Ultimate Guide to Hiking the Wave in 2023
Hiking the Wave has been on our bucket list for years! One of the most coveted hikes on earth, only a few people per day are able to visit this iconic sandstone formation in Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. What makes this place unique are the smooth striations in the Navajo Sandstone, creating a smooth, curvy, and otherworldly landscape that resembles the waves of the ocean.
We applied over 25 times to the Coyote Buttes North permit lottery before finally winning a permit to hike the Wave in January 2023. This is definitely one of the most difficult-to-plan adventures we’ve had to date, so I wrote this blog post to tell you everything you need to know about the permit process and the hike for the Wave in Coyote Buttes North.
Disclaimer: Dreamland Safari hosted us on a guided hike to the Wave in exchange for social media content and this blog post. We obtained our permits on our own via the advanced online lottery. All opinions and recommendations are our own, and we hope that they make your planning easier and your adventure even better!
Where is the Wave hike?
A common misconception about the Wave is that it is located in Utah. This is not technically true! The Wave formation is actually just a mile or so over the Utah/Arizona state line, on the Arizona side.
On the hike to the Wave, you’ll start your trek in Utah and end in Arizona!
Most people who hike to the Wave stay in Kanab, Utah as their base. It is the closest town to the trailhead (one hour from downtown to the Wire Pass Trailhead on House Rock Valley Road). Page, Arizona is another popular base for hiking the Wave and is also only slightly over an hour’s drive from town to the trailhead. We’ll talk more about where to stay when hiking the Wave below!
What is the Grand Staircase anyway?
The Wave is located in the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona, which starts on the Arizona side of the border with Utah. Its neighbor to the north in Utah is Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument. Both National Monuments protect what is known as the Grand Staircase, which refers to the expanse of land between Bryce Canyon National Park and the Grand Canyon. Between the two, layers of the earth rise, like stairsteps, each taller than the last, leading the way up to Bryce. In Bryce Canyon National Park, you can actually see these “steps” descend in the distance as they gradually, step-by-step, descend to the Grand Canyon.
What is the difference between the Coyote Buttes North and Coyote Buttes South?
Within the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, there are two commonly-confused permit areas known as Coyote Buttes North and Coyote Buttes South. Both of these areas are protected and can only be visited by those lucky enough to hold a permit! We’ll explain the permit process in depth below but first wanted to make sure to make the distinction between these two areas. Coyote Buttes North is home to the Wave as well as a half-dozen or so other noteworthy landmarks. Coyote Buttes South is an area just south (obviously) of Coyote Buttes North. It is best known for its sandstone TeePees (basically conical petrified sand dunes) and strange rock formations that look like they came from a Dr. Seuss book.
The permit to visit Coyote Buttes South is MUCH easier to obtain than the permit for Coyote Buttes North. We consider it a great option if you don’t win a permit to Coyote Buttes North.
That said, even though the two areas are only a few miles apart as the crow flies, you CANNOT visit both on one permit. Your permit to Coyote Buttes North does not allow you to visit Coyote Buttes South or vice versa. In other words, you can’t get a permit to Coyote Buttes South and then hike into Coyote Buttes North. That is illegal and BLM volunteers and patrollers will cite you.
We’ll get into more details on the penalties for entering Coyote Buttes North without a permit a bit later in this post.
How does the Permit Lottery Process for Hiking the Wave Work?
In order to hike to the Wave, all visitors MUST have a permit for Coyote Buttes North, issued by the Bureau of Land Management.
There are two ways of getting a Permit for the Wave and Coyote Buttes North: the Advanced Lottery and the Daily Lottery.
Both lotteries are held online, but you must be using a mobile device within a geocache area (basically around Kanab and Page) for the Daily Lottery. Prior to March 15, 2022, the Daily Lottery was held in person in the Kanab Center gymnasium.
We attended the in-person lottery multiple times over the course of a few years but never won. That said, it was always an exciting event, with lots of applause, tears, and general hype. The vibes were immaculate.
In any case, moving the in-person Daily Lottery to a virtual-only event does make the logistics of obtaining a Daily Lottery permit easier, which is good news for travelers who want to spend more time adventuring and less time in a community gym.
The Advanced Lottery for The Wave (Coyote Buttes North)
We eventually won our permits to the Wave via the Advanced Lottery. You can apply for the advanced lottery from anywhere in the world. All you need is the internet and a recreation.gov account (free).
You should apply for the Coyote Buttes North advanced lottery four months in advance of the month you want to hike the Wave. For example, since we hiked to the Wave in January, we applied to the Coyote Buttes North permit lottery in September of the previous year.
