Hiking the Wave – UPDATED for 2021

If you’re here it’s probably because you’ve seen the gorgeous photos on Instagram or Pinterest of an otherworldly natural rock formation and you’d like to go see it for yourself. I’m going to break down exactly what the Wave is, where it’s located, how you can get permits, and what to expect on your epic hike.

What is the Wave?
The Wave is a Navajo Sandstone formation that is located near the Utah/Arizona border in an area known as Northern Coyote Buttes which is part of the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument.

If you are thinking, “This kinda looks familiar.” You’re right! A photograph of the Wave was one of the options as a desktop background for Windows 7. And I guess before there was Instagram and Pinterest people would wonder about that photo and start asking questions about where in the world it was taken.

The area is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), part of the United States Department of the Interior. The area is very sensitive, many of the rock formations including the Wave are fairly fragile and you have to be cautious of where you step, not just for your own safety but to preserve rock formations that took millions of years to form.

Because of the sensitive nature of this area, the BLM only issues permits for a maximum of 64 people to hike the North Coyote Buttes Wilderness Area a day.

How do I get permits?
Permits to the Northern Coyote Buttes area, where the Wave is located are issued lottery style where 48 people and/or 12 groups (whichever comes first) are awarded through the online lottery system and the other 16 people and/or 4 groups (whichever comes first) are awarded through the walk-in lottery, a separate process than this online lottery. The maximum group size is 6 people.

For the online lottery, permits are issued four months in advance by the BLM. On the website you will be required to watch a video about the area and what you are about to get yourself into. Fill out your information and pick your top 3 dates. The website also has a handy chart that lets you see how many people have requested each date so you can make your choices having a better idea of what your odds are.

The other 48 people and/or 12 group permits are issued in a in-person lottery at the Kanab Center Gymnasium, 20 N. 100 East in Kanab, Utah, the day before you wish to hike. You must be onsite to apply between 8:30AM and 9AM. The lottery takes place at 9AM and it’s literally a lotto style drawing with little balls in a bingo ball cage. Only one person per group can enter the drawing and if you win you must pay by cash or check. You can only win the walk-in lottery once every two weeks. Check out the BLM website as the drawing days change with season and based on holidays.

Important things to keep in mind about the permit lottery:

  • Everyone, regardless of age, must be included in the permit. This includes infants that are not walking.
  • You can apply for a maximum of 6 permits.
  • You may select a max of 3 other people to act as alternate permit holders on your trip. Please enter a valid email address for each of the intended holders. They will receive an email and will need to validate within 72 hours.
  • 48 people and/or 12 groups (whichever comes first) are awarded through the online lottery system and the other 16 people and/or 4 groups (whichever comes first) are awarded through the walk-in lottery
  • You can only apply once per month on the website, if you submit more than once you forfeit your permit.
  • Permits currently cost $9 each, and the fee to apply for a permit is $7.
  • Your dog needs a permit to hike with you, also $7.
  • Permits are for day use only, no overnights.
  • Permits are non transferable, sorry can’t resell them!
  • You cannot concurrently hold more than one permit for a permit area.
  • The most applications are submitted for April-June and September-November.
  • The least number of applications are submitted for January.
  • There are no discounts and the America the Beautiful Annual Pass is not accepted here.
  • If you decide to hire a guide, they do not count against your permit totals. They have their own commercial guide permits. The only way that this would not apply is if you contract a guide company to apply for permits for you. In that case your guide would take up one of your permits. Parties limited to one guide each.

Are there any other options besides the lottery?
Well, kinda. In very rare instances that there are cancellations or open dates, the BLM maintains a calendar that shows those openings and you could book your permit from this calendar. But this is a very sought after permit and the majority of people who get one are going to use it.

You could also try to have a local tour company secure permits at the in-person lottery for you but their chances are just as good as yours and they will end up taking up one of the permits if won.

The BLM is also supported by multiple volunteers, this includes checking permits and making sure people are respecting the area. I’m not sure what all the requirements are to become a volunteer but here’s the website to look for openings if you are interested: https://www.volunteer.gov/

Hypothetically, what if I just hike it without a permit? Hypothetically, of course.
The area is patrolled regularly by rangers and volunteers who have a list of names of who has a permit for that day. You are also required to display a permit on your person and in your vehicle at the the trailhead parking lot. The permits are different colors for the online lottery and the in-person lottery, they are bright and can be spotted from quite a distance. You may be asked to present an ID that matches the permit so don’t leave your ID in your car.

If you were to be caught without a permit you can recieve a hefty fine of $1,000-$10,000 and possible jail time. The Wave is beautiful but not jail time beautiful.

Also, don’t be a jerk, the area is protected for a reason.

How do I get there and where should I stay?
The nearest airport to the Wave is actual Las Vegas (LAS) and the nearest town is Kanab, UT. You are going to need transportation from Vegas to Kanab (which is about 3.5 hours away), renting a car is going to be your best bet for this.

In Kanab, there are multiple lodging options from Airbnb, to major hotel chains, to little privately owned bnb’s. I personally stayed at the La Quinta, it was quite nice! The town itself is pretty small, there’s a few dining options and a couple of grocery stores. But really you’re here for all the public lands. Just a short drive from Kanab is Zion National Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Bryce Canyon National Park, and a bunch of other smaller gems like Peek-a-boo Canyon. Don’t forget about these wonderful places while you’re here visiting the Wave.

