We were told about a “white wave” by an avid hiker. Our exact directions were, “Drive towards Big Water and turn in when you see the Paria Ranger Station on the right. It’s the only building out there. Drive past the station and look for a fence on your left. If you hit the campground, you’ve gone too far.” Needless to say, we were a little apprehensive. But that’s how it is in Southern Utah: most directions are given using landmarks, stores open when they want, and no one cares if you get hurt “out there.” In fact, your story is added to the list of cautionary tales told each year.
Starting from Kanab, Utah, where I lived for a few years, we headed towards Big Water. The Paria Ranger Station was actually easy to find as it was the only building out there. And if you hit Cottonwood Canyon Rd, you’ve gone too far. I’m not 100% sure the road is labeled, however…let’s say if you’ve hit the town of Big Water, you’ve gone too far. Below is a map that puts things into perspective.
We ended up pulling into the Ranger Station because our fear of getting lost and dying was greater than our fear they would tell us we couldn’t hike there. But Utah logic came into play again: they didn’t care. The ranger didn’t know what we were talking about when we told her we wanted to hike the “white wave.” But by describing it, she eventually told us that she called it Seashell Rock. After an oddly long Google search later, I discovered its actual name is Nautilus Rock and as nautilus means seashell-shaped, she was pretty much spot on.
She told us to drive down the road towards the campground and to stop when the road widens a bit (due to people parking their cars there to go hiking). If we hit the campground, we’ve gone too far. We drove down and once the campground came into view in the valley below, the road widened. (The camping appeared to be all RVs but that doesn’t mean you couldn’t possibly tent camp there in case anyone reading this needs a place to stay.)
We got out of the car and had the debate we always have when we go hiking: should we take water. I’m not sure why we always have this debate because we always end up taking our water. It’s the smart thing to do, especially in Utah. You’re a minimum of 5,000 feet above sea level, there is never any cloud cover, the sand bounces the heat back up at you, and it’s so arid that you can dehydrate without ever breaking a sweat.
Before we even got to the trail, we saw this huge rock hill that was very smooth but also very gradual. So of course I had to climb it. My mantra when hiking tends to be: I can climb that!
The rock hill had really cool wavy striations that made walking up it really easy.
You could really see the whole valley on tope of the rock hill. Beyond our car is a river. The landscape was gorgeous.
It’s hard to describe the feeling you get when you’re the only one exploring a place. I felt like a little kid, discovering a place without regard to rules or business hours. I could have honestly spend hours up there, just looking at everything. …You couldn’t really sit down though because it was covered in red ants. The ant hills were 2-3 feet wide because they had to sit on top of the rock instead of going down into the earth. Red ants are no joke: I got bit by one at work and my entire thigh went numb for 20 minutes.
I really wish I had taken geology more seriously in school. I grew up in Michigan and a lot of what they were talking about was foreign to me. Not so in Utah. Everything you learned about in geology is here and it is extremely cool. I had no idea what I was seeing but it was cool.
My mom was getting nervous about how we were going to get down. A slope from the bottom up looks nice; a slope from the top down looks like a drop off. There was a lot of sliding down on our butts but we eventually got off the rock hill.
We got on the trail, which was just a river of sand, and headed towards the cow fence. A whole bunch of tumbleweeds had blown up against it, which was really cool. They were SUPER light and much bigger than I’d thought they’d be.
Then we hopped the cow fence, which the ranger told us to do. A lot of times, fences in Utah are there to keep cows in, not people out. The general rule of thumb is: leave the fence how you found it. Leave it open if you found it open and close it if you found it closed.
The trail itself wasn’t that cool. We were down in a canyon type area but I had since become jaded against canyons this small. We ended up walking next to the trail as much as possible because the deep sand made it sooooo hard to walk. Every time we put our feet forward, we’d slide back half the distance, so while the path itself is not that long, it sure felt like it.
We were starting to get worried that we had missed it because it seemed like we were on that trail forever. But no, a few more minutes walking and we saw the entrance on the right. It honestly didn’t look like much from the trail.
But man was it gorgeous. It was late afternoon when we got there so I can only imagine what it looks like in a noon sun, all lit up.
You could walk through the rock and then climb up a bit so you could look down into it.
It was a lot bigger on the inside than it looked on the outside. Must be a TARDIS.
The trail leading up to Nautilus Rock wasn’t that cool but the area closer to the rock definitely had some coolness. It went from a purely sandy trail with canyon walls far on either side, to a scene on Mars.
We hung out at the rock for quite a bit, taking pictures and just exploring this cool thing. It’s not a big landmark by any means but we had it to ourselves, which was so much cooler. On the way back, we passed a couple and assured them it was right up ahead. That sand plays tricks on you, man.
The walk back seemed much shorter than the walk there because we weren’t actively looking for something. When we got back, we were so hot that we decided to go to the river. It was mostly just mud, with wetter mud running through it but we sat on the “beach” and ate lunch.
I wanted to cool my feet in the watery mud but I never made it. The mud tried to suck me in!
A lot of times, people talk about once-in-a-lifetime experiences and hikes they’ll remember for the rest of their lives. While I do think of this place often, that almost wasn’t the point. The point was being in the moment. We were the only ones out there, exploring these really cool and crazy rock structures. There were no signs or bathrooms. You didn’t need a permit. It wasn’t on any map.
I’m anti-constantly-looking-at-your-phone and think people should look around them more, but the thought of living solely in nature like the aboriginal peoples of old, I was convinced they were bored all the time. I’ve always had this fantasy of “leaving it all behind” and living off the land, but then I would think about the latest TV show I was watching and think I could never live without the Internet.
Our bodies are antennas, tuned in to whatever frequency is the loudest. When we’re in the “civilized” world, our bodies are drawn to technology and people because we can’t get away from it. Out here, our bodies reset to Earth’s frequency because there is nothing else. Suddenly, the sun is not this bright thing that makes you hot when you’re rushing into work; it’s a celestial body that reaches down and massages your shoulders. It isn’t quiet out there because you can hear the canyon walls humming. Instead of the world being a scary place where we cling to technology and people to keep us safe, you realize it’s the people and technology that are telling you the world isn’t safe and that you have to keep yourself distant from it.
Out here, I felt safe. The canyon walls never loomed over me; they cradled me. It wasn’t a wasteland with nothing to do; I literally could have watched a single ant for hours. Even now, I’m having trouble remembering how I felt because I’m surrounded by two computers, two artificial lights, and central A/C. The world is different out there and YOU become different out there. In the “civilized” world, you have a life. Out here, you are life.
I’m not trying to get dramatic, I’m just trying to stress how much I recommend you go on this hike if you get the chance.