Trying our luck: Catching the Wave lottery

Feb 15, 2022

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In life, there are a lot of lotteries. There are the big financial ones like the Powerball and Mega Millions that offer life-altering prizes but come with odds of about 300,000,000 to 1. Ballot positions for state elections are sometimes determined by a random draw, and then there are fundraiser raffles and other mostly for-fun drawings.

Others are not enjoyable and may even carry life-or-death consequences.

If you lived through the Vietnam era, as I did, you are likely familiar with the ramifications of the draft lottery that was connected to your birthdate. The earlier that your birthday fell, the more likely you were to be called. My birthday was the 16th number picked — you can decide if that’s winning or losing.

Through the years, I have played many lotteries with visions of sugar plums and riches beyond measure dancing in my head, though I do promise to be a benevolent human and use my luck to make society at least a tiny bit better if I ever win.

But there’s another lottery I recently entered. In order to secure a permit to hike the Wave on the Arizona-Utah border, luck must be on your side and your name has to be drawn. The payoff, in this case, is access to sandstone geologic formations that have been artistically sculpted by time, wind and rain in a way that resembles a petrified, wavy surf.

The Wave has become one of the most coveted bucket list destinations in the world of photography, hiking and travel, all of which I love. Here’s what to know about catching the Wave — and its lottery of fortune.

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In This Post

What is the Wave anyway?

Located near Kanab, Utah, and Page, Arizona, the Wave straddles the Arizona-Utah border and is about a four-hour drive from Las Vegas and Phoenix.

It features orange, white and red sandstone that appears swirly and rippled, creating a wave-like design that seems to effortlessly move across the desert. The geological wonder falls under the purview of the Bureau of Land Management, which limits the number of visitors to the site every year to help protect it.

The Wave (Photo by Praveen P.N/Getty Images)

Related: Why you should stay at this Springhill Suites near Zion 

What is the process for gaining access to the Wave?

The BLM started regulating access to the Wave in 1986 as it recognized that the fragility and relatively compact area of the location would not support an open invitation to anyone who wanted to visit on any given day. For years, the BLM limited the site to no more than 20 visitors a day, which left hundreds of people disappointed, especially on peak dates.

The number of daily allotted permits increased in February 2021 to its current daily total of 64. Out of the 64 permits distributed each day, 48 are awarded online while 16 are issued at an in-person lottery held daily at the Kanab Center Gymnasium.

On average, you have about an 8% chance of securing a permit in the drawings, according to data provided by BLM. If reports are correct that an announcement about the Wave is expected in March, visitors could see changes made to the lottery system, such as a potential shift to an online model where winners gain permits for use two or more days later. Only time will tell whether any adjustments to the current system occur.

TPG’s first attempt at visiting the Wave started eight or nine years ago as a byproduct of gathering information for a trip through Arizona and Utah. We researched it further and learned of its online lottery, then entered with minimal expectations.

Our first try was for January 2015, as we had read that December through February offered the best chances of acquiring a permit thanks to the higher probability of unfavorable weather and shorter periods of useable light. We weren’t chosen, but we reentered for February 2015, ultimately finding out in November 2014 that we’d successfully received a permit.

On a cold but clear February morning seven years ago, we experienced the Wave for the first time. It was spectacular and truly a photographer’s dream. Surprisingly, in the three hours that we studied, explored and recorded this unique experience, we were the only visitors within eyeshot.

(Photo by Buddy Smith for The Points Guy)

After about four years of living on the fumes of that special memory, we decided we wanted, nay needed, to return. We started reentering the monthly lottery, filling out the online form and submitting our $9 fee six to eight times a year. We intentionally avoided the summer months, as temperatures then regularly exceed 100 degrees, and instead focused on the fall, winter and spring months.

Like clockwork, on the first of each month, I would check my email for a message from Recreation.gov announcing the results. Eventually, I had the email memorized.

Hi Buddy, Thank you for applying to The Coyote Buttes North (The Wave) monthly permit lottery. The lottery drawing recently took place and, unfortunately, your application wasn’t selected for a permit. …

My success in 2014 seemed to be nothing more than beginner’s luck, and I started to wonder if I’d ever succeed again.

Fortunately, the email recently changed. Instead of the monthly loser announcement in my inbox, there was a note of congratulations. We again have permits to hike the Wave, this time in mid-April.

I felt like Sid Caesar’s character toward the end of “Vegas Vacation” when his keno numbers hit. With laborious breathing, I kept stammering, “I won!”

Pandemic willing, this spring, we will return to the Wave and be the envy of thousands of hopeful visitors.

What you need to know to apply for a permit

If you want to try visiting the Wave soon, there are a few lottery basics to keep in mind.

You need to create an account with Recreation.gov, then head to the Coyote Buttes North (The Wave) page. There, you’ll find a form to fill out.

Once you provide the required information, which includes your name, address, phone number and email address, you’ll be asked to select up to three potential permit dates for your preferred month. You will need to indicate the number of hikers that will be in your party. Your group can include up to six individuals, but know that smaller groups tend to have better luck receiving a permit.

Each lottery is held four months prior to the month you are applying for, so if you wish to apply for a June 2022 permit, you will be part of the February 2022 lottery.

Before submitting an application, you must indicate that you’ve watched a provided video that describes the Wave, its hike and the necessary information, suggestions and warnings you need to know about before visiting. You can only submit one application per month, and a $9 fee applies.

Should you receive a permit, know that it is not refundable, transferable or changeable. If you (the primary permit holder) are no longer able to visit on the permit date, it can be used by the alternate permit holders noted in your application.

Related: 6 national parks that are exceptional in the spring

What you need to know before your hike

The Wave is a 6.4-mile round-trip hike across unimproved, natural topography. There is no established trail or dedicated signage, but the BLM provides photos of important landmarks as visual references, as well as GPS coordinates and maps. Cellphone coverage is moderate to minimal and can’t be relied upon.

The road into the trailhead parking lot is only minimally maintained and can be impassable to everyday vehicles after rains or during times of significant snowfall, so come prepared with a four-wheel-drive vehicle. Several experienced, BLM-approved guides are also available, should you want to hire someone to lead your party and drive you to the site. This will cost you, but the guide does not count against your permitted number. We used a guide on our first visit to help guarantee a successful and safe journey.

Preparation is essential for this hike. Each hiker needs to carry an adequate supply of water, as there is none available on-site. You’ll also want to wear comfortable footwear and clothing that’s appropriate for the day’s forecasted weather, plus pack plenty of food and snacks.

Bottom line

Although the likelihood of acquiring a permit for the Wave may seem incredibly slim at times, with a little bit of patience and a lot of luck, you can see this awe-inspiring natural wonder.

And if, by chance, you have already been lucky enough to be selected for a Tuesday in April, keep an eye out for us. We’ll be the 70-somethings with smiles on our faces, excitement in our eyes, gratitude in our hearts and maybe a Powerball ticket in our pocket.

Featured image by author.

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