The Wave — a 6-mile (9.6-kilometer) series of canyons in northern Arizona — may look like the set from a sci-fi movie or perhaps the terrain from a distant planet, but this stunning geological formation is part-and-parcel of Earth's majesty.
Sculpted by wind and water over millennia, The Wave is a small section of the Coyote Buttes North Special Management Area in the Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness near Arizona's border with Utah.
Often considered the state's lesser-known attraction (Arizona also is home to the Grand Canyon, which drew more than 4.5 million visitors in 2021), The Wave takes its name from the wave-like striations running the length of its two major sandstone troughs. The troughs — one that is 62 feet (18 meters) wide and 118 feet (36 meters) long, and one that is 7 feet (2 meters) wide and 52 feet (15 meters) long — were first carved by rainfall during the Jurassic period about 200 million years ago.
The combination of varying water levels and raging gusts that once wound their way through the rippled dunes resulted in a series of colorful steps and risers that comprise The Wave's canyon walls. The orange, yellow, white, pink and rust colors that run in horizontal bands are considered one of the most photogenic — and photographed — natural wonders in North America.
In an ironic twist from Mother Nature, the geological processes that formed The Wave also will eventually destroy it. The good news? It will take the effects of wind and water several million years to erase The Wave, so you'll still have a chance to see it — if you are one of the few permitted visitors allowed each year.
How to Visit the Wave
The Bureau of Land Management runs a lottery system that allows only a certain number of people each day into the Coyote Buttes North area to visit The Wave. The lottery exists to provide some measure of environmental protection to the site; the lottery also protects visitors because it tracks who enters and how long they have been hiking.
Visitors are advised to apply for the permit lottery, which has rolling deadlines, at least four months in advance of a visit. The permits are day passes only, as no overnight camping is allowed.
A maximum of 64 people are allowed each day, whether as individuals or part of a group. Forty-eight of those people are awarded access through the advance online lottery system. Another 16 people are allowed to enter through a daily lottery, which is a separate process open to visitors, who apply online from within a geofence at the park, two days in advance of their visit.
If you win the lottery, be prepared to hike a 6-mile (9.6-kilometer) round trip to The Wave and back. To preserve the delicate sandstone, the area remains unimproved, which means there are not any camping sites or park facilities. The hike itself is on an unmarked and undefined trail that, at times, meanders through deep sand. It is considered a hike of moderate difficulty and is expected to take about four hours. Leave time — and energy — to explore The Wave's formations, which often will add another mile or two (2 to 3 kilometers) to the trek.
The Wave is open to permitted visitors year-round and each season offers different photographic advantages, but the experience itself will undoubtedly be one to remember.