Flash Flood at The Wave

Our path was interrupted by a river, born of a storm we’d never met.

Our progress was slowed by “very real” quicksand.

Our opportunity rose with the water level.

That’s actually the middle of the story, so let’s rewind a little, all the way to Monument Valley.

The weather had been crappy all day, just white solid sky and the occasional bout of rain, so I’d packed up and began driving north, a little dejected that I’d only got a single sunrise photo of this beautiful location. After about twenty minutes on the road I had an impulse to pull over. Despite the weather it seemed a shame to give up so easily, it also felt pointless to turn around, but sometimes when your heart tells you to do something you should do it. So I turned around on my lonely desert highway and wound my way back.

There’s a famous view in Monument Valley that has wind shaped boulders in the foreground (now covered in JS loves MB and other such demonstrative declarations of the permanence of teenage love). Standing in the rain at this spot I figure I owe it to myself to at least try to get a photo here.

Bad weather can be a real blessing for landscape photography, for one it means the tourists scamper back to their rooms to watch HBO, but more importantly it offers up the chance of a clearing storm, lightning and other dramatic lightscape events.

The rain started to soak my camera but I was determined to stay ‘til sunset – just in case. Draping my shirt over my head and the camera I entered a dark and secret world, much like the photographers of an earlier era would do to block out the light.

Off to the west I sensed a shift in the clouds and a lighter area in the dense grey. In a few minutes time it had turned from light grey to white giving me some hope of a breakthrough.

Boom, a shaft of golden light fights its way through and starts burning away at the Mittens (the name of the rock buttes that rise from the ground near the edge of the park). My impulse had been right and now the light was putting on a show in the dying minutes of the day. As the clouds parted some more, the dense grey blur of rain in the distance caught the lights attention, throwing up a beautifully timed and placed rainbow.


Then I noticed something else; while all this had been going on, another clacking shutter had set up alongside me.

Stepping out from the cover of my makeshift blind I made acquaintance with the guy next to me. Turns out he was also here from Canada, on a road trip to cart household belongings to a new house in Southern California. After a bit of chit chat he asked where I was heading next. I’d been hoping on this trip to be able to visit a place known as “The Wave”, a small irregular area tucked away in the middle of nowhere surrounded by miles and miles of indistinguishable desert. Unfortunately you need a permit to hike into the area and they book up about twelve months in advance. It’s a place that hardly anyone knows about and after seeing my first image of it in a book about the world’s most beautiful landscape photographs; I knew it had to be seen for I’d never seen anything like it anywhere in any picture before or since.

“Not too sure, maybe Antelope Canyon. I was hoping to go to the wave but couldn’t get a permit. How about you?”

“Well as it happens, I’m going to the Wave tomorrow.”

He pauses to reach into a back pocket and pulls out some pieces of paper.

“And I have an extra permit…”

We stood and chatted some more before heading to the local hotel and restaurant for a Salisbury steak dinner ahead of our trip at first light. I couldn’t believe my luck and struggled to sleep, thinking about what lay ahead. “I’m going to The Wave, I’m going to The Wave”, over and over.

As we rolled into the rangers’ office the next morning, we saw disappointed faces mulling around and leaving with their heads held low. It’s a six mile drive along a back road just to get to the start of the hike and apparently a flash flood had knocked out the road about half way along. A savvy and stubborn traveler, my new friend Steve, played it cool with one of the rangers, trying to find out a bit more information beyond the standard “roads closed” response. After a bit of gentle pressure we discovered there was an alternate crossing about 200 yards south from the part that was badly damaged by the flood, but that it was being guarded by another ranger and would still need a high clearance vehicle to navigate.

Steve looked more defeated by this news as he was driving a minivan. “No problem”, I blurt out, “I’ve got an SUV and it’s a rental, let’s do it!” And so, our symbiotic meeting received a further positive shift and we set off down the dirt track with renewed optimism, I mean how bad can the flood damage be?

Pretty bad is the answer. We pulled to a halt as the road fell away into a twenty foot wide gushing torrent about six feet below. Leading up to the newly created river was a large patch of quicksand. This in itself was an epic discovery, having seen countless westerns and jungle movies over the years where the good guy gets dragged from the deadly sucking power of the quicksand just before his mouth disappears below the surface. Cool.

Just as the ranger has said, there was a small road to the left that led downstream to a less extreme crossing, but this was blocked by an old ranger and his truck. After some introductions, we walked to the edge to inspect the state of road at this point. The drop was only about three feet here but apparently there was a big rock right in the middle of the river that might trash anything driving over it. Not ready to give up yet, Steve borrowed a shovel from the rangers’ truck and began digging an entrance ramp out of the sandy shelf that marked the edge of our last hope. Half an hour later we had a ramp and a dubious yet excited affirmation from the ranger that he’d let us through; not sure if he just thought these crazy kids should make it after all the sweat, or whether he wanted a good story for the guys back at the station after we totaled my rental in the muddy depths of the flash flood.

I quite honestly admitted that I had no experience with this type of off-roading, but Steve had seen it all before so we strapped ourselves in, gave a big high five and charged across the channel as we belted out whoops of rebellious delight. We managed to avoid the rock in the middle and safely climbed up the opposite bank. We quickly realized that we’d now be the only people visiting The Wave today, but with that came the potential to be the only people that didn’t make it back either…

Steve had been here before, which was a good thing when you consider that it’s a six mile hike with no trail. All around the landscape was mildly interesting, but nothing really held our photographic attention for longer than a few minutes. As far as I’m aware, this spot was only discovered fairly recently and it comes so unexpectedly that it must have been simply mind blowing for those first explorers. As we ascend the final climb to a raised area on the edge of a cliff, I try to picture how this area could have come to be.

Nowhere around us gives any hint of its existence and nowhere in the world have I seen evidence of a similar feature. It felt really special to turn a corner and just be right there. Pale yellow scratched rock surfaces turned to deep red sweeping formations that look like they were created by a giant pallet knife, smoothing out a beautiful buttery micro landscape.

It took some time to take in where we were and I felt a sense of fear that I’ve felt before whenever I’m faced with faultless beauty and the opportunity to capture it, just hoping I can do it justice. The Wave is one of a few places that are best shot at midday, when the light is fairly terrible, but it’s the only time when the scene is completely lit from all sides. I chose to shoot this one in monochrome as the imbalanced contrast added to the scene rather than detracted.


A few hundred yards further up the valley is what’s been dubbed “The Second Wave”, a smaller and paler cousin of the main attraction that weaves its way around and along the side of the base of a cliff. We spent a few hours shooting from every possible angle, trying to capture the feeling of the place, but I knew then and feel it now, that I didn’t do a good enough job and will have to come back here another time. For now, we are forced to leave by the fading angle of the sun and I give a cheesy “wave” to this rare and beautiful stone seascape.


I learned a lesson on this short trip, one that I’m only really comprehending as I write this. Lesson being that I should talk more to strangers and fly right in the face of what we’re taught as children. Of course that’s just a rule for kids so I can’t use it as an excuse here and should just “man up”.

Back in Monument Valley, I stood at the same spot where I met Steve, waiting for some hidden sign or strange encounter but none materialized. I guess you can’t force fate.