The Wave, Arizona: Navigating the Permit Process

What is “The Wave” and what’s so great about it you ask?

The Wave is a rock formation located in northern Arizona and is essentially one of the most difficult-to-visit areas of public land in the entire United States. You’ve probably seen photos of it on your computer desktop, on a variety of magazine covers, and previously in commercials advertising the Utah Olympics (even though it is actually in Arizona). In reality it is just a really beautiful, wave-shaped rock formation in the middle of an area called Coyote Buttes North. But let’s be real, it’s still just a rock.

Due to the fragile nature of The Wave formation and the hoards of visitors wishing to take the exact same photo as everyone else who’s been there before them, there are only 20 people allowed to visit the area per day and the permits are obtained through a lottery system. 10 of the permits are issued through an online lottery four months in advance and 10 next-day permits are issued in-person in Kanab, Utah on the day before via a walk-in lottery.

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So now you probably want to know how you can obtain a permit for The Wave!

We were two of the lucky (or just stubborn?) ones and after 6 days of trying for a walk-in permit we finally won the permit lottery. That being said, those 6 days were pretty freaking annoying. When we were considering whether we should attempt the in-person lottery we found loads of info on the online lottery process but hardly anything regarding what to expect with the in-person permit process.

So we have put together a comprehensive guide of what you can expect from the permit process if you decide to try your luck at visiting The Wave in Arizona (plus a few fun things you can do in the area while you’re attempting the in-person permit process!)

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The Difference Between the North and South Coyote Buttes

There are two Buttes; North and South. Coyote Buttes North is exponentially more popular because it contains The Wave formation although we would argue that the South Buttes are just as beautiful and significantly easier to obtain a permit to visit.

On our first day of losing the 9:00am lottery for the North Buttes we waited until 10:00am for the South Buttes lottery. Supposedly if there are more than 10 people who want to go, they go through the same lottery process but that day there were only 6 of us waiting (keep in mind that there were probably 100+ people trying for the North Buttes lottery the hour before). So none of us left empty handed.

The Online Permit Lottery for The Wave

We are more, shall we say, fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants travelers. So picking a date 4 months in advance via the online lottery process was not an option for us. But loads of people do it and you can find all the info you need here.

The Walk-In Permit Lottery for The Wave

Office Location, Hours and Application Process

  • Year-round the lottery is held at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Visitor Center in Kanab, Utah (Address: 745 E. Highway 89, Phone Number: (435) 644-1300) 
  • The lottery for the walk-in permits takes place at 9:00am 7 days/week during peak season. You should arrive at 8:30am to hear the ranger’s aggressive speech about people dying in The Wave and to fill out your application. If you don’t get your application in by 9:00am you’ll be denied and if you get it in at 8:59am you’ll likely get booed by the large, anxious, angry crowd.
  • The ranger keeps the applications on file for 24 hours so if you were there the day before you don’t need to fill out another application, you can just reuse your old one but you’ll be reassigned a new number. Or if you are like us you can place yourself strategically in line to get your lucky number every day (for us it was #8).

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The Drawing for The Wave Permit

  • The drawing is for a permit on the following day. So if you are entering the lottery on Monday and you are the lucky winner, your permit will be valid for use on Tuesday. And with that permit you are able to visit Coyote Buttes North at anytime of the day, as many times as you would like (but keep in mind that the hike out to The Wave is approximately 3 miles each way).
  • During the low season the visitor’s center is closed on the weekends so on Fridays the drawing is for the following Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. Meaning that instead of only drawing 10 names, they draw 30. On around March 15th they change hours and open on Saturday and Sunday so the lottery is conducted 7 days/week (except on federal holidays). In hindsight we determined that trying for the lottery on Fridays during the low season would be the way to go – more people but 30 applications drawn instead of 10 is better odds.
  • You can only fill out one application per group, no matter what size your group is. So, for example, there were an average of 40 applications submitted every morning that we entered the lottery and there were probably 100+ people waiting every day. Each application receives a number and for each number there is a corresponding wooden ball.
  • All of the balls are placed in a spinner and drawn one at a time. Let’s say the first ball drawn is #10 and there are 2 people on the application, that means that there are 8 more permits available that day. Generally there were 4-6 balls drawn in a day (so not terrible odds) but on one particularly bad day the first number drawn was a party of 5 (ugh).
  • If your party is larger than the amount of permits available (so, for example, there are 2 permits left and you are a party of 4), you must choose whether to have just 2 members of your group go or forgo your permits altogether. If, in the unlikely occurrence there is only 1 permit left at the end of the drawing, the ranger will authorize an additional permit for the day so that you don’t have to hike alone.
  • Every single day that we went to the BLM office to apply for the lottery, the exact same ranger was running the show (I refer to him as “The Dude” due to his Big Lebowski likeliness). And he made the exact same speech. And told the exact same jokes. Every. Single. Day. “If you are one of the lucky winners, stick around after the drawing to get your permits. If you’re not… leave…” and “forgive me in advance if I mis-proununicate your name”. As if the groundhog day routine isn’t bad enough as it is.
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Odds of Winning a Permit for The Wave

According to their website, if you enter the online lottery for Coyote Buttes North, attempting to obtain a permit for April-June and September-November, the odds were about 4-5% in 2013. For other months (off-season), the odds vary from 8% (August) to 25% (January). You can see how many people have entered The  Wave lottery for each day on the BLM website. I just checked today, only the 2nd day of April, and already the number of permit lottery applications for August ranged from 44 – 162 applications per day. So by the last day of the month there are probably several thousand people attempting for each day.

