What is “The Wave” and what’s so great about it you ask?
The Wave is a rock formation located in Northern Arizona. It 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 The Wave is actually in Arizona).
In short, ‘The Wave’ is just a really beautiful, perfectly wave-shaped rock formation. It is in the middle of a protected area of federal land called Coyote Buttes North.
So now you probably want to know how you can obtain a permit for The Wave.
Only 64 people are allowed to visit The Wave each day. 48 of those permits are obtained via online lottery and 16 via in-person lottery. We were two of the lucky (or just stubborn?) ones and after six days of attempting The Wave permit walk-in lottery, we finally won!
That being said, those six days spent visiting the BLM office with a hundred other anxious strangers were not at all enjoyable. And now, you won’t have to suffer through the in-person experience any longer as the permit process has changed since we visited The Wave in 2017.
So we have put together a comprehensive guide of what you can expect from the permit process and everything you need to know about hiking to The Wave in Arizona (plus a few fun things you can do in the area while you’re attempting the permit process!). Enjoy!
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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 easier to obtain a permit to visit.
If you lose the daily lottery for the North Buttes, you can try your luck for the in-person South Buttes drawing. The lottery process works as a walk-in lottery at the Kanab Center one day before your hike. However, only 10 permits are available daily for the South Buttes walk-in lottery.
There were over 100 people trying for the North Buttes lottery when we went. However, only six of us were in the South Buttes lottery. None of us left empty-handed.
Online Lottery for Permits 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 advance lottery for The Wave was not an option. 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 questions we’re most often asked about visiting The Wave in Arizona.
Daily Online Lottery for Permits for The Wave
When we were considering whether we should attempt the in-person lottery for The Wave, we found loads of info on the online lottery process but hardly anything regarding what to expect with the in-person permit process. However, we won our in-person lottery back in 2017 and since then, the permit process has changed. So here is all of the new information from the new permit process.
Office Location, Hours, and Application Process
- You will pick up your The Wave permits year-round at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Visitor Center in Kanab, Utah (Address: 745 E. Highway 89, Phone Number: (435) 644-1300).
- As of March 15, 2022, there is a daily online lottery process using a mobile-based geofence system. Applicants must download the recreation.gov app to submit the daily lottery application. The process will now take three days.
- On day 1, applicants submit the daily online lottery application but only if they are within the geofence area of The Wave. You can submit the application between 6 am and 6 pm. Results will arrive on the same day after 7:15 pm via email. If you win, you need to log into your recreation.gov account to accept and pay for your permit by 8 am MT the next day. Otherwise, it will be forfeited.
- On day 2, you can pick up your permit at the BLM office by 8 am. The address will be in your email confirmation. Then, you need to attend the safety briefing at 8:30 am at the same location.
- Day 3, go on your hiking adventure to The Wave!
The Drawing for The Wave Permits
- The drawing is for a permit to visit The Wave on the third day. So if you are entering the lottery on Monday and you are the lucky winner, your permit will be valid for use on Wednesday.
- And with that permit, you are able to visit Coyote Buttes North at any time of the day, as many times as you would like. However, keep in mind that the hike out to The Wave is approximately three miles each way from the parking lot.
- During the low season, the visitor’s center is closed on the weekends, and applications are accepted from Monday to Thursday. As such, on Thursdays at 6 pm, drawings are issued for the following Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. In hindsight, we determined that trying for The Wave Permit lottery on Thursdays during the low season would be the way to go as you’ll presumably have better odds.
- You can only fill out one application per group and it cannot exceed more than six people. So, for example, there were an average of 40 applications submitted every morning that we entered the lottery (back when it was in-person). There were probably 100+ people waiting every day. Each application received a number and for each number, there is a corresponding wooden ball.
- There are permits for 16 people and/or four groups issued via the daily lottery.
- Everyone regardless of age must be included in the permit. However, dogs must be included on the permit (but do not count against the quota) and require a fee (added during the permit confirmation process).
