The Wave, Arizona: Everything you need to know before hiking (2023)

Hiking The Wave in Arizona is an experience of a lifetime, and with a strict permit system in place that means that very few get to visit. The Wave features one of the most incredible geological creations I’ve ever seen in my life – with large, sand-blasted red rocks that have been perfectly carved into the shape of a wave, it truly feels like you’re hiking on a different planet!

Because of its overwhelming beauty and popularity, the Bureau of Land Management limits daily visitors to protect the delicate area. For years, access was limited to 20 people per day until February 2021 when it was increased to 64 people per day. 48 winners will be from the advanced lottery and 16 winners are drawn from the daily lottery. There is a 2-5% chance of winning permits and if you do, you’re in for the adventure of a lifetime!

Photographers travel from all across the world to see this place with their own eyes! This is a bucket-list experience and I want you to be able to experience the same so I’ve created this blog with everything you need to know before hiking The Wave, including permit information, route finding, photos, and more. Whether you’ve just won permits or are interested in trying your luck, keep reading to be prepared to hike The Wave!

Hiking The Wave: Before you Go

The Wave is one of the most exclusive hikes in the USA because of the strict permit system that limits the number of daily visitors. You have to know that a permit is required to hike this area, and that park rangers are checking every day to make sure that hikers have their permits with them. There is a fine for trespassing on this hike without a permit! I will explain later in this article how the permit system works and how to win permits to The Wave.

This is an extremely delicate area and we all need to do our part while hiking The Wave to leave it preserved and leave no trace behind. This includes packing out what you pack in, being mindful of hiking in other people’s footsteps and avoid stepping on plants or delicate rocks. There is an outhouse at the trailhead but none on the trail. There is no water on this trail to refill. Cell service is limited, but it is available if you need to call for an emergency.

Hiking The Wave: How Difficult is it?

The Wave is not considered an easy hike but it’s also not technically difficult. This is a 6.7 mile/10.8 kilometre out-and-back trail through the remote Paria Canyon/Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness area with 367 metre elevation gain. This hike takes people 3 hours and 10 minutes to complete, but you’ll likely spend extra time exploring The Wave. If you decide to explore beyond The Wave it will add additional time to your hike.

The reason that this hike is rated so hard is because of the lack of trail markers and the intense heat that you may experience in the summer months. Since there are very little trail markers it’s very easy to get lost. You will be provided with a detailed map but I recommend downloading a trail map – I used this one from AllTrails. It is not recommended to hike this trail in the summer as temperatures can reach above 100/40 degrees, but if you win permits make sure you are prepared with plenty of water and sun protection.

With all of this in mind, I found The Wave to be a relatively easy trail as an advanced hiker. We have strong navigation skills, plenty of hiking experience, and know how to be prepared for a day hike. We started hiking before the sun came up and made it to The Wave in less than an hour. Hiking back in the middle of the day (in April) was pretty exhausting and hot in the sun!

How to get permits for The Wave

In 2023, there are currently 2 systems in place to win the lottery for The Wave permits. There is an advanced lottery that holds a draw on the first of every month, 4 months in advance. If you’re unlucky with the online advanced lottery or you are last-minute planning, you can also try your luck at the daily lottery. Previously, the daily lottery was held in person at a gymnasium but as of 2023 it is now online. You will need to be in the geofenced area (Kanab, Utah or Page, Arizona) which is tracked by your phone’s location to enter the daily lottery.

Advanced Permit Lottery

To win permits for the Wave, start here on Coyote Buttes North lottery page. The advanced lottery will open on the 1st of every month at 12PM mountain time and you will be entering the lottery for four months before your desired hiking month. For example, if you are interested in hiking The Wave in May, you will enter the lottery at any time between January 1 – 31st, and the lottery will be drawn on February 1st at 9AM mountain time. This means you will enter the lottery 4 months in advance, and find out if you won 3 months in advance.

When you are applying, you will be given the option to choose 3 hiking dates during the month to hike The Wave. The lottery will take place in the morning and you will be notified by email whether or not you were successful. If you’ve won, the email will let you know which date you have won and you will have 14 days to confirm and pay for your permit ($7 USD per person). If you do not confirm, you will lose your permit and it goes back into the system.

You are only allowed to submit one application per month and your permit cannot be sold or transferred if you win. March through November are the most competitive months while the winter months are generally slower. There is a risk of poor weather, impassable roads, and snow-covered Wave in the winter but the middle of summer (June – August) are the hottest and most difficult trail conditions to hike in.

