How