Jaw-dropping scenery in a remote desert location combined with extremely limited access make The Wave, located on the border between Arizona and Utah in North Cayote Buttes, one of the most tantalizing spots in the United States. It’s a place that thousands of people try to see each year, but only a few hundred ever do.
Sculpted over the course of millennia by rushing waters and swift winds, the undulating sandstone terrain of The Wave presents itself in wide-open bowls and narrow walled-in passages. With its rolling striated surfaces and vivid red, pink and golden hues, The Wave’s other-worldly formations evoke the textures and tones of pulled taffy and strips of bacon. And the tadpoles swimming in its glistening water pockets will make you wonder how on earth they got there, 5,225 feet above sea level.
Located in the Parria Canyon-Verrmilion Cliffs Wilderness Area, The Wave is a priceless national geological treasure that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has successfully managed to protect from the ravages of over-tourism—the kind of degradation that results from too many people tromping through a vulnerable place. Visits are controlled by a strict lottery-based permit system that allows only 20 people per day to enter the area—10 online permits and 10 in-person permits are granted daily.
However difficult it is to land a permit (those who apply have about a 4.3% chance of getting one), there are few places on earth more worth your effort. Common descriptions of The Wave may seem to border on hyperbole, but they couldn’t be more accurate; if anything, they won’t do the place justice. It truly is breathtakingly beautiful and unlike anything you have seen before.
The three-mile hike across the desert to reach The Wave is no less captivating. Take your time—the permit is for a full day and you’ll want to see as much as you possibly can. Remember, you won’t be seeing people—you’ll be walking among ancient stony chutes that will make you feel as if the planet belongs to you alone.
Along the way, you’ll hear the crunching sounds of your own steps, signaling the area’s extreme fragility and reminding you what a huge privilege it is to have been granted the right to explore it. The stunning rock formations will remind you that no human landscape designer’s creations could ever rival those shaped by nature—throughout your trek, you’ll see shapes that resemble fountains, walls, pools, desert gardens and sculptures. And you’ll want to take notice of them not only because of their mysterious grandeur and origins, but also because there are no obvious trails leading to The Wave—the map you get with your permit pictures features of the landscape to guide you.
While the provided map, directions and GPS coordinates will help you find The Wave, it’s important that you or your hiking companions have experience navigating unmarked trails in undeveloped areas. This will be especially useful on the way back, when things will look a bit different. The 6.4-mile round-trip hike, which encompasses a rise of about 400 ft., is physically demanding, so only take it on if you know you are fit enough to handle it. And be sure to carry at least a gallon of water with you. Although it’s advisable to start out early in the morning and reach The Wave by midday when it’s bathed in light, you’ll likely have to contend with intense heat during your outing. More experienced hikers may want to head back after dark and get a chance to see the glittery Milky Way stretching out across the sky.
However physically exhausted you feel by the end of your hike, the exhilaration you’ll feel is sure to outweigh your tiredness by many orders of magnitude—it’s the kind of place that can shift one’s perspective and spark resolutions. Sitting on the edge of a precipice a mile and a half up, you may be tempted to test the limits of your voice, reach for notes you’ve never tried singing and imagine them reverberating through the universe. Perhaps you’ll be seized by an overwhelming desire to spend more nights outdoors, a bit closer to the stars, or scale ever more challenging peaks. Whatever your experience, your memories of this desert land are sure to be both transformative and lasting, and your photos will be Instagram gold.
Closest Towns: Page, AZ and Kanab, UT
Best Times to Go:
March-May and September-November are the best months for visiting The Wave, given more moderate temperatures and rainfall levels.
Where to Go for the In-Person, Walk-in Lottery:
Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument Visitor Center
Address: 745 E. Highway 89, Kanab, Utah
Phone Number: (435) 644-1300
From mid-March to mid-November, the walk-in lottery occurs 7 days a week with permits drawn for the following day. From mid-November to mid-March, permits are issued Monday-Friday (except for federal holidays) and the lottery for Saturday, Sunday and Monday permits takes place the Friday before.
Apply for the Online Lottery and Get More Information Here
You will pick three dates, four months in advance for the lottery.