Everything You Need to Know About The Wave Lottery
As a place that must be seen to be believed, pictures of North Coyote Buttes, better known as ‘The Wave’ speak a thousand words. Not surprisingly, the number of people hoping to capture a glimpse of the surreal sandstone waves has soared over recent years forcing the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to put in place strict limits on the number of visitors each day. If you’re planning to visit the wave, getting your permit will become part of the adventure.
These permits are used to manage both the incredible demand of those wanting to visit and the fragile nature of the sandstone formations. The BLM gives out 20 permits per day – 10 of which are awarded through an online lottery run four months in advance and the other 10 awarded through an in-person lottery the day before. Here's how each lottery process works:
The Application Process
You are able to apply for a permit four months in advance from this website.
You will need to select three potential dates when applying online. Your odds are best if you are selecting a weekday.
While applying online is more convenient than showing up for the live lottery, there is a fee for each online application at $5 per group. This is opposed to the in-person lottery where there is no application fee.
You will be notified via e-mail on the day of the draw if successful. If you win the lottery you will have to pay $7 per individual for a North Coyote Buttes permit which grants you access onto the land where the wave is located.
Each day at 9:00am MST, the in-person lottery is held at the Grand Staircase-Escalante Visitor Center (745 E. Highway 89) located in Kanab, Utah to give out 10 hiking permits for the following day. We recommend arriving no later than 8:30am as you must fill out an application form and collect a lottery number before the actual lottery.
Applications are not done individually, they are done by group. Each group can be between 1-6 people. Every person in your group must present for the lottery otherwise they will not be granted a permit. The person who completes the application form will be assigned as the group leader.
At 9:00am sharp, after all applications have been submitted, a staff member will complete a role call, reading off each group leader’s name and confirming their lottery number.
The visitor center staff use a bingo cage wheel and numbered balls to draw numbers until 10 permit spots have been filled. Here is an example of how the lottery is run:
If the first number selected belongs to a group of 2, there are 8 permits left.
If the next number selected is a group of 1, there are 7 permits left.
If the next number selected is a group of 4, there are 3 permits left, etc.
If a group is selected that has more members than the number of permits remaining (e.g. a group of 4 were selected but there are only 3 permits left), the group must make a choice to take the 3 permits (and leave one person behind) or allow the visitor center to draw another group. There are no exceptions to this rule.
What Are My Chances?
The BLM estimates that your odds of getting a permit through the online lottery are around 10%. When applying for permits in the popular spring and summer months (and especially weekends), these odds may drop below 10%.
Although the official BLM website estimates the number of applicants that show up for the in-person lottery, the most recent information was from 2012 and underestimates current numbers .
The website states that the average number of in-person applicants for May would is 70. From our experience at the in-person lottery over the course of five days in the middle of May 2017, there were between 50-60 groups of 1-6 people (we estimated the average group size to be 2.5). Based on this observation, we estimated that each day had roughly 125-150 applicants.
If we calculate our odds based on 140 applicants, the chance of obtaining a permit is 7.1%. Here is a chart that graphs how the odds will look as the number of attempts increases.
Even though it took us five tries to win, when looking at our odds we were extremely lucky. We met quite a few people that had made 3 or 4 attempts and had to move on to keep on their trip schedule. Staff at the visitor center said the longest they had seen someone try for a permit was 22 days straight before finally winning.
A Few Tips
If you don’t win the lottery and you would like to apply the next day, you don’t have to fill out a new application. You can tell the staff member conducting the lottery your previous day's number at which point they will give you a new (hopefully luckier) number.
Do not try to enter multiple entries for your group using different people as the leader. You will need to list out everyone’s name on each entry and they are accustomed to looking for duplicates given the demand. This will automatically disqualify you.
It would be impossible to attempt to complete the hike without a permit. The trail is mostly along slickrock where there are no footprints to follow and no trail markers. Also, BLM staff routinely hike the trail to check for permits. Failure to produce one will result in a fine of $1,200.
If you’re on a Southwest road-trip, there are several other beautiful places nearby to see while attempting to win the lottery. Some of our favourites were:
Grand Canyon North Rim, Arizona: 2 hours south from Kanab
Page, Arizona (Antelope Canyon, Horseshoe Bend): 1.5 hours south from Kanab
Zion National Park, Utah: 45 minutes from Kanab
What Happens When You Win?
After your number is called, they will ask you to remain at the visitor center for 10-15 minutes to review important information and hand out your permit(s). You will be provided with a handout that includes the location of the trailhead, GPS coordinates and photo markers to use for visual navigation while hiking along the unsigned trail.
The hike is 5.5 miles (9km) roundtrip which, depending on your abilities, can take between 1.25 and 3 hours each way. The visitor center staff advise hikers to use the photo points as the primary navigation tool. The specific photo locations provided by the BLM were chosen to make sure you stay out of harm’s way, so best practice is to rely on them and then use your GPS if you need to confirm that you are on the right track.
Be Advised: Many people applying do not always understand that it is not an easy hike, and is made difficult by the heat, absence of shade and wide open slickrock lacking a formal trail. Extra precaution should be taken to ensure that you have the proper sun protection, first aid supplies and enough water (5L per person recommended) as average summer temperatures are 101°F (38°C). Unfortunately, due to the unforgiving environment, there are hiker rescues and deaths each year.
The first impression we had of the wave was total awe at the incredible beauty. For a place that attracts some of the world's top photographers, believe us when we say that no photograph can replace the chills that come when the desolate desert hike gives way to this delicate, otherworldly formation.
Our second impression was that it was much smaller than we expected. While every inch of it was stunning, this means cooperation is required among the people there to make sure everyone has a chance to photograph it.
The best time to be there for optimal shooting is late morning through the early afternoon when the sun is high and there are no shadows. It usually empties out in the middle of the afternoon when shadows begin to fall on the walls.
If you have any questions about hiking the wave, please feel free to reach out to us in the comments below!