Step by Step Guide on How to Get to The Wave (Coyote Buttes North)
So you have stumbled on this blog post. Either you know exactly what The Wave is, or you are just curious on what I’m writing about. Not to worry, I will explain every detail and hopefully maximize your chance in getting to this beautiful place.
What is The Wave?
The Wave is a particular spot in the Coyote Buttes North, located just inside the border of Arizona. I think the picture below speaks a thousand words.
You probably have seen The Wave at one point either through Google images, or computer screensavers. The Wave is a standstone rock formation that consists of intersecting U-shaped troughs. The shape and colour makes it super unique. Apparently, the U-shape formation was caused by erosion since the Jurassic age.
It’s not easy to get to The Wave, particularly because of the lottery permit system that the Bureau of Land Management uses. According to a local that I spoke to, the existence for the lottery permit system was because of a sudden influx of tourists into The Wave ever since a German documentary film “Fascinating Nature” was made in 1996. The sudden increase of tourists apparently made the site unsustainable (due to its fragile nature of the formation), and hence the need to restrict tourism and introduce the permit system.
That’s right. Unfortunately, The Wave is not some place in Arizona where you can just drive for a few hours, and pop by. In fact, Bureau of Land Management only gives 20 permits (i.e. 20 people) a day to visit Coyote Buttes North, which is a massive 112,500 acre of land that has The Wave.
How hard is it to get the permit?
Very hard! Even though 20 permits are given out per day, 10 permits are reserved online, and 10 are offered on-site. The permit is in a lottery format, so there is no advantage of being the first to sign up either online or on-site. Though, your chance of getting the permit via the on-site route significantly increases, because there are fewer people (fewer competition). However, you are still competing with 150-200 people on average per day.
The on-site route
The on-site lottery permit is given out every morning at around 9am at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument visitor centre in Kanab. Kanab is just 2.5 hour away from Las Vegas (beautiful drive). Anyhow, you go to the visitor centre, register your name and you wait with 150 other anxious people, hoping that your number will be called.
Some key information of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument visitor centre:
Phone: +1 435 644-1300
Address: 745 E Highway 89, Kanab, UT 84741
Winter Hours: 8:00am – 4:30pm Mon – Fri
Summer Hours: 8:00am – 4:30pm Mon- Sun
Since only 10 permits are given for the on-site route, your chance of getting the permit is around 5%. Each time you have to listen to the ranger explaining how dangerous The Wave is and apparently hear the exact same joke. If you are the lucky one, your permit is actually granted for the next day.
To be honest, there is no strategy on getting the permit via the on-site route. At this point, it is just plain luck and hopefully not many people show up that day. You probably get a much higher chance if you go during winter time. Though, it is possible that you don’t get any permits at all. I know people who tried for days using the on-site route, even 2 weeks, without getting any permits.
That leads us to the online route.
The online route
Not saying that the online route is any easier, but at least there is some strategy that you can use. First, there are on average about 900 – 1,300 people applying for a permit each day. Granted, you can apply for 3 days at a time on any given month, so again your chance of getting a permit is 2.5% - still a terrible chance. Let me just explain on how the system works.
First, you go to the Bureau of Land Management website and watch an introduction video about The Wave and Coyote Buttes North.
You then have the chance to apply for a permit that is 4 months in advance. For example, if you are in December 2018, you have the chance to apply for the permit to be used in April 2019. Each time you apply, you have the chance to apply for 3 days. You can choose those 3 days, which means that you can be strategic about it.
As you can see, the number of people applying for any given day varies significantly. I took this snapshot picture (see above) in the middle of December and it only goes up as the month goes by. Since the permit is not granted on a first-come-first-serve basis, you should wait until the last day of the month to see which days have the least number of application. You should then apply for those days and cross your fingers.
When you apply, you can select up to 6 people in your group. Each application fee for the month is $5.
I personally have applied for The Wave permit for 1.5 years. Apparently, this is considered short. When I arrived at The Wave, I saw another tourist and asked him how long it took to get the permit – his answer was 2 years. I even know people online who have applied for 5 years, and still didn't get anything. So don’t worry, don’t give up, there are many people out there just like you – trying to get this permit.
You will know your result on the first day of the following month. So that gives you 3 months to prepare, book your flight ticket and get excited!
You got your ticket, now what?
Congratulations! You are one of the lucky, coveted and special applicants to be chosen to visit The Wave! If you applied via online, you would be required to finish the application and receive an electronic permit. The permit fee is $7 USD per person. After a month, you should receive the real permit package in your mail that looks like the following picture:
The closest city to fly to reach The Wave is probably Las Vegas. From Las Vegas, it is an easy 2.5 hour drive to a town called Kanab. I would suggest visiting the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument visitor centre at Kanab the day before to get some information about The Wave. I recommend talking to the ranger and understand the weather condition for the next day. This is also a good time to stock up on snacks, water and hopefully you have your hiking boots.
What to bring?
Permit! You don’t want to pay the fine.
For sure hiking boots. The kind of terrain that you are expecting should be Grand Canyon-like. Running shoes won’t cut it.
Lots of water – there is no place for you to fill up water at all in Coyote Buttes North.
Snacks! Enough said.
Layer of jackets. At Coyote Buttes North, it is very strange to experience all kinds of weather in a span of a few hours. In the morning, it was cold, then it got hot in the afternoon. When you think it is warm, suddenly you experience hail and rain. Mind you, I went in early December but I can imagine that you will expect the crazy change of temperature during shoulder season. I would recommend wear layers of clothes.