Daily Permit Lottery (NEW 2023 INFO)

The other option to win permits to The Wave is to enter the daily lottery. This option is best for last-minute plans and for people who are already in the geofenced area (Kanab or Page). The daily lottery is how we won permits to The Wave on our very first time entering the lottery! I might be biased, but I believe the daily lottery gives you a better chance at winning permits, although they only award 16 daily permits per day.

You’ll start by applying on Coyote Buttes North daily lottery page and applications must be submitted two days before your preferred hike date. The daily lottery application window is open from 6AM – 6PM and you can only access the application by phone (website or app) and not by desktop. Applications will only be accepted if you are in the geofenced area, and the application site uses your phone’s location to determine if you are in the geofenced area (Kanab or Page).

Applications will cost $9 USD per person and is non-refundable. Applications close at 6PM and you will receive an email after 7PM to let you know whether or not you’ve won a permit. Since the daily lottery is determined quickly, you will only have 12 hours to confirm your permit and pay the $7 USD permit fee. You’ll be attending a safety meeting the next day to pick up your permit!

What to do if you don’t win permits to The Wave

Getting a permit to the Wave is highly competitive and only a small percentage of people who apply actually get to hike The Wave. I’ve talked to people who have applied every single month for years, and they were shocked to hear that we won on our first application. So what do you do if you aren’t one of the lucky ones? You could apply for the Coyote Buttes South permit, which doesn’t give you access to the famous Wave but it is a similar area with geological features like the wave rocks.

Another option is to hike the same trailhead as The Wave and explore the Buckskin Gulch trail. While this won’t have the same rock formations as the Wave, you will be in the same area with similar trail features and the most incredible slot canyon. The Buckskin Gulch slot canyon is the largest in North America and makes for a great day hike. Check out more things to do in Utah by following our 8-day Utah road-trip adventure itinerary for more inspiration and ideas!

How to prepare for your hike

So, you’ve won permits to the exclusive Wave? Congratulations! Here are a few tips on what to expect, how to prepare and what is going to happen next. I’ll continue to share my recommended gear, trail guide, and route for hiking beyond the Wave. Whether you’ve won permits for the advanced lottery or daily lottery, you’ll need to start getting prepared ASAP!

If you win the advanced lottery you will be mailed your parking pass, permit pass, map and safety information within 4-6 weeks. If you win the daily lottery, you will be required to attend an in-person safety meeting to pick up your permit, parking pass, map and safety information. If you do not pick up your permit or miss the meeting, you will not be able to hike. The map that you are provided with includes photos of specific landmarks that you will follow to stay on route. We preferred to use an online map that we downloaded from AllTrails in advance.

You should study the map and read trail reports to prepare for your hike. As your hike to the Wave gets closer, you should be watching the weather. If there is too much rain the night before your hike, the road will turn into a muddy, clay path that is impassable to vehicles. If the weather is going to be sunny and hot, make sure you’re prepared with 2-4L of water per person and proper sun protection. If you do not feel confident about navigation, consider hiring a tour guide.

Recommended gear

This hike is not necessarily easy, and you should be prepared with proper gear before heading into the backcountry. There is no water on this trail as it is a dry, hot, dusty desert and I recommend packing 2-4L of water depending on the weather and time of year. You should bring a daypack with a water reservoir and reusable water bottles. You’ll need sun protection such as sunscreen, sunglasses, a hat, and consider a sun protection hoodie with +UPF. If you’re bringing your dog, make sure to pack out after them, bring enough water for them too and consider a cooling jacket.

Make sure you have your paper map with you and I recommend downloading an offline map as well. We had a little bit of cell service on this trail but it is always smart to bring GPS like the Garmin InReach for emergencies. Proper hiking boots or shoes are extremely important on the trails and always pack your first aid kit! Electrolytes and snacks will be your best friend on this trail.

Hiking The Wave: Trail Guide

We decided that we were going to hike in the dark before sunrise to stay cool and experience the first light at The Wave. Hiking in the dark was not recommended at our safety meeting, but we were prepared with headlamps. The weather predicted rain all night before our hike which would have destroyed the road and made it impossible to reach the trailhead if it rained too much. We slept just off the road, about 30 minutes away from the trailhead so that we wouldn’t get stuck if the rain was bad. Lucky for us, we woke up early in the morning and the road was dry enough to pass.

Make sure to sign the guest book so that search and rescue knows you are on the trail, and don’t forget to sign out when you return! Leave your vehicle permit on your vehicle. The trail starts across the road from the parking lot and enters a river wash that you will follow for about half a mile or 10 minutes. You will see a sign for Coyote Buttes North, reminding you that this path is by permit only, and you’ll turn to the path on your right hiking uphill. You’re now on your way to The Wave!

