The Wave Arizona: Everything you need to know

by | Mar 9, 2020

The Wave is a highly photographed sandstone formation tucked in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument in extreme Northern Arizona. Though the trailhead is actually in Utah, in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the Wave itself lies in Arizona in the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument. The nearest towns to the Wave are Page, Arizona and Kanab, Utah. For those who do not already have online permits to see the Wave Arizona, we recommend staying in Kanab where 10 permits are issued daily at the BLM Visitor Center. Because only 20 people on a given day are allowed to enter North Coyote Buttes, where the Wave Arizona is situated, permits are difficult to obtain. This blog post will strive to answer every possible question you might have about visiting the Wave in Arizona and obtaining Wave permits.

The Wave Arizona permit, how do I get one?

The Wave lies in a wilderness area called North Coyote Buttes where only 20 people total are allowed to visit each day. Two lotteries are held by the Bureau of Land Management to determine who gets a Wave Arizona permit for any given date.

Ten of the 20 permits are awarded between three and four months in advance in an online North Coyote Buttes permit lottery. The other 10 permits are drawn in an in-person lottery at 9 a.m. in Kanab one day before you want to hike.

Canyon near Wave

How do I apply online for a Wave permit

Online permits are issued at this website. Here is a chart indicating when you will need to apply for a Wave permit.

Apply online for a permit during… Lottery held
January 1–31 May February 1
February 1–28 June March 1
March 1–31 July April 1
April 1–30 August May 1
May 1–31 September June 1
June 1–30 October July 1
July 1–31 November August 1
August 1–31 December September 1
September 1–30 January October 1
October 1–31 February November 1
November 1–30 March December 1
December 1–31 April January 1

If you are applying online you will be asked which trailhead you plan to use. (Almost everyone uses Wire Pass because the Notch is physically difficult and the route finding there is a real challenge) If you plan to hire a guide service, you do not need to include the guide when obtaining permits yourself. Just put the total number in your group. If you are hiring a guide, for the license plate, put UTAH. For the license plate number, enter GUIDE. When asked about the recreation fee, enter NO. You will receive an email the day the lottery is held, letting you know whether you were selected for a Wave Arizona permit.

Wave permit lottery

When is the in-person Wave permit lottery held?

If you missed the deadline to apply online, the other 10 Wave permits available for each day are drawn in an in-person lottery at 9 a.m. one day before you want to hike at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Visitor Center in Kanab at 745 East Highway 89, Kanab, UT 84741. Their phone number is (435) 644-1300.

What should I expect at the Wave lottery?

Go to the Kanab BLM Visitor Center at 8:30 a.m. the day you want to hike and listen to a brief explanation of the lottery process. After 8:30, one representative from each group will be allowed into the lottery room where a permit application must be completed and turned in before 9 a.m. for each group. You will need your license plate number, among other basic contact information. At 9 a.m. each group will be assigned a number and a ball corresponding to each number will be placed in a Bingo ball spinner. The group size limit is 6 people. Only 10 permits are issued during the lottery – one permit per person. So if a group of 6 is chosen in the lottery, there are only four permits remaining. The lottery can go quickly! There are days in which 11 permits are issued instead of 10. This happens if a group of two or larger is chosen when only one permits remains. The BLM will issue one extra permit for safety reasons to prevent a person from hiking solo if they really wanted a buddy.

On Fridays during the off-season (November-February) the drawing is for Saturday, Sunday, and Monday because the BLM office closes over the weekend. The office is also closed on Thanksgiving, which is the fourth Thursday of November, and also on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. Permits for the holiday and the day after the holiday are both drawn the day before the holiday. In general, more people travel during holidays and these permit holiday draws are usually heavily attended, so your chances of obtaining a Wave Arizona permit are usually below average even though two or more permit draws are held on the same day.

You increase your chances slightly by being in a small group vs. a larger one. Also, plan in advance how you might split your group if your number is called but there are not enough permits for all of you to go. If you are a group of 5 and only 3 Wave permits remain when your number is drawn, you will have to give up all the permits or leave 2 people home. This is a tough decision, better made ahead of time in private than in front of a large group of strangers. Tears have been shed and the strongest of friendships have been tested at the Wave lottery. We’re sort of kidding, but not really.

