Hiking the Wave in Coyote Buttes
See Geology at its Best in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness
Until a friend invited me on a hiking trip in northern Arizona and southern Utah, I'd not heard of the Wave. But I realized when we arrived that I had seen photos of this amazing geological formation, now an internationally known and very popular wilderness destination. Which is why daily visitation to the Wave has been limited by the Bureau of Land Management, to prevent excessive damage, crowding, and overuse of the area.
If you're willing to take your chances with the permit process, which I'll describe below, and can hike six, mostly easy to moderately difficult (round-trip) miles in desert terrain, I highly recommend a visit to the Wave.
Here, I'll show you photos from one of my own hikes to the Wave (I've now been there three times), describe the route, the terrain, and a little of the geological history of the area, and tell you—and show you—how to get there once you've obtained your Wave permit.
Have You Been To the Wave in North Coyote Buttes? - A Visitor Poll
Have you hiked to The Wave or plan to go?
What Forces Created the Wave?
According to Wikipedia, the Wave is composed of Jurassic-age Navajo sandstone, approximately 190 million years old. Scientists say the ancient sand dunes turned into hard, compacted rock over the ages, calcifying in vertical and horizontal layers. Further erosion by wind and rain created the spectacular landscape we see today.
You can read more about the unique geological characteristics of the Wave on the University of Utah website, from their Geology and Geophysics department ... but it's very understandable for those of us who aren't geologists.
Hiking to the Wave: A Pictorial Guide
You start from the Wire Pass trailhead on House Rock Valley Road....C'mon, let's go!
You'll begin your hike to the Wave by walking up a wash. If you continued along this wash, it would eventually lead you into Buckskin Gulch, the world's longest slot canyon, but to go to the Wave you'll turn off to the right—south/southeast—before then.
If you see a narrow slot up ahead, you've gone too far.
Of course, washes aren't always dry, so check the weather forecast (you can ask at the Ranger Station) before you begin your hike to the Wave. You don't want to be in that wash when it's running.
Coordinates of the Wave:
- Latitude 36° 59' 45.84" N
- Longitude 112° 0' 21.9" W
You can view a topographic map of Coyote Buttes, Arizona, including the Wave, at TopoQuest.com.
The Trail Towards the Wave Departs From the Wash
But you're not on a trail for long.
After following the wash for less than a mile, you'll see a sign post on your right: "Coyote Buttes." (NOTE: There's still a sign there, but it's been changed to a white sign on a wooden post, and it's on the right side of the trail, not the left as pictured here.)
All hikers need a permit to enter this area, whether or not they're headed for the Wave or some other destination. And the Wave requires a specific permit, which should be displayed on the backpack of one person in each party.
When you first turn off from the wash, you'll climb a short but steep, sandy hill, which will get your heart rate going. This and the final climb up a sand dune just before the Wave are the most difficult parts of the hike.
Due to a number of people getting lost in the area, the Bureau of Land Management has amended the material they give out to Wave permit-holders to include GPS coordinates of various points along the route and a photographic map of features to keep an eye out for.
If you pay attention to the directions and the terrain, you should have no problem finding the Wave, although, we did still run into people out there who seemed confused.
A View of the Landscape En Route to the Wave
Some folks say it looks like another planet.
This stark, other-worldly, and amazingly beautiful land gets extremely hot in the summer, with temperatures often reaching above 100 degrees Fahrenheit by midday. So, if you're hiking to the Wave in June, July or August, be sure to start very early (before sunrise would be best), carry plenty of water (a gallon per person for the day, I'd say), and wear a wide-brimmed hat. And don't forget some snacks—sugary and salty—to keep your electrolytes and energy up.
Forgive me if it goes without saying, but just in case.... cellphones won't work out here, so be prepared, because you can't ring or text for assistance.
The Route: Sand and Slickrock
After a short stretch on sandy trail, you'll come to a large area of slickrock, which, when dry, offers very good footing.
