Arizona, North America, Travel, USA

Hiking to ‘The Wave’ in Coyote Buttes, Arizona

Ever wondered where that default screensaver image on your laptop came from? Well, I did, and that’s how it led me to my ‘Wave’ adventure in the Coyote Buttes region of Arizona. The story of how this exploration happened is quite entertaining so I hope you enjoy!

How It All Began

the-wave-arizonaWhen I bought my Windows laptop it came pre-populated with default images that could be used as a screensaver. One of the images stood out at me so I started googling to see if I could find the location of this image. If memory serves me correctly, that particular image was of Monument Valley in Utah but it was through that search that I got my first glimpse at ‘The Wave’.

Based on the picture to the right, it’s easy to see why someone would want to go see ‘The Wave’. It truly is a unique land form that can’t be seen anywhere else in the world.

How Can I Visit ‘The Wave’?

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as jumping in your car, driving up and snapping a photo. First, the Coyote Buttes region is monitored daily and only people with permits are allowed in. Second, the location of Coyote Buttes is extremely remote without any major cities nearby.

How Do I Get a Permit?

At first, I was surprised to find out that you needed a permit to visit ‘The Wave’ but it makes sense. By limiting the amount of people allowed out there, they are protecting this incredible site. ‘The Wave’ is made of sandstone meaning it is a very soft type of rock that would get easily damaged if the foot traffic were to increase.

Obtaining a permit is a little bit of a task. You obtain your permit via the Bureau of Land Management. Using a lottery system, 20 permits are given out for each day, 10 online and 10 in person at the Bureau of Land Management in Kanab, Utah.

Since I was living in New York at the time, I had to try my luck at the online lottery. Honestly, I entered the lottery just to see how the process works. Over 60,000 people apply for 7000 permits each year so I didn’t think I would win a ticket anyway. The online instructions are pretty intuitive. You select the date you’d like to go, enter a few personal details and pay a $10 fee. Then you wait.

A couple weeks later I was both surprised and excited to find out that I had won a permit. That excitement was immediately followed by a ‘well I guess I better book a flight’ moment. So I did just that and even convinced a buddy to come along as well.

How To Get There

W flew into Phoenix, AZ and rented a car. The drive up to Page, AZ (probably the closest town to ‘The Wave’ with hotels) takes about 4 hours. Instead of making that drive all at once, we decided to make a stop in Sedona for a day hike. That turned out to be a great decision. Sedona is extremely picturesque and is full of great hiking. Read more about hiking in Sedona here.

sedona-hiking After finishing hiking and taking a quick dip in the river, we got back in the car and headed on towards Page. The ride was quite enjoyable and beautiful on the way up which made the time spent in the car bearable.

When we arrived in Page it was close to midnight. Like idiots, we didn’t have hotel reservations because we were ‘winging’ this trip. It turned out to be a very popular tourist time in Page and all the hotels were sold out. Page has a large dam and reservoir (Lake Powell) and a great location for all types of boating and water sports. After visiting a dozen hotels, the last one on the list had 1 available room. We happily paid whatever they wanted.

Getting To ‘The Wave’

Based on Google Maps, the drive to the trail head is approximately 1 hour and 20 minutes. This includes the 5 mile two track that you need to take. Ideally, you should use a 4 wheel drive vehicle. Us? We had a small car. Not exactly recommended. There were multiple times we thought we were going to get stuck, lose a bumper or pop a tire. We got out to assess the trail at multiple points to determine if we could make it past. Unsurprisingly, we thought we could overcome each roadblock and luckily for us, we did. In all seriousness though, the trail is not maintained regularly and trail washouts are really common. Depending on your luck, the trail could be in great or not so great shape.

In the end, we made it to the trail head and prepped for our respective hikes.

Hiking Out To ‘The Wave’

Since my buddy did not go through the lottery process, he did not have a permit. But there is a lot of great hikes in the region that didn’t require a permit so he set off on one of those.

I on the other hand, started my trek out to ‘The Wave’.

When you receive your permit in the mail, they are also kind enough to give you some survival tips in case you get lost and have to spend the night in the desert. They also let you know of the dangers that could befall you including the summer heat, dehydration and rattlesnakes. But the most important thing they give you is a crude ‘map’ as the 3 mile trail to ‘The Wave’ is unmarked through the middle of the desert. I say crude because it’s basically just a piece of paper with blurry photos you are supposed to use for reference points.

The first part of the hike was through a dry riverbed. You could see some footprints it was easy enough to see that you were headed in the right direction. You follow this riverbed for a bit then hike up a hill where at the top the desert and landscape really open up.

coyote-buttesAs you can see, it really is a desert and it was really hot that day too but it’s hard to argue with the views that the day provided.

 coyote-buttes-pano-2The hike out there was extremely enjoyable and I was able to identify all the way-points that were provided on the map. As I mentioned earlier, it is about a 3 mile hike out to ‘The Wave’ and if i had to guess it probably took me about an hour. The video at the top is of the hike out.

Getting Lost On The Return Hike

As easy as it was going out, I found it exponentially more difficult coming back. In fact, I got lost. Lost to the point where I was rationing my remaining water and preparing for a night in the desert.

I’m not exactly sure at which point I became lost but I think the error I made was assuming that I could hike in the direction of the vicinity I came and I would eventually find the trail. Well obviously, that was a poor assumption.

It’s a pretty unnerving feeling truly being lost. You kind of have to stop, collect yourself because it’s easy to start panicking. Probably the worse feeling is when I climbed to the highest point I could find (see image above), I could actually see the rental car and parking lot off in the distance. The problem was that a 500 foot vertical cliff separated me from that parking lot.

At this point you’re probably thinking a couple things. Why not use your cell phone? That’s easy, zero reception. Why not find the footprints in the sand of other hikers? Valid question. However, much of the trail in the desert is not sand and is rock which means no footprints. Why not find the way-points like you did on the way out? Like I said, the photos are blurry and the way-points do not look the same going back as they did on the way out. Easier said than done.

After mindlessly roaming for about 45 minutes, I decided that instead of getting myself more lost, I would trek back to ‘The Wave’ and start over. This turned out to be a great idea, thank god. I was much more meticulous in following my ‘crude’ (lifesaving) map and was able to identify all the reference points on the way back.

I met back up with my buddy who had been sitting there for some time. He asked me what took me so long and at this point what could’ve been a bad story turned into a funny one.

In Conclusion

It is quite the process to visit ‘The Wave’ and it involved a little bit of luck. But at the end of the day, it was all worth it. ‘The Wave’ is truly a one of a kind place that not many people get to visit. So if you’re looking for an adventure, a hike out to ‘The Wave’ is just what you need.

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