If you are really scared of being lost, perhaps bring a satellite phone. At least you can make an emergency call.
A camera? Though, nowadays people like using their high-quality camera phone. It should still do the job.
Flashlight – if you are lost in darkness, good luck.
The most logical spot (and the official spot) to park your car before hiking to The Wave is the Wire Pass. To get to the Wire Pass, you either drive on highway 89 for 1 hour or drive through Fredonia/Jacob Lake for 2 hours. The reason that you may want to take the longer route is because of the weather. If there is heavy rain the day before, the path via highway 89 maybe flooded. In this case, you are stuck and you may have to turn back to Kanab (waste 2 hours) and drive for another 2 hours using the other route. Anyhow, talk to the ranger the day before, so you can make an informed decision.
Now you are at Wire Pass, the real adventure begins. The hike is around 2.5-3 hours one way to get to The Wave. You actually start from Utah, and then you walk across to Arizona. Impressive right? Interestingly, there are no signs or markings to tell you how to get to The Wave. Coyote Buttes North is massive! The Wave is a tiny little spot that is quite hidden in my opinion. Bureau of Land Management will give you an official photo guide that shows you the path. Unless you know exactly where to go, chances are you will be lost. I think statistically there is a 30% chance that you will be lost and not even get to see The Wave – so do your research! Thankfully, I took pictures throughout my hike and I can give you a step-by-step photo guide on how to reach The Wave.
Before you leave the parking lot, tear off the permit where you are supposed to leave on top of the car dashboard. The remaining half should be hooked onto your backpack for ease of identification by the ranger.
At the parking lot, you will have to write your name, emergency contact number, departure time and your permit number on a visitor guest book (you will see where it is clearly). This helps ranger identify any lost hikers and call for help accordingly.
Step by Step Picture Guide to The Wave
You can refer to the video below. If not, follow the pictures!
Step 1 - Follow the sign that actually shows the arrow of direction
Step 2 - Keep following the sign (the first three steps are spoiling you). You won't get these signs soon!
Step 3 - This is the last sign you'll see. Hike upwards!
Step 4 - Follow the footprints while walking on sand. If there are no footprints, you should really be walking towards the row of hills
Step 5 - Walk across the wash and keep walking towards the rocky hill
Step 6 - First test of strength! Walk up the rocky hill!
Step 7 - Just look at the picture below. You are walking towards the right hand side of the Teepees
Step 8 - Maybe I lied - there is a sign in the middle of nowhere. Follow the sign and keep walking up
Step 9 - Finally some easy reference identification. Walk towards the right of the Twin Buttes
Step 10 - Keep walking towards to the right of the Twin Buttes
Step 11 - Keep walking
Step 12 - Once you pass the Twin Buttes, you should see what I see in the picture below. Walk towards the sand dunes that is located just right in front of the vertical crevice.
Step 13 - You would be passing an area of large dry rocks. Keep walking towards that sand dune.
Step 14 - You can totally see the sand dune and the vertical crevice. Marching on!
Step 15 - Last step! Grind your way up the sand dune! Work on those quad muscles!
At the end, there is a staff at The Wave that will check your permit. If you get caught without a permit, I believe the fine is $1,000 - $10,000 per person. I was told that the staff would take down your information and give it to the police. Whatever happens afterwards rest with the police.
Anyhow, I brought my camera gear including a tripod to The Wave. I figure that if there is nobody else at The Wave, I can use the tripod to take some awesome pictures with myself in it. When I reached The Wave, it was around noon. There were enough other tourists that could take pictures for us. Even if the tourists weren’t there, I believe at least the staff would be there. I don’t think there is a concern on not having someone else taking pictures for you.
Interestingly, you also get a different look of The Wave depending on the time. In the morning, you get the full clear view of The Wave, but by noon, the sun’s position cast a massive side shadow of The Wave. If you don’t want the shadow, you better get to The Wave before that. Oh, if there is rain the day before, you may even get a reflection shot of The Wave – pretty cool!
Anyhow, congratulations! You are now at The Wave! Take a deep breath, pad yourself at the back and enjoy the view!
There are plenty of attractions nearby The Wave. As mentioned before, Coyote Buttes North is massive. When you hike from the Wire Pass to The Wave, you’ll realize how big the place is. My friend Jody and I couldn’t explore all the places nearby, because we were too focus on The Wave. Nonetheless, here are some of the places that is worth the visit:
The Dinosaur Tracks are located just west of The Wave. If you come out of The Wave (after stepping back down the sand dune and to the wash), turn left immediately and walk towards the red stone wall. If you pay real close attention, you’ll find the dinosaur tracks that are smaller than your hand. I wasn’t as observant, but thankfully my friend Jody was. This is a picture taken by her.
If you continue heading down south from the Dinosaur Tracks, you should stumble upon a wash of sandstone curve called Stand Cover. At this point, you should probably carry a wide-angle lens to capture the beauty.
My honest opinion
I’d say that if you really want to get to The Wave, I would start applying for the permit online. Unless you have all the time to kill, you can certainly camp outside of the visitor centre and get the permit in person. Though, your chance is just as slim so you may eventually become a long-time resident of Kanab. Anyhow, plan ahead, be flexible and be ready to fly! May the odds be ever in your favour!