Bucket List: How To Hike The “Wave” In Arizona

Bucket List: How To Hike The “Wave” In Arizona

Last Updated on September 16, 2020


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About Me

Kien Lam  

I'm Kien, an international photographer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. After quitting my job in finance, I've traveled to over 70 countries in the last 10 years finding the coolest experiences to check off my bucket list. I hope to help you find your inspiration with my photography and tips to travel the world.

There are places in this big beautiful world of ours that look like they were created as CGI set for a movie about other worlds or of a time long forgotten. The Wave, a natural sandstone formation from the Jurassic age, falls into this category. Although it was created slowly over time by wind and water eroding at the sandstone, you can easily mistake it as something that was sculptured deliberately.

The Wave at Coyote Buttes

This place is well known and it isn’t. It just depends on who you ask. The reason it’s not posted ad nauseum on Instagram is because the US Bureau of Land Management only allow in 20 visitors a day. You read that correctly.

They do this to protect the delicate sandstone formation. Can you imagine a hoard of tourists stomping off a bus and running all over this place with their selfie sticks? This is why we can’t have nice things people.

How To Get A Permit For The Wave and Coyote Buttes North?

The area that the “Wave” is in is called Coyote Buttes North and to get a permit to hike there is extremely difficult to say the least. If you think getting a permit for Havasu Falls or tickets to Burning Man is hard, you might as well give up now for the “Wave.”

There are two ways to do it.

Online Permit Lottery Application For The Wave

The first is to enter the Online Permit Lottery 4 months in advance of your trip date.  That means if you want to go on June 27 (my birthday), you would need to apply for the February Lottery. The fee to enter is $9, which is nothing as far as an entrance fee, but your chances are so low that you might as well just buy 3 coffees and be extra generous to your friends or co-workers that morning.

The good news is that you can list up to 3 different dates on your lottery application. The bad news is you can only apply ONCE PER MONTH to the lottery. This is exclusivity that’s only heard of if you’re trying to get in Berlin’s Berghain night club.

You can add 3 other names as Alternate Permit Holders, but that means those people are in the lottery and cannot apply in that month either. Are you brainstorming up a strategy yet? Let me give it you. Find up to 3 friends who will not bail on the trip. Everyone should apply on their own and put 3 other random people on the lottery. The rule states that if you are stopped by a ranger during your hike, you or one of the alternate permit holders must be present with the group. That’s your best chance as far as “gaming” this lottery.

10 spots are given out for each day. If you win, it’s an additional $7 per person in your group.

Curved sandstone shaped by wind and wave at the Wave

Walk-In Lottery Application For The Wave

The second option is to enter the the walk-in lottery the day before you want to hike at the office in Kanab at the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument (GSENM) visitor center. The phone number is (435) 644-1300 and the address is 745 E. Highway 89. The visitor center is open from 8:00 AM to 4:30 PM seven days a week.

From March 15 to November 15 permits will be issued every day of the week excluding national holidays. During the winter months (approximately November 16-March 15) weekend and Monday permits are issued on Friday. The lottery in Kanab is held at 9 AM Utah time

I underlined it because it’s important to know if you are in Utah time or Arizona time or Navajo time. It still confuses me, but most of Arizona does not observe daylight savings time, so even though it is in Mountain Standard Time, between March and November, the clocks do not “spring forward”. During this time, it shares the same time as the states in the Pacific Standard Timezone. So why does this matter?

Kanab and the visitor center is on the Utah side. If you are coming from Page, Arizona, remember that it is 1 hour behind. 9 am Utah time is 8 am Arizona time (except on Navajo land in Arizona).

For the walk-in lottery, 10 spots are given out for the next day. Not for 10 groups. If your a name is called for a group of 4, then there are only 6 spots left. So your chances are better if you are hiking in a small group or alone. If 2 groups of 4 and a single hiker have been issued permits, there’s only 1 spot left. None of the other groups will be eligible, unless they are willing to split up. If you are the lone single hiker, you automatically get it.

When Is The Best Time To Get A Permit For The Wave?

Personally, I think the walk-in lottery is the better option since the number of people who enter can vary drastically depending on the time of year and the day of the week. According to their offices, December – February is the best month to do a walk in when you have roughly a 10-15% chance of getting a permit. March – May and September –  October are the hardest months. The lottery is not done on weekends during the winter or on holidays, so plan accordingly.

Basically, it’s still going to be hard. Everyone wants a permit and sometimes there’s like a 100 people there the 10 spots.

“What Does A Notch Look Like?”

My friend, Pete, and I tackled this hike on our road trip through the Southwest. We got a permit via the walk-in lottery with only about 20 people present. This was also back in 2007, so times have changed.

Since there’s no trail to the Wave, everyone starts at the entrance of Coyote Buttes and follows a paper map with some landmarks as guiding markers. Being the rebel that he is, Pete suggested we try to access the Wave via an alternative path that starts from the south end of Coyotes Buttes that would first involve finding a shiny tanker off a side road and climbing up the side of a mountain and getting in via the Notch.

