North Coyote Buttes and The Wave

Inside the Temple

Inside the Grotto (or The Temple) on Top Rock in the North Coyote Buttes, AZ…


At the end of the day my GPS read 16.7 miles – the grand total of my hike to, from, in and around The Wave in the North Coyote Buttes, AZ. That I even made the hike to begin with was entirely due to chance. The previous day I had been one of the lucky winners of the North Coyote Buttes walk-in permit lottery in Kanab, UT, and I’m still in disbelief.

After about 10 years of failing to get a permit online I decided to try in person – so, in early March of 2015, I went to Kanab to try the lottery for a walk-in permit. I figured that if I lost the lottery I could just do something else in the area. Either way, I headed off for a week of camping, hiking and photography in Utah. Win-win.

Good Morning

The rocks glow in the dawn as the sun rises over the North Coyote Buttes…

Arriving at the Kanab Visitor Center at about 8:15 in the morning on March 12th, I assumed there would be maybe 35 people tops vying for a permit. After all, it wasn’t yet passed mid-March. Upon arriving I found the parking lot almost full and once inside there were 40 people already milling about, mostly in groups.

By 8:30 the crowd had grown considerably and numbered about 80 people as we shuffled into a side room specifically dedicated to the Wave lottery. It looked like a waiting room that you might find at jury-duty: plain and filled with rows of chairs and a table up front covered in clipboards with applications attached. “Take one and fill it out” were the instructions. Also on the front table was a little bingo-ball spinner next to a tray of numbered balls – the mechanism of our fate.

By 9:00 AM 57 applications were handed in representing the 148 people who were now present. Out of those 148 people crowding the small room, only 10 get to go. I started to wonder what the hell I was doing there with those odds.

All 57 groups were given a number corresponding to their application. A matching numbered ball was placed into the spinner. My number was 9. With all the numbers assigned tension filled the room. The woman to my left had been there 5 times that week. The woman to my right was already looking at a map of Utah and plotting contingencies. In my head so was I.

Soon the ranger called the first number – a group of 2, leaving 8 More slots to fill. The second number was called – the woman to my right – also a group of 2. 6 more slots to fill. The third number, number 9. My number! What? My number? YES!

I zoned out after that and basked in the moment. A few minutes later myself and the other lucky winners remained seated while 138 others shuffled out. We were given our permits, valid for the following day, and an orientation of the hike.

House Rock Valley

House Rock Valley from a ridge above Stateline Campground…

Stateline Campground View from Near Camp Evening Meal Lichens

Moments from around camp…

With permit in hand I raced down highway 89 to House Rock Valley Road and set up camp at State Line Campground, situated a mile or so from the Wire Pass trailhead. Great for an early-morning start to hike into the North Coyote Buttes.

I woke at 5:00 AM the following morning, 2.5 hours before sunrise, giving me enough time to get ready and be at the trailhead for the 1.5 hour hike in. My general plan was to start out by photographing sunrise on the Teepees a mile east of the Wave, outside of the permit zone. After that I would head into the permit zone to explore and arrive at The Wave around mid-day when the light compliments it best.

Teepee Sunrise...

The South Teepees in mid-morning sun…

Swept Up...

Streaked rock hints at what’s to come…

Sand Trap...

From sand to sandstone…a walk between the teepees…

My timing was off and by the time I reached the Teepees the sun had been up for almost an hour. After a quick exploration, and walk between the bases, I cut back across the sandy plain towards the permit zone and made my way up the eastern side of the mesa that overlooks the wave. I wanted to check out some interesting spots up top.

Bizarre Formations...

A large nodule of iron-rich minerals protrudes from smooth sandstone…

The Teepees...

Teepee vista…

More Teepees...

More of the North Teepees…

The top of the mesa above The Wave, called Top Rock, was absolutely my favorite spot in the area. It hides a gorgeous hanging valley with some stray pine trees, stunning brain-rock formations, gnarled hoodoos, sand dunes, arches and a sandstone chamber with a natural window that looks out over the plain to the west. As amazing as The Wave itself is, I truly think Top Rock steals the show. Since it was still fairly early I scouted out some locations to revisit in the afternoon once the light was a little better.

Inside the Grotto...

Wall Arch, or Coyote Window, inside the Grotto on Top Rock…

Desert Tile...

Rocks tile naturally in the nooks and crannies on Top Rock…

After a few hours of scouting up top I hiked down the western side of Top Rock and arrived just south of The Wave. On the way down I tried to locate equally photogenic ‘Second Wave’ but could not find it despite being frustratingly close. I would try again later on my way back up top. I continued on and entered the folds of The Wave at about 12 noon.

Alien Landscape...

The surreal landscape surrounding The Wave…

The Gateway...

The southern entrance to the Wave glows with reflected light…

When I got to the wave there were three groups of people present, the first people I had seen all day. The Wave makes a sort-of amphitheater in the rock and myself and some of the other groups sat in the shade of a large knob that protrudes out of the upper edge. Everyone was more or less respectful of each others photo opportunities, although two young German men spent over half an hour in the bowl posing for each other in a photoshoot-style photo series, seemingly oblivious to other peoples attempts to get pictures.

Classic

The classic view…

Mezmerizing Lines...

The lines are mezmerizing…

Control Tower Any Angle... Curves on Curves Frozen in Time

The Wave really is a sight to behold…

Wave in Context...

The Wave in context…

Drainage below the Wave...

Looking down the drainage below the Wave…

After photographing around The Wave for an hour or so, and taking a much needed break, I headed south again to try to find the Second Wave once more, as well as visit some other locations I had scouted. I still had a lot of time to explore before making my way up to Top Rock again to end the day. After some more searching I still couldn’t find the Second Wave and instead headed further south to Sand Cove.

