Most people have seen photos of hiking The Wave in Arizona- a gorgeous red sandstone formation along the Utah/Arizona border in the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. I really wanted to hike The Wave at the tail end of my Paria Canyon trip, but I was confused by the competitive permit process and the weather also wasn’t cooperating.
I then met up with Josh Allen, a fellow Utah adventurer, and the founder of RAWTrails – a project intended to help improve people’s lives through the outdoors. Having recently returned from hiking The Wave in Arizona, he offered to write up a post sharing everything you need to know about hiking The Wave, including the crazy permit process that you have to endure if you want to see The Wave in person.
So check out his detailed writeup below, mark the permit application deadline on your calendar, and cross your fingers!
by Josh Allen
Back on July 22, 2009, the world became aware of several miraculous places that were previously unknown to the masses. This date was the initial release for Microsoft’s operating system, Windows 7. The mention of Microsoft or anything in the technology sector is important only to this article because it introduced all of us to the beautiful desktop wallpaper of The Wave in Arizona, and since that time an increasing number of people have sought to make their way to this breathtaking location.
Making the trek isn’t as easy as one might imagine. The Wave is situated on the Utah-Arizona border, halfway between Page, Arizona and Kanab, Utah in the Paria Canyon/Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness. Due to the overwhelming popularity of the site, the Bureau of Land Management limits foot traffic to 20 people/day. That’s right – only 20 people are allowed access to the site at a time, thus preserving the integrity and beauty of The Wave. These days it’s even harder to find yourself one of the lucky ones to receive a permit for the site. In 2018 alone, there were approximately 168,317 applicants, and with only 7,300 people allowed access, that’s a 4.3% success rate.
Hiking The Wave: Trail Basics
Most people access the Wave from the Wire Pass Trailhead located in the North Coyote Buttes permit area of the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. The moderate 5.2-mile hike consists primarily of sand and red rock. Part of the trail is cross-country, so you should have a map and a basic understanding of navigation skills, especially given the harsh, dry desert heat conditions.
- Trail Type: Out-and-back
- Length: 5.2 miles
- Elevation Change: +/- 400 feet
- Dogs Allowed: Yes, for an additional $7/per dog/per day (They must be under your control at all times and you are required to pack out your waste)
- Best Season: Spring and Fall (best weather)
- Time: 2-4 hours
- Permit Required: YES
- Water Availability: None
Here is a Google Map of The Wave hike.
How to Get a Permit for The Wave
There are two ways to obtain a permit for hiking The Wave in Arizona. If you can plan ahead, you should try your luck in the advanced online lottery. However, if your trip is last minute or you are unsuccessful in the online Wave lottery, you can also enter the in-person lottery at the Visitors Center in Kanab, Utah. Only 20 people are issued permits for the Wave each day – half in the advanced lottery and half in-person. The cost is $7 per person per day. The online lottery costs an additional $5 and is non-refundable, even if you are unsuccessful.
Advance Online Lottery for The Wave
To apply for a Wave permit, start at the Coyote Buttes North lottery page on the Recreation.gov website. Applications for the online lottery open at 12pm Mountain Time on the 1st of the month, four months before your desired hiking month. The table below indicates when you must apply depending on when you want to hike.
Here’s an example of how this works. Let’s say you want to hike The Wave sometime in May. You must submit your online application sometime between January 1st and January 31st. When applying you are allowed to enter three different hiking dates for the month of May. The lottery then takes place on the morning of February 1st, after which you will be notified by email whether or not you were successful. If you were successful, then you have 14 days to confirm and pay for your permit online. If you don’t confirm during this time, your permit is released back into the system.
March through November are the most competitive months for permits with success rates around 4%. December through February have better odds of around 20%. It’s important to note here that while the odds of receiving a permit are higher in the middle of winter, the odds of poor weather, unpassable roads, and a snow-covered Wave are also higher.
Finally, each individual is only allowed to submit one application per month. If you end up submitting more than one, you will be disqualified.
If you are unsuccessful in the online lottery or want to spontaneously hike The Wave, your other option is to enter the walk-in lottery at the Visitor Center in Kanab UT for the following day.
From mid-March to mid-November, the walk-in lottery occurs 7 days a week and permits are drawn for the following day. From mid-November to mid-March, permits are issued Monday through Friday (except for federal holidays) with the lottery for Saturday, Sunday, and Monday permits occurring the Friday before the weekend.
You should arrive at 8:30 am to submit your application, and the lottery for the next day’s permit takes place at 9:00 am. Only 10 permits are issued, and only one person from each group is allowed to submit an application.
We were lucky enough to be selected on our 2nd attempt out of 75 applicants (the first time we tried there were 180+ applying). We’ve heard of others who have tried to do the walk-in lottery 10x with zero luck. Needless to say, riding The Wave requires patience and planning or just straight luck. We were stoked that lady luck called our number.
For a full FAQ and additional details on the permit process, visit the Vermilion Cliffs page on the BLM’s website.
