We'd happily do the Subway again.
#2 This Time, An Event-Based SW Experience              November 2014        

The ‘Special of the Day Is….'
Unplanned, it just happened: in the fall of 2014 we began checking sightseeing ‘musts’ off the list we didn’t have. Our SW itineraries over the last 3 years typically contained only a couple of major destinations and were filled-in with meanders to smaller hiking venues. Bucket-list items were conspicuously absent from our plans. 

Our 2014-15 road trip was only slightly different from previous seasons in that it had a record 4 long stays planned. Those layovers would be at Yellowstone, Death Valley, Palm Springs, and Albuquerque and would give more structure to the typical meander. Unexpectedly however, the 5 weeks spent between Yellowstone and Death Valley National Parks became dotted with celebrity-status, SW sightseeing venues.

After successfully obtaining a Last Minute permit to hike Zion’s Subway and then poising us for securing an even more coveted permit for the nearby Wave, I dubbed myself the “Event Director.” Bill does all the hard work for the day-to-day and year-to-year route planning whereas I infrequently flit-in like a prima-donna and plan a tour for a very well-defined destination, like I did for Iceland and Morocco. In the SW this fall, my event planning was mercifully for single day events only. But the hassle-factor involved in arranging each was more than Bill wanted to bother with, so I took them on.

On the way to The Wave: red rock country at its best.
The Wave in Coyote Buttes, AZ between Kanab, UT & Page, AZ  
A Prized Permit
The Wave is definitely a high-status hike to have done in the southern Utah/northern Arizona red rock region. It’s not the difficulty of completing the hike itself that elevates one but it is the difficulty of obtaining a wilderness permit to be there at all that adds to your credentials. 

Only 20 people per day are allowed to be on the trail leading to the celebrated rock formation. The owners of ten pairs of feet have the privilege of paying $7 each for legal passage after having a winning number drawn in the online lottery, plus having paid $5 for trying; ten pairs earn the right to pay the $7 by participating in an in-person lottery the day before the permit is valid.

When we learned of this permitting process to hike The Wave several years ago, we dismissed it as a “not in this life time” activity. The sometimes challenging logistics and low odds of success drove us to conclude that we'd avoid controlled access hikes altogether, no matter how special they were.

Bill riding The Wave.
Repositioning Ourselves
But at the end of our first of 2 weeks in Zion, a fellow hiker commented that she had scored a permit to do the Subway and she’d obtained the permit in the last few days. Emboldened by the stranger's success,  that night I studied the rules for securing a permit. For the Subway, permits were only allocated by online lotteries. 

One lottery was held 3 months in advance; sign-up for the 2nd was 7-2 days before your selected hiking day. I paid the $5 fee to compete and picked a day during the last week of our stay in the park that only had 6 people competing for the 10 slots. The lottery would be held in 2 days and, as expected, I too was assigned a permit.

My success in obtaining the Subway permit highlighted that we had an opportunity to exploit, which was an open calendar. Partaking in lotteries months in advance didn’t suit us at all but lotteries for the next week or so were definitely a possibility if we organized a given stay around them. Clearly the key for us if we were ever to hike The Wave was to whack the depleting tension and drama from the process, so I read on.

The odds of obtaining a Wave permit for the non-miserable hiking months in 2013 (spring and fall) had been 4-5%. Even with those bad odds, we were lucky: there was no rain in our immediate forecast. Rain often turns the single lane, unpaved, 8 mile long access road into axle-deep, 4WD vehicle-gobbling mud. And what a heartbreaker if you had won a permit in the lottery 4 months prior and were prohibited from going because of the muck or even the threat of muck. Ironically, There are no rain checks for rainy days at The Wave.

To fulfill my new role as Event Director, I came up with a low-stress way to participate in the drawing. We’d camp at the rather shabby Kanab RV park that was a 5 minute walk from the BLM Visitor’s Center hosting the lottery each morning at 9 am. We’d arrive the night before; I’d walk to the office and enter the lottery in the morning; then we’d go on a nearby hike for the rest of the day. Assuming I failed to obtain a permit at the drawing, I’d try again the next morning. Failing a second time, we’d drive east to Page, AZ that day for several days of hiking there. Then we’d go back to Kanab and again enter The Wave permit lottery the next 2 mornings.

The back alleys of The Wave.
It was the perfect plan for us. There was no extra driving and we certainly wouldn’t be driving 1-2 hours at day break the day of the lottery like some people were doing. We’d only invest about 30 minutes in the process with each failed attempt (it took longer if you won) and we wouldn’t gut a day doing it. The drama-level would be low because we’d just repeat the process 4 days every year until we obtained a permit. (I heard of 1 person at our RV park who came up empty-handed after 13 attempts.)