When you apply, you may select up to three dates within that calendar month. We recommend choosing the maximum number of dates to increase your chances of winning!
Recreation.gov will email out the lottery results on the 1st of the month following the month you entered. For example, we applied in September and received an email on October 1 notifying us that we had won for January 17. Yay!
The Bureau of Land Management issues 48 permits, or 12 groups (whichever comes first) via the Advanced Lottery for Coyote Buttes North.
Coyote Buttes North Advanced Lottery Schedule
The Daily Lottery for The Wave (Coyote Buttes North)
The Daily Lottery for the Wave is now held online via a geo-fenced system hosted on recreation.gov. Prior to March 2022, the Daily Lottery was held in person at the Kanab Center for people wishing to hike the following day. Now, the online Daily Lottery opens TWO days before you want to hike. For example, if you want to hike on a Wednesday, you will apply for the lottery on Monday.
The application for the Daily Lottery for Coyote Buttes North costs $9.You should enter the lottery between 6 am and 6 pm two days before the day you want to hike the Wave.
Winners will be announced at 7:15 pm on the same day. The Daily Lottery for Coyote Buttes North issues permits to 4 groups or 16 visitors (whichever comes first).
NOTE: You must be within the geofenced area when you apply for the lottery, but you do not need to be within the geofenced area when winners are announced.
If you win the Daily Lottery for Coyote Buttes North, you have until 8 am the next morning to accept the permits. Following the example above, where you apply on Monday to hike to the Wave on Wednesday, you will accept your permit before 8 am on Tuesday.
You also need to attend a mandatory safety briefing at 8:30 am in Kanab or Page on this day. During this safety briefing, you will pay $7 per person or dog to pick up your permit – the magical pink tag that makes you an official permit holder for Coyote Buttes North!
Be on time to this mandatory briefing! We have heard stories of the BLM withholding permits from late arrivals!
How many permits are granted per day for Coyote Buttes North?
64 people are awarded permits every day for Coyote Buttes North in total, including both the Daily and Advanced Lotteries. This means a maximum of 64 visitors hike to the Wave every day. Usually, this number is much lower since the lottery usually reaches the cap on groups before it reaches the cap on individuals. In other words, for 64 people to actually visit the Wave on any given day, each group needs to have 4 people in it. Most groups have fewer than four people in them, so it’s unlikely you’ll be hiking with 63 new friends.
How can I enhance my chances of getting a permit?
- Apply every month in the Advanced Lottery for Coyote Buttes North
- Choose 3 days (the maximum) as options for your Advanced Lottery Permit
- If you are in Kanab or Page areas, apply to the Daily Lottery every single day
- If you did not succeed in obtaining an Advanced Lottery Permit and are not physically within the geocache area for the Daily Lottery, you can book a conditional Wave tour through Dreamland Safari. Dreamland will apply to the Daily Lottery on your behalf. If you win a permit, they will take you on a tour to the Wave and Coyote Buttes North. If you do not win a permit for Coyote Buttes North, they will apply to the lottery for Coyote Buttes South. If you do not win either lottery, they will take you on a tour of one of the many other wonderous landscapes in the area (like White Pocket!).
How do I obtain my permit after winning the Wave lottery?
When you win the Advanced Lottery for Coyote Buttes North, the Bureau of Land Management will mail you your permits via US Postal Service mail about 4-6 weeks after you win. If you don’t receive your permit in the mail, call the Bureau of Land Management and let them know. Ours got lost in the mail and we almost didn’t get to hike to the Wave because of it! Thankfully we were able to have a replacement permit issued for us since the electronic reservation system had a record of issuing our permits.
If you win the Daily Lottery for Coyote Buttes North, you will obtain and pay for your permit at the mandatory briefing the day before your hike.
Are there other things to do instead if I don’t get a permit for hiking the Wave?
If you do not get a permit for the Wave and Coyote Buttes North, there is still plenty to do in the Kanab area. Some of our favorite alternatives to hiking the Wave are:
- Getting a permit for Coyote Buttes South instead and exploring the unique formations there.
- Visiting White Pocket, one of the most otherworldly landscapes we’ve ever seen!
- Driving the dirt road to Paria Townsite, one of the most colorful and beautiful places on earth.
- Visiting nearby Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks.
Can I still hike the Wave if I don’t have a permit?
You absolutely CANNOT hike to the Wave if you do not have a permit for Coyote Buttes North. There are no exceptions to this rule. You must have a permit to hike to the wave, and you must hike on the day of your permit. You can not reschedule or take a rain check for your permit to Coyote Buttes North.
