All photos © Sandra Chun and Howard Sherman
If you’ve ever seen that popular screensaver image of brilliant, swirling red sandstone and wondered if it’s accessible to the public, you’re in luck. The Wave is part of an area known as the Coyote Buttes North and is located near Kanab, Utah, and Page, Arizona. With a little bit of patience, planning, and luck, you too can wander through the colorful, curved walls and touch the striped, sloping bands of ancient rock.
In this post, you'll learn everything you need to know before you head out to hike The Wave. We'll dive into permits, navigation, itineraries, gear and much more. Let's kick things off with a brief overview of the trail.
Length: 6.4 miles round trip
Time to hike: 2-4 hours
Elevation change: +/- 400 feet
The Wave was formed around 200 million years ago during the Jurassic Period. This dreamy little portion of the US Southwest, which is administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), was somewhat of a secret among hikers before it began to gain popularity in the early 2000's. Now it's a coveted bucket-list destination for many adventurers and photographers...and for good reason.
Not only are people drawn in by the mesmerizing striations of reds, yellows, oranges, and white, but there’s just something so alluring about a hike that has such controlled, limited access (only 20 permits/day).
The trail is mostly unmarked, undefined and moderately strenuous, with long stretches passing through deep sand and sage fields. Without relief provided by trees or steep walls you'd find on other hikes, the entire trail is completely exposed, which makes hiking in the summer challenging and potentially hazardous if you aren’t prepared. There have been at least four deaths since 2013, all of which appeared to be heat related, and it cannot be stressed enough that there is no shade from the extreme heat and sun during hotter months.
With the hike to The Wave being only 3.2 miles, it’s certainly a distance that’s manageable for most people in reasonably good health and physical shape. That being said, consider the fitness of each member of your party before you apply for a permit, as you'll be quite a distance away from emergency services.
To Print PDF: Step 1) Expand to full screen view (click box in top right hand corner of map). Step 2) Zoom in to your desired map section view. Step 3) Click on the three white vertical dots and then "Print Map" from that drop down menu.
Permits (2 Options)
A permit is required to hike The Wave. And, there are two ways to obtain a permit - through the online lottery 4 months in advance or in-person in Kanab (details below).
The Bureau of Land Management grants access to 20 hikers per day, with a maximum group size of 6. If you are granted a permit to hike The Wave, you’ll pay a $7 recreation fee per hiker (all ages, including infants) and dog, as well as a $5 application fee.
There are no exceptions to the permit system. No permit, no hike. Unlike the national parks, there are no “off hours” when you can hike without a permit.
The permit system was designed to help preserve and protect this incredible geological wonder, as well as protect you. With no obvious trail and very few trail markers, you can easily get lost on your way to and from The Wave. As long as you have a permit though, rangers will have a record of you being on the trail should you fail to return.
Let's dive deeper into your two options for obtaining a permit.
The Wave seen from above.
OPTION 1: ONLINE LOTTERY
If you decide to enter the online lottery, you’re applying for a permit 4 months from the date you’re planning to hike. In other words, you’d have to apply between January 1 and January 31 if you are planning to hike in May.
Keep in mind that you may only apply for the online lottery once per month, and each application allows you to select up to 3 dates. The system will not permit you to submit another application in the same month, and you’ll get a message during checkout if you try.
The lottery is drawn on the first of each month at 9 am. And, the good news is you’ll be notified whether you won a permit or not. Winners will receive their permit in the mail.
The cost is $5 for each lottery application (one fee per group).
You can list up to 3 alternate permit holders when you apply for the lottery, and at least one of the listed individuals must be with the group during the hike.
Lastly, remember to physically carry the permit with you on the day of your hike, as rangers do patrol the area with a list of permit numbers, and violators caught hiking without a permit can face hefty fines.
Read the complete details and apply here.
|Month of Hike||Permit Application Window|
|January||September 1st to 30th|
|February||October 1st to 31st|
|March||November 1st to 30th|
|April||December 1st to 31st|
|May||January 1st to 31st|
|June||February 1st to 28th|
|July||March 1st to 31st|
|August||April 1st to 31st|
|September||May 1st to 30th|
|October||June 1st to 31st|
|November||July 1st to 30th|
|December||August 1st to 31st|
OPTION 2: IN-PERSON LOTTERY
You can increase your chances of winning a permit if you try for the online lottery first. If you’re unsuccessful, or your trip is under 4 months away and too close to enter the online lottery, you can try to land a walk-in permit.