Now you'll no longer be guided by trail but rather by terrain features and, here and there, small cairns (man-made piles of rocks). I found these cairns, which are often made up of no more than two or three small rocks, easy to miss and sometimes a bit confusing, but you'll probably spot most of them if you keep a careful eye out. They really aren't necessary, though, to find your way to the Wave. (NOTE: The BLM has been removing these confusing cairns.)
Head for the Twin Buttes
The BLM instructions will point you to the right of two large ... well, I call them rock lumps, but they're officially called the "Twin Buttes." They should be pretty easy to identify from the photos on your handout. Be careful, though; there are other double "rock lumps" around that could fool you.
Still, even if you stray in this area, another major feature in the distance will draw you into the Wave.
Navigating to the Wave Shouldn't Be Difficult
...if you follow directions and pay attention to the map and terrain.
Here, my friend Sueanne walks to the right of the Twin Buttes. The buttes can be passed on the left, but it's easier to walk up the slickrock bowl and go around to the right.
Half a mile past the Twin Buttes, you'll come to a wash. If you look across the wash, you'll see the multicolored domes on the opposite side. These and the sandstone formations to the right are where the Wave is located.
Finding The Wave
Head for the crack in the rock. See it in the distance, just to the left of center in the photo?
The Wave is located below that dark crack -- aptly known as "the Black Crack" -- in the distance (pictured here just to the left of center). Just make your way cross-country towards that point.
The Ascent Before the Wave
Trudge up this sand dune to reach your destination.
This is the most difficult part of the hike to The Wave -- and it's a bit steeper and longer than it looks in this photo -- but you'll be well rewarded at the top.
So, do a slow, choppy trudge or pick up steam and motor your way up the last stretch of sand, whatever suits you, and you'll be at your destination shortly.
Arriving at the Wave: A Hidden Gem
Take your time. Explore the nooks and crannies. Check out the details. Listen to the silence and imagine this place thousands and millions of years ago.
Close-ups of The Wave—The Ultimate "Rock Art"
Natural Design—Pay Attention to the Amazing Details
Do you see the forms of other things in these designs by nature?
These Designs Look Like Waves, too, Don't They?
The Wave 2: A Short Walk Beyond the Wave
A third of a mile west of the Wave is another amazing formation, this one with lighter pastel colors. Just continue along on the "shelf" at the same level as the Wave, and you'll find it.
The Wave Is Hidden in This Amazing Landscape—And so Am I!
A special treat after a rainstorm: Small pools, which can remain for several days, often contain a large number of tadpoles and fairy shrimp.
That's the True Color of the Sky
Video: Images from a Hike to the World-Famous Wave
The images in this video were taken by Anna Malkowicz, who was visiting from Poland.
Getting a Permit for the Hike
This isn't the fun part of the Wave experience, but it is required.
My friend and I got lucky. Ours was the third application drawn that morning, as more than 50 people waited at the Ranger Station to find out if they'd get a permit for the Wave for the following day. There were spots remaining for only two more people, and the remaining parties consisted of three and four people.
The Permit Process Explained:
Only 20 people are allowed into the Wave each day, with a maximum group size of six.
Ten spots are reserved for the in-person permit lottery at the Ranger Station, beginning at 9 am each morning, and ten other slots are doled out by the online lottery system. You would need to arrive at the Ranger Station early to fill out the application and be entered into the drawing. The permit is for the NEXT day, not that same day it's drawn.
Again, day-use permits for The Wave and North Coyote Buttes are available online and as walk-in permits at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Visitor Center in Kanab, Utah (Phone: 435-826-5499), the day before you want to hike. (You can also obtain permits for South Coyote Buttes, also a beautiful area, and those permits are easier to get.)
For the online permit lottery, you have to pay a $5 nonrefundable application fee, and you can choose up to three dates per application. If you win a permit, you will be given just one of the three days. With the in-person lottery, you pay only if you receive a permit. The permits are $7 per person.
Online permits for the Wave may be obtained up to four months in advance, and you have an entire month to apply.
If you enter the lottery for the Wave and Coyote Buttes North, attempting to obtain a permit for the months of April, May, September, or October, the odds are about 10%. For other months (in the off-season), the chances are better.
