The Wave... surfing the sandstones in Vermillion Cliffs National Monument

The Wave hike in Coyote Buttes North: A picturesque place that takes your breath away!

The Wave is a sandstone formation in Coyote Buttes North, which is part of the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona. What makes the Wave special is the sandstone literally looks like a giant ocean wave made up of crimson, red, yellow and orange colors that interlace and dance together.

Hiking to the Wave needs a permit, and it is very hard to score one. Eric, one of the guides we met in Utah, called it the Holy Grail. I wondered what he meant… thinking of all the other special places where I had struggled to get permits: the Enchantments, the Napali Coast. He said, “I don’t know how you will react when you see it, but as far as permits go, it is considered a holy grail because it is the hardest to get and you cant see it without a permit”.

We had applied for the Wave on-line lottery on and off for over 10 years without any luck. This year we ended up doing the hike with very little planning. It all started very matter of fact when my wife Kavita suddenly asked “So, how far are we from Waves?” At that point we were vacationing in Arizona, and I figured telling her that it was a 4 hour drive in the middle of nowhere and we would not make our flight back home would put an end to the conversation. But I should have known better, since within minutes, I was on the phone with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) visitor center to get the details and our chances. Valorie, who answered the phone, was incredibly sweet. I asked her how many people apply for the walk-in lottery and what were our chances. She said “Well, its very hard to get a permit. We usually have 40+ applications during the week for the 4 daily walk-in permits, and 100+ on Fridays since the Friday weekend lottery is for permits for 3 days: Saturday, Sunday and Monday” and just when I thought the chances were so absurdly low that there was no point going, she said something very profound “Well, you only win if you apply and someone has to win, so come on over and try your luck”. Once that sentiment was shared with Kavita, there was no looking back! We were headed to Kanab to try our luck at the walk-in lottery: where 4 privileged groups get picked every day.

Our plan was to spend 5 days in Kanab, and try for the lottery on Tuesday to Friday, and head out on Saturday if we don’t get the permit. To cut a long story short, we hit the Jackpot on Friday for a permit for Sunday. The lottery each day was quite an experience on its own, and as we bided our time to get the permit, we found a few spectacular places (Buckskin Gulch, Yellow Rock, Cottonwood Canyon, White Pocket) that are worthy on their own merits and deserve their own blog which I hope to write another day.

What we encountered on Sunday exceeded every expectation we had built up over 10 years of Wave anticipation…

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The Hike

We had always considered the wave a difficult hike, since we had heard the access is hard: about 50 miles from Kanab, with 10 of those miles on a dirt road which is not passable when wet since the road pretty much turns to clay. And we had also heard there are no trails so finding the Wave itself, which was 3 miles from the trailhead, is hard.

The dirt road was much easier to navigate than we expected, and the fact that we had a 4 wheel drive may have helped a tiny bit. But it would be a piece of cake even with a 2WD given the weather conditions for the days we were in Utah.

The hike starts at Wirepass trailhead, which is also the starting point to go to WirePass trail which leads to Buckskin Gulch. The Wave trail branches off from the Wirepass trail about half a mile in the hike. The hike is very easy without any hard parts or technical challenges. The hard part is the route finding, with the hardest part being finding your way back to the trailhead. It is easy to get lost if you are not careful. The BLM does a good job in giving you the landmarks to look for to make your way to the Wave and back. They also give GPS co-ordinates which turned out super useful since we could just plug that into our Garmin device and it led the way for us!

The hike to Wave from the trailhead is 3 miles long, so it is a minimum of 6 miles round trip. However, the Wave is not the only interesting part of this hike, even though it is the highlight. We walked to the second wave, saw the melody arch, and all the colorful things that looked like brains. The mini-wave was fascinating. And then we went to the “boneyard” which was incredible, since the blocks of sandstone strewn all around resemble skeletal remains. Our round-trip was about 10 miles during this hike.

We started early in the morning from the trailhead around 8 and reached the Wave around 9:15. We were the only ones there for a couple of hours, and we enjoyed the bliss and solitude of this special place on earth.

Practical considerations:

If you want to plan a Wave Hike, here are some tips and details that maybe helpful to you. Also, the entire GPS track is available if you want it.


The most important part for planning this trip is to get a permit. The permits site has instructions on how to get the permits. Essentially there are 2 ways:

  1. Online lottery, where you apply for a permit four months in advance, and you can pick up to 3 date options for the lottery. 12 permits are picked online per day (or a total of 48 people, which ever is greater)
  2. Walk-in lottery, where you show up at the BLM visitory center in Kanab for the lottery at 8:30am for a permit for the following day. 4 permits (or 16 people which ever is greater) are available every day for the walk-in lottery, and about 40 to 50 groups apply. On Friday, the lottery is for 3 days: Saturday, Sunday and Monday. When we were there, 112 groups had shown up on Friday! There is no cost to play the walk-in lottery, and you pay 7$ per person if you win the lottery.