If you have the luxury of time, allow yourself an extended stay in Kanab and show up for the lottery day. Similar to how you would approach seeing the Northern Lights, the more days you have available to enter the lottery, the more chances you’ll have to successfully win a permit.
Smaller groups will have better luck getting permits because, with only 10 in-person slots available, you’d have to either break up your group or wait for another day if there are only a few remaining spots.
Should you win, the in-person lottery grants you a permit for use on the following day. Although there are no restrictions on what time you can hike, overnight stays are not allowed.
UPDATE: Due to the current fire situation, the lottery is not being held at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Visitor Center. To enter in person, visit the Kanab Center Gymnasium at 20 North 100 East in Kanab, Utah. Call the office of the BLM to get the latest information and confirm the location before you head out. (435) 688-3200.
Lottery for walk-in permits in progress
Planning Your Hike
WHEN TO GO: Timing, Weather and Seasons
The beauty of this hike is that it’s never crowded because permits are only issued for 20 people to hike the trail on any given day. But, just like any other popular tourist attraction, there are pros and cons to planning a trip around the busiest (and what’s considered the most ideal) months.
- Winter: you might have a slightly better chance to get a permit because most people want to capture photos of The Wave when there’s no chance of snow covering the sandstone. The chance of snow and ice could also make the trail and road to the trailhead more difficult or impassable, but on the plus side, the temperatures will be more bearable than during the summer months.
- Spring and Fall: probably most ideal because the temperatures are milder, but that also means there will be more people applying for permits for those months between March and May and September or October.
- Summer: Even if you think summer may not seem like a good idea, it shouldn’t be crossed off your list. Temperatures can soar above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, but with an early-morning start, you could make it to The Wave and back to your car before hitting the hottest part of the day. Or you could start a bit later to take advantage of the cooling temperatures and longer daylight hours. Just keep in mind you want to get back to the parking lot before sundown, as finding your way could be much trickier in the dark.
The Wave - North view
START AND END POINTS: Access Trails
The suggested route starts at the Wirepass Trailhead off of BLM 1065 (House Rock Valley Road), which is off of Highway 89.
The road is 8.4 miles and unpaved, but it’s relatively passable for most vehicles with average clearance. The majority of the road is washed out and rough for smaller vehicles and not recommended for anyone during heavy rain, as water can run across the road and create small streams that are dangerous to cross.
Keep in mind during the winter that ground that is wet and soft will freeze overnight and be easy to navigate in early hours, but the ground can thaw later in the day, possibly presenting challenges upon your return trip. The road contains a lot of clay, so you won’t get any traction if it’s really wet, even in a 4WD.
It’s worth noting there is another access point through The Notch, but the trail is longer, much more challenging, poorly defined, and no longer publicized or suggested by the Bureau of Land Management. It’s supposedly less scenic too. Stick with the Wirepass Trailhead.
Tip: Always sign the trailhead register when you begin your hike and remember to sign out when you complete your hike.
Path to The Wave
NAVIGATION: Maps and Apps
If you’re fortunate enough to win a permit from the online or in-person lottery, you’ll be given GPS coordinates and an unconventional map with pictures of notable landmarks along the way. Using GPS coordinates is probably the most reliable way to navigate. If you’re a moderately experienced and observant hiker though, the provided photos are more than sufficient to help you find your way.
Cell service is likely to be spotty, so be aware of your surroundings and don’t depend on your GPS as the only means of navigation just in case something goes wrong with your device. Should you need to use your phone in an emergency, seek higher ground to try and connect with cell service.
A useful tip is to turn around on occasion along your hike to The Wave and take photos of what’s behind you in case you’re unsure about where to go on the hike back to the trailhead. Everything will look different in reverse, so the map might not feel as helpful when you’re walking in the opposite direction.