It sounded like an adventure. We just didn’t know it would require us to duck some some barbed wires and walk through a field of thorny bushes to start the hike.

On the afternoon before our hike, we decided to scout the Notch to see what we would be up against. With no directions, we looked up at the canyons and aimed for what we thought looked like a notched opening. This took a few minutes while we debated over what a notch looks like. We eventually settled on just guessing and looking for an opening that would allow us to eventually descend into the valley. About half an hour into the hike, the sun was dropping fast so we turned back.

Hiking The Hidden Notch Trail To The Wave

The next morning, we once again ducked under the barbed wires, winced our way through thorn bushes and quickly made it back to where we had previously stopped. From here, the “trail” became harder to find with the path occasionally splitting off in different directions. Sometimes, we would have to split up and scout ahead for a minute and then turn back to decide on which way to proceed. Other times, we found cairns on the path that indicated we were heading the right way.

These stacked rocks are often left behind by experience hikers, almost like a crumb trail, to indicate direction. So we hoped. Our destination was the Wave, but the journey up the side of the jagged cliffs and through the sandstone canyons was just as beautiful.

 

Eventually, we did find the “notch”. From this high vantage point, we matched the landscape to a simple map and descended the steep and sandy path down to the valley. It was all looked so prehistoric at this point and I could imagine seeing giant lizards waiting for us behind some of the bigger rocks.

Rocks From Jurassic Period At The Wave In Arionza

Our strategy was to cross the rocky terrain back up to higher grounds and walk along the ridges northbound until we either saw the wave or ran into other hikers. It paid off and we found the Wave in no time. It was a stunning sight to behold and I was glad that they only allowed a limited number of people in each day. This process ensures that the people who applied for the lottery months in advance really wanted to come here and would understand the importance of treading light to preserve the delicate formations.

Standing in the narrow troughs of the Wave, it feels like you are in a frozen ocean of fiery waves. We started pretty early and didn’t run into anyone during our hike to the Wave, especially since we were coming from a completely different direction. At the spot, we encountered a couple of early risers who were ready to take off. For the next 20 minutes or so, we had the entire place to ourselves. I just sat in silence trying to create a mental time lapse of how these patterns were formed over millions of years.

The Wave At Midday Without Shadows

When the sun started to pass ahead and casted a shadow over the sandstone, the orange colors really came to life and sections of the Wave took on a whole different appearance.

Curved sandstone shaped by wind and wave at the Wave

Beyond just the Wave, we explored another area called the Wave II, that was almost as impressive as the first section. Further away, we  found a set bulbous protrusions with sandstone rocks that looked like brains. There was so much to see and we felt incredibly grateful to have most of the place to ourselves as the few other hikers started making their way back via the Wire Pass Trailhead.

The Brain At The Wave

How To Find The Wave With GPS

To preserve the natural features of the Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness, there are no real trails to get to the Wave itself. This makes finding this hidden area even more challenging and many people have been lost trying to find it. Armed with a GPS, you can punch in the coordinates: 36°59′45.84″N 112°00′21.9″W. Along with a permit, hikers are provided with a guide sheet showing 6 visual checkpoints starting at the Wire Pass Trailhead and leading to a landmark known as the “Black Crack” that opens to the Wave formations. This route is about 6 miles roundtrip and will take about 4-6 hours.

Important Tip: Don’t take the navigation lightly. During the summer months, the high temperatures can be dangerous and fatal for unprepared and lost hikers. There is no real shade coverage from the exposure or any available water source.

Alternatively, hikers can also access the Wave from the Notch trailhead, like we did, southwest from the Wave. Drive another 2 miles south past the Wire Pass Trailhead and look for a metal tanker to the side of  the road. This is a much more difficult one that requires solid backcountry navigation skills across a variety of uneven terrain and a steep climb up to the cliffs that surround the area. Once you’ve access the notch opening at the top of the mountain, you can visually identify the general area of the Wave from higher grounds. Descend the sandy drop and reestablish high ground on the east side of the cliffs before heading north towards the Wave. This route is about 5 miles roundtrip and will take about 4-6 hours.

Important Tip: Bring extra water and snacks. Stay hydrated, especially when the temperatures are high. You may end up taking longer to get to the Wave and you’ll want to spend a bit of time exploring.

“Rollercoasterrrrr!!!!”

On our drive out, I think Pete was still a little too excited and took our SUV too fast over a bump on the dirt road. I was taking a nap when I heard him yell out “Rollercoasterrrrrrr!!!”

A few minutes later, our car stopped running and we were stuck halfway between Kanab and Page trying to hitch a ride on the side of the road. A good way to close out our trip. Let me know if the Wave is on your bucket list. If you’ve been recently, I’d love to know what your experience was with the lottery and how you got your permits.

Our Broken Down Car

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