The only individuals who can be in the Coyotes Buttes North permit area without a permit from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are guides and BLM volunteers/patrollers assigned to monitor the area for trespassers.
What is the penalty for hiking the Wave without a permit?
If you are caught hiking in the Coyote Buttes North permit area or the Wave with a permit from the BLM, you risk a fine of between $1,000 and $10,000 per person, plus up to one year in jail. You will also be banned for life from applying for a permit for Coyote Buttes North in the future. It is simply not worth it.
Plus, by hiking to the Wave without a permit, you are not only breaking the law, but you are also exposing this fragile environment to more people than it can sustain. The permit system exists to protect this delicate formation.
How to get to the Wave Trailhead at Wire Pass
The trailhead for the Wave is located on a dirt and gravel road called House Rock Valley Road off of US Route 89 midway between Kanab, Utah, and Page, Arizona. Nine miles after turning onto House Rock Valley Road, you will arrive at the Wire Pass Trailhead, which is also the trailhead for the Wave. You’ll see the dirt parking area on your right when coming from US Route 89. There are drop toilets at the trailhead. We recommend packing all of your trash out with you.
House Rock Valley Road Conditions and Vehicle Requirements
In dry weather, you do not need a 4×4 or 4-wheel drive to get to the Wire Pass Trailhead. However, if it’s been wet, the road gets incredibly muddy and sloppy. The thick clay basically devours 2-wheel drive or all-wheel drive vehicles that attempt the drive when the ground is wet. The day we went was one such day, and the AWD sedan in front of us got stuck in the mud. Tim had to push them out!
Some blogs or websites will tell you that House Rock Valley Road is impassable when wet, but this is not strictly true.
We don’t recommend self-driving House Rock Valley Road unless you have a 4×4 vehicle and plenty of offroading experience. But, if you have a Jeep-like vehicle with high clearance and four-wheel-drive, plus the experience to match, you should be able to navigate the road in most conditions. The only time the road is truly impassable by any vehicle is when Buckskin Gulch is flooding, typically during the summer rainy season.
If you don’t have a suitable vehicle and off-road driving skills, you can still get to the Wave when the road is wet by hiring a guide (we went with Dreamland Safari) who will provide transportation. In general, if you are at all worried about road conditions getting to and from the Wire Pass Trailhead for the Wave, you should arrange to visit with a tour guide.
Hiking The Wave Step-by-Step
Okay, so you got your permit for Coyote Buttes North! Woohoo! Now, you need to make sure you are prepared for the hike! Many people get so excited by the prospect of seeing the Wave that they forget you must hike a minimum of 6 miles round trip across completely sun-exposed desert terrain on a mostly-unmarked trail to see it! This section of our blog post aims to equip you with everything you need to know about what to expect on the day of your hike.
We’ll start by covering some frequently asked questions about the hike, and then go into a step-by-step description of the trail.
How difficult is the hike to the Wave?
The hike to the Wave is considered moderately difficult. It’s not particularly strenuous or steep, but you can certainly succumb to the dangers of desert hiking and wilderness wayfinding in Coyote Buttes North. That said, the trail itself is not very hard.
The greatest difficulties most hikers will experience will on the hike to the Wave will be:
- Dry desert weather (bring at least 3 liters of water per person!)
- Getting lost (download a map on All Trails in advance, and follow the map the BLM will give you with your permit!)
- The altitude (the Wave is at over 5000 feet of elevation so some hikers experience altitude sickness symptoms like shortness of breath and fatigue).
How long is the hike to the Wave?
The hike to the Wave formation within Coyote Buttes North is about 6 miles round trip. There are several unique landmarks and features to see in the Coyote Buttes North permit area, however, so if you plan on seeing all of the spots, expect to hike closer to 10 miles.
Actual hiking time is about 3 hours to the Wave and back to the Wire Pass Trailhead, but you should plan for your trip to the Wave to take all day, taking into account the road and how much time you’ll want to spend exploring!
Can I see the Wave from outside the permit-only area?
You cannot see the Wave from outside of the permit-only area. The permit area starts about 2 miles from the Wave formation and is obstructed by buttes. Binoculars won’t help, and drones are not permitted. The only way to see the Wave outside of satellite maps and photos is by getting a permit and going! The Wave itself is a very small area – you can’t see it until you are well and truly in it!
