Beyond The Wave- South Coyote Buttes

April 22, 2013 ·

Miles Hecker

The “Wave” is aNavajo sandstonerock formation located in the American southwest , near the Arizona and Utah border. It is an area made world famous by photographs of its marvelous crimson undulating forms. The location was first widely publicized in Germany, in magazine articles and a movie ‘Faszination Natur’ by Gogol Lobmayr in 1995. After its’ discovery, word spread to the photographic world quickly via the internet. The “Wave” which is located in on the slopes of theNorth Coyote Buttes, in theParia Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wildernesswas soon overwhelmed by the photographic community.

As is often the case, a lemming like rush towards an object of public obsession, overlooks objects of equal or perhaps even greater merit. The Cottonwood Cove area in the South Coyotte Buttes area is a case in point.

To visit Cottonwood Cove one must obtain a day use permit from Arizona office of the Bureau of Land Management. To find out more about the permit processclick here. Unlike the overwhelmed “Wave” area, it is relatively easy to secure a permit to the Cottonwood Cove area in South Coyote Buttes. A good 4wd vehicle with high clearance and good sand worthy tires is a necessity for access. I have personally helped rescue several photographers who stuck their rental street tire clad, family type 4wd in the deep sand.

The interactive google map at right shows you the route. From Page. AZ head west past the town of Big Water. Click on the View Route to Cottonwood Covein a larger map link for more specific directions.

The actual road ends just east of the day use area. So it is possible to legally camp in the sand just off of the road. Be aware that the area has no water and all trash must be packed out, including toilet paper.

View Route to Cottonwood Teepeesin a larger map



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While the Google Map I’ve created is pretty accurate, a real portable GPS can be helpful. If you carry one, the actual Lat./Long coordinates of the parking area are N 36° 57.386′ , W 111° 58.816′. There is no actual physical parking lot. You just pull off and park. A BLM stake marks the end of the open road. An old very rough 4WD track continues past the stake.

If you feel unsure of your own 4 wheeling abilities and wish to hire a guide. I strongly recommend Jackson Bridges in Page,AZ. He can be contacted by phone or email. His web site

When you arrive at the parking area, your view should resemble the one in the photo on the left. The cow skull I placed on the juniper branch to greet visitors many years ago is probably long gone. The orange forms you see, are the Cottonwood Teepees that make up the east wall of Cottonwood Cove itself.

The Cottonwood Teepees are the photographic core of the Cottonwood Cove area. The area itself is about 0.5 mile wide and 0.7 mile high in size. From the point where you park your car it is an easy one half mile hike across the desert to the teepees and the start of your photographic adventure.

While most of the Southwest provide photographers with an opportunity to capture vast images that span from horizon to horizon, the Cottonwood Cove area is different. It is an area where the macro landscape shot or detail shot as I often refer to them reigns supreme.


Creating a good image here is a matter of watching the light and using your imagination. With regards to light, it is excellent in winter, good in spring or fall, and poor in summer. In the summer the sun is high and brutal and so are the temperatures. It can be well over the 100°F mark by late afternoon. Bring plenty of water with you as there is none available within many miles of Cottonwood Cove. I would recommend a gallon per day per person. You don’t have to carry more than a liter or two with you, as your cars are only a fifteen minute hike away. It is possible to get disoriented in the cove. If you don’t have a good sense of direction carry a GPS when hiking and mark your cars location as a waypointbeforeyou set out..

The Navaho Sandstone in the cove is not quite as highly colored as it is in the “Wave” area. That said, it is quite attractive in its own right. If you are lucky enough to get clouds, use them to enhance your composition. The photo at right was taken after we detoured around a steep ledge. We just looked up and were impressed by the contrast of the wispy Cirrus clouds against the layered sandstone. We set up and waited about 30 minutes for the clouds to do there thing.


Sky Waves

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Coyote Moonrise

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Sometime the clouds may not be exactly where you want them at first, but if you are patient, they may drift into the proper spot for your shot. Zoom lenses are invaluable in the cove. You often have your back against a sandstone wall as you try to compose a shot. I would recommend carrying a 17-35mm, 24-70mm and 70-200mm for a full frame 35mm camera. For a crop sensor camera, a 10-22mm and a 17-85mm would work well.

The really unique thing about shooting in the teepees is that they are visually compartmentalized. You turn a corner and something totally unexpected reveals itself. I was looking for a near/far type shot when I went around a corner and saw the scene at left. The near full moon was rising over this wildly interbedded sandstone wall. The rock fin next to the moon looked to me like a coyotes head howling at the full moon. I took out my 70-200mm lens and worked to make an intelligible composition

It is amazing to me how much a given small area of the landscape within the cove can change in character between the early morning light and the late afternoon light. I could never anticipate what I would visually experience when I came back to a given spot at a different time of day. This is always true to a certain extent with detail landscape photography, but is more true in this area than anyplace else I’ve shot.

If you are the type of photographer that likes to copy the classic landscape shots of the masters and add them to your portfolios, Cottonwood Cove is not for you. If you like to experiment and to try create something visually unique the possibilities are unlimited.


Somewhat unique to this area is the number of free standing wind sculpted erosional statues. These include “Turtle Rock”, “The Frog” and “Dali Rock” which is pictured at right. This rock bears a striking remblance to Salvador Dali’s paintingArbol De Piedra.

Near the Norrthern end of Cottonwood Cove is an area that contains a considerable amount of a laced wind carved type of rock that resemblesboxworkspeleothems.This resembles similar structures in an area calledThe Boneyardmade famous by photographer Michael Fatali.

An upper level of this area contains a rock sculpture also made famous by Fatali. It was called the“Altar of Sacrifice”. Unfortunately sometime in the late 1990’s the erosional forces that shaped this area were too much for the altar and much of its top simply crumpled to the ground.

This same region also is home to some amazingly delicate lace like intertwined fins. Many of these formations are extremely fragile and likely to vanish within our lifetimes. The one picturedherehas been named the “Broken Cathedral”.


Dali Rock

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South Teepees

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If the Cottonwood Cove area doesn’t satiate your photographic appetite for the unusal, consider a short one mile hike north to an area known as the “South Teepees”.

The South Teepees stand alone from Coyote Buttes and are seldom visited by anyone. It takes about 30 minutes to hike the one mile to them in loose sand from the Cottonwood Cove parking area. If you leave an hour before dawn and hike by headlamp you can be there by sunrise.

The South Teepees are composed of the same very stongly colored Navajo sandstone that comprises the “Wave”. About 1000 feet to the North of these are the “North Teepees”, which are similar in character. Both of these sites have seen very few visits from serious photographers or anyone else for that matter. So your chance of creating an original work here is quite good. Are you ready for the challenge?

Is the Cottonwood Cove area the only place worthy of a photographic venture in the South Coyote Buttes area? Not at all, but other tales are best left for other times. With that in mind we bid you farewell.



About Miles Hecker

Miles has been involved with photography for over forty years. He teaches digital photography at Casper College in Casper,Wyoming. His photos have won awards fromNatures Best magazine,, The Luminous LandscapeandWyoming WIldlife . Miles’ photos have been published in American Vignette, Backpacker Magazine, Natures Best Images, Popular Photography, Wyoming Audubon, and Wyoming Wildlife. He is co-founder ofWyoFOTO LLC.


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