What are my chances of winning a Wave permit, really?

According to data presented by the BLM at a public meeting held in Kanab in 2019, 32,272 people applied for Wave permits in person in 2018 and 168,317 applied online.

7,300 total permits were awarded in 2018, that’s 3,650 online and 3,650 in person. So the chances of winning the in-person lottery on a given day were 11% and chances of winning online were 2%. Of course, this number fluctuates seasonally, especially with the in-person lottery. Recently, we have seen the odds as good as 50% on a December day in 2018, as good as 25% in late July, and as bad as 7% when 395 applicants applied for a three-day holiday weekend over Christmas. Generally speaking, in the heat of the summer, odds are normally around 1 in 4 of winning in person. In the winter, odds are typically somewhere around 1 in 3. In the spring and fall, odds are 1 in 10 or worse.

How do I get to the Wave in Arizona?

Assuming you have obtained a North Coyote Buttes permit, you may access the Wave trailhead via House Rock Valley Road.

To get to the Wave Arizona from Kanab, Utah, drive east on Highway 89 for 43 miles to House Rock Valley Road. Turn right on House Rock Valley Road, which is not paved, and drive south for 8 miles to the Wire Pass trailhead. Check on road conditions before you venture out to House Rock Valley. The road is usually passable in a typical car, but not always. Mud, deep ruts, snow and drainage crossings can make the road challenging to impassable, even in a high clearance 4X4 with real tires and a skilled driver.

To access the Wave from Page, Arizona, drive west on Highway 89 for 40 miles and turn south onto House Rock Valley Road, then proceed 8 miles to the Wire Pass trailhead.

On the way to the Wave
Above the Wave arizona

Do I need a 4X4 to visit the Wave?

The 8-mile section of House Rock Valley Road between Highway 89 and the Wire Pass Trailhead  is usually passable in a normal car, though flat tires on the gravel are more common than on pavement, so check your tools ahead of time, especially if you are driving a rental. There is no cell service in the area. (Also keep in mind that off-pavement driving often voids car rental contracts). If the road is wet, driving gets really exciting. The northern stretch of the road is hilly, curvy and we cannot express just how slippery it gets. If the mud is thick, getting stuck is a real risk. On the way to the Wire Pass Trailhead, House Rock Valley Road crosses Buckskin Gulch. Rain many miles to the north can make Buckskin Gulch flow even if it is dry at House Rock Valley, which makes crossing dangerous to impossible. And you might get stuck in the mud there, too. The good news is, this is the desert and wet weather is uncommon. Avoid the road when there is melting snow, and be careful during the summer monsoon season. The road starts dry, but a storm can make a real mess. Occasionally, when Buckskin flows or the north end of the road is impassable, you might consider approaching the Wire Pass trailhead from the south end of House Rock Valley Road off Highway 89A. But this means you’re driving off pavement for more than 20 miles, and there are still some nasty clay sections that turn to ridiculous mud to contend with going that direction, especially near the state line. We don’t mean to scare you because the road is often in decent shape. Check with the BLM on road conditions. If you are unsure, hire a guide. We’ve seen so many people stuck, a few cars tipped over and many precious Wave permits wasted by drivers who could not get to the trailhead.

Where should I stay if I plan to visit the Wave?

If you don’t have Wave permits, it makes sense to stay in Kanab, Utah where the in-person permit lottery is held. You’ll find plenty of hotels, vacation rentals and RV parks there and several great restaurants. Page, Arizona is the next closest town to the Wave, and that town also has plenty of accomodations. It is about a 1 hour 15 minute drive from either Kanab or Page to the Wave trailhead. There are several camping options that are closer to the Wave, including the State Line Campground, which is a first-come-first served campground about a mile from the Wave trailhead. Others choose to camp at the White House Campground near the BLM Paria Contact Station. You can also check with the Bureau of Land Management about dispersed camping in the area. Call the Kanab Visitor Center at (435) 644-1300 for information.