Lastly, notify someone responsible who won’t be hiking with you so they know where you’ll be and when to expect you back.
Side note: Help protect the area by keeping the information about this hike private, and do not post the directions or coordinates online for others to use.
Walk-in lottery winners also receive an illustrated map to navigate the area.
GEAR: What to Pack
- Desert-type clothes: Wear light, loose-fitting clothes to keep you cool and protected from the sun, sunglasses, and a wide hat to shade your face, neck, and ears. In colder months, wear plenty of natural, moisture-wicking layers so you can remove and add articles as your body temperature changes with your activity.
- Closed-toe shoes: The most challenging portions you’ll encounter are deep, traction-less sand that would be difficult to maneuver through with sandals. And forget flip-flops; you’ll just kick up all the sand and upset everyone in your party.
- Trekking poles: The trail is mostly sand and slickrock, so you might find it helpful to bring trekking poles to make your way through the changing terrain.
- Sunblock: Apply a generous layer of sunscreen before starting your hike and carry it with you for reapplication.
- Baggies: Because there are no facilities along the way, pack baggies if you’re bringing your dog, as well as everything you need to pack up any trash you produce along the course of the day. All trash (including animal and human waste) must be packed out. That goes for toilet paper too.
- Water: It's hot out there, so don't be afraid to pack copious amounts of water. A gallon per person during summer months isn't overkill. Also bring some salty snacks and/or electrolyte replacements to replace the electrolytes you'll be losing through sweat.
- Others: your permit and BLM-provided map, a GPS device (if you have one) and a flashlight or headlamp in case you find yourself out after sundown.
Above The Wave
What to See and Do
CAPTURE EPIC PHOTOS
Whether you visit during warmer or cooler months, start your day early to give yourself plenty of light (and cooler temps) to hike the trail to The Wave. Daytime temperatures can be unbearably hot in the summer, especially because there is no shade along the trail. It’s also a strategic way to get ahead of all the other permit holders and enjoy taking some photos without any people in your shot.
Anyone with a decent camera or phone can capture the quintessential shots of the Wave. This said, if you’re really into photography, you'll have plenty of time to wait for the sun to shift and give you ideal lighting (or shadows) for all the different angles and areas you want to shoot. Just plan enough time for your return hike so you don’t end up walking back in the dark (unless your goal is nighttime photography).
Because there’s no way to know if you’ll ever visit The Wave again, plan ahead to learn all the classic photo spots and tips for capturing them at the best time of day. When your moment arrives, you'll be ready.
A classic photo from The Wave
VISIT LESSER-KNOWN ROCK FORMATIONS
Most people only hike as far as The Wave, but there are many other formations nearby if time and temps permit. The Coyote Buttes area is truly a wonder. Here are some places to look for (pinpointed on the map above):
- The Mini Wave (a small cluster of cone-shaped sandstone with really fun angles to walk along and photograph)
- The Dinosaur Tracks
- The Second Wave
- The Alcove
- Melody Arch
- The Big Mac
- North Teepees
Take your time and enjoy all the sights along the way. As you can see, the permit isn't easy to obtain, so don't rush to the end of the hike and return without giving yourself ample time to explore and appreciate where you are.
Sit, rehydrate, and enjoy a snack as you take in the otherworldly landscape in front of you. Head to higher ground for different vantage points. Find the dinosaur tracks.
The Rock Teepees
IF YOU CAN'T GET A PERMIT
The entire Kanab area is beautiful, so try to remember there are many other trails and points of interest nearby to make your trip worthwhile if you’re unable to get a permit right away (or at all).
The Wave shares a trailhead with Buckskin Gulch, the longest slot canyon in North America (and possibly the longest in the world) that can be hiked in and back as far as you feel comfortable. It is also permitted, so make sure to plan ahead for day or overnight trips.
Also nearby is an amazing hike to the unique white towers and balanced rocks known as the Wahweap Hoodoos. The Coyote Buttes South is gaining popularity too, and some hikers and photographers even favor it over The Wave. Due to increased traffic, this area also requires a permit, and you should strongly consider visiting this area if you want to see geological formations similar to The Wave.
Make sure to check for updated information due to COVID-19 and other restrictions.