The Wave is a natural wonder located in the Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness Area, in the Coyote Buttes, at the border of Arizona and Utah, in the United States. Beyond being a gorgeous and iconic 190 million-year-old rock formation, it is quite literally the most exclusive hike in the Americas! And so, the deal and the promise are as follows: a sweaty and somewhat lonely but amazing hike in the desert wilderness, with an incredible gift at the end!
Hundreds of thousands of people attempt to visit The Wave each year but very few succeed, as only 20 visitor permits are issued per day. The aim of this post is to advise you on how to increase your luck in order to win the lottery (don’t get your hopes up – only for The Wave permit lottery!), but that’s just the first of the five tips to get to the right place at the right time, in the right way… for what may become one of your best memories and picture galleries ever.
So, if you want to increase your luck and, more importantly, to see this incredible place before you die… read my five little tips!
Get lucky with the lottery…
Out of the 20 permits issued daily for the North Coyote Buttes, 10 of them are given out through a lottery that recently transitioned to a new online lottery system. 10 more permits are issued through a walk-in drawing (9 AM daily) in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument visitor center (although I would advise you to check the COVID pandemic rules, as it was closed for a while). Permits are for individuals or for groups of up to six people.
Online applications are open four months ahead (so in January for May permits, in February for June permits, etc…). If you win, you’ll be notified on the first day of the month after your application, and the precious permits will then be mailed to you within four to six weeks.
The odds of winning the lottery are, on average, around 4%… and are potentially growing smaller due to the pressure of an increasing number of applications. The BLM is considering increasing the number of daily permits, but this is still a controversial topic, as it is difficult to balance protecting this natural wonder and enabling more visitors to have the privilege to see it.
The odds of winning reach up to 10%+ for winter months, but with a fair probability that you’ll see a beautiful ski slope instead, as The Wave may be covered in snow. You might, however, also get fantastic shots during this period, especially on the sun-exposed sides of the rock. However, the probability that the trailhead access road (House Rock Road) is inaccessible and that you won’t even be able to reach the start of the hike despite having your beautiful permit on hand is also higher during winter… Your chances of winning are down to approximately 2% at the touristic peak during late spring and summer. The walk-in lottery (Monday to Friday for the weekend permits) is also a statistical challenge, but easier in the winter, if you have a flexible enough schedule to wait and take your chances over the course of a few days…
If you don’t live nearby, or if you come from abroad and have time constraints with a window of only a few days to plan for the hike, here is what can be done to help your luck a little bit:
- Organize your trip’s schedule around the hike. It truly is worth it, and you would still be made aware three months ahead if you’ve won a permit in order to then organize the rest.
- Don’t rush to apply on day one of the month (it is not a “first come, first serve” system), but monitor the calendar every day during the first week, and when it begins to fill up quickly, pick your dates and apply. So, not too early, not too late!
- You can choose up to three permit dates per application, so of course, use this to your advantage. Permits are not transferable, but if you’re a group of friends, you may consider that nothing technically stops you from having separate applications for the group…
- If you can, prioritize spring or fall months, as they are probably a good balance between statistical weather risks and application probabilities. These are also cooler months for the hike, and the spring weather should be great.
- Sneaking into The Wave with no permit would probably not be your smartest idea of the year, as this time, the probability is extremely high that a ranger with very little sympathy for your situation will catch you, making this a bad and expensive day for you…
Now you’ve got your permit, well done! Time to get lucky by reaching the Wire Pass Trailhead…
While a poorly defined and longer trail alternative exists (the Noth), the Wirepass Trailhead parking lot is a highly recommended starting point. This trailhead is located at the end of the 8.4-mile House Rock Road (access between mileposts 25 and 26 of Highway 89). There is also a campground a mile from there that could be handy depending on what time you want to shoot The Wave… The House Rock Road is theoretically accessible for standard cars, but it is clay-based, and driving on it can be like driving on ice after a storm. As such, the road is often muddy and difficult, making it near-impossible to drive there, even for some four-wheel-drive vehicles. To help your odds a bit, you have two good options:
- Secure your permit day by sleeping at the Stateline campground (1.8 miles from the trailhead), especially if you want to do astrophotography or even golden hour photography at The Wave.