We often get calls from folks staying in other Arizona cities who want to see the Wave. Phoenix is 300 miles away from the Wave, a drive that takes at least 5 hours. Scottsdale is 313 miles and just over 5 hours of driving. Flagstaff is 170 miles away from the Wave and it takes at least 3 hours to drive to the trailhead. These cities are too far for a day trip to the Wave.

How long does it take to hike to the Wave?

The average time it takes to hike to the Wave is 90 minutes. The hike is a little more than 3 miles each way from the Wire Pass trailhead. The hike begins in Wire Pass Wash, before climbing out of the wash and up a steep hill onto a sandy flat. From here you are very close to the boundary of North Coyote Buttes. Because special permits are required to enter North Coyote Buttes, we won’t give specific hiking directions here. You’ll receive a detailed map of how to hike to the Wave when you obtain permits from the BLM. Most people make it to the Wave in 90 minutes, but you’ll want to set an entire day aside so you have time to take photos, shade breaks, and explore more of North Coyote Buttes.

The Wave Tour

The
Wave Tour

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How difficult is the hike to the Wave?

The round-trip hike is just over 6 miles (9.5 kilometers) if you take the most direct route. If you take a tour with us, we will probably walk about 8 miles so we can visit other sites in North Coyote Buttes.

People who are fit and hike a lot say this is a hike of moderate difficulty. There are stretches of soft sand and an elevation gain of about 500 feet. There are a few steep hills, loose footing, and for at least a third of the hike, you will be hiking on uneven sandstone with one foot higher than the other while you hug the side of a steep sandstone ridge. Visitors who have knee or hip injuries sometimes complain about the awkwardness of the uneven ground. The elevation is roughly 5,000 feet and some hikers, particularly those who live at sea level, report getting out of breath faster or feeling less energetic because of the higher elevation. A hike to the Wave requires some amount of cardio fitness, strength, endurance and good balance.

Above the Wave

What kind of weather can I expect at the Wave?

The weather also has a big impact on the difficulty factor. The area near the Wave is particularly windy, so on a cool day it can feel colder than it is. It’s not entirely rare to have strong gusts of wind blow sand in your face. Some type of eye protection such as sunglasses or a bandana can protect your face.

In the winter, ice and snow on the trail can make the trek more challenging. Hiking on snow packs down the snow and it can turn to ice which makes the trek slippery. Steep sandstone sections of the trail become dangerous. Winter also brings shorter day lengths. Get started at dawn and bring a headlamp just in case. Don’t get stuck out in the Arizona desert overnight, it’s cold out there. A Northern Utah couple was stranded overnight on Nov. 20, 2019, when they lost their way back to the trail. With nightfall came cold rain. Luckily, neither suffered hypothermia and they were rescued by Kane County Search and Rescue the next day.

Seasonally, though, summer proves to be the most dangerous time to hike to the Wave Arizona. There have been several rescues and a handful of deaths at the Wave in the summer heat. The sun is absolutely relentless in the summertime. It cooks the desert floor until the radiant heat rises from the earth while the sun also shines from above. There is little shade. Start hiking at dawn in the summer and don’t underestimate how much water you will need. The BLM recommends carrying at least one gallon of water and that’s good advice.

The hike to the Wave is by no means the most challenging trek in the Arizona desert, but we see a lot of visitors to the Wave who overestimate their ability. Because the Wave has become famous, it attracts a wide range of visitors, not just seasoned hikers who are accustomed to cross-country travel where the trails are not marked by signs.

The Wave is patrolled by BLM rangers and also volunteers, but they are not there every day and North Coyote Buttes is a big area. Don’t depend on others to help you. Your safety is your responsibility. It’s also good to realize cell phone reception is spotty at best. When you obtain permits in person, you will attend a safety briefing and learn all about the hazards of hiking to the Wave. Please listen to the rangers. They are not trying to scare you, they are trying to keep you safe.

How was the Wave formed?

The incredible feature that’s been recently made famous by Instagram has humble beginnings as a stack of sand blowing in the wind 185 million years ago. Back then, in the early Jurassic period, Northern Arizona was much closer to the equator than it is today and a huge, wind-swept dune field comprised the landscape. It would have looked much like the Sahara desert today.