Recommended Gear for Hiking the Wave
This is a hot, dusty desert environment with no drinking water. You should be prepared with 3 liters of water at a minimum. I always recommend a pack with a built-in hydration reservoir for easy drinking. You’ll also want sun protection and good hiking shoes. The trail is not well-marked and there is no cell phone service. You should be prepared with a good map (you can get one at the ranger’s station), and if you’re inexperienced with backcountry navigation, you may also want to bring a GPS and communication device. I recommend the Garmin InReach.
For more support on finding the right gear check out these posts:
- Day Hiking Essentials: The Gear You Need to Hit the Trail
- 10 Places to Buy Discounted Outdoor Gear
- How to Choose the Best Daypack for Hiking
- Hiking Boots: How to Choose the Right Pair + The Best Women’s Hiking Boots
Hiking The Wave: Trip Report
Following the lottery, the ranger gives a spiel on safety and navigating the region for those who were successful. As I mentioned, be sure to grab a map since the path to The Wave isn’t well-defined like a typical hiking trail.
Since our permit was for the following day, we took the opportunity to explore other amazing locations in Southern Utah. Having come from Zion National Park the previous day (camping along the river at Mount Carmel Junction), we made our way back north to check out the Coral Pink Sand Dunes and then up to Bryce Canyon National Park for the day. The proximity of all of these places to Kanab is 1-2 hours drive time, so when you plan to test your luck with The Wave lottery, be sure to allocate time for other side adventures around it. On the Arizona side of the border, you can also make a quick trip to the north rim of the Grand Canyon or over to Page and Lake Powell, where you can camp for free at Lone Rock Beach.
After camping in Bryce Canyon and witnessing an incredible sunrise over the majestic hoodoos, we packed up shop and headed back to Kanab to begin our journey to The Wave. The drive from Kanab to the Wire Pass Trailhead is roughly an hour, with the last 8 miles along House Rock Valley Rd (a dirt road that can be impassable at times due to the flash floods). We were lucky enough to make the drive without any problems, even though it had rained the night before. Once we reached the parking lot, we strapped on our shoes, checked our packs for water/snacks, applied necessary sunscreen, and hit the trail. To find the main trail you need to cross the road and enter into the river wash, heading back north for a half-mile or so until it winds to the east (where eventually you will see this sign).
After passing the sign to the Coyote Buttes North Area, you will stay to the right (the left goes down to Buckskin Gulch) and you soon find yourself hiking along this sandy/desert terrain.
This is the point in the journey when the map provided by the ranger came in handy. Here, in particular, we headed toward the first big mound off in the distance, just to the right of center in the image.
Once we crossed over the ridge, the landscape changed to hard sandstone (which made it much easier to hike along). There were some signposts along the path leading up to the Wave to help steer us in the right direction. To head in the right direction, look for these type of buttes in the distance, and head towards the two in the middle, passing them just on the right side.
After that pass, the terrain opens up and you’ll see a large rock face in the distance with a fissure/crack vertically down the face…that’s your destination. Other landmarks to look for along the way are white streaks along the sandstone you’re walking on, following that in between two small sand dunes in the distance. Having these small reference points along the way ensured that it was nearly impossible to lose your way (although historically hikers have gotten lost and deaths have occurred due to heat-stress and other related causes, so make sure to bring plenty of water!)
After passing between the small dunes, it’s a final push to reach the site of The Wave. The anticipation and excitement build as you drop down into another river wash and then begin the final climb in the sand to your destination. With the sun blazing down on us and the sweat building up, we couldn’t wait for the moment to arrive and rest, but as soon as we arrived the last thing we wanted to do was sit down. It was time to play and explore.
Thanks to the storm that passed through the night before our adventure, we were lucky to be able to experience this beautiful place in such a setting, with an amazing reflection bouncing off a pool of water right at the entrance (and many other pools throughout the site). This larger wide-lens view of The Wave perfectly depicts the incredible striations of the windblown sandstone.
After passing by the pool of water at the main entrance to the Wave, we looked back on this series of pools that collected water from the storm. The contrast of the red rock and the blue sky was absolutely perfect.
We continued to meander around and through the site for 30 minutes or so before ever stopping for a rest. We soon found ourselves perched up above The Wave and figured that it was the perfect spot to relax and replenish ourselves with food and water.
Now that we were fueled up we were ready for some more exploring. We headed to the top of the sandstone cliffs to the south, catching the vast landscape of the desert in all directions. All in all, we probably spent a good 3 hours at the site to gather as many vantage points as possible of this once in a lifetime visit.
Nearing the end of our journey, we caught an amazing view of The Wave from the south looking north. This just so happened to be the perfect location for us to drop in and snap some pictures of us surfing this desert wave.
The trip to The Wave was epic! To date, we haven’t been to any place in the world as remarkable, serene, and uniquely beautiful as this site. The privacy and exclusivity of this site make it all the better. While it’s tough to get a permit, the lack of crowds makes it that much more enjoyable. In silence, you can admire the awe and wonder of the creative processes of Mother Nature.
Now, years later, as we look back on this trip we wish we had done more with our time there. If you decide to venture further past The Wave, there are a bunch of other cool features worth exploring, including a couple of arches.
Who knows if we’ll ever get lucky enough to go back again. There are proposals to change the in-person lottery to an online system (two days before the visit date). In this case, one would think that many more people would apply making it even harder to go. But now as a firm believer in luck, we can only hope that luck strikes again.