Aerial Geology: The Wave!

Wave 1-Panorama

In a landscape littered with bizarre sandstone formations, the Wave on the border between Utah and Arizona stands out as downright psychedelic. Here colorful petrified sand dunes have been sculpted into undulating waves, photographs of which are so coveted that the park service has imposed a unique permit lottery system to keep the delicate site from being overrun with snap-happy tourists.

My book Aerial Geology:A High Altitude Tour of North America’s Spectacular Volcanoes, Canyons, Glaciers, Lakes, Craters and Peaks highlights 100 geologic features across Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. As of this spring, I had visited 89 out of 100 but after my lucky lotto ball came up on Memorial Day weekend, I’ve now been to 90!

Shadow wave

The Wave is located within the Coyote Buttes area of Pariah Canyon– Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness, near the bottom of the Grand Staircase that descends through canyon country from Brian Head down to the Grand Canyon. Hidden in the backcountry several miles from the nearest rough dirt road, the Wave was virtually unknown until the 1990’s when it was featured in German travel brochures of the American Southwest and in the 1996 German nature documentary, Fascination Natur. Popularity among Europeans soared and the site soon became one of the most sought-after photos for foreign travelers visiting the U.S.

Money shot

To visit the Wave, you must win the lottery. Only 20 people per day are allowed to visit the site. Ten permits are awarded through an online lottery, months ahead of time and ten permits are given out the day prior at the Grand Staircase-Escalante Visitor Center in Kanab, Utah. During the summer, over a hundred people a day vie for these ten permits.

Wave 2

We happened through Kanab, Utah on Memorial Day weekend and played the Wave permit lottery two days in a row. The first day about 150 people were vying for the 10 permits. The first lottery ball pulled was for a group of 6 and the second went to a group of 4 and it was all over in two minutes. On day two, we arrived at 8:58 local time, just in time to submit a permit application. When Ranger Ron read off everybody’s lottery ball number, he called “Morton number 47” and I knew I was going to the Wave… 47 is one of my luckiest numbers! Sure enough, the third ball he pulled was #47!


That night we camped down House Rock Road and set off before dawn the next morning for the Wave. The park service provides a photo map of the route to the formation; the trail is not marked and much of it flows over slickrock that doesn’t save footprints. I was surprised by the highly difficult routefinding! Dan and I are very experienced off-trail desert hikers and even we got a little sidetracked on our way to the Wave. In the photo below, we are almost there; the Wave is tucked behind the cones of rock in the middle ground.

Hike out

We were the first to arrive and had the place to ourselves for about an hour. Then we left to scramble up the rocks behind the Wave to overlook the formation. As I say in my book: Geology is best appreciated from above! The Wave appears just above the tips of my boots in the photo below.

Overlook feet

From Aerial Geology: During the Jurassic period, when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, this part of Arizona was buried under a massive sand dune field. Periodic changes in the direction of the prevailing winds led to cross bedding of the layers of sand as the dunes migrated across the landscape. Over time, these layers were lithified into bright orange Navajo sandstone more than 1,200 feet thick.


The thin ridges and ripples preserved at the Wave are evidence of millions of years of shifting wind patterns. Technically called wind ripple laminae, these lines are part of what make the Wave so photogenic. From the air, these lines highlight the now frozen movement of these ancient dunes. The nearby checkerboard patterns are created by freeze and thaw weathering of the petrified dunes, resulting in crosshatching of the sandstone. Dinosaur footprints have also been identified in the rocks near the Wave, relics from ancient travels across the dunes.

Ice cream


As amazing as the Wave itself is, the surrounding sandstone wonderland of North Coyote Buttes calls me back. Within a 1-mile radius of the Wave we found a field of Moki Marbles: tiny iron balls that form when iron-rich sandstone is leeched by groundwater over geologic time. The iron balls are very heavy and tend to roll downhill and collect in pockets.



Moki 2

…As well as several sandy coves that have been carved out of the rock by swirling wind and flying grit….

Sand cove 1Sand cove

…Arches and Windows…



….And a slickrock slot canyon!


May the Southwest wonders never cease!

Cottonwood rdHeading north from the Wave via Cottonwood Road through Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

To See More of the World, including the Wave and 99 other geologic formations, you can order a signed copy of Aerial Geology direct from me for $34.99 plus $5.00 shipping via Paypal:


About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently based in western Colorado. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, skiing, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at
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9 Responses to Aerial Geology: The Wave!

  1. jackhandley1 says:

    Very pleased to get your last blog. Miss them, although no one has any business expecting you to spend your time providing them entertainment.

    What’s your latest travel rig?

    Best wishes.

    Jack Handley

    Jack Handley

    *Diplomate, Curmudgeonology. . . He hoped and prayed that there wasn’t an afterlife. Then he realized there was a contradiction involved here and merely hoped that there wasn’t an afterlife. — Douglas Adams*

    On Mon, Jul 16, 2018 at 1:41 PM, Travels with the Blonde Coyote wrote:

    > theblondecoyote posted: ” In a landscape littered with bizarre sandstone > formations, the Wave on the border between Utah and Arizona stands out as > downright psychedelic. Here colorful petrified sand dunes have been > sculpted into undulating waves, photographs of which are so covet” >

    • That’s Jerry Odyssey, a 1990 Toyota pickup with a pop-top camper on the back! He’s been our go-to rig for the last 2 years. I still have the teardrop but I’m considering selling it. I’m pretty over towing at this point… it limits where I can go too much! It’s a hard decision to let it go, but it has many miles left and I’d love to see it making somebody else’s road living dreams come true! Thanks for following, Jack! Always nice to read your comments.

      • Sandra says:

        I was going to ask the same question. Why are you “over towing it”? I thought it was a relatively light rig? Does this new trailer take you more places than you could go with the teardrop? Just curious.

        I love your images, by the way. Gorgeous! And congratulations on nearly selling out the book. I’m surprised it has taken so long–we have enjoyed reading through ours every so often. We were one of the first and were honored to have you personally sign and send it to us!

        Looking forward to reading about more adventures. . .

      • The new rig is a truck with a built in camper on the back, not a tow behind. Towing down forest roads is where it gets dicey. You dont want to get stuck with no way to turn the trailer around. I had to unhitch in a tight rutted spot a few years ago and got pinned between the trailer and bumper. I was very lucky I didn’t break my pelvis!

      • wordtapestry says:

        Thank you for the information. We were talking about getting a teardrop, but it sounds like we need to research it more.

  2. Megan says:

    Wow! Beautiful photos! I’ve always wanted to visit the wave!

  3. My wife got in on first try with two of her friends. And then the magic of the wave took them to another world.

  4. Sandra says:

    I have wanted to tell you how your blog has influenced more than you could possibly know.

    One of my students did an Environmental Studies major, directed by me (Historian) and my husband (Biologist) at Nebraska Wesleyan University. He planned to go into sustainable architectural design, and I remembered you writing about winters at Taos in the Earthships, describing their construction, etc. (we want to live in one when we retire). . . . And suggested that he look up UNM’s Earthship Academy in Taos. He did, he applied, and he got in! The youngest ever admitted (as a senior in college). It was a life-changing experience for him.

    A parent of another student who went to the academy is actually adapting the technology to Nebraska and building an earthship just outside of Lincoln, NE. If you’re ever in the area, you should stop by to see it. It should be done before the end of the year.

  5. Tiffani says:

    So amazingly beautiful.Thank you so much for sharing your adventures. I too miss your more frequent posts, but do understand. And I ordered your book early on and love it, and love sharing it with my granddaughter.

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