Detailed Route Information for Hiking the Wave
The detailed route information for the Wave hike we share below is intended for informational purposes only. Please use the map provided by the BLM with your Coyote Buttes North permit for wayfinding during your hike. Additionally, we recommend downloading an offline map of the Wave hike on AllTrails.
Park at the Wire Pass Trailhead
Be sure to display your pink parking permit in your front window. Attach the portion of the permit with a hole punch and wire to your bag in a secure and clearly visible manner. Sign in for your hike in the trail log by the drop toilets. Remember to sign out when you return later! This is how rangers know whether you are missing and need help.
1. Cross House Rock Valley Road
You’ll see a narrow river bed, which may be dry or flowing. This is Coyote Wash. You should follow the wash for about a half mile. After a half mile, you will see a well-worn path on your right that leads away from the wash.
2. Follow the path uphill
At the top of the hill, you will reach a sandy flat. Look for a small ridge in the sandstone structure ahead of you. This is the “small saddle” referenced in the map the BLM will give you with your permit. You need to cross the ridge of the saddle. Many visitors get lost here, so pay attention!
3. At the top of the saddle
Be sure to orient yourself to the landmarks around Point 3 on the below map. This is a common place to become disoriented on your return hike.
4. Aim for the Twin Buttes
From the saddle, you will hike south. Keep the sandstone ridge on your right and follow it towards the Twin Buttes.
5. Cross the Twin Buttes on the right-hand (uphill) side
Look for the dark crevice indicated on the map you receive from the BLM in step 5. The Wave is located below this crevice, so aim for this direction.
6. Cross two small sand dunes
When you reach the point between the two sand dunes, continue south across Sand Cove Wash. Climb the sandy hill. This part is a little bit steep and one of the more challenging parts of the Wave hike. Hiking on sand is literally like taking one step back for every two steps forward. Don’t fret – you are getting close! From the top of the sand hill, follow the short wash. You made it! You are at the Wave!
After you have had your fill of exploring and photographing the Wave and all the areas around it, you will return back to the Wire Pass Trailhead the same way you came. The landscape looks different coming back, though, so take note of the photos provided in your BLM map to help you find your way.
7. Return to the sandy hill
Leaving the Wave, head to the top of the sandy hill. Look for the sand dunes you cross on your way in and walk towards them.
8. Look for the Twin Buttes
Hike towards the Twin Buttes and cross on the uphill side.
9. Hike north to the small saddle
Paying attention for the landmarks you noted on your hike in, hike north to the small saddle.
10. Cross the saddle
When you cross the small saddle, it should not be very steep. If you arrive to the top of the saddle, and the descent looks very steep, you are too far south on the saddle. Backtrack north to the small saddle.
11. Return to the Wire Pass Trailhead parking lot
Follow the trail back to the wash, and then follow the wash back towards the road. Cross House Rock Valley Road and return to the parking lot! Don’t forget to sign out on the registration log!
What to Wear/Bring When Hiking the Wave
Here’s a list of what you should bring with you or wear on your hike to the Wave. The links in this section are affiliate links which allow us to earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. We greatly appreciate your support!
- Hiking boots. I love my Columbia Newton Ridge waterproof boots. Tim swears by his Foxellis.
- Dress for the weather and wear layers. The day we went in January was snowy and cold. I wore two pairs of leggings, a tank top, a thermal top layer, and a fleece all under my down coat.
- Year-round but especially in summer, make sure to have sun protection. Wear a wide-brimmed hat and use eco-friendly sunscreen like SunBum.
- Your paper map from the BLM and a digital map on your phone (we like AllTrails).
- Walking poles/sticks (with rubber tips! Metal tips destroy the sandstone)
- Water, either in a hiking reservoir or a bottle in your pack. Aim for at LEAST three liters of water.
- Snacks and sandwiches. We always bring Clif bars on hikes.
- Electrolyte powder to prevent and/or manage dehydration.
- First aid kit. Hopefully, you won’t need it, but if you do need it you’ll be glad you have it.
- Camera with a wide lens. Tip: If you don’t have or want to buy a camera, the 0.5 setting on your phone camera can help you get wider photos at the Wave! More photography tips for the Wave are included a bit further in this blog post!
Closest Airports to the Wave
Page (PGA) – This small municipal airport is serviced solely by Contour Airlines for commercial flights. Rental car availability may be limited, so we recommend confirming rental car options before booking a flight to this tiny airport.
St. George (SGU) – 1.5 hours to Kanab. St. George is a good option, though routes may be limited and prices relatively high. But, this is the closest option to Kanab, and St. George is a large city where you shouldn’t have issues getting a rental car.
