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 screensaver, 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.
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 spent visiting the BLM office with a hundred other anxious strangers were not at all enjoyable.
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!)
- The Difference Between the North and South Coyote Buttes
- The Online Permit Lottery for The Wave
- The Walk-In Permit Lottery for The Wave
- Checkpoints and Penalties for Hiking to The Wave Without a Permit
- You Won a Permit for The Wave! Now What?
- Alternatives to The Wave if You Don’t Get a Permit
- Was it Worth it?
Everything You Need to Know to Visit The Wave, Arizona
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.
If you lose the 9:00 lottery for the North Buttes, stick around until 10:00am for the South Buttes drawing. The lottery process repeats in the exact same way but only if there are more than 10 people waiting. While there were over 100 people trying for the North Buttes lottery, there were only 6 of us in the South Buttes lottery. 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 lots of people do it and you can find all the info you need here.
We also compiled a list of helpful answers to the questions we’re most often asked about visiting The Wave.
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 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).
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 from the parking lot).
- 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 with 30 applications drawn instead of 10 you’ll presumably have 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 (crowd groan).
- 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 groundhogs day routine isn’t bad enough as it is.
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.
Checkpoints and Penalties for Hiking to The Wave Without a Permit
According to the ranger, the fee for trespassing ranges anywhere from $1,000 – $10,000 per person. 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 without getting caught but that was as much info as I got.
We were given 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.
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).
- It’s not a bad idea to have a topographic map of the entire area and a GPS Unit.
- 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! (See our Photography Packing List)
We were actually asked about what to pack for The Wave we wrote an entire separate post about it.
Getting to Wire Pass Trailhead
The hike to The Wave begins at the Wire Pass trailhead which is where you’ll park your car, leave your permit on the dash, and sign the trail register. From Kanab you’ll drive approximately 38.7 miles along US 89 before taking a right on House Rock Valley Road. From there it’s a very bumpy, at times muddy or rutted 8.3 miles to Wire Pass.
If it is raining or has recently rained this road can be incredibly difficult to navigate. A 4-wheel drive vehicle with high clearance is ideal. Check with the BLM office in Kanab regarding road conditions prior to heading out.
The Hike to The Wave
From the parking lot head straight across the road and turn left into the dry wash. This is the same start to the Buckskin Gulch hike (mentioned below) only instead of following it all the way to the canyon, you’ll take a right after about 1/2 mile. This is the only spot along the trail that is well signed, although it’s easy to miss in the dark so if you start your hike early be sure keep an eye on the right side of the wash.
The BLM office will provide you with a photographic map to help you find your way to The Wave as there is no real “trail” to speak of and trail markers are few and far between. Most of the time you’ll be climbing around on the rough sandstone that this area is famous for. Don’t try to follow footprints in the sand – they were just as lost as you are. Stick to your photographic map and your GPS.
If you start your hike before the sun rises, as we did, you’ll likely have the entire area to yourself for a few hours. However you are also more likely to get lost as the photographic map won’t be much help. Make sure you have the GPS coordinates, an offline map downloaded, and flashlights.
The hike out to The Wave can be incredibly frustrating. And exhausting. But once you feast your eyes on this spectacular rock formation, you’ll know for certain that all of the planning and preparing and stress to get here was 100% worth it. It will probably be one of the most beautiful places you’ll ever visit in your life. And you’ll most certainly appreciate the fact that only 20 people are allowed to visit per day as you’ll have many moments alone.
Sadly there are many people who are only interested in visiting The Wave, which is just one very small part of the entire Coyote Buttes North area. But they are doing themselves a grave disservice as there are many other beautiful colors and formations everywhere.
Go early and head straight for The Wave first thing to beat the others. But after you’ve had time to take photos and enjoy it, head out and explore the surrounding area for several hours. And then go back to The Wave later on to see how the sunlight and the shadows change the color of the rock.
If weather cooperates on the day that you visit The Wave you should plan on spending the entire day exploring the area. This is a once in a lifetime experience and you should take your time to let it all soak in. Be sure to pack plenty of snacks and flashlights so you can stay after sunset if you feel so inclined.
Sadly we had rain on the horizon and we knew that the road out would turn to muck if we didn’t beat it. So we sadly bid farewell at around 3:00pm but most certainly would’ve happily stayed for several hours longer and hiked out after dark.
Alternatives to The Wave if You Don’t Get a Permit
It appeared 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 other amazing things nearby. But this is one of the most stunning areas in the entire country so since you have some extra time to kill – get out and see it!
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 really rough so 4-wheel drive and high clearance are 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 would require driving through deep sand. From Kanab it should take about an hour and 40 minutes to drive to the Pawhole parking lot.
The area is incredibly large and there are no specific trails to follow. Even though the length of the South Buttes is about 3 miles from the north end to the south end, it’s easy to zigzag and turn that trip into more like 12 miles. It is especially interesting how the rock formations change drastically the farther you venture away from the parking lot. There are so many interesting things to see at every turn, it’s impossible to follow any kind of route.
If you follow in our footsteps, we started exploring the area in the far North and then started to make our way east toward Cottonwood Cove. By the time we reached the other parking lot we were exhausted and made our way to the road in hopes of hitchhiking back to our car. But this area is desolate, we didn’t see another soul the entire day.
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. You hike into the canyon and will come to a confluence where you can turn either turn left or right. If you turn right the canyon walls get taller and taller while the slot gets more and more narrow. And if you turn left the canyon is more open, with shorter walls and more sky showing through.
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!
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).
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 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 crisscrossed the area multiple times 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.
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? 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 area and all of the other awesomeness in the area surrounding Kanab.
May the odds be ever in your favor!
Looking for other awesome adventures in Northern Arizona/Southern Utah? Check out these books!