The Wave – Marble Canyon, Arizona - Atlas Obscura

The Wave

Rippling sand dunes frozen in the Arizona rock. 


190 million years ago, one of the greatest geological formations in the world began to take shape.

In the Coyote Buttes ravine, some 5,225 feet above sea level, stands Arizona’s the Wave. The Wave has a remarkable undulating appearance, with massive sandstone structures stretched like taffy and cinnamon color strata domes. It is, in a way, a geological snapshot in time, a still shot of the effect natural forces have on the environment.

The Wave is comprised of Navajo Sandstone dunes that have calcified vertically and horizontally, turning into hardened, compacted rocks over time. The peculiar and unique fluctuating stratum was created by slow wind and rain erosion. The Wave remained basically unknown until the 1990s when it was largely advertised in German travel brochures and shown in the 1996 movie Faszination Natur. Small groups of Europeans visited the area, and its popularity grew; tour guides confide that it is still largely a European population that visits, though Americans have definitely begun to take notice of the landscape.

Many describe walking through the dunes as an intensely strange experience, surreal and vertigo inducing, or in several cases, described as being like a drug induced walking dream. The rock is certainly a photographer’s delight, where professionals and amateurs strive to take the perfect mid-day shot when not a single shadow eclipses the Wave, or they go for the more dramatic effect of morning or near-twilight that comes with the high domes casting stark shadows on the land.

While the rocks have been hardened, they are still susceptible to damage. Only 20 visitors a day are allowed to walk through the ravine, and permits are required. The permits are issued through online and in person lotteries, and tour guides are available for hire.

Know Before You Go

When you obtain a permit, thorough directions are provided.

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