We were trying in March of 2017 and determined that our odds were about 10% but the number of applications per day was slowing increasing every day.

We met a few people at The Wave that had been trying their luck online for 4 years! According to The Dude, the record number of people trying for the in-person lottery was 278. One lady tried for the in-person lottery 38 days in a row before getting a permit for The Wave and another person tried 17 days in a row and never won the lottery. 

Permits for Coyote Buttes South are usually available if you walk-in, however when we checked the online permit availability they were all spoken for for months in advance.

You Won a Permit for The Wave! Now What?

Fees to visit The North Coyote Buttes

  • The fee for Coyote Buttes North (where you’ll find The Wave) is $7.00/person and $7.00/dog per day.

What to Bring

  • Plenty of snacks and water. There are no amenities anywhere in the North Coyote Buttes area or near the parking lot area.
  • Your map, permits, and the GPS coordinates. If you get caught without your permit, the fees are steep (see below)
  • A warm jacket for the early morning hours and a hat and sunscreen for later in the day as there is little shade around the buttes.
  • A camera, tripod, and props for fun photos!

Checkpoints and Penalties for The Wave

I asked the “the dude” ranger if they often caught people sneaking into The Wave and if so, what the penalty was. He said that yes they did and that the fee for trespassing was anywhere from $1,000 – $10,000 per person. Insane! I figured that the locals must sneak in all of the time so I asked around at our favorite morning coffee shop and found that most of the people I talked to had never even been to The Wave before. One girl knew someone who snuck in on a holiday but that was as much info as I got.

We got a permit to attach to our backpack as well as a car parking pass (although you park at the Wire Pass trailhead which is the parking lot for a variety of hikes so I’m not sure why they would check your car) – both are pictured below. We did get checked by a BLM ranger who said she hikes out there every other day. We ran into her at The Wave at around 10:00am and saw her back at the trailhead parking lot at around 3:00pm. When she catches people sneaking in she takes down their information and gives it to the police department and what they do with it depends on how far the person got. If they were near the start of the trail the police may not follow up but they’ll likely get a big fine if they’re caught hanging out around The Wave. She figured that she would catch a few people trying to sneak in later that day.

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The Hike to The Wave

I’m not going to lie… after all of the hype around attempting to get a permit for The Wave, I was pretty over it. And I was quite certain that I would be underwhelmed. The reality is that when I finally gazed on the awe-inspiring, spectacular rock formation I was absolutely, totally speechless. If it weren’t for an impending rainstorm I may never have left. It is every bit as amazing as everyone says it is and it is SO worth the time and patience to get a permit.

We decided to begin our 3-mile trek to The Wave at 5:00am to beat the rain and the crowds and to hopefully get there in time for sunrise. The day before, immediately following the permit lottery, “the dude” ranger gave us a super detailed picture map (below) to help us find The Wave and a dreadful speech about people getting lost in the dark and walking off of cliffs. We are quite skilled at following GPS so we figured it would be no problem to find.

Turns out, the ranger was right. It is super difficult to find in the dark. He said not to follow footprints (mostly true) or trail markers (we never even saw any). After meandering around for several hours and about 4.2 miles we finally found it! We arrived around 7:45am and had the entire area to ourselves until about 9:00am when the other 18 hikers began arriving.

The day before our hike, after we found out that we won The Wave lottery, we hit the Kanab Thriftstore for some awesome photoshoot props (including a vintage wedding dress) so for that 1-ish hour of solitude we were able to take all the strange photos our hearts desired without worrying about onlookers laughing at our ridiculousness.

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The entire Coyote Buttes North area is beautiful so we explored around a bit (there is also a “mini-wave” nearby) but found that we kept coming back to The Wave for more photos. We just couldn’t get enough. We couldn’t take a bad photo if we tried. And while it’s pretty annoying that they only let 20 people in per day, it’s actually SO NICE when you’re there that it’s not loaded with tourists. It got fairly busy around noon but there were many times when we had the entire area all to ourselves.

We knew that rain was coming at around 3:00pm so we sadly bid farewell to The Wave to begin our journey back to the car. We knew that this was truly a once in a lifetime experience and the likelihood of us every coming back was slim so it was difficult to finally make the decision to leave. If rain weren’t on the horizon, we most definitely would have stayed until sunset.

