The Wave – The Lottery Experience and the Hike
By Ken Koontz
The famous geological sandstone area known as “The Wave” is located on the Utah/Arizona border, about 50 miles from Kanab, Utah. It was largely unknown until July 22, 2009, when Microsoft launched Windows 7, with a beautiful photo of The Wave as its desktop wallpaper. The exposure has driven many to want to see the formation for themselves, putting a strain on the small area.
Many have called The Wave the “Holy Grail of Hikes.” The reference isn’t because of the hike’s difficulty, but rather getting the chance to do it. The Wave sits in the Coyote Buttes / Paria Canyon section of the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, and is managed by the Bureau of Land Management.
Only 20 people per day (excluding guides and volunteers) are allowed the opportunity to hike the area. The limit was set up to protect the delicate formations, as the demand to see the area has burgeoned in recent years. To become one of the chosen few, a permit must be obtained. Don’t think you can enter the area without one – guides and volunteers check, and hefty fines are imposed for the rule breakers!
Just 10 online permits and 10 walk-in permits are issued for each day. The 10 online permits are drawn four months in advance. There is a $5 fee and you can select three dates. If chosen, you have 14 days to respond, or your permit is returned to the system. Remember that the number of people in your party is the number of permits issued. So if a person with a group of six is chosen, there are only four permits remaining for that day.
Walk-in permits are held via a lottery every morning at 9 a.m. at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Visitor Center in Kanab. The lottery to obtain permits is held every day – for the next day. Meaning a permit issued Monday is valid for the Tuesday hike. Permits for Sat-Mon are awarded on Fridays.
My wife Heidi and I arrived at the visitor center on Thursday morning at 8:30 a.m. We were given a short brief and led into the lottery room to fill out our application. You’re allowed only one application per group, for up to six people. Duplicates are thrown out!
We had a group of five who wanted to hike, so Heidi filled out the application and we waited for the drawing. It’s an intense experience, waiting and wondering if you will be selected. You look around the room wondering who will be among the chosen few. Once your application is completed, you’re issued a lottery number.
The total number of applications reached 42 on this March day. (But remember that isn’t 42 people, it’s 42 applications, and each could represent up to six people.) Everyone starts checking their watches and a collective sigh is heard each time a person runs into the room to fill out a last-minute application.
At 9 a.m. sharp, he turns the crank, the balls rattle around and a number is drawn. Number 16 is called and it’s a group of two. Eight permits left. Heidi looks at me and says, “It’s just like Bingo – I got this.” Sure enough our number 13 was the next number called!
The lottery is over and people filed out, except for the chosen few like us! The rules are explained, and you’re given a map to the area. You pay a $7 per person fee and a tag is issued to you. Half goes on your vehicle’s dashboard, and the other half must be attached to your backpack while hiking.
The trailhead is located off Highway 89 about an hour east of Kanab. The last eight-10 miles is on House Rock Valley Road, which is a rough dirt road that can become impassible in inclement weather.
Our group was joined by a friend and volunteer of the BLM – Brent Chamberlain. Brent makes the hike every Friday, not only to check permits, but to make certain that people are safe. His stories of people underestimating the heat/hike are amazing. While most people in decent shape can make the hike, getting lost, not bringing enough water, exhaustion from underestimating the distance, and injuries are the main causes of turning a good day into a serious situation.
While Heidi and I usually hike alone, it was great going with Brent. So much so, I’d recommend if you get a permit, check in Kanab or with the BLM, and hire a guide. It not only helped us stay on the trail, which isn’t really well marked, but there is so much else to see in the area! Having someone who knows the area means a safer and more enjoyable trip.
The hike to The Wave and back is about six miles round trip. But, as Brent told us – there is so much more to see! With other stops we figured we hiked a little over 10 miles and were there over eight hours. He guided us to such places as The Second Wave, The Alcove and others.
The solitude and lack of people make the hike that much more enjoyable. But you are exposed to the sun on most of the hike, as well as deep sand. While it was just 60 degrees the day we were there, sunscreen is a must.
After reaching The Wave, we saw a few other people and Brent went over to check their permit and whether they were in good shape for the day.
The Wave is incredible! Though just a small area, it is one-of-a-kind. The colors and dramatic undulations are stunning and unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Your mind wanders about just what went on here and how this was formed. Descriptive verse and photographs just do not seem to do The Wave justice.
Photographers like myself had our tri-pods lined up, trying to get the right angle and spot, and I felt rewarded for carrying all of my camera gear. The Wave is best photographed morning and mid-day. After a few clicks and running around, the gear was packed up and we continued onward, and upward.
Scrambling along slickrock, we went to other sites and were offered a view from high above The Wave. Once you reach the top, you are rewarded with an incredible view, as well as Melody Arch, Grotto, and Top Rock Arch to name a few.
Hiking back down, Brent continued to point out other features unique to the area, and how they were formed. Once back down, we once again passed The Wave, and posed for a few more photos before hitting the trail back to the car. We all left with smiles, as we were among the chosen few who had been afforded the rare opportunity to see the geological wonder that is known as The Wave!
Do’s: Research. Bring sunscreen. Consider a guide. Carry plenty of water. Take photos looking back as you hike in. They might come in handy on the trip out!
Some links – www.thewave.info/CoyoteButtesNorthCode/Map.html