Visit the BLM website for more information on how to obtain a permit for the Wave.
Be aware that the area is patrolled by rangers, and fines will be issued to those without permits. A copy of the permit will also need to be displayed on the dashboard of your vehicle.
Take a Look at the In-Person Permit Lottery for the Wave
This took place at the Paria Ranger Station, but you can no longer get the permits here. You'll have to go to the Kanab Ranger Station. This is what you can expect, though....
How the Wave Got So Popular
The Wave was first publicized in Germany in magazine articles and a 1995 nonverbal landscape documentary film called "Faszination Natur" or "Fascinating Nature." It was then visited by a small number of Europeans. Due to information being posted on the internet, The Wave has become widely known just in the last few years.
Directions To the Wave Trailhead on House Rock Valley Road
The Wave is located in the North Coyote Buttes area south of US Highway 89 between Page, Arizona, and Kanab, Utah. The hike begins at the Wire Pass Trailhead on unpaved House Rock Valley Road in the Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness.
When House Rock Valley Road is wet, it can become impassable. During dry conditions, however, a two-wheel drive vehicle is sufficient, though high clearance would be preferable.
Getting to the Trailhead
The turnoff from US 89 onto House Rock Valley Road is not signed, but it's located between mile markers 25 and 26 about 40 miles east of Kanab, Utah and 34 miles west of Page. This turnoff is 4 miles west of the Paria Ranger Station.
About 4.2 miles south of US 89 on House Rock Valley Road, you pass the Buckskin Trailhead on your left. Then, 3.7 miles further is the Wire Pass Trailhead with a large parking area and restrooms. The parking area is on the right (heading northbound), but the actual trailhead is on the left.
The trailhead is located in Utah, while the Wave itself is actually in Arizona.
Trailhead coordinates: 37 degrees 1.19'N / 112 degrees 1.48'W
An Article From The Los Angeles Times
- Arizona's Wave rock formation a stone-cold stunner
So there I was, standing with about 30 other hikers in boots and backpacks, jammed into a room no bigger than a double-wide in a one-story beige government building in a destitute moonscape....
More Information About The Wave - And Other Places To Visit In Coyote Buttes
- The Wave--Coyote Buttes | Utah.com
The Wave has become a popular attraction in the Coyote Buttes area of the Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness on the Utah/Arizona border.
- Hike E2: Coyote Buttes/The Wave
An article by Christopher Earls Brennen
- A Topo Map of The Wave Hike
You can zoom in for a larger version of this map.
- Paria Canyon - Coyote Buttes - The Wave
- Weather Forecast for North Coyote Buttes and The Wave
This link will take you to the NOAA website, where you'll find the forecast for a location 27 miles east of Kanab, UT, which is roughly the location of The Wave. This is the location the BLM site for The Wave points you to for the forecast.
Another Wave Rock Formation
Check out the amazing Wave in Australia.
Recommended Utah Hiking Guides
The Wave is actually located in Coconino County, Arizona, but is right near the Arizona/Utah border. And there's lots to see on foot in Utah. Here are two great guide books to help you decide where to go next and how to get there.
This is an illustrated, full-color hiking guide to Utah's backcountry trails, including 92 trail maps and hundreds of color photographs taken along the trails in Utah's 5 national parks, 15 wilderness areas, and other less well known and less protected areas.
Explore Utah Canyon Country
Recommended by the Glen Canyon Natural History Association, and by me, this book guides hikers to the most compelling destinations in southern Utah's spectacular canyon country.
Recommended by the Glen Canyon Natural History Association, this book guides hikers to the most compelling destinations in southern Utah's spectacular canyon country. This second book in the new full-color WOW series covers 90 trails that epitomize the "wonder of wilderness."
Another Awesome Site to See in Coyote Buttes
Let me show you around White Pocket. (pictured below)
Sueanne and I had a day to spend exploring before we could use our permit for The Wave, so we spontaneously decided to visit this incredible place she'd heard about from a friend. If there's anything that can possibly top The Wave, White Pocket might be it. And no permit necessary ... as long as you can get there.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2009 Deb Kingsbury