any man made structures, in a desert with just a few elusive animals, when the wind is not blowing the silence is *so deep*.
The first thing you see are the “chess pieces”, these rock formations that resemble giant bishop pieces. Looking at them I wondered how many shades of orange exist; they are all in those bishops, in lines twisting and turning this way and that.
Once you get close to them you feel totally insignificant, they are massive! With no trail to follow I felt like a kid in a candy story who just got let loose and was told “get whatever you want”. No path, no people, not even steps to mark the way, just giant colorful structures all around us and the freedom to go anywhere. And for a few hours we did exactly that; we climbed on rocks, ran on the sand, admired the lines and the colors, found shapes on the strange structures (a face! a hat! a soft serve! a dung!), and felt so very fortunate to experience it all.
Truthfully, I have never been anywhere so strange and so untouched. Not only is the landscape Martian, but you are alone in that strange land. Far far away from civilization, and you can feel this far-ness in your bones. The wilderness designation Congress gave it really is fitting. The sky helps with the surrealism, bright blue with little puffy white clouds, contrasting deeply and magically with the orange landscape.
Eventually, we just stood there among rock teepees and orange soft-serve ice creams and felt alive surrounded by raw nature, lucky to have won that lottery, and brave enough to embark on a new adventure.
Here are some things to keep in mind if you want to visit this area.
Coyote Buttes Areas: North versus South
There are two areas of interest: Coyotes Buttes South and Coyotes Buttes North. We applied to get permits for both areas and we got the one for the South. It’s likelier to get this one as it’s less popular than the North area which has the famous “The Wave” (that said only Alan won that lottery - I didn’t win either one - so I don’t think it’s a guaranteed).
Initially, my preference would have been to get the permit for the North (the only area I had heard about) but after talking to several locals who have been to both it seems that although the South doesn’t have a single structure as impressive as the wave, it has many more structures and it’s more visually striking in general (and more fun to explore since you are not specifically going to see one thing). So, if I were to win both lotteries today I am not sure what I’d do. We are planning on applying again to the North area in a few days so I will update this if we end up visiting that one too!
You need a permit! To get one you must apply to a lottery, and since only 20 people a day can enter each area, it’s hard to get it! There are two kinds of lottery: advanced and daily, and amount of permits awarded are split between the two kind.
For the advanced lottery you can apply up to 4 months in advanced of when you want to visit.
For example, permits for the month of August would become available on May 1st. You can apply to this lottery from wherever, which is not the case for the daily one. We have both applied to this advanced lottery several times and didn’t win it.
For the daily lottery you need to apply two days ahead of when you need the permit, and you need to be in the near vicinity of the area.
For example, if you need a permit for April 12th you need to apply to the lottery on April 10th and from within a specific geofence area. So, you need to already be in that area at least two days before you need the permit! PLUS, you need to be available the day after you apply (the day before you hike) to pick up the permit in person at a specific time in an office in either Kanab or Page, where you will get some basic instructions and a safety briefing. So, all in all you need to plan for it. The good news is that there is lots to do around Kanab so even if you don’t get it you will have other options!
Lottery results are announced by email on the same day you apply, around 7pm. If you win it you need to accept it by that night, and at least for Coyotes Buttes South you also need to select an entrance to the area. There are two main possible ones, but the best and most impressive area is accessed through Cottonwood Cove, so choose that!
A 4WD high clearance vehicle is required for any of the trailheads and you will get information about the current road conditions on the safety briefing. You could in theory park your 2WD at a third parking lot area but this would add a few miles of hiking to reach the actual trailhead and you wouldn’t be able to access Cottonwood as it’s too far. If you don’t feel comfortable making the drive to the trailhead or don’t have a 4WD vehicle there are many tour companies that can take you, just ask for the list of providers on the safety briefing.
Overall, don’t hesitate, APPLY & GO! It’s an unbelievable experience.