This Navajo sandstone formation has two troughs that were first carved into the sand by running water. Wind has continued the erosional process.

The cross-bedded sandstone reveals the wind direction 185 million years ago as sand stacked up layer upon layer and sand dunes were slowly blown across the landscape. Groundwater soaked through the sandstone, carrying various minerals such as iron oxide, manganese and hematite. These minerals cemented the individual grains of sand together and gave them their brilliant color. Differential erosion leaves some layers – the harder layers – of stone sticking out farther than others. The masterpiece known as the Wave is the result of blowing wind and seeping water millions of years in the making.

Why do so many people want to visit the Wave Arizona?

Surrounded by vast deserts, brilliant sandstone cliffs, enchanting slot canyons and majestic Ponderosa pine forests, how did one stone formation that’s just an acre or two in size become so iconic? Visitors to this area of the Southwest can explore two expansive national monuments, two national forests, several national parks and seemingly endless BLM land. Yet, in 2018, 200,589 people vied for just 7,300 permits issued to enter North Coyote Buttes to view the Wave. Just 3.6% of applicants were awarded a permit in 2018. Thousands of visitors have sacrificed valuable vacation time to enter a permit lottery at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Visitor Center in Kanab, usually with low chances of actually winning a permit. Why?

There is just something mesmerizing about this incredible piece of sandstone – the smooth, flowing shape and striking red and yellow stripes that people find intrinsically beautiful. Like a brilliant rainbow or an ocean sunset, every human grasps the allure. Limiting entry to 20 people per day allows a quiet, high quality outdoor experience where each visitor can truly take in the natural wonder, escape the ever-growing crowds of nearby national parks, and start to ponder life’s deeper questions.

There is another, less significant and less romantic reason some people are drawn to the Wave. Limited entry increases demand for highly-sought permits. One guide calls this the “Cabbage Patch Doll Phenomenon,” in which some people want something simply because it’s hard to get. Please don’t let this be your sole motivation for seeking permits. Be curious about the geology and captivated by the beauty and the wonder of the natural world. Go ahead and take photos, take a selfie even. But allow time for quiet contemplation, too. There is so much more here than Instagram photos and bragging rights about being a lucky Wave permit winner. Online fame is insignificant compared to the actual experience of just being in the wilderness, appreciating what so many generations past have also admired, and asking how do you fit into this creation? And while the Wave really is special, you can enjoy a true, significant wilderness experience in many other places in the Southwest.

What’s the history of the Wave permit lottery?

The Wave remained largely unknown except by a few Arizona cowboys and southern Utah locals until the 1980s. In the ‘80s, more people began to discover The Wave, but they only shared the secret with others whom they could trust not to publicize the magnificent feature. In the late ‘80s, a permit system was put into place which would issue free permits to 8 visitors per day with no more than 4 in a group. This occurred after the Paria Canyon Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area was designated by Congress as part of a larger wilderness bill in 1984. In the 1990s, a European film crew illegally produced a video of the area, increasing interest among foreign visitors, and several guide books also began to publish information about the Wave. In 1997, there was a sudden need to manage the area and the Bureau of Land Management instituted a $5 per permit fee with the 8-person per day limit intact. A website was developed that allowed hikers to obtain permits up to a year in advance. Four permits for each day were awarded online and 4 were given away in person on a first-come, first-served basis. In 1998, now that this was a special management area, a map outlining North and South Coyote Buttes was created. In 1999, a Salt Lake City, Utah television crew created, with permission, produced a news clip about the Wave. An overwhelming public response caused the permit website to crash. In 2002, the number of in-person permits was increased to 10 to accommodate some extra visitors who were in Utah for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. This increase was supposed to be rescinded, but it never was. In 2003, the BLM started handing out flyers with pictures of the route to permit holders because hikers were getting lost. Complaints about no marked trails among those not accustomed to hiking in wilderness areas were becoming common. Notoriety of the Coyote Buttes areas kept increasing, with websites giving names to many features near the Wave, and increased visitation to South Coyote Buttes. It was during this time that White Pocket, another area on the Paria Plateau in Arizona that did not require permits, started gaining attention also. Microsoft released its operating system, Windows 7, in 2007, which included a default desktop photo of the Wave and now the world wanted to see this iconic rock. Also in 2007, the current online lottery system was initiated in which potential Wave hikers can apply online four months in advance for 10 permits awarded for each date. The in-person lottery was moved from the Paria Contact Station to the BLM visitor center in Kanab, Utah, where more space could accommodate larger crowds. Recent lotteries have drawn as many as 395 participants. Currently, the BLM is considering increasing the number of permits issued to as many as 96 per day. This could usher in an end to the wilderness experience entirely.