Menacing Rain Clouds!

The hike back to the car was not nearly as challenging as our hike out to The Wave in the dark. The pictured map was super helpful and we were fairly successful in sticking to the trail.

Alternatives to The Wave in Vermilion Cliffs

It seemed to us that most of the people trying to get into The Wave would try for a day or two and then move on to their next destination without really exploring the area. And there are a TON of awesome things to do in the Vermilion Cliffs area! Seeing as we had 6 days to kill, we tried to make the most of our time there.

Coyote Buttes South

As described above, at the time of writing the permit process for Coyote Buttes South had much better odds than the North Buttes. We also didn’t encounter a single other soul during our hike so we made the assumption that rangers are not patrolling the area as often or thoroughly as The Wave.

The fee for Coyote Buttes South is $5.00/person and $5.00/dog per day.

The roads to get to the two parking lots for Coyote Buttes South are pretty rough; 4-wheel drive and high clearance required. The ranger informed us that the road to the Pawhole parking lot was far better than the road to the Cottonwood Cove parking lot which has deep sand so we opted for the former. From Kanab it took us about an hour and 40 minutes to drive to the Pawhole parking lot and we arrived around 11:00am. We started exploring the area in the far North and it was spectacular; awesome formations as far as the eye could see. We were informed that the formations near the Pawhole parking lot were quite different from the formations near the Cottonwood Cove area so after exploring for a while we decided to make our way east toward Cottonwood Cove.

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The formations near Pawhole were bright orange in color

Keep in mind, the Coyote Buttes area is HUGE and there is so much to explore so it’s quite easy to spend hours zigzagging around. We finally made it to Cottonwood Cove and after exploring that area for a few hours we determined that if we wanted to make it back to our car before dark we’d need to start heading back around 4:00pm. We were also exhausted and thought that perhaps we could walk along the road that connects the two parking lots and a friendly hiker driving by would pick us up.

Alas, that area is desolate (we didn’t see a single hiker for the entire 7 hours that we were out there) so we had a long and dusty walk back. All in all we walked just over 12 miles that day (the length of the South Buttes is about 3 miles from the north end to the south end).

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The Cottonwood Cove area is considerably lighter colored and smoother sandstone

Buckskin Gulch

Buckskin Gulch is a narrow canyon hike that actually starts in the same location as The Wave hike – in a dry lake bed near the Wire Pass parking lot. We hiked into the canyon and at the confluence we took a right which took us into a narrow slot canyon (it reminded us of The Narrows in Zion NP but without all of the water – read about it below!). The canyon just keeps getting more and more interesting the further in that you get – just remember that you’ll need to turn around and go back the way you came to get out!

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Zion National Park

Zion National Park is arguably one of the most beautiful parks in the US and is less than an hour drive from Kanab. There are many amazing hikes that you can attempt in the park but the two most popular are Angel’s Landing and The Narrows.

Angel’s Landing, although steep, is a fairly moderate hike until after you reach the first viewpoint. If you continue beyond that to the very end you’ll be rewarded with amazing views of the valley below but a heart pounding scramble to get there. With steep drop-offs on each side and a chain to hold on to for dear life, this hike isn’t for the faint of heart (or anyone who is even remotely afraid of heights).

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The Narrows is an out-and-back through a slot canyon that has a river running through it. This hike is incredibly popular in the summertime when you can do it in a bathing suit. In the winter you’ll need to rent dry suits and wetsocks. Don’t even think of attempting this one if there is a chance of rain – flash floods are no joke.

White Pocket

White Pocket was recommended to us by a few locals who also warned that it is incredibly difficult to get to. It is about a 2.5 hour drive from Kanab and the road was horrendous at the time we were there – someone in the had recently driven much of the road when it was muddy so there were deep ruts for most of the way. That coupled with deep sand made for a challenging driving experience. 4-wheel drive and high clearance are definitely required.

White Pocket is a small and compact area of epic white and orange sandstone formations that are pretty easy to explore without putting in too many miles. We scoured the area and only ended up walking about 4 miles total for the day. White Pocket is still fairly unknown and most definitely worth the trip. We assume that in the near future it will also require a permit to visit.

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Was it Worth it?

So… was it worth it? All the wasted mornings of waking up early only to face rejection at the BLM office and going back, day after day, never knowing if we would actually ever get in or not? And my daily yearning to punch that Dude ranger in the face? A HUNDRED TIMES YES!!! It was by far one of the most amazing places we have ever visited and truly an adventure of a lifetime.

That being said, unless you have a lot of time to kill, our advice would be to stick to playing the online lottery. And once you (hopefully) win, plan on spending a full week exploring the amazing Vermillion Cliffs wilderness and all of the other awesomeness in the area surrounding Kanab.

May the odds be ever in your favor!

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