Hiking the Wave in Arizona is an experience of a lifetime, but you have to win a lottery to get a permit to do it. According to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), 200,589 people applied for 7,300 permits to hike the wave in 2019. The odds of success in 2019 were about 3.5 percent. My husband and I were in that 3.5 percent. The BLM recently announced that as of Feb 1, 2021 they are increasing the number of permits from 20 people per day to 64 people per day. This will make it a little easier to get a permit for one of the world’s most exclusive hikes. You still need luck, but there are things you can do to increase your odds of winning a permit and things you should do to have a successful hike.
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What is The Wave?
The Wave is a spectacular red sandstone formation that looks like a wave of water. The hike to the wave is 6.3 miles (10.1 km) out and back in the Coyote Buttes North Wilderness Area. The route to the wave is not well-marked, because it lies in a wilderness area. The hike begins in Utah and ends in Arizona. The sandstone formation known as The Wave is actually located in Arizona.
Related: Read our post about the Havasupai Hike, another bucket-list hike in Arizona’s Grand Canyon.
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How We Won the Lottery to Hike the Wave in Arizona
We won the in-person lottery and there were two things we did to increase our odds of success. Each weekday they hold an in-person draw in Kanab, Utah for hiking permits for the following day. On Fridays, they draw for three days – Saturday, Sunday and Monday. We increased our odds of winning the in-person draw by entering on a Friday and by entering during off-peak season. We traveled to Kanab in February. May to October are the most popular months for doing the hike. There were 60 people entered in the draw for 10 in-person permits in February. During the peak season, there would have been many more people at the in-person draw.
Bad Roads – When Hiring a Guide Really Pays Off
It had been raining for several days before our scheduled permit day. BLM staff said the roads were the worst they had ever seen. They weren’t even sure if it would be possible to get into the trailhead for the wave. Under optimal conditions it takes a 4WD vehicle to get to the trailhead. We were driving an SUV with 4WD, but we didn’t have much experience driving on muddy dirt roads. Instead of renting a jeep or a hummer, we hired Mike Henrie with Kanab Western Adventures to be our guide. It was the best decision we could have made. There are two routes into the trailhead. He knew the best way to go and he was experienced driving the roads in adverse conditions. There were 20 people with permits that day. We were the first to arrive at the wave and we had it all to ourselves for almost two hours. Three other people made it into the wave that day – one lone hiker and another couple. They got there just as we were leaving. The rest did not make it to the trailhead.
Lost Hikers – The Other Car at the Trailhead
After several days of heavy rain, the drive into The Wave trailhead was pretty wild. When we arrived at the parking lot near the trailhead, there was a car already there. The car was clean, which means it had been there for a while. If they had driven the muddy road, the car would have been filthy. We checked the sign-in log and two hikers had signed in and not signed back out. The permit on the vehicle dash indicated they should have returned the day before. They were lost. We took a picture of their permit and at a high point on the trail, we were able to get a cell signal and call the BLM rangers. People get lost hiking to The Wave in Arizona every year.
Hiking The Wave – One of the Most Amazing Hikes in Arizona
After parking at the trailhead, we placed a permit on the dash of the vehicle, signed the log book and walked across the road to begin the hike. We walked down a wash for a little more than half a mile and followed our guide further into the Coyote Buttes North Wilderness Area. When you’re hiking The Wave in Arizona, it’s important to know that there is not a well-marked trail. If you’re doing the hike on your own, a GPS tracker can be invaluable. If you don’t have a GPS, be sure to follow the directions carefully and take plenty of water – especially in summer.
We opted to avoid the stress and hire an experienced guide to take us to and from The Wave safely. We loved every minute of the hike and temperatures in February made it a relatively easy hike to do. In the summer months, temperatures can be over 100°F (37°C) with little or no shade and no water. The views were fantastic on the way in and there were many fascinating rock formations to see – including The Wave itself. After several days of heavy rains, we got to see The Wave with water in it – a rare site in this dry landscape.
What Happened to the Lost Hikers?
Having The Wave all to ourselves was absolutely amazing and we stayed there a long time taking pictures. We took our time exploring other fascinating rock formations in the area as well. As we were driving out in the late afternoon, we passed a BLM ranger and our guide asked about the lost hikers. The two female hikers had managed to hike out to an access road where they were found by rangers. The rangers got them back to their car and one of the rangers helped them dive the vehicle back out to the main paved road.
The Wave Lottery – New Rules
The Wave lottery for hiking permits is one of the only legal lotteries in the state of Utah, a lottery-free state. The new rules for the lottery are as follows:
- There is an online lottery and a walk-in lottery for Coyote Buttes North (The Wave) hiking permits.
- 48 people or 12 groups per day (whichever comes first) will be awarded permits through the online lottery four months in advance.