Can I visit the Wave without a permit?

No! People who sneak into the Wave without permits suck. That’s what we think. The 20-person per day limit is in place for good reason. Bootleggers just make it more crowded and spoil the experience for the good people who follow the rules. Also, the trailhead and North Coyote Buttes area are often patrolled by rangers who will check for your permits. We get checked about half the time we go to the Wave, Arizona. Don’t want a trespassing charge on your criminal record? Get a permit or hike somewhere else. If caught, and many people do get caught, the penalty can be a stiff fine and jail time. It’s really not worth the risk.

Boneyard

Can I get a Wave permit during a government shutdown?

During past federal government shutdowns, the online lottery was held, but the in-person lottery in Kanab, Utah, was not held because the BLM Visitor Center was closed. If you arrive in Kanab without a permit during a shutdown, you cannot hike to the Wave without one. Law enforcement rangers are considered essential and they work during federal government shutdowns. During the last shutdown, many unpermitted hikers were arrested near the Wave.

How should I prepare for my hike to the Wave?

First, please consider that If you are not used to route finding and exploring wilderness on your own, you will probably feel more comfortable with a guide. If you choose not to hire one, take the map given to you by the BLM and study it. Trace your route on Google Earth and gain an understanding of the landscape. Download a hiking GPS app for your phone and practice with it ahead of time. Download maps now, you won’t have phone service there. Mark a waypoint for the Wave before you start your trip. Mark your car and waypoints along the way so you can find your way back. Don’t rely on this entirely, but it can help you find the shortest route on the way back. While you’re hiking, look up, pay attention, take occasional pictures of the route looking back the way you just came from and think about how you will find your way back. If any of these instructions sound intimidating, do the smart thing and hire a guide.

Because the BLM will give good directions with your permit, we won’t rehash those details here. We will direct you to an excellent Wave website with good directions and lat/long points to help you find the Wave and various points of interest in the area. It’s the best resource for visiting the Wave that we have seen.

What should I do when I get to the trailhead?

Display your parking pass in your windshield and sign in at the trailhead before heading out. I know you’re excited, but take a second to check your pack to be sure you have what you need and you’re not loaded down with heavy gear you don’t need. When you’re ready, cross House Rock Valley Road and start heading up the wash. You’re on your way.

R

A gallon of water

R

Hat

R

Camera

R

Permit

R

Plenty of food, especially salty snacks

R

First aid kit

R

Map

R

Sturdy shoes with good traction and ankle support

R

Flashlight or headlamp if there is any chance at all you will be out after dark

R

Rubber tips for your walking poles if you use poles

R

GPS unit or phone with hiking GPS app (know how to use it)

What’s the best time to visit the Wave in Arizona? Is there a season when Wave permits are easier to get?

Spring and fall are the best seasons for hiking here. Read all about local weather before planning your trip. Road conditions can be unpredictable in the winter and when it snows, the trail is slippery, as explained above. In the summer it’s HOT.  That being said, your best chances for obtaining permits are usually in the off season, in winter and mid summer. The chances of winning the in-person lottery on given day on average are 11% and chances of winning online are 2%. We have seen the odds as good as 50% on a December day in 2018, as good as 25% in late July. Generally speaking, in the heat of the summer, odds are normally around 1 in 4 of winning in person. In the winter, odds are typically somewhere around 1 in 3. In the spring and fall, odds are 1 in 10 or worse.

When is the best time to photograph the Wave?