What’s the hike like?
There are multiple trailheads to access the Northern Coyote Buttes area. Our tour guide went with the Wire Pass To Buckskin Gulch trailhead. This is about 45 minutes outside of Kanab and has a dirt road that runs for the last 8-ish miles of the drive. You will need an 4WD vehicle, preferably with high clearance. This road can get washed out and pretty messy so take note of the other trailhead options in case this is impassable. The BLM will provide you with a map.

If you were to go right from the trailhead to the Wave it’s about 3 miles. But there’s a lot to explore in the area and you practically have it to yourself! There are a few, rather unhelpful, directional signs that point in a general direction. Our guide has said that he has seen them turned around, so maybe don’t put a lot of faith in those. The BLM does provide a map with visual landmarks. The AllTrails app also came highly recommended from Claudia Frick who had hiked the Wave a couple weeks prior. TIP: Reach out to people on Instagram and ask them about their experiences, most people are super helpful and friendly!

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not super outdoorsy. I’m in decent shape but I’m not hiking regularly and with full honesty, I’m not hitting my 10,000 steps a day with any consistency. There were a couple of spots where I found myself out of breath but for the most part, I felt way better about the hike than I thought I would. The pace was pretty casual and allowed for a lot of photos, sightseeing, and little stops. Probably stopped for about 2 hours at the actual Wave in the middle of the day. This gave plenty of time for photos and a quick bite for lunch.

The Wave is gorgeous at any time of day but for the best photos it is recommended that you get there at mid-day when the sun is highest. That way the entire formation is lit up without any shadows from the high walls. This is also when you will probably see the other permit holders during your trip through Northern Coyote Buttes.

I overheard one of the other guides mention that there’s a crow that will unzip your unattended bags to steal snacks, so watch out for him!

Get your own “Don’t Wait, Just Go” sweatshirt here.

Some other things to note:
The only bathroom is at the trailhead and it’s a latrine. If you need to handle your business on the hike you will need to take it back home with you.
There is also no garbage collection at the trailhead, so once again, pack in pack out!
There is no water source at the trailhead or in the Northern Coyote Buttes area so you will need to bring all the water you need with you from Kanab or wherever you are staying.

When is the best time to go?
This is a hard one. The most popular times are spring and fall because of the mild weather. The summer is going to be hot. This is a desert and there is little to no shade available on the hike. In the winter there is the chance for snow and of course colder weather. Starting in July to September is monsoon season so there could be a lot of rain and washed out roads. I went on February 28th and had the best weather, could not have asked for better.

What should I bring?
This will vary based on the time of year but here’s a solid list to get you started:
Hiking boots/shoes
Multiple layers of clothing depending on the weather
Backpack – doesn’t need to be huge
Water – lots if it’s going to be a hot day
Toilet paper and a plastic bag to take used TP back home with you
Small first aid kit
Sunscreen – this is must even in winter
Camera – gotta get those shots, if you are planning on bringing a tripod make sure it has rubber feet to protect from damage
Map and GPS, this can be the one from BLM or the AllTrails App or a GPS unit
Headlight or flashlight, if you are planning to start before dawn or be out after dusk

Should I hire a guide?
I sure as heck did! As previously stated: I’m not an experienced hiker, there is no marked trail, and this hike can be dangerous if you are unsure of what you are doing. Brent was my tour guide from Dreamland Safari Tours. The tour had door to door service and I was picked up from my hotel in Kanab in a robust AWD vehicle and taken directly to the trailhead. Here’s why I loved having a tour guide:

  • Didn’t have to do any navigating, just followed Brent and enjoyed the views
  • The tour company provided water, snacks, and a sandwich for lunch
  • If I had any questions, they were answered by Brent
  • Brent was able to point out things that I would have never found on my own, like dinosaur tracks
  • I was kept on schedule so that I made it to the Wave in prime photo time
  • Wanted to get a group photo? Brent was right there to lend a hand
  • If for some reason the main trailhead was inaccessible, Brent had multiple backup plans
  • If someone got hurt or needed medical assistance, Brent was carrying a SOS beacon/satellite phone
  • Brent was also there to educate on how to treat the land with respect and hike without doing any damage

How much did all of this cost? Please note that fees increased in 2021.
Airplane ticket from Austin to Vegas: $312 (this was pretty expensive for a flight to Vegas)
Hotel in Vegas, 1 night: $102
Rental SUV for 4 days: $213, not including gas
Hotel in Kanab, 3 nights: $252
Tour Guide (per person): $185 + tip
Permit fee: $7
Lottery fee: $5
Total: $1076

Some things to note: This obviously doesn’t include meals and a few of these items like the car rental were split by the group. This also doesn’t include the cost of the items I bought to hike the Wave, like I said I’m a novice and didn’t really own any hiking gear up until now.

Was it worth it?
Heck yes! Totally recommend adding this to your travel dreams list.

My Arizona Pinterest Board with all my Wave research
My Hiking Gear Pinterest Board
BLM website with info on Coyote Buttes
Coyote Buttes North lottery website
Dreamland Safari Tours

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, which means I may receive a commission if you click a link and purchase something that I have recommended. While clicking these links won’t cost you any extra money, they will help me keep this site up and running as well as keep me traveling!