Las Vegas (LAS) – 3 hours to Kanab. We generally recommend flying to Las Vegas when visiting the Wave. You’ll have the best route options since it’s a major airport, and flights in and out of Las Vegas tend to be relatively less expensive that other nearby airports.
Phoenix (PHX) – 4.5 hours to Page. This is a good option for international travelers coming to the southwest. Phoenix is a major city and thus a hub for air travel.
Photography tips for Hiking the Wave
Orientation to the Wave’s Shape
To help you orient yourself to the Wave and plan out your photography objectives prior to your hike in Coyote Buttes North, we’ve put together a compilation of our photographs alongside corresponding satellite maps from Google Earth of the Wave formation.
Photo 1: The “Classic” Wave View:
Photo 2: To the right when you first arrive
Photo 3: Facing the opposite direction from Photo 2
Lighting and Shadows
In general, the best time of the day to photograph the main view of the Wave formation is going to be early in the morning or late in the afternoon when the sun is low enough in the sky to not cast a shadow on one of the Wave walls.
We were lucky to have overcast skies the day we visited the Wave, so we didn’t have to worry about shadows too much.
Reflections and Water Pools
There are several locations around the Wave where pools of water form after recent rain or snow. Look for an oblong reflecting pool of water as you enter the Wave formation. Here is one of our photos in this location as an example, along with a helpful orientation map! Notice the shade in the satellite image. This is where the water pool will be if there’s been recent rain or snow melt.
Photographing the Wave in Rain or Snow
When the sandstone of the Wave is damp, you will see more colors in the striations. For example, lines of yellows and greens will be visible on the rock. In general, the colors will be deeper when the rock is wet.
With a light dusting of snow, you will still see the striations of the Wave peeking through lines of white. In heavy snow, however, it will look like a blanket has covered the entire formation! This is what it looked like when we arrived during heavy falling snow. The Wave was beautiful in its way, but also lacked the dramatically smooth lines that are so characteristic of this iconic location.
Tip: If the Wave is fully blanketed in the snow when you arrive, wait out the weather until the afternoon if you can. Once the sun comes, it will quickly melt the snow and you might get to see the striations in the rock!
Because of how snowy it was when we arrived at the Wave, our guide offered to let us stay in the formation longer after all of the other tour groups had left, and luckily this gave us enough time for most of the snow to melt. We were able to capture some amazing photos of a half-snowy Wave, something most people do not get to see!
FAQs for Hiking the Wave
Are dogs allowed to hike to the Wave?
Yes, dogs are allowed to hike to the Wave. Just be sure to include them on your permit!
Is a guide required when hiking the Wave?
No, a guide is not required to hike to the Wave. However, you may want one anyway. Here are some reasons why:
- Going to the Wave with a guide gives you the best chances of getting to the trailhead when the road is otherwise impassable
- A guide can show you other locations in Coyote Buttes North. Note: we did not get to see any of the other formations because of the snow and ice conditions.
- A guide can assist in the permit lottery process, for example by applying to the daily lottery on your behalf while you’re traveling into the area
- Hiking to the Wave with a guide is safer since you won’t get lost and guides have satellite phones, extra water, and snacks to keep everyone safe
We recommend booking a tour with Dreamland Safari tours if you want to hike to the Wave. If you already have a permit, you can book the Wave tour. If you don’t already have a permit, you can book the Wave Conditional Tour. Dreamland will apply to the Coyote Buttes North daily lottery on your behalf 2 days before the date of your tour. If they win a permit on your behalf, one of their experienced guides will take you on a tour of the Wave. If they do not win a permit on your behalf, they will apply to the Coyote Buttes South lottery. Then, if they do not win a permit to Coyote Buttes South, they will take you to one of the other amazing non-permit areas in the area (for example, White Pocket).
What is the geology of the Wave? How was the Wave formed?
The Wave, at an elevation of 5,225 feet above sea level, is made from Navajo Sandstone and began to form over 190 million years ago. You can think of the Wave as a petrified sand dune, where the sand hardened and calcified over time in vertical and horizontal striations. Thanks to the power of wind and water, the sandstone gradually eroded into the smooth and curvy shape that we see today.
Final Thoughts on Hiking the Wave
Even with the erratic weather during our hike to the Wave, getting to see this incredible place for ourselves exceeded our wildest expectations! If you’ve applied for a permit to Coyote Buttes North before and didn’t win, keep trying. It will be worth it when you finally get to go!
This is the most thorough post about the wave ever! Thank you, Sarah 🧡🧡🧡