We have seen spectacular shots of the Wave at sunrise, sunset and even in the dark of night with a starry sky overhead. Generally, though, mid day is the best time to photograph the Wave, when the sun is overhead and not casting a shadow across the Wave. This is the most common image you see of the Wave, standing above it and looking down into the Wave. A wide angle lens shows it best, but it’s not necessary. During the dead of winter there is always some shadow cast on the left wall of the Wave because the sun is low in the sky.

The feature can also be photographed to the southwest where a narrow slot glows in the refractive light and accentuates the rock’s red color. Fun shots can also be found facing east, where you can include the Wave’s texture and stripes with an incredible view of the Vermilion cliffs, the Cockscomb and the Grand Staircase in the background.

The Wave AZ

Is there more to see in North Coyote Buttes besides the Wave?

The iconic Wave is only one small feature among a stunning sandstone landscape at North Coyote Buttes. Photographers have given whimsical names to many of the features at North Coyote Buttes, and our tours visit several of these spots. We will refer to commonly used names for some of these features, but we ask you not to name new features. Any time a rock or a site gets a name on the internet, it attracts attention and we see increased traffic there. When visiting the Southwest, be creative, there is beauty everywhere you look, not just in places with names.

In fact, the hike to the Wave skirts many gorgeous sandstone buttes to your right that are unnamed. The route we take on our tours to the Wave also passes by dinosaur tracks that were left by three-toed dinosaurs in the early Jurassic Period when this area was wind whipped sandy desert. Those ancient dunes are now the incredible rock formations you are hiking on. We also visit Fatali’s Boneyard, a particularly colorful locale made famous by photographer Michael Fatali. Chunks of lace rock have fallen from cliffs above and landed on intensely colorful rock that looks like a neon striped leopard in places. The creepy looking lace rock “bones” lie strewn across the rock, providing endless photographic opportunity. Next, we pass through the sand cove that is also marked by stunning, striped rock. From there, we poke into a brilliant red slot canyon before heading to the Wave. When folks are finished photographing the Wave, as time allows, we take the short trek across yellow brain rock to view the cheeseburger rock, or half-a-hamburger, then we spend some time at the Second Wave that is known for its very defined shape and gorgeous pastel colors. There is an easy way to walk to the frontside of the Second Wave. Do not climb over the Second Wave. It is fragile and easily broken, and we have observed hikers climbing up and down the Second Wave, breaking rock under their feet. Skirt the edge of the cliff and go around it.

How can I protect the Wave while hiking there?

A post about the Wave AZ wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t offer some advice on conservation. Concern for damage to sandstone is one of the reasons permits to North Coyote Buttes and South Coyote Buttes are so limited. What took millions of years to form can be damaged instantly with a single footstep. Watch for thin bands of sandstone and avoid walking on these areas, or make sure you place your feet well away from the edge of the bands. People travel from all over the world to admire and photograph the thin, fragile layers of sandstone. The interesting shape and striking color of the Wave has made it recognizable worldwide. That’s why it’s so essential to be careful with sandstone formations. If the rock looks breakable, it is. Don’t test it to see whether you can break it, because you most likely can.

Obviously, follow other leave no trace principles. Pack out all garbage – including organic trash such as orange peels and especially toilet paper. If you have to poop, do it in an out-of-the-way place and bury it deep. Or poop in a specially designed bag for human waste. They sell them at the Kanab BLM Visitor Center. Don’t bury T.P. Pack it out. Otherwise, it will become uncovered in the wind to blow around the wilderness area. Also, avoid wading in any potholes. These contain life that can be upset by chemical changes in the water.

The Wave Tour

The
Wave Tour

Learn More

Should I hire a tour guide to see the Wave?

If you aren’t confident in your physical ability or you have little experience wayfinding on unmarked trails, a guide is probably a good idea. Not only will a guide keep you safe, stress will be eliminated so you can enjoy your once-in-a-lifetime hike. A guide will make the trek more efficient, you won’t waste time and energy wandering around trying to find the Wave. A guide can also get you to a lot of other features near the Wave that are absolutely incredible. Another advantage is having a skilled off-road driver with a good 4X4 when House Rock Valley Road is in poor condition. Wave permits are hard to get, so a guide offers the best chance of getting there safely and seeing as much as possible. Learn more about our Wave tour.

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