SALT LAKE CITY — One of the most exclusive and dramatic hiking spots in the southwestern United States could see bigger crowds under a new proposal unveiled Wednesday.
The Bureau of Land Management is weighing increasing its daily visitor limits from 20 to 96 people a day at The Wave, a popular rock formation near the Utah-Arizona border.
A 6-mile (9.5-kilometer) round trip hike through tall sandstone buttes and sage brush is required to get to the Wave, a wide, sloping basin of searing reds, oranges and yellows in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument.
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The agency is asking for public comment and changes could be implemented as soon as October, agency official Mike Herder said.
Applications to hike The Wave have drastically increased over the past five years as the trail's colorful, contoured landscape becomes increasingly well-known.
Visitors compete for permits in a monthly online lottery and daily walk-in drawings at the Kanab visitor center in southern Utah. Less than 5% of the 150,000 people who wanted to hike the trail last year were actually able to do it, according to federal data.
The limit is designed to protect the delicate sandstone environment and create a peaceful solitude, Herder said.
Increasing the number of visitors would harshly impact The Wave's fragile desert landscape and hikers' experience, said Taylor McKinnon, a senior campaigner with the Center for Biological Diversity in northern Arizona.
"It could mean more people in your photographs, more people walking off trail onto sensitive soil, more wildlife disruption," he said. "The agency needs to make sure any user increase is compatible with environmental protection."
Herder said the move, which has been discussed for over a year, is aimed at giving more people an opportunity to do the hike. During peak season, between the spring and the fall, the office will receive as many as 400 requests a day from people all over the world, he said.
Beckie Lambert, a medical assistant from Colorado, was denied a permit to hike The Wave in January. She's excited about the plan to increase accessibility for avid hikers like her, but is concerned that more hikers could be risky, she said.
"It's a delicate wilderness area, quadrupling the number of people leads to more trash, more monitoring," she said.
The agency is seeking feedback on how to best navigate safety and environmental concerns related to the proposal, Herder said. He said agency officials have already discussed adding additional restrooms, parking and other resources outside of the trailhead to accommodate more people.
It's said to be one of the most photographed spots in North America, but The Wave isn't without dangers. In August, a Belgian man died from heat exhaustion after getting lost on the trail. There was a trio of deaths at The Wave in 2013, after which the agency posted new trailhead signs, and safety warnings.