Photographing “The Wave” (Coyote Buttes North, Arizona)

Photographing “The Wave” (Coyote Buttes North, Arizona) by Nikhil Shahi website | Facebook | Instagram | YouTube – see also his previous posts here (all photos taken with the Nikon D850):

Photographing "The Wave", Coyote Buttes North, Arizona

Nikon D850, Nikon 16mm Fisheye

For almost six years, I had diligently entered a monthly online lottery, to try and secure an elusive permit to visit ‘The Wave’ in Arizona. And every month during those six years, I received a polite email thanking me for my participation in the lottery process, while reminding me that I was yet again, a loser! In February of 2019, I decided to take a road trip to Kanab, Utah, to try my luck at the walk-in lottery – I entered the walk-in lottery on a daily basis, and on the third day of trying, I finally won a coveted permit, to hike to ‘The Wave’.

Photographing "The Wave", Coyote Buttes North, Arizona

‘The Wave’ Bathed in Moonlight Nikon D850, Nikon 14-24mm, Star Adventurer Star Tracker

‘The Wave’ is situated in Coyote Buttes North, which lies within the 112,500-acre Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness area. Coyote Buttes North is home to some of the most stunning geologic sandstone formations in the world, with ‘The Wave’ being just one of many. Ironically, a lot of folks that win the lottery to hike to Coyote Buttes North, end up going just to ‘The Wave’, without any idea of the existence of other features in that area.

Photographing "The Wave", Coyote Buttes North, Arizona

‘The Wave’ in the Evening Light Nikon D850, Nikon 16mm Fisheye

Permits to hike to Coyote Buttes North are extremely hard to obtain. Prior to February 1, 2021, visitation was restricted to 20 people a day – 10 were selected via anonline lottery 4 months in advance, while the other 10 were selected via a walk-in lottery, held in Kanab, Utah, for next-day hiking. Per BLM, in 2018, over 168,000 people applied for the lottery to win one of the 7,300 permits, while over 200,000 people applied for the same 7,300 permits in 2019 – a dramatic increase year over year.

Photographing "The Wave", Coyote Buttes North, Arizona

Entrance to ‘The Wave’ Nikon D850, Nikon 14-24mm

To address the increased interest from the public, while protecting the fragile sandstone formations, BLM decided to increase the number of daily hikers to 64 (with the option to increase this number to 96). Under the new system, 48 people or 12 groups (a group can have up to 6 people) would be awarded permits via the online lottery, 4 months in advance, while 16 people or 4 groups (whichever came first), would be awarded permits via the walk-in lottery held in Kanab, Utah, for next-day hiking. Do note that if you secure a permit, you are not allowed to re-enter the lottery for 14 days from the date of your hike.

Photographing "The Wave", Coyote Buttes North, Arizona

Reflections at ‘The Wave’ Nikon D850, Nikon 14-24mm

Since my first win in February of 2019, I have won multiple times at the walk-in lottery in Kanab. I thus have visited ‘The Wave’ in different seasons and under different light conditions. On each occasion, I would drive to Kanab, stay for a few days and enter the lottery daily. For some weird reason, I always ended up winning on the 2nd or 3rd day of trying. I prefer to try the walk-in lottery in the winter months, due to fewer visitors – additionally, from the middle of November through early March, BLM conducts the lottery for the Saturday, Sunday and Monday hikes, on Friday itself – so the odds of winning increase by 3X if you enter on Friday. Even in the winter months, there can be a lot of people applying for the walk-in lottery – the lowest I experienced were around 35 applications (for around 90 people – remember that each application can have up to 6 people). However, these are great odds compared with the busy Summer months, when over 400 people can be found trying their luck for those 10 spots (now 16).

Photographing "The Wave", Coyote Buttes North, Arizona

‘The Milky Wave’ Nikon D850, Nikon 14-24mm, Star Adventurer Star Tracker

On the day of my hike, I typically leave Kanab for the trailhead, around 4 to 5 hours before dawn. The drive to ‘Wire Pass Trailhead’ takes around an hour – the first 37 miles are on Highway 89 and the next 8 miles are on the (in)famous ‘House Rock Valley Road’. This road is a dirt road and can be very trecherous when wet. I always like to reach ‘The Wave’ a couple of hours before sunrise, as it gives me enough time to try some night exposures. One of my favorite shots was taken on a beautiful August night, when I hiked to ‘The Wave’ during a New Moon, and photographed the Milky Way over ‘The Wave’ with my star tracker. Apart from getting a nice photo, it was the solitude that really appealed to me – I was alone, in the wilderness, under the dark skies and stars, standing among some ancient sandstone formations. It was magical!