Trail markers

Continue hiking the sandy desert terrain and try to follow footsteps as much as possible. Your ranger-provided map will tell you to follow the landmark towards the big mound off in the distance to your right. You will cross over this ridge and begin hiking on hard sandstone. You’ll see a few sign posts along the way here to help you navigate. Your next landmark will be two large buttes and you will be hiking through the middle of them. After this pass, the terrain will open up and you will see a large rock face with a crack vertically down the middle. That is where you are headed, and you’ll hike past two large sand dunes as your final land markers.

The final push up to The Wave will be a climb uphill in the sand – this was the hardest part of the trail but still very easy as an experienced hiker. At this point, we knew we were close to the entrance of The Wave and practically ran up the sand hill! At the top of the hill, you’ll be facing the entrance of The Wave and walking into one of the most incredible rock formations I’ve ever seen. We stood here in awe and seeing this in person was an experience l’ll never forget.

There are a few main notable sections once you’ve reached The Wave to explore! At the entrance, you’ll sometimes find a puddle of water which makes a perfect reflection of the sandstone. After passing through the entrance, there is a passage to your right that looks like a slot canyon that is cool to check out. If you continue forward you’ll be in the middle of The Wave with some of the most beautiful textures sandblasted into the rocks around you. You can walk up the walls, sit at the top and have lunch, and explore more of the Wave!

Hiking Beyond The Wave

Once you’ve reached the Wave, I highly recommend exploring more of this incredible area beyond the Wave! Your safety meeting guide or ranger will not share the additional hiking routes but know that there are plenty of other amazing sites to be seen. Since this is a rare, exclusive, permit-holding hike I highly recommend planning to hike past the Wave to make the most out of this once in a lifetime experience. Here are some of our favourites, along with some bonus routes for you to explore as well!

Above The Wave

Once you begin climbing above the Wave, you will be AMAZED at the incredible landscape from above! This perspective was incredible and one of the coolest view I’ve ever seen on a hike. This isn’t a designated spot, rather it’s the route on the way to The Alcove and Melody Arch. You’ll be climbing up the rock and finding your own route, and as you get higher the views keep getting better.

The Alcove

The Alcove is a hidden gem that we were so excited to find! This may also be called Sand Cave online because that’s what it is, a small cave area with a massive sand dune piled infront of it. If you climb down to the bottom of the sand dune, you can see the incredible dune surrounded by the alcove walls. This is one of our favourite photos of all time.

Melody Arch

We hiked further and higher to reach Melody Arch, and this was another incredible view that I’m glad we didn’t miss. The unique arch is carved into a small cave area, and you can look through a natural window towards the wilderness valley. Both the arch and the natural window were incredible to see and made for some of the best photos.

Second Wave, Boneyard, Dinosaur Tracks

These are a couple of other additional hikes that you can add to your trip but we decided not to. You might be surprised to know there is an area called “The Second Wave” which features dramatic twists and turns sand-blasted in the rock, similar to the famous Wave. The Boneyard features sand-blasted waves on the rock with interesting bone-like rocks scattered around the field. Do not touch these! You can also find an area where there are Dinosaur Tracks embedded into the rock, they can be hard to find but look for 3-toed tracks that are the size of a hand.

Final Thoughts on hiking The Wave

The Wave is hands-down one of the most incredible adventures we’ve ever been on. This is definitely one of the most exclusive hikes in the USA and the permit system is in place to help protect the delicate environment from being destroyed by too much foot traffic at once. The permit system makes this one of the hardest hikes to access in Utah but it’s worth every penny to apply. If you’re travelling to Utah I highly recommend planning ahead for the advanced lottery or trying your luck at the last-minute daily lottery like us!

Know that you can be extremely lucky and win permits on your first try (like us) or you could be entering the draw multiple times in a row. This hike is one that should absolutely be on your USA bucket list and you will be in awe just as we were! This hike wasn’t as difficult as we thought and we really enjoyed hiking in this unique area, and even extended our trip a few hours to explore beyond the Wave. If you’re looking for more things to do, check out our 8-day Utah road trip adventure itinerary for more inspiration!

Comments (3)

  • Sandy

    July 30, 2023 at 6:49 pm

    Excellent article. So interesting to read and so many great details!

  • Gabriela

    May 3, 2024 at 9:19 pm

    Very well written article! Very handy tips! Thanks for saving me a lot of searching hours to understand what a trip to Arizona would be like.
    As for feedback, it was just missing some suggestions for stays in its surroundings.

  • Tonya

    June 5, 2024 at 11:15 am

    Love this article and information!!
    I am lucky enough to win the lottery AND I get to go on my birthday with my sons!!

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