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A Hike To Arizona’s Unusual Wave Cave

Having lived in Arizona for over 30 years, Chuck and his wife enjoy the great outdoors of the American Southwest.

A visitor to Wave Cave doing a yoga position with her dog in the  rock across the front of Wave Cave

A visitor to Wave Cave doing a yoga position with her dog in the rock across the front of Wave Cave

An Early Arizona Spring Hike

It is mid-February and Spring is in the air. While it is still winter in most of the country, in Southern Arizona winter consists of mostly dry sunny days with the daytime temperature rarely going above 80 during the day and rarely falling below 40 during the night.

So, on a recent weekend my wife and I headed up to the Gold Canyon area on the southeastern fringe of metropolitan Phoenix and hiked to a place called Wave Cave.

My wife at start of  Carney Springs Trail Head.  Wave cave is the brownish rock at the bottom right of the distant mountain.

My wife at start of Carney Springs Trail Head. Wave cave is the brownish rock at the bottom right of the distant mountain.

Wave Cave Is A Photographer’s Dream

Unlike the more common caves that are buried deep underground, wave Cave is a deep indentation scooped out of the side of a medium size sandstone mountain peak. It is basically a large indentation that is the result of wind and rain slowly scraping and eroding away the softer sandstone layer of the mountain peak over time.

Across the wide mouth of the cave is a narrow sliver of much harder rock which, with the surrounding sandstone having been scraped away, stretches across over half of the front of the cave looking like a surfboard on the crest of a big wave.

While the cave itself is just a big indentation in the side of a mountain, the wave-like rock formation across the front is both a professional and amateur photographer's dream as well as a great addition to anyone’s Facebook, Instagram or other photo site.

This was our second or third visit to the cave itself as well as one or two aborted attempts, the most recent of which was last May or June when the intense heat forced us to turn back.

My wife standing on the rock platform at entrance to  Wave Cave

My wife standing on the rock platform at entrance to Wave Cave

Should We Buy A Pass Or Not?

Arizona has an abundance of national parks, national forests and national recreation areas all owned and maintained by the Federal Government. All of these are fee areas requiring the purchase of a pass to gain entrance.

My wife and I don’t have to pay for access to the federal areas because, as soon as I was eligible, I purchased a $10 lifetime senior pass giving me and those in my car with me free access to all Federal Fee recreation areas (the price has since risen to $80 which, if one lives or travels regularly in Western U.S. and visits these areas regularly, the savings is still tremendous - I suspect my $10 investment has saved us close to $5,000 or more so far).

We do have to pay entrance fees for state parks and some local park lands as well as privately run areas but these are fewer and usually not that expensive.

Large billboard sign announcing start of State Trust Land

Large billboard sign announcing start of State Trust Land

Arizona Land Trust Areas Also Require Permits

The state of Arizona, in addition to its state parks and other normal government land holdings, also controls 9.2 million acres of what is known as State Trust Land.

Arizona’s State Trust Lands were former Federal land in the Arizona Territory which were transferred to the State of Arizona when it became the 48th state in 1912. The purpose of the grant was to provide an income for the state to use to help fund a K-12 education system in the state. Some acres have been sold but most are still controlled by the state and are leased to private entities with the lease income providing much of the funds the state sends to the public schools in Arizona.

I had heard about the State Trust lands years ago and knew their intended purpose but that was all. Our first encounter with the trust lands was when we first visited this area a few years ago. After passing through a new housing development Peralta rode changes from a paved road to a graded dirt road shortly before encountering a billboard announcing that You are Entering State Trust Land and a Permit is Required.

As we continue the quality of the road continues to decline. After about 8 or ten miles a small sign announces the entrance to the Tonto National Forest just before entering a large paved parking lot with restrooms and large signs with trail maps and information. A Federal permit is required for this area and we have that. I was concerned about the Trust Land permit since we were going to be parking on Trust Land and I still didn’t know where to get the permits.