Down to the Wire
While walking to the lottery the first morning, I laughed upon remembering a moment years ago when a young Ethiopian man declared “God must love you very much” part way through our conversation on a bus. I was startled by the engineering student's comment which was triggered by hearing of our good fortune in being travelers. His pronouncement didn’t fit with my belief system but I graciously embraced it at the time as a reflection of his world view. 

I was cheered by reliving that amusing vignette while I approached the BLM office and hoped that on this day that the young Ethiopian was right because the laws of statistics definitely weren’t on my side. But I had been on a roll lately: I’d gotten us a Subway permit with ease and I stumbled upon a sought-after campsite cancelation on another day. 

Lower Antelope Canyon is very much a group experience (even for the tri-guys).
As it was, we were 2 of the 10 lucky contestants on my first attempt to win a permit. Whether “God loved me very much” was still an open question but it felt like a good day to buy a lottery ticket.

Our Pilgrimage to The Wave
The hike to the single rock formation called “The Wave” was an especially scenic hike in itself and the centerpiece feature was stunning. There is no trail and no trail markers but the BLM issued a 1 page guide with each permit. Unusually, it had color photos of 8 landmarks as seen hiking to and from The Wave. In addition, they included the GPS coordinates for each photo. We slowed our progress considerably on the trail learning to use one of Bill’s new GPS phone apps though the photos were sufficient for finding our way. It’s definitely a hike we’d do again and we’ll implement our low-stress process in hopes of winning the permit lottery game so easily a 2nd time.

Lower Antelope Canyon near Page, AZ
The Lower Antelope Canyon was another “must do” venue among red rock snow birders that we’d previously dismissed. Getting a reservation or a walk-in ticket to view the scenic slot canyon could take days but more than that, it was the cost that deflected us. It was one of several Native American-owned venues in the SW we’d declined to experience because the outrageous fees felt like endless retribution payments. 

The minimum charge for 2 people for a 1+ hour visit in the canyon was $56 and they made it amply clear that tips were expected. You are only allowed to visit the canyon with a guide, which is a hardship for us: we like to ogle top sites at our own pace and don’t like being distracted by the low-content, constant chatter of mandatory escorts. And we just aren’t keen on being “conveyor belt” tourists.

But since I had recently dubbed myself “Event Director,” I proclaimed that we were going to shut-up and pay the money to see the Lower Antelope Canyon while we were in the area. We’d see it, we could say we’d seen it, and we’d be done with it. I further decided we’d skip the physically less demanding and less dramatic Upper Antelope Canyon—at those prices, one canyon would be enough. Bill was startled by me seemingly arbitrarily reversing our decision about the Lower Antelope Canyon but he quickly got the “shut-up and don’t complain” part because he was loving the break from planning responsibilities.

Indeed, the Lower Antelope Canyon is an exceptionally dramatic slot canyon but we were ambivalent afterwards as to whether it was worth the money to us. It would be a better value for someone doing a compressed tour of the SW because you see so many dazzling rock formations in an hour. But as we often say to each other “We’ve seen so much in these last 14 years of travel that it’s hard to impress us.” We finally settled upon: “We’re glad we did it but we won’t do it again.” We snapped over 200 photos, which should reduce the pull to repeat the visit.

We however were the curmudgeons of The Canyon crowd. People arrive by the bus load and the mandatory guide companies cater to the "tri-guys” or tripod toting men. Their fee is $42 per person with a tripod vs our $28 fee but they get 2 hours for the privilege vs our 1 hour. And they get much more: their private guide will tote their gear on the stairs, will position their tripod for the iconic shots, and give them the best camera settings for each photo. I can only imagine the size of the tip expected from the tri-guys for all of that TLC. (We only saw males doing the tripod tour).
A view of the Colorado River from Spencer Trail summit at Lees Ferry, AZ.

Lees Ferry, AZ (near Vermillion Cliffs National Monument)

In contrast to our recent, high-status sightseeing venues, Lees Ferry was only causally mentioned as a reference point in the region and we’d never been asked “Have you been to Lees Ferry?” or been told "You’ve got to see it.” Given our low-intensity experience with Lees Ferry in conversations,  I was quite surprised when I encountered a pair each of Australian and eastern-European tourists there among the handful of US visitors. 

