Can’t seem to get your hands on a permit to The Wave?  Go to these TWO next best places instead…

Aug 11, 2023

It’s the pinnacle of sandstone magic and if you’re addicted to pursuing truly spectacular hikes, you’ve heard about it. Dreamed about it. Obsessed over getting your hands on permits to finally see it.

I’m, of course, talking about The Wave.

It’s one of those magical places high up on every adventurer’s Bucket List that demands that it be spoken of in the most poetic of ways.  Just rest your eyes on the flowery prose from Wikipedia by a contributor (a romance writer who hikes?) obviously in love, when they wrote, “its colourful, undulating forms…”

As for a Wikipedia contributing geologist, their entry read, “The Wave exposes large-scale sets of cross-bedded eolian sandstone composed of rhythmic and cyclic alternating grainflow and windripple laminae.”  Translation: the beautiful layers of sandstone forms the waves we all crave to lay eyes upon.

My god, how these words almost transport me there.  ALMOST because, to step foot past the trailhead, or worse, gaze longingly on the luscious windrippled laminae of The Wave, you MUST have a permit.

“Oh, okay, no problem,” I thought.

Actually it’s a real problem. Statistically speaking, at most, you have an 8 percent chance of winning the lottery and being awarded a permit. 

So, while we all remain ever hopeful that the day will come when we are blessed with The Wave permits, here are the TWO next best places to quench your striped, polka doted and swirled sandstone needs.

1. Valley of Fire State Park

Hours: Open daily from sunrise to sunset

Entry Fee: $10.00  or  $15.00 for Non-Nevada licensed vehicles

Address: 29450 Valley of Fire Rd Overton, NV 89040

The details:

Known for its 40,000 acres of bright red Aztec sandstone outcrops, this geologic marvel is located only an hour northeast of Las Vegas, Nevada. Once you drive into Nevada’s oldest and largest park, it’s apparent that the magic is just beginning and you’re in for something truly spectacular. Try not to be tempted to pass up stops that include ancient petrified trees, 2000+ year old petroglyphs and slot canyons to rush the main reason I’m suggesting Valley of Fire as a next best option to The Wave:

The Fire Wave.

There is zero question as to why this spellbinding geologic formation is the most popular feature in the park: it sparks absolute wonder. 

No ordinary kind of wonder, mind you, The Fire Wave makes your heart beat fast and mouth drop open to exclaim a good old-fashioned oath of your choice, whether it be from the PG-rated realm or more appropriately, of the R-rated sort. Truly, no one can blame you, that’s the kind of awe the Fire Wave elicits. Ready to check it out?

How to get there:

As you enter this state park, Valley of Fire Road will be your main thoroughfare.  Stay on this road until you reach your turn at White Dome Road. Turn there and try not to wreck your car as you ogle the increasingly gorgeous sandstone landscape all around you. Keep an eye out for your main objective, Parking Lot #3, which is located on both sides of the road.  

Once you’ve found a place to put your car, proceed to the west side of the road where you’ll find signage for the trailhead that will take you to The Fire Wave.  The info on the signs will be vague, at best, due to being bleached within an inch of its life by the brutal desert sun.

The hike:

Name: The Fire Wave Trail

Distance: 1.3 miles

Route type: Out and back

Elevation Gain: 150.9 feet

Difficulty: Easy in exertion, moderately harder to find the actual Fire Wave formation

Your best bet in finding The Fire Wave is to have a GPS app at the ready on your phone with the map downloaded, just in case you don’t have cellphone reception. Here’s the reason why: I have a habit of wandering as I marvel at the improbability of all the beauty surrounding me as I take copious amounts of photos and videos. When I finally mentally surface, I tend to have to reorient myself geographically.  

Here’s how I stay on track: I use AllTrails. If you’re tempted to give it a try, there’s a free version in addition to an affordable, feature-filled option, as well.

You can find The Fire Wave trail map on AllTrails HERE.

Know BEFORE you go:

The Fire Wave and surrounding trails CLOSE seasonally from June 1 to October 1 since the desert sun creates unfathomable heat conditions that takes a toll on human bodies. There are no exceptions to this and to read reviews on AllTrails left by hikers who did not know about the closures is so sad to see but also necessary to prevent sun exhaustion, stroke or even death.

2. Red Rock Canyon Natural Conservation Area

Hours: Varies widely based on time of year and area. For more info, go HERE.

Entry Fee: America the Beautiful Pass accepted or go HERE for more info.

Address: 3205 State Highway 159, Las Vegas, NV 89161

The details:

Located 17 miles west of the Las Vegas Strip, Red Rock Canyon Natural Conservation Area is visited by millions of people (and counting) each year due to being mentioned in Alex Honnold’s documentary, Free Solo.

Among the plethora of hiking, biking and rock climbing opportunities, Red Rock also hides a very big secret that becomes apparent the minute you turn onto Scenic Drive, show your permit to the park employees and start to head into the heart of the canyons: This hidden gem rivals anything The Wave can dish out and more.

But BEWARE, the dopamine high caused by overwhelmingly beautiful sandstone swirls, stripes and polka dots that paint the landscape, for miles, in the Calico Hills area is real. I was transfixed. Enraptured. In love.  (So much so that I moved there for five months.)

As a perfectly lovely amount of luck would have it, there is a gorgeous hike than winds through all of these sandstone daydreams and lets you get up close and oh, so personal with every feature until you’re at a loss and just want to change your address to this place forever.

How to get there:

Red Rock Canyon is easily accessed by way of a major city thoroughfare, Charleston Boulevard, which heads straight out of Las Vegas and into this recreation area with only a few turns. Your turn into Red Rock will be Scenic Drive. You’ll soon approach a ranger station where you’ll show your permit, if applicable; your America the Beautiful pass, if you have one; or pay the entry fee, which varies.

Take the map that’s offered and try not to peel rubber out of the gate as you eagerly head towards your objective: Calico Hills.

As you drive towards this sandstone wonderland, you might question whether to park at Calico I or II.  It honestly doesn’t matter because this whole area is so dreamy that you’ll want to hike it all.  I was impatient and parked at Calico I, where I barely got my hiking shoes on and hit the bathroom before I was off and running.

The hike:

Name: Calico Hills Trail (Click HERE for a map)

Distance: 2 to 6 miles

Route type: Out and back

Elevation Gain: Varies

Difficulty: Moderate

The FULL Calico Hills Trail runs along the base of the Calico Rocks from Calico Basin to Sandstone Quarry. Distance of this trail varies since it can be accessed from several points, depending on where you parked at the two Calico parking areas.

The best way to tackle this adventure is find a drop-in point closest to your parked car, while also making sure you’re actually on the Calico Hills Trail. Here again, a cellphone based GPS app can tell you where you’ve dropped in on the trail and can help keep track of your location when you’re too enamored by the sandstone heaven you’ve found yourself in to be bothered to do it yourself. AllTrails helped me more than once when I just kept wandering off the actual Calico Hills Trail and meandered onto a branching path to check out shallow caves and slot canyons.

Know BEFORE you go:

Red Rock Canyon gets HOT in the high season. More tolerable weather, for visitors, is actually October to May which coincides with the permitting season.

Timed entry reservations are required for the only road that runs the entirety of Red Rock Canyon Conservation Area, known as Scenic Drive. BUT you’re in luck because the permit season for Red Rock Canyon is between October 1 and May 31 for entry between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Need a permit?  You can get yours HERE.

…and, finally, if you do go, reach out and let me know how your adventure went!

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