- Hire a guide (many options are available online, although you still need your permit, obviously) in order to increase your odds to get to the trailhead safely with a professional 4-WD and a driver who knows the road (not a full guarantee, however). Yes, this is an additional cost, and yes, you can also rent a 4-WD, but for the hike of a lifetime, it is more than worth it and comes with other benefits during the hike (see below).
- If you want to go on your own, at least call to check in with rangers about road conditions before you start and inform somebody of where you’re going.
Now that you are on the hike, sweating happily… get lucky by staying safe!
From the Wire Pass Trailhead, the hike to the Wave is around 3 miles across open desert, a 6.5-mile round trip (with a few other photo spots). The trail itself is moderate (350-foot climb) but, as a low-traffic trail, the path is not always obvious, and on a summer day, temperatures can reach around 100ºF, so a few (obvious) tips – I’m starting to feel like your mom now, what a scary concept…
- Get a map. Yes, you most likely have a GPS (by the way, The Wave is at latitude 36° 59′ 45.84″ N, longitude 112° 0′ 21.9″) but the signal up there can be weak… regardless of how fancy your phone is or how many Facebook friends you have…
Bring at least one gallon of water per person and proper hiking food, as you’ll be walking around the desert for six to eight hours (no bar at The Wave, even not a McDonald’s – shocking, I know!)
Proper hiking shoes, clothes, and a hat for your powerful brain may not be a bad idea either…
Again, consider hiring a guide for the day, to focus on enjoying and taking photos rather than stressing over how to get there…
Now, you are at The Wave… get lucky with the light for your best pictures ever!
Like most photographers, I mostly shoot during golden hour, but The Wave is actually best lit and photographed from mid-morning to early afternoon, to minimize the extensive shadows. So below are a few tips to get your luck and photo quality up a bit:
- Start the hike around 7 AM – 8 AM max in order to be there in the late morning for optimal shooting conditions (as well as a cooler hike experience).
- Of course, shooting at dawn or at dusk, as well as for night astrophotography, are also great, but require specific preparation. You might want to do the hike first in the daytime to orientate yourself. Astrophotography is best from May to August with the Milky Way center in the southern sky.
- Don’t miss the second wave (1/3 mile west of The Wave), the sand cove, and the hills around The Wave to see the full formation from above.
- If you still have time and energy, you can reach a few other spots (The Big Mac, Melody Arch, Boneyard…). Wonders are everywhere in this location!
When shooting midday with strong shadows inside The Wave, long exposure shooting with neutral density filters or HDR (High Dynamic Range, stacking together 2 or 3 pictures at different exposures) might increase your luck of getting great pictures a bit as well.
Beyond the few images on this post, here are some more from my portfolio. I was also got lucky with some water leftover in The Wave from a storm, creating amazing reflections.
Last but not least, help Mother Nature get lucky by leaving her as beautiful after your visit as she was before you arrived.
It took Mother Nature 190 million years to create The Wave’s beautiful, patterned lines of color and iconic eroded sandstone formations. As such, your duty as a privileged visitor is to ensure you preserve it for the other visitors and generations to come. A few tips (or more accurately, requests), if I may:
- Obviously, all trash must be packed up and taken back (yes, all including toilet paper…)
- The Wave has ledges that break easily if you step on them, so be careful to avoid damage to the edges of the rocks.
- All-natural and cultural objects are protected, and starting fires is obviously prohibited at any time.
I hope that this article will motivate you to try and get lucky in order to see this amazing place.
Take a chance on the lottery and enjoy! Don’t hesitate to share your shots and experiences if you manage to go, I would love to see your images and hear about your journey.
On my side, I’ll take my own chances again next time I return to Arizona for a night-time astrophotography shoot…