- Sixteen people or four groups per day (whichever comes first) will be awarded permits for the following day for a walk-in lottery held in Kanab Alberta.
- Full details about permits can be found on the official government website.
What to Bring When You’re Hiking the Wave in Arizona
There is no shade and it gets very hot when you’re hiking in Coyote Buttes North Wilderness Area. Start your hike early in the day and bring a rubber covers for the tips of the poles. Otherwise you might damage the fragile landscape. If you’re hiking on your own, you may wish to bring a GPS Tracker. It’s a good idea to wear bright clothing. It photographs better and it’s easier for Search and Rescue to spot you if you get lost. A 4-WD vehicle is recommended for driving to The Wave – especially in adverse road conditions. You can rent 4-WD jeeps locally. It should be noted that we passed people who had rented a jeep and got stuck on the road leading to the trailhead. If you get stuck, you will have to pay to get towed and it can be quite costly. Also, there is no cell signal, so calling for help is challenging.
Consider Hiring a Guide for Hiking The Wave in Arizona
Hiring a guide worked well for us. As previously mentioned, the roads were terrible when we visited in February due to heavy rains. Only 5 of the 20 permit holders got into the wave that day. Our guide, Mike Henrie, had a good 4WD vehicle and experience driving those muddy backroads. He got us in and out safely. He also guided us as we hiked to and from the wave and showed us a number of unique areas in the region that we likely would have missed if we had hiked on our own. It wasn’t cheap hiring a private guide for the day, but we saved money on renting a 4WD vehicle and purchasing a GPS tracker. We also saved stress. We didn’t worry about getting lost and completely enjoyed our time at the wave.
Hiking the Wave Without a Permit
The permit process protects this beautiful and fragile wilderness area. If there were no limits on the number of visitors, the area would be destroyed. For that reason, there are harsh penalties for those who try to hike the wave without a permit. The maximum fine for hiking the wave without a permit is $100,000 USD and there is the possibility of serving time in jail. Breaking the law may also result in a permanent ban from ever applying for a permit in the future and a permanent ban from visiting BLM sites and national parks. It’s simply not worth the risk. BLM rangers regularly check hikers for hiking permits and they will call the police to arrest anyone without one. Even on a day with bad weather and very few hikers a BLM ranger was there checking permits.
Other Area Hikes -While You Wait
There’s a lot to do in and around Kanab, Utah! While we waited for our permit day for hiking the wave in Arizona, we did a number of other hikes.
- The Toadstools in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument – about 40 minutes northeast of Kanab.
- Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, about 20 minutes west.
- Belly of the Dragon, 17 minutes northwest.
- Kanab Sand Caves just outside of town.
- There are many other amazing hikes in the Coyote Buttes Wilderness Area. Our guide said that The Wave was about #4 on his list of the best hikes in this area. We’d love to go back and experience his other top three hikes.
Other Nearby Parks
- Kanab is a one-hour drive from the Zion National Park Visitor Center. There are many amazing hikes in Zion, but the two iconic hikes are Angel’s Landing and The Narrows.
- Antelope Canyon, Arizona is a 90-minute drive Northwest of Kanab and Horseshoe Bend is a 75-minute drive. We visited both.
Related: Read our post, Best Zion National Park Hikes.
Where to Stay in Kanab, Utah
We had a couple of nights to kill before hiking to The Wave in Arizona and we spent them both in Kanab. We stayed the first night at the Canyons Boutique Hotel, a lovely inn that is also home to Sego, the top-rated restaurant in town. The hotel has a swimming pool, free Wi-Fi and a hot breakfast is included. We also stayed at the Comfort Suites in Kanab for a night. Rooms are large and with flat screen TVs, air-conditioning and mini-fridges. The hotel has a swimming pool, free parking, free Wi-Fi and free breakfast.
Where to Eat in Kanab, Utah
Our first night in Kanab, we celebrated our lottery win (getting a permit to hike The Wave) by dining at the top-rated restaurant in town. Sego did not disappoint. The restaurant has lovely ambiance. Chef Shon Foster specializes in small plates and encourages sharing. The eclectic menu has vegetarian and vegan options as well as some beautiful Arizona beef dishes. We loved it. On our second night, we dined at the Rocking V Cafe, right across the street from the Comfort Inn. It’s a cute restaurant in a historic building with plenty of art on the walls. The menu was fun and casual and we enjoyed the dining experience. We also had lunch one day at Lotsa Motsa Pizza. At the time we visited, they had an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet for $5 per person. The food was good – not great, but we couldn’t complain about the price.
Related: If you like fascinating rock formations, you’ll love Bryce Canyon. Read our post, The Best Hikes in Bryce Canyon.