a short but strenuous day hike to a popular overhang for silhouette photos
Wave Cave Trail Guide
MAP: Trails Illustrated
PERMITS: Required for parking at Carney Springs Trailhead and the first section of the trail on State Trust Land
DESIGNATION: Tonto National Forest, Superstition Wilderness
BEST SEASONS: fall, spring, winter
DISTANCE: 2.8 miles round trip
ELEVATION: trailhead 2,200ft, wave cave 3,100ft
ACCESS: dirt road, but most vehicles are generally okay
DIRECTIONS: Follow US 60 East from Phoenix and continue beyond where the freeway ends. Pass Idaho Road (Apache Junction) and continue 7.5 miles to FS77 (Peralta Road). Turn left onto Peralta Road (turns to dirt/gravel) and continue 6 miles to the parking area on the left for Carney Springs Trailhead.
ROUTE: well maintained, busy trail. signed junctions.
GUIDEBOOK: Hikers Guide to the Superstition Wilderness
Map and Hiking Directions
Here’s a topo map that shows the Wave Cave:
From the trailhead, you’ll follow the wide Carney Springs Trail (actually an old road) north for 0.6 miles to its junction with the Lost Goldmine Trail.
After another 0.1 miles, you’ll pass an intersection with the Superstition Ridgeline Trail, coming in from the right (east).
Continue left (west) up the Wave Cave Trail, ascending a steep set of tight switchbacks for 800ft of (more) elevation gain to the Wave Cave. The so-called “cave” is technically a large, deep overhang.
Trekking poles are especially helpful for the steepest sections of the trail, and some folks even recommend wearing gloves to keep from scraping your hands when scrambling up the sharp rock.
The picture above shows the location of the overhang, as seen from the first section of the Carney Springs Trail.
At the parking area for Carney Springs (and several other pullouts along the Peralta Road) you’ll see posted signs requiring a permit for parking and hiking.
The signs refer to Arizona State Trust Land, which is not public land. You can find out more about the management and leasing of state trust land here.
Go to this page to get your Individual Permit for $15. Permits are managed per person, not per vehicle. Foregoing this process not only risks a stiff fine, but it puts this access to the Wave Cave at risk for future visitors.
There’s presently no way to get around the permit without hiking completely off-trail or doing an impractically longer approach from the north.
The wide, lateral maroon line seen on the map above marks the boundary between the Superstition Wilderness (National Forest) and State Trust Land to the south. This can be seen more clearly through this link, where blue marks the State Trust Land.
The Lost Goldmine Trail also has significant sections located on the Trust Land, even when approached from the Hieroglyphic Trailhead.
The Age of Social Media & Geotagging
The Wave Cave is a classic example of a site that’s succumbed to the downfalls of the modern era. I went to this site on December 25, 2018 as a quick diversion before climbing up the Superstition Ridgeline. We must have seen at least one hundred other hikers on the trail!
As recently as ten years ago, this overhang was a little-known spot, accessed only through a rough, steep, off-trail scramble. It received the name “wave cave” only about 20 years ago, dubbed by local hiker Joe Bartels, founder of the Hike Arizona web community.
Now it has a developed trail and sees visitors on a daily basis. For more thoughts about this modern phenomena of rapidly growing visitation at “Instagrammable” locations, see my article about the Leave No Trace resistance to geotagging.
Here’s some more images from the Wave Cave shot on Christmas Day, 2018, before heading up the Superstition Ridgeline with Haley and Andrew.