In the late-1980s, a few of the more popular weekend trips for college students at the University of Arizona in Tucson was to road trip to either the Grand Canyon or the Coyote Buttes. I did both, but sadly, the long-haired, fanny-pack-wearing me of 1987 was in it for nature and the hike — not owning a camera, I did not take one single photograph, but the impact of my visits remains to this day. Especially to The Wave.
The Wave In Coyote Buttes
Not to be too dramatic here, but The Wave is nature’s Van Gogh. The gentle brush strokes sweep along the rough sandstone, creating one of the most unique visual experiences on Earth.
The U-shaped clusters are called troughs, and it’s believed they began as sand dunes that compacted and turned into sandstone some 200 million years ago. The “Waves” were then carved out thanks to run-off from streams and floods. As The Wave’s official website puts it, “it was one of those rare instances when the elements were in the right place at the right time together, and the results are absolutely exquisite.”
Located near the northern Arizona border with Utah, Coyote Buttes is a good seven-hour drive north from Tucson and five hours from both Phoenix and Las Vegas. The closest town is called Kanub, in Utah, where you can find plenty of amenities.
The Wave is located in what is called Coyote Buttes North. From Kanub, you’ll need to find House Rock Valley Road (HRVR), which is a dirt road that connects US89 to US89A east of Jacob Lake, Arizona. Make sure you are clear on your directions before heading out.
How Do You Hike The Wave
This is very important. The Bureau of Land Management dictates that everyone must have a permit to visit Coyote Buttes, and the BLM only issues 20 permits per day. This means a trip to the Wave cannot be a spur-of-the-moment idea, as it was in 1987. And there are no super-secret ways to acquire these much sought after permits.
Pre-planning is key, and the process is simple. You must apply for potential visit dates four months in advance.
This process is pretty straightforward. Online, you will be applying for dates four months out. Make sure you follow the directions. You’ll be offered three date choices. Random drawings for the permits take place on the first of each month, and those selected will be notified by email.
If you wish, you can apply for a permit in person for the following day. This takes place at the Kanab Center first thing in the morning on any day during peak season. During the winter, the Kanab Center is closed on weekends.
The Wave AZ suggests applying online, noting “The hardest part about hiking the Wave is getting the permit. Each day hundreds of people will show up, and thousands of people will apply for just 20 daily permits. Ask the people in the room with you and you will hear stories about flying to the United States and staying in Kanab for weeks just to apply each morning at the visitor center. Most will leave empty handed.”
Once you get your lucky permit, the fun can begin. The hike to The Wave is a six-mile loop, but know there is no specific trail, so you’ll need a map and compass or GPS. There are no bathrooms or water sources along the way, so be prepared. The hike itself is not physically demanding, but the conditions due to The Wave’s remote nature need to be considered. The area is shadeless, has deep sandy areas, and is prone to flash floods.
How To Get A Great Photo
Due to the Arizona heat and snowfall during summer and winter, visiting in the spring and fall is advisable — just be sure to check the weather forecast for rain. But because the summer is less traveled, permits can be more available, so make sure you weigh all your options.
And of course, avoid being the 1987 me and bring a camera. Taking the perfect picture of The Wave is imperative. There are three openings in the rocks from the north, the east, and the southwest, all of which have amazing shots, especially in the morning light.
Know Before You Go
It cannot be overstated: Visiting The Wave is not easy. Make sure you follow the directions regarding permit requests and plan accordingly. The beauty and otherworldliness of The Wave are worth the effort, but just make sure you are overly prepared due to the nature of the rugged landscape and limited access to it.