Natures Art

Almost every surface is streaked, swirled or striated…

...and more streaks...

…and more streaks at Sand Cove…

Melty

Folded and swirled rock near the Boneyard…

Here I took another shade and water break before strenuously making my way up the ridge to the east to check out a spot that turned out to be nothing particularly interesting. This was a happy accident however, as I ended up passing through an area of candy-like stripes, strewn with delicate laced rock. This is known to photographers as ‘Fatali’s Boneyard’ after the photographer who popularized it.

Fatali's Boneyard...

Fatali’s Boneyard area…

Streaks...

Streaks…

Candyland

Candyland…

Toadstool

A toadstool feature near the Boneyard, Top Rock is back left…

Tired and sapped from my slog up the ridge I headed back down to the Sand Cove area, which offered some of the only shade around. Here I rested, alternately snacking, hydrating and napping, until about 4:00 PM. It was then that I made one final push back up the mesa to Top Rock to capture some afternoon light up top.

It was on the way up that I finally stumbled upon The Second Wave, which had been right under my nose earlier in the day. The Second Wave is EXTREMELY delicate – fringed with wafer-thin sandstone shelves that can crumble under your feet. Be gentle and aware if you visit this pristine area.

The Second Wave

The Second Wave…

Second Wave 2

A slightly different composition…every inch of this thing is extremely delicate, tread lightly…

The Wave 2

A parting shot before heading back up Top Rock…

Top Rock Temple

The Grotto illuminated by afternoon light…

Once back up top I headed straight for “The Grotto” – a frightfully delicate sandstone chamber that features arches and ethereal lighting. I carefully photographed this stunning place for about an hour and it remains one of my favorite places that I have ever been.

Room With a View

Room with a view, Coyote Window looking out towards the teepees…

Afternoon Delight

Another stunning view on Top Rock…

Twins

Twin Buttes in the hanging valley up on Top Rock…

I stayed up on Top Rock until about 6:30 PM, barely scratching the surface of all it has to offer. Reluctantly, I began the hike out, passing through the now-quiet Wave area one last time before making my way towards Wire Pass. As I walked out in the setting sun I reflected on just how phenomenal, and delicate, this area is. If you are not careful literally every single footstep can crumble the exquisite sandstone lacework that nature has taken hundreds of thousands of years to create. In the more popular areas there is clear evidence of this and The Wave itself is now denuded of the fine shelving that is characteristic of the rest of the area. Also evident is trekking-pole pock-marking along the more heavily trafficked areas. In light of experiencing this first-hand I now understand that the frustrating permit process is instrumental in keeping the inevitable decay of this area in check as more and more people explore it. And explore it they should.

In all my travels to date I can say that the North Coyote Buttes remains the most marvelous, remarkable and beguiling place I have ever been. It is southwestern landscape perfection. There is so much packed into an area so small. Understand that it goes beyond just “The Wave.” The entire area hides secrets just as stunning and confounding as that most-popular feature, yet few venture beyond to explore it. I hope to return to this area in the next few years, and would love to make it a regular pilgrimage.

Swish

A final close look before heading out…

View hiking out...

The setting sun illuminates the West Clark Bench as I near Wire Pass…

Be careful and mindful...

A reminder of how fragile this landscape is…be gentle…

Reflecting on the Day

Reflection pool at the north entrance of The Wave…



::: Download Trip KML :::

Rating: ★★★★★
Distance:~16.7 Miles as shown, otherwise under 7 miles total if just visiting The Wave.
Time Needed:Half-day for just The Wave itself, otherwise you could spend days here.
Difficulty:Easy to Moderate for just The Wave. Moderate to Difficult if exploring the area further as there is a lot of up and down and detours. The landscape is pretty tortured.

Special Considerations:
I think a trip to this area should begin with Thewave.info. The wealth of information on that website is a treasure and can provide you with all you need to know to plan a fantastic trip. Be sure to check out the information on best times to acquire a permit. To paraphrase briefly, your best bet is to apply in-person for a walk-in permit on a Friday during the winter (December – February). Even then you may have about a 25% chance. Not to mention winter precipitation can mar photos or close roads. Do not count on the luck I happened to experience. These days, due to its popularity, a visit to the North Coyote Buttes requires total flexibility. Have contingencies in place: White Pocket, South Coyote Buttes, Alstrom Point, Page, Waterholes Canyon, Waheap, Cottonwood Canyon Road, etc. There is no shortage of amazing places in that part of the country. In the future I will only apply in-person between November and February as part of a larger trip to the greater Vermillion Cliffs area.

Logistics:
Water. During my 15 or so hours exploring the area, I drank 3 liters of water that I had carried in and I was mildly dehydrated by the end of the day. I should have brought a filter along because there were many clear and fresh pools from precipitation that had occurred a week earlier. Obviously you can’t count on this but a lightweight filter adds very little weight and gives you options if opportunities present themselves. I would have wanted one more liter of water during my outing.

Sunscreen. There is very little shade in the North Coyote Buttes. If you are sensitive to the sun, a wide brimmed hat and long sleeves are essential, as is constant reapplication of sunscreen. I somehow managed to avoid any sunburn at all, but I was reapplying sunscreen like a madman and hiding under a hat.

The Teepees. The Teepees about a mile to the east of The Wave are cool, but are outside the permit zone. It might be better to plan a trip to these separate from your trip to The Wave. Trying to visit both in a day as I did left me tired and that energy could have been put to better use around the Top Rock area. My opinion is that the South Teepees are more photogenic and interesting than the North Teepees and that the North Teepees could be avoided entirely if you are short on time.

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