Hiking to The Wave in Coyote Buttes North

Other than snapping a pic of Bigfoot, scoring a permit to hike The Wave may have been one of the toughest items to do on our bucket list. I say this in past tense because, in mid-January, we checked it off, hiking to The Wave that is. We still need a pic of Bigfoot.

Only 20 people each day get the opportunity to visit The Wave, a unique land formation in a remote location near the Utah/Arizona border. Located in an area called Coyote Buttes North, it’s a small part of the 112,500-acre Paria Canyon Vermillion Cliff Wilderness, managed by the Bureau of Land Management. And it’s a spectacular natural wonder; well worth the effort to secure a permit.

We had tried for years to win a permit, both online and in-person at the ranger station in Kanab, but we always came up empty-handed. The online lottery, which takes place four months ahead of the permit date, draws thousands of applications for every day of the year, all vying for one of the ten daily permits. The BLM issues the other ten through a walk-in lottery in Kanab, where it’s not unusual for hundreds to apply in person daily. They show up, hoping the ranger pulls their number out of the bingo ball cage to win permits for their group, which are issued for the following day.

So, how did we get so lucky? Last October, we received an email from a woman named Terri who’d read in Dear Bob and Sue: Season 2 about our frustration with trying to get a permit. She’d recently won six permits in the online lottery and invited us to go with her and three of her friends in January. We couldn’t believe our good luck, and it took us about three seconds to say yes, despite our friends and family teasing us about the dangers of setting off into the wilderness with strangers, or even worse, possible ax murderers.

The best time to hike to The Wave is in the spring and fall. During the months leading up to our trip, we were worried that the striped rock formations might be covered in snow in January, or the road to the trailhead impassable. The summer months are also not an ideal time to go because of the extreme heat. With temps soaring above a hundred degrees, no shade, and no available water, several people have died from heatstroke attempting this hike.

One of the many nooks and crannies by The Wave with interesting color patterns.

Five days before our permit day, we packed our truck with all kinds of emergency supplies in case we got stranded somewhere on our week-long trip and drove to Page, Arizona, where we’d spend several nights. On the way, we stopped at the ranger station in Kanab to inquire about the condition of the road to the trailhead. The hike to The Wave begins at the Wire Pass parking lot, which is eight miles south of Highway 89 on House Rock Valley Road, a dirt road that is often rough when dry and impassable when wet. The ranger told us that our best bet would be to drive it early in the morning, when the road is still frozen because once the sun melts the ice in the afternoon, it often turns into a muddy quagmire.

On the morning of the hike, we set off early from Page, followed by our four hiking companions in their truck. It was a sunny, cold morning, and as the ranger had told us, the ice on the road made for a reasonably smooth drive to the trailhead parking area. Only three other cars were there when we arrived. During warmer months, this parking lot can get a lot of traffic from people hiking to Buckskin Gulch, a popular slot canyon in the same area.

Armed with a GPS and a paper map from the BLM office that showed the coordinates and photos of the landmarks along the way, we set off. (Given that much of the area is hard slickrock, there is no specifically designated trail to The Wave or cairns maintained by the BLM.) The first part of the hike took us through the same wash that hikers follow to access Buckskin Gulch, but after about a mile, we saw a faint trail branching off to the right with a sign that says only permit holders may go beyond this point.

A directional arrow on the path to The Wave in Coyote Buttes North
One of the directional arrows on the way to The Wave.

The 6-mile roundtrip hike took us up and over slickrock, through sandy washes and even a bit of snow and ice. We zigzagged our way over the terrain, relieved to find several posts with directional arrows letting us know we were heading in the right direction. The last hurdle was a steep climb up a slippery, snow-covered hillside, and then we were there. Wavy sandstone walls greeted us immediately, but it wasn’t until we rounded a corner that we came upon the surreal formations we’d seen photos of over and over again on social media.

Only two hikers were there ahead of us, and we had plenty of time to take photos before the other dozen permit holders trickled in. Taking our time, we ate lunch and wandered around the area, climbing up the rocky cliffs for some spectacular views from above. The area that encompasses The Wave is small, but it’s unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.

The Wave in Coyote Buttes North
The Wave

The hike back to the parking lot wasn’t as easy as we thought it would be. The land formations didn’t look familiar as we hiked in the opposite direction from the way we’d come, and everyone in our group had a different opinion as to which was the correct way back to the trucks. Fortunately, we had our GPS (which had an electronic breadcrumb trail from our hike out) to double-check that we were heading the right way.

Back at the parking lot, we assumed the adventure was over, but our drive out was a nail-biter. The ranger had recommended that we continue south on House Rock Valley Road to Highway 89A and then back to Page from there. She told us this stretch of road would be in better shape in the afternoon than the way we’d taken in the morning to the trailhead. Her thinking was, by mid-afternoon, the ice on the road north of the trailhead would have melted, and the road would be axle-deep mud.

Taking the southbound route back to Page would add a lot more distance to the trip, but we figured it would be worth it not to have to worry about getting stuck in the mud. As it turned out, this 20-mile stretch of unpaved road was a mixture of deep mud, snow, and ice, and when we finally arrived back in Page two hours later, the truck was covered in Arizona’s signature red dirt and gravel. Back in our hotel room, we were grateful to have survived both The Wave and the road. Our experience at The Wave was everything we had imagined it would be, and this hike will for sure go right on our “do again” list. More importantly, the day was a success because we were fortunate to experience this incredible place with four new friends. Thank you, Terri for being so generous as to share this adventure with us.

The hike to The Wave in Coyote Buttes North
The view of the area on our way back to the trailhead after visiting The Wave.

5 Replies to “Hiking to The Wave in Coyote Buttes North”

  1. Thanks for sharing another great adventure and beautiful photos. It’s people like Terri who give us all hope that future days will be brighter. So many good people on this earth making it better for others! And you guys are among those who make a difference by bringing nature, and fun experiences, to those who would not otherwise Have that opportunity. Best to you in 2020.

  2. George and I were excited to learn that you finally realized your dream of seeing The Wave. We read about your adventures and enjoyed seeing all those amazing sandstone formations that we had been blessed to visit in years past when few people knew about the place. But the question is…did you find the second wave? It is just a bit further into the wilderness and is pastel in color.
    If not, then you must make a return visit.
    Linda W.

    1. Linda, thank you for the kind message. We didn’t make it to the second wave because there was much more snow south of the first wave and it was tough hiking. And you are correct; we must go back again. 🙂

  3. I have been to the Kanab Ranger station to try for a permit. Unfortunately, I didnt get one…

    But Im wondering if you guys have been to the White Pockets area, it is amazing as well!! NO permit needed.

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