My wife in a Yoga pose on rock across entrance to Wave Cave

My wife in a Yoga pose on rock across entrance to Wave Cave

Didn’t Know Where To Get Permits But Worried We Would Eventually Get Fined

Since our first visit to the area six or seven years ago we have made numerous repeat trips alternating our activities between the national forest lands and State Trust lands and so far haven’t had a problem. When parked on the State Trust Lands I frequently checked other cars in the parking lot looking for a permit but never saw any with permits displayed on the dashboard or other places. And, I have yet to see any type of Park Ranger or other state official checking for permits. However, there is always a chance that we might be visiting on a day that an official does check for permits and we get fined as I have seen signs in some National Parks and recreation areas threatening fines of a hundred dollars or more for cars not displaying a required permit so the state could have a similar policy.

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After a number of web searches I finally stumbled across a website for the Arizona State Land Department ( ) which had a page describing the rules for use on these state lands including the permit requirements. An annual permit for an individual costs $15 and a family permit for a couple and their children under age 18 costs $20.

At the bottom of the page there was a link to click to purchase the permit online and print the permit. There is an additional $1.00 service charge for online purchases. The alternative to online purchase is to visit the Arizona State Land Department Office, located at 1616 West Adams Street in Phoenix in person as they will not mail mail permits.

Online purchases require a credit or debit card while in person purchases at the office in Phoenix can be by cash or credit card. The fees are the same for out of state and foreign visitors but credit card purchases must be made using Visa or other common credit cards issued by a U.S. bank or entity as the state’s current computer systems cannot handle the security systems on cards issued by non-U.S. entities.

Sign at Trail Head warning that a permit is required

Sign at Trail Head warning that a permit is required

I Suspect That The State Will Eventually Begin Enforcing Permit Use

Frankly, I suspect that individual recreational use of these State Trust Lands at present is minor and fee income from such activities is miniscule as the majority of their income appears to come from the sale of leases for grazing and other business uses. However, individual use is increasing which will require more parking lots, trail building and infrastructure maintenance. As individual users increase the combination of increased infrastructure costs from increased use as well as the potential for increased permit sales will motivate the state to begin enforcing the permit requirement. This is why I have decided that it might be prudent to avoid hassles and start paying $20 for a permit each year.

My Wife making Her Way Along the Trail

My Wife making Her Way Along the Trail

The Trail

There are two trail heads for the Wave Cave trail. The Carney Springs Trailhead, located along Peralta road about 6.5 miles after turning off Highway 60 (also known as Superstition Freeway), is the first Wave Cave Trailhead along Peralta Road. There is a small parking area on the left side of the road. It was full when we arrived so we drove on another 300 feet or so and parked in a small cleared area on the left side of the road with room for 4 vehicles (we were the 4th vehicle).

The second trail head, Lost Goldmine East Trailhead, is further down the road and located in the Tonto National Forest (which requires a National Parks permit to park). The section from the Lost Goldmine East Trail head is both longer and more uphill than the section from the Carney Springs Trail head.

From the Carney Springs Trail head it is a 1.5 mile hike to the Wave Cave making the total hike out and back 3 miles. It is rated as difficult since it tends to be narrow and rocky most of the way and with the last quarter mile steep as it climbs up over and around large boulders on the way up to the cave.

While Wave Cave can be seen from the start of the trail as well as many places along the trail, the trail itself had a tendency to disappear or go off in a different direction in some places. We did accidentally stray off the trail a few times on previous trips but were able to get back on the main trail without too much of a problem. Recently some hiking groups or individuals have cleared some obstacles off to make the trail more visible and have also spray painted arrows pointing the way on some rocks in places where the trail is confusing.

Arrow pointing the way to the Wave Cave

Arrow pointing the way to the Wave Cave

The Cave

The cave itself is large and spacious offering shelter from the sun on hot days for those who attempt the hike in summer. We previously attempted this hike a couple of years ago in late summer. While we had made it to the cave the year before, the late summer heat forced us to turn back rather than risk certain heat exhaustion on that trip.

