Challenging Wave Cave Trail is an Arizona favorite for pictures

There’s no question Grand Canyon is the most photographed natural wonder in Arizona. Any respectable short list of runners-up must include Wave Cave – a unique geologic formation in the rocky cliffs of the Superstition Mountains.

Man takes photo of woman “surfing” at the Wave Cave

The hike isn’t long (just over 3 miles round trip), but parts of it are quite challenging; especially the final quarter-mile leading up to the cave. The payoff for your effort is spectacular views of the Sonoran Desert and photo opportunities you won’t find anywhere else in the world.

Wave Cave gets its name from a unique rock structure at the cave’s opening that survived thousands of years of erosion. As soon as you see it, the name becomes obvious. When viewed from the back of the cave, it resembles a huge pipeline wave you might see a surfer riding in the ocean.

It’s the photo opps that make this place so popular with newcomers and experienced hikers alike. On any given day, you’re likely to see people striking a variety of poses in the pipeline section of the wave or on the crest. The surfing stance is most common, followed by yoga poses, leaps and group pics.

I was so enamored with the creativity of people and their poses on my first visit to Wave Cave that I decided to make a time lapse video (below).

Time lapse video of people posing for Wave Cave pictures

little boy strikes a surfing pose at the Wave Cave
This young man is working on his surfing form with a little coaching from his family.
People queue up for their turn to get their picture taken in the Wave Cave.
People queue up for their turn to take Wave Cave pictures.
Three women pose with arms raised atop rock formation in shape of wave
Three friends strike a pose to celebrate girl power after the strenuous hike up to Wave Cave.
Father and two sons resting in Wave Cave
A father and his kiddos look out over the desert below while resting in the shade of the Wave Cave.

What you need to know

Wave Cave permit

Do I need a permit to hike to the Wave Cave in Arizona? That’s one of the smartest question to ask, because many of the popular natural sites in Arizona do require a permit.

Unfortunately, the answer isn’t a simple “yes” or “no.” The correct answer is it depends on where you park.

There are two primary places you can park to access the trail to Wave Cave:

If you park in the Carney Springs Trailhead lot, a PERMIT IS REQUIRED.

If you park in the Lost Goldmine East Trailhead ⇒ lot, a PERMIT IS NOT REQUIRED.

AZ State Land Trust No Trespassing sign
There is confusion over whether a pass is required to hike to Wave Cave or not. This sign on Carney Springs Trail says yes but by the time most people see it, it’s too late to purchase a pass.

Signage spells out very clearly that you must have State Land Trust permit to park at the Carney Springs Trailhead or hike on the Carney Springs Trail to Wave Cave. However, you cannot purchase a permit at the lot. You must purchase it online in advance and print the permit to display in your car. The annual fee is $15 for an individual or $20 for a family (subject to change).

Seems like a no-brainer to park in the Lost Goldmine East lot to avoid the permit issue. Maybe so, just be aware that the hike from that lot is a bit longer and not as flat.

Wave Cave trailhead directions

Regardless of which trailhead you choose to park at, the directions are pretty much the same:

  • Take Hwy 60 Superstition Freeway east from Phoenix/Mesa toward Gold Canyon, AZ
  • Turn left (north) on Peralta Road 6.5 to 7 miles
  • Carney Springs Trailhead lot is a pulloff on the left about 6.5 miles from Hwy 60
  • Lost Goldmine East Trailhead (the permit free lot) is another half mile beyond Carney Springs (look for a narrow dirt road heading off to the left)

Note: If you happen to be coming from points east of Gold Canyon, you’ll turn right on Peralta Road instead of left.

Desert trail heading heading toward mountain range
The first mile or so of Carney Springs trail to Wave Cave is flat and wide.
Trail sign that reads Wave Cave Trail
Regardless of whether you start from the Peralta Trailhead or State Trust Land parking lot, you’ll know you’re on the right track when you see this sign. The finger is pointing to the cave. From a distance, it looks fairly small.
View of Wave Cave from trail
Glimpses of the Wave Cave like this one assure you’re on the right trail.
Final approach to Wave Cave
The last quarter mile approaching the cave is quite steep.
Closer view of Wave Cave from trail
As you get closer to the cave you begin to realize it’s actually quite large.
Wave Cave silhouette
After the climb up the steep trail to Wave Cave, the cool shade inside the cave offers a welcome reprieve from the hot Arizona sun.

There are plenty of cool places to take selfies in Arizona, but you won’t find another place like the Wave Cave to get pictures of yourself “surfing”. The hike is quite challenging, especially in the hot summer months, but the experience and memories are well worth the effort.

Looking for more awesome adventures like Wave Cave?

If you think Wave Cave is cool, you’ll like nearby Hieroglyphic Trail too. Check it out.


  1. Love, loved the Wave Cave. Bring a camera, lunch, water and rest a while. We were there in January and February. The weather perfect even though a cold front came in and actually snowed one day! Here we were escaping the cold and snow at home and awoke to a big surprise. The Cave is a unique experience with great photo ops. Awesome photos from cave opening with long wide stunning views. Wear good hiking shoes. The trail does have a lot of rocks and a fairly steep ascent near the top. Trees, bushes and an occassional flower lined the trail but did not close you in. I would categorize this as a moderate trail for seasoned hikers to challenging for those who do not regularly hike. I would definitely do this hike again and highly recommend it. Arizona has some great hiking trails all different and rewarding. We went for the hiking and found the choices abundant. We home-based at an RV park in Apache Junction. Everything was convenient, easy to get around and less costly. I would definitely recommend this area for the variety of trails and abundant activities. Dining out is crazy though. We detest lines and every eatery in every town whether McDonalds or a 5 star fining dining restaurant was packed from 4 p.m. and on. I don’t think anyone in Arizona cooks at home. We were grateful to have our own RV kitchen. All the services you might need are plentiful. Hiking Arizona is a great way to add hiking days when your favorite trails are snowed in. January was an excellent time to visit for hiking but beware college kids flood the area on holidays. One should expect higher traffic volume and demand for services significantly increased on holidays. Off holiday you have peace and quiet and pretty much the trails to yourselves. The closer to Pheonix the more crowded the trail though there are a few great trails in and near Pheonix we did enjoy. Happy hiking.

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