Photographing "The Wave", Coyote Buttes North, Arizona

Colorful Sandstone at ‘The Wave’ Nikon D850, Nikon 70-200mm E Fl

Once parked at ‘Wire Pass Trailhead’ and after signing the log book, I would commence my hike in the dark, with just my headlamp to guide me. The hike to ‘The Wave’ is around 3 miles one way, with the first mile on a well marked trail. At the end of the first mile, the trail disappears, signifying the commencement of the permit area. One now has to direction find and navigate towards the destination, by referring to the landmarks on the pictorial map (supplied with the physical permit). Despite having hiked multiple times to ‘The Wave’ in the dark, I still feel a little uneasy when en route to it at night. Being unable to see any of the landmarks, I have to rely on my phone’s GPS to guide me.

Photographing "The Wave", Coyote Buttes North, Arizona

A Couple Posing at ‘The Wave’ Nikon D850, Nikon 70-200mm E FL

Upon arriving at ‘The Wave’, I normally spend some time taking night and dawn shots and then climb up the cliff face immediately behind ‘The Wave’ to ‘Top Rock’. ‘Top Rock’ is the aptly named area on top of the cliff, immediately behind ‘The Wave’. This area is home to some amazing formations like ‘Top Rock Arch’, ‘The Alcove’, ‘Melody Arch’ and ‘Hourglass Arch’. I always find it interesting that most people don’t bother coming up to ‘Top Rock’ – maybe they don’t know about the great features in this area, maybe they don’t want to climb the 400 feet to reach ‘Top Rock’ or maybe, they only want to visit the most famous formation in Coyote Buttes North – ‘The Wave’.

Photographing "The Wave", Coyote Buttes North, Arizona

The Alcove, Coyote Buttes North, Arizona Nikon D850, Nikon 16mm Fisheye

Access to ‘Top Rock’ is either a short 400 feet climb up the cliff face, starting just North of the ‘Second Wave’, or a longer (albeit easier) 1 mile route from the East side of ‘Top Rock’. Once on ‘Top Rock’, I first head to photograph ‘The Alcove’ – I find that an ultrawide or fisheye lens gives great results, with lots of opportunities for a good composition.

Photographing "The Wave", Coyote Buttes North, Arizona

Hourglass Arch, Coyote Buttes North, Arizona Nikon D850, Nikon 70-200mm E FL

Close to ‘The Alcove’ is the beautiful ‘Hourglass Arch’. Access to this arch is very sketchy, as it is on the cliffside, and is thus not recommended. One can get a nice view of this arch from a safe location on ‘Top Rock’. Now it is time to head towards ‘Melody Arch’, which lies a few feet above ‘The Alcove’ and close to it.

Photographing "The Wave", Coyote Buttes North, Arizona

Melody Arch, Coyote Buttes North, Arizona Nikon D850, Nikon 16mm Fisheye

‘Melody Arch’ is one of my favorite features in Coyote Buttes North. The early morning light, filtering through a window in the sandstone wall facing this arch, really lights it up in gorgeous orange hues. On two occasions, I have been present when the sun just rose over the horizon, and began to light up the arch. After spending time exploring ‘Top Rock’ I would head down back to ‘The Wave’, but from the East side. The return hike via the East side of ‘Top Rock’ is easy, allowing one to soak in the rugged landscape of Coyote Buttes North.

Photographing "The Wave", Coyote Buttes North, Arizona

The Second Wave, Coyote Buttes North, Arizona Nikon D850, Nikon 70-200mm E FL

Once back at ‘The Wave’, I would just sit and soak in the views until an hour or so before sunset, when I would head a few hundred feet South, to photograph the ‘Second Wave’. The rich light of the setting sun, really brings out the colors and texture of the ‘Second Wave’. The evening light at the ‘Second Wave’ is special and is a fitting culmination, to a tiring but wonderful day in that area. With an hour to spare before sunset, I would commence the return journey to my car – which gave me enough time to get out of the permit area during daylight. En route, the evening light on the Teepees in the distance, would remind me how lucky I was to get to visit this place – not once, but multiple times.

Sunset over the Teepees, Coyote Buttes North, Arizona Nikon D850, Nikon 70-200mm E Fl

Sunset over the Teepees, Coyote Buttes North, Arizona Nikon D850, Nikon 70-200mm E Fl

Below is a video highlighting one of my visits to ‘The Wave’. Please feel free to ask any questions in the comment section below.

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