This time the weather was fine and we made it to the cave without trouble. We spent quite a while taking pictures as well as moving around to an adjacent, similar cave to the left of Wave Cave. The second cave is smaller and lacks the surfboard like rock jutting across the front. All in all we spent over an hour at the cave before returning to the parking lot.

My Wife beneath rock slab across entrance to Wave Cave

My Wife beneath rock slab across entrance to Wave Cave

Directions To Wave Cave

Wave Cave is located in Gold Canyon, AZ an unincorporated suburban town located in Pinal County south east of Phoenix. The easiest way I have found when traveling from Tucson or Phoenix is to put the address of the Peralta Trail Elementary School (10965 E Peralta Rd, Gold Canyon, AZ 85118) into your GPS or Google Maps. This is a relatively new elementary school in a new housing development on the way to the trails in the Arizona Land Trust and Tonto National Forest lands in the area.

When you reach the school, which will be on your right, simply continue on the road another six miles or so. The road will change from paved to dirt. The first section of dirt road is minimally maintained appearing to be scrapped every year or so. On this trip this county maintained portion also had recently sprayed with oil to keep the dust down. Once the road reaches the Arizona Land Trust area the maintenance appears to be every few years rather than annually. Further down in the National Forest area the road is extremely primitive until you reach the paved parking lot at the end of the road.

View from back of cave

View from back of cave

Wave Cave Is But One Of The Many Spectacular Natural Sites In Arizona

Arizona is home to numerous spectacular natural sites that attract photographers and others who enjoy exploring the great outdoors. While great to visit anytime the natural beauty of the state’s outdoor areas has provided relief to many locals and outsiders during the pandemic.

While large outdoor events and indoor sites like museums, shopping malls, theaters and other recreation facilities have generally been closed despite the state’s Laissez-Faire approach to shutdowns in general both residents and visitors have flocked to our vast open spaces where social distancing is easy and masks optional in the outdoors. Walking through parking lots up to a third or more of the cars have out of state license plates.

View of entrance to Wave Cave

View of entrance to Wave Cave

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Chuck Nugent


Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on March 30, 2021:

Thanks, Peggy. We are both very happy but have to return home today so our daughter and her husband will be without help although my son-in-law's father lives 3 hours away in Oregon. However, in addition to generous maternity leave for both of them they have been and will continue to work from home after they use up their leave. And we are planning a return trip in June. But we will miss the little fellow and his parents even though we are planning a return visit in a couple of months. Thanks again.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 29, 2021:

Congratulations on being new grandparents. I am sure that they were happy for your help in the night duty.

Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on March 29, 2021:

Peggy - thanks for your comments and I am glad you enjoyed the pictures. It is a very scenic place and, like I said in the Hub, is a photographer's dream site. We have been in Seattle for the past week and a half with our new 17 day old (as of today) grandson. Our daughter and her husband were tired from each having to stay up half the night with him so we took over half of their night shifts and I got to write a couple of hubs between feedings at night.

Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on March 29, 2021:

Liz - Thanks for your comments and I am glad you enjoyed this Hub. It was a good hike and we enjoyed visiting it again. We've up in Seattle for the past week and a half visiting our daughter, her husband and our new 17 day old grandson. Despite being somewhat "Sleepless In Seattle" as we took over half of their nightly feedings. He is a great kid and we are already planning another visit in June when my wife is able to use some more of the extensive vacation time she has accrued during the pandemic. Thanks again for your comment and I will try to provide some more tonic for the gloom with stories of our adventures in Seattle.

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on March 29, 2021:

I first read this on my phone, but the photos did not show up. So I am now looking at them via the computer. That does look like a fun place to visit. Thanks for all of the information about the permits.

Liz Westwood from UK on March 28, 2021:

This is an extremely well-illustrated article. You have certainly made a good investment with the pass. I have really appreciated reading this article. It is a real tonic for lockdown gloom. Thank you for the virtual tour.

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