We sped down a washboard road in his clattering red Suzuki Trooper, gravel and dirt spewing in our wake. He braked in a cloud of dust at the Wire Pass trail head, a gravel parking lot about eight miles south of U.S. 89.

From here, we began a three-mile trek across a rust-colored, nearly shadeless desert. The BLM suggests hikers carry at least a gallon of water for the trek; I brought a little more than that and wished I had more. We started at 10 a.m. and already I felt the fabric of my shirt melting on my back.

Our hike followed a dry wash for about half a mile before it cut through red sand dunes. Dodson told me he couldn't remember how many times he'd been to the Wave. He assured me that the photos don't do it justice. As a professional guide, he doesn't have to mess with the BLM lottery, but he supports the permit limits, even though they tend to stifle his business.

"The wildlife experience is greatly enhanced with seclusion," he said. "That's why I like this area better than any other place." Dodson seemed like a bright guy, but I was still skeptical. Could the Wave really be worth this trouble?

As we hiked, he listed half a dozen other strange and magical rock formations near the borders of Utah and Arizona, but the Wave, he told me, was different. So what makes it so special?

Talk to geologists and they'll use words like "diagenetic coloration" and "stratigraphic relationships" to explain its colors and stripes. They might dumb it down and tell you that the Wave is made of Jurassic-age Navajo sandstone -- 190-million-year-old sand dunes turned to rock. Stacked one atop another, the dunes calcified in vertical and horizontal layers.

Iron oxides bled through to give the sandstone a salmon color. Hematite and goethite added yellows, oranges, browns and purples. It was all underground until water seeped through a huge vertical crack in a ridge above. The water cut a channel that was then scoured over thousands of years by wind-blown sand, carving out smooth curves and swells that look like cresting ocean waves.

It sounded wild, but really, it's still just a big hunk of rock, right?

The farther Dodson led me toward the Wave, the more the landscape started to change. We marched through dry, flaking badlands, freckled with desert shrubs and an occasional juniper tree. We scrambled over red slickrock, scouting out our first landmark, a set of shapely buttes. We rested in the shade, watching a peregrine falcon hunt on the side of a red-and-beige mountain, etched with ridges that look like stretched muscles.

After a few minutes' rest, we headed south, looking to a tall, gray ridge on the horizon for a huge vertical crack that marked the entrance to the Wave.

ROCK CANDY

Close your eyes and imagine yourself walking into a humongous vat of cinnamon taffy. That's what went through my mind as we entered this weird, dreamlike world of swirling colors and psychedelic patterns. Maybe it was the desert heat, but it all looked like gooey taffy, stretched over huge mounds and 50-foot canyon walls. The surrounding buttes were heaps of melting rocky road ice cream.

The Wave is like an enormous Olympic-size swimming pool, with swooning, undulating walls lined with burnt sienna, pink, gray, turquoise and pale green. The bands mostly run horizontally, but at spots they zigzag and shimmy before falling back into their previous pattern.

It was nearly noon, and the temperature was pushing 100. A snow-cone vendor with a little pushcart would make a killing out here.

Voices echoed off the stone walls. Nearly all of the other 19 permit winners for that day milled around the multicolored canyon. A group of German tourists sat on a sandstone shelf, eating apples and taking photos. I asked how they had learned about this place, and one man muttered in a heavy German accent, "Internet . . . Google."

Just as Dodson was telling me that the Wave gets more visits from Europeans than Americans, along came Susie Shults from St. George, Utah, who had brought her boyfriend to see the stony wonderland. It took her only three tries at the lottery to win a permit.

When she first walked into the Wave, Shults said she imagined herself flying, swooping down along the rocky surface, soaking up the colored bands and banking off the undulating canyon walls. Shults stopped in her tracks and sprawled face down on the canyon floor, her arms stretched wide.

At first it seemed odd, and I had to remind myself that this woman was not in the grip of some form of dementia. But I understood what she was feeling. This place is a hallucination set in stone. I asked Dodson if any of his guests tried to enhance the visit with mind-altering drugs. "That would be overkill," he said.

While Dodson took a siesta in the shade of a small outcropping, I followed Shults and her boyfriend a few hundred yards to another phenomenon, known as the "Second Wave." This stone feature is flatter, like an ocean swell, but tinged with brighter colors. To the west, we spotted a brown, bulbous rock shape that looked like a cheeseburger.

By 2 p.m. nearly all the other hikers had vanished into the desert. Dodson and I stayed to see how the afternoon light played on the colored rock. It took nature 190 million years to create this place. The least I could do was take my time enjoying it. The shadows on the ridges shifted, and the colors softened in the afternoon sun. I wandered around.

Overhead loomed a swirling caramel overhang. At my feet, I examined a slab of red rock that, in the afternoon light, looked like a tie-dyed masterpiece of lemon yellow and auburn. I snapped almost 100 digital photos, but I knew the images couldn't convey the experience.

Just before I went to rouse Dodson from his afternoon catnap, I sat down in the base of a sunburned sandstone wave, resting my back on the cresting wall. I sat there for what seemed like an hour, naming the images I saw in the rocks, like a kid watching clouds take shape in the sky. Up above was a manta ray. Over there was a woman's face and, in the distance, melted pizza toppings.

Eventually I called to Dodson, gave the Wave one last look and began marching back into the desert, toward those lovely, lonely buttes.

hugo.martin@latimes.com