- If a group hires an authorized guide, he/she will not count against the group size or the daily visitor limit. Only one guide is allowed per group.
Note that this post was written in 2017 when we attempted the in-person lottery but the process has since changed into the daily online lottery information we provided in the sections above. The rest of this section talks about the in-person lottery system we went through back in 2017 and it is no longer valid.
- 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, which means that there are 14 more permits available that day.
- If your party is larger than the number 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 Wave Permit walk-in 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, Arizona
According to their website, if you enter The Wave Permit 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. When I checked on July 22nd, the number of permit lottery applications for November ranged from 660 to 1,334 applications per day. So by the last day of the month, there are probably several thousand people attempting for each day.
Note that we were trying The Wave in March of 2017. We determined that our odds were about 10% but the number of applications per day was slowly 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. 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 months in advance.
Checkpoints and Penalties for Hiking to The Wave Without a Permit
According to the head ranger at the BLM office in Kanab, the trespassing fee ranges anywhere from $1,000 – $10,000 per person.
I figured that the locals must sneak in all of the time. 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!
We were given a permit to attach to our backpack as well as a car parking pass. Although, parking is 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. See pictures below.
We ran into a BLM ranger who was checking permits in Coyote Buttes North. She said she hikes out there every other day. We ran into her at The Wave at around 10 am. We saw her back at the trailhead parking lot at around 3 pm.
When she catches people attempting to hike to the Wave without a permit, she takes down their information to give to the police department. What they do with it is up to them. The fine or penalty for hiking into the wave without a permit typically 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 caught close to The Wave without a permit. 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 BLM-provided set of GPS coordinates. If 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. Plus, a hat and sunscreen for later in the day as there is little shade around the buttes.
- A camera and lightweight travel tripod with rubber feet. (See our Photography Packing List)
If you are curious about what to pack for The Wave, we wrote an entirely separate post about it.
Getting to Wire Pass Trailhead
The hike to The Wave begins at the Wire Pass trailhead which is in Utah. (Confusing, right?)
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 very bumpy, at times muddy or rutted 8.3 miles to the Wire Pass Trailhead parking lot. You’ll park your car at the parking lot, leave your permit on the dash, and sign the trail register.
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 the condition of Rock Valley Road prior to heading out.
The Hike to The Wave
From the Wire Pass 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). However, 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, 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. 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 64 people can visit per day as you’ll have many moments alone.
Sadly, there are many people whose only interest is to visit The Wave. But that is just one very small part of the entire Coyote Buttes North area. 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. Then, go back to The Wave later on. 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. We knew that the road out would turn to muck if we didn’t beat it. So we sadly bid farewell at around 3 pm 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. Then, they 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. 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. As such, 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. A 4-wheel drive and high clearance are a must. 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 three 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 that it’s impossible to follow any kind of route.
If you follow in our footsteps, we started exploring the area in the far North. Then we started to make our way east toward Cottonwood Cove. By the time we reached the other parking lot, we were exhausted. We 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. It is less than an hour’s 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, your reward will be amazing views of the valley below. But, it is 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 wet socks. Don’t even think of attempting this one if there is a chance of rain – flash floods are no joke.
A few locals recommended White Pocket to us. They also warned that it is incredibly difficult to get to. It is about a 2.5-hour drive from Kanab. The road was horrendous at the time we were there – someone 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 a must.
White Pocket is a small and compact area of epic white and orange sandstone formations. They are pretty easy to explore without putting in too many miles. We crisscrossed the area multiple times and only ended up walking about four 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, it was an adventure of a lifetime.
That being said, unless you have a lot of time to kill, our advice for getting a permit for The Wave would be to stick to playing the advance 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.
Good luck getting a permit for The Wave in Arizona! May the odds be ever in your favor!
Looking for other awesome adventures in Northern Arizona? Check out our favorite guides!