We’d always bypassed Lees Ferry because it was out-of-the-way and this year it was even more so after a February landslide closed the main highway in the area. But it qualified for our emerging  “do it now” strategy and Bill was confident that there were several good hikes nearby. And it was lovely. It is on a dead-end road where the Colorado River is flanked by the stunning and aptly-named Vermillion Cliffs.

Some of the less dense but still massive 'boulder clutter'.
The elevated Lees Ferry campground was beautifully sited with views of both the river and the cliffs though our pleasure was diminished by generator-packing RV’ers as often is the case in more primitive campgrounds. It’s a horrible irony: RV parks are more pleasant for me than campgrounds because generators aren’t allowed to operate in the parks. In contrast, when we head to the great outdoors, we are at risk of listening to the rumble of multiple generators 14 hours a day. We were 1 of only 5 rigs in our area of the campground but 3 of them spoiled the “in nature” experience with their throbbing engines.

We missed part of the daytime generator noise during our 2 great hikes from Lees Ferry. Spencer Trail took us to the top of the Vermillion Cliffs and delivered great views of the Colorado whereas the Soap Creek Trail was down a distant lower canyon that terminated at the river. 

Much to our surprise, we were soundly defeated by the Soap Creek route. Noted in Bill’s hiking book as a strenuous, 6 hour, 9 mile round trip hike, we expected to come in ahead of schedule based on our prior experience with the author's stats. But when we were approaching the 3 hour point, Bill’s estimate was that we’d only completed 1.5-2 miles of the mostly trail-less route. 

Going up & down on this boulder were equally difficult on Soap Creek Trail.
Much of the route was very slow going and we burned up too much time going down a series of "pour-off’s” or broad, dry waterfalls. They were dramatic and fun to explore until we arrived at the last one: a 100-footer with a rope dangling straight down the face. Going either up or down the rope was far beyond our ability. We had to retreat and locate the long, high, bypass trail in order to continue towards the river. 

After the author’s comments had assured us we’d completed the last of the difficult-to-navigate, massive boulder chokes, we encountered another, shorter rope assist to traverse another drop. We were minutes from our 3 hour-turnaround time so rather than go on, we practiced sliding on our bellies going both directions over the large ‘make or break’ boulder rather than using the rope to clear the difficult spot. We were intent on trying the course again next year but wanted reassurance that we could safely pass this last obstacle even if the rope was gone. We were shocked that the return trip took about half the time of our descent.

We went back to our Lees Ferry campground both exhilarated and humiliated after our experience on the Soap Creek Trail but the next day we had a bonus at the end of the local Spencer Trail to the cliff tops. Our treat was talking with “the old man” of a group of 16 professional whitewater guides that were launching from Lees Ferry for a 27 day group rafting trip to Lake Mead. We knew when vying for cabin space at Phantom Ranch in the Grand Canyon that we were competing with the guests of commercial guides on the Colorado, so it was fascinating to talk with their counterparts about the details of their trip planning. Lees Ferry is THE official put-in for rafters cruising the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.

I was delighted. Talking with Albert, who looked to be in his 40’s,  gave unexpected closure to a regional story for me. Lees Ferry occasionally gets mentioned when in striking distance of the Grand Canyon but I had no knowledge of it. But once there, we read the story of the ferry being funded  by the Mormons in the 1800’s as a way to cross the Colorado. We saw the remnants of Spencer’s failed mining operation that the ferry’s presence spawned and walked the trail that Spencer's mules trod. And to top it off, we watched the rafters loading as the sun set and saw them launch the next morning after a ranger approved their gear for the journey. Nothing like a kinesthetic, auditory, and visual experience to anchor Lees Ferry in my mind forever. 

Rafters 'putting-in' at THE launching place on the Colorado: Lees Ferry.
One of the most amusing bits we learned from Albert was that all rafters were required to poop and pee into separate buckets. The pee would be tossed in the river and all the poop for 16 people for 27 days would be hauled out of the canyon with them on their rafts. Can you imagine….? And 27 nights of camping, at least a few in freezing weather, made my complaints about campground generators impinging on my pleasure seem trivial. We thought of them shivering on the river bank when we cranked up our furnace that night--a furnace with a fan powered by a solar-charged battery.

Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, UT
I assumed that the Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park wasn't on any must-see list but ours while we prepared for a 2 night stay there. We’d driven past it last year but didn’t make time to stop. It was a Zion park ranger’s comment a few weeks earlier that gave it a last minute entry on to our itinerary for this year. This had become the year to visit the previously bypassed venues so we made time for Coral Pink as well. 

This dunes layover would mainly be for our feet. There is nothing better to restore the strength and mobility in our feet and to challenge our leg muscles than to walk in dunes. The excursion would also condition us for the upcoming days of dune walking in Death Valley. 

In addition to a welcome event for our feet, we were especially intrigued by the 'coral pink’ monicker. We anticipated that there would be a fascinating story behind it, like there was for the gypsum dunes we played upon at White Sands National Monument, NM in 2013.

Disappointingly, the Coral Pink Sand Dunes lacked an exotic past. “Coral pink” was solely a color descriptor—a name given to the orangish Navajo Sandstone layer in the Vermillion Cliffs that erodes back to sand. In addition to the let-down from the ordinary history of the dunes, we were recoiling from the intense wind in the park. All dunes are dependent upon the wind for their formation and continued existence but at this site the “seemingly constant gale force winds” as a park sign stated, were unusual in our experience. At other dunes we’d visited, the winds were more intermittent, making them more pleasant to visit.

Father & son 'duners' at Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, UT.
Another novel experience for us at these dunes was the official free-for-all policy on the open terrain. Quads, dirt bikes, and walkers all used the same space. White Sands and our favorite dunes in Death Valley are both designated for walkers only and Imperial Dunes, CA has separate areas for the walkers and the duners. Unfortunately, we were at the Coral Pink Sand Dunes on a weekend. But given it was a very cold weekend in mid-November at 6000', only 15-20 off-road vehicles showed up and we were the only ones on foot.

We departed on a morning that had only warmed slightly from the overnight low of 19° and were startled to see a full-sized tour bus unloading a group of Asian tourists near the dunes viewing platform. I assumed that we were the only ones with the park on their ‘must see’ list but clearly I was wrong. There wasn’t all that much to look at but I could imagine that “Walk on the amazing coral pink sand dunes against the backdrop of the renowned Vermillion Cliff” would play well on a tour brochure, especially to people who hadn’t seen many dunes.

The Event Director Is Let-Go
Bill’s suddenly, near-lifeless MacBook Air took precedence over our sightseeing and my tour as Event Director was abruptly over. After a tense day, Bill had managed to revive his computer and back-up the single set of files needing attention, but he couldn’t restore it to normal functioning. Several fixes tried over the course of a week helped, but it was still prone to crashing when booting. 

Bill arranged our next event, which was at the Genius Bar in a Las Vegas Apple store. We hadn’t been impressed with the knowledge base of Apple store staff in the past but hoped for the best. Maybe my recent lucky streak would save the day at the Genius Bar as well.

Back to Civilization
After 5 nights of dry camping at Lees Ferry and the Coral Pink Sand Dunes, we felt like the cowboys portrayed in 1950’s TV shows when they were heading into town. We, like they, looked forward to the conveniences lacking on the range. Our sights were set on similar things as theirs though ours were much higher on the comfort and technology index. 

Capturing error messages for the Apple Store Genius Bar geeks.
Hook-ups in an urban Las Vegas RV park would give us a break from the miserly scrimping of water and electricity. We were definitely looking forward to the dual luxuries of a continuous stream of water during our showers and doing laundry. Internet and cell service would deliver their own sources of satisfaction. And like the cowboys, we’d also be re-provisioning for our next extended stay in the desert. 

Once settled in Vegas, the focus of our stay was getting Bill’s ailing MacBook Air fixed. The short story about the Mac was that the attentive, professional, and knowledgable young man at the Genius Bar thought he’d fixed the computer over the course of 2 days but hadn’t. 

But just before we left the city and lost the internet service for weeks that was needed for trouble shooting, Bill unraveled the Mac’s problem. As he had originally suspected, it was indeed due to the new Apple operating system that wasn’t ‘playing nice' with existing apps. Not re-installing the incompatible app until it or the operating system was updated was all it took. So simple, so many days wasted, we were finally prepared to enter the resource abyss of Death Valley.

We’d go directly from Las Vegas to Death Valley National Park for a 2+ week stay. Our first week would be spent at a rare, no-generator-allowed campground at Furnace Creek where we’d again be without hook-ups. We’d be rationing water and using solar generated power through Thanksgiving weekend. After that, we’d again have the comforts of hook-ups for our 2nd week, which would be at Stove Pipe Wells. 

For the first time in Death Valley, we’d be taking enough food to last the entire stay and hoped we’d have at least a bit of slow, intermittent internet instead of none at all. We knew of no lottery-controlled permits to seek, so the Event Director would be idle. We expected life in Death Valley to be its usual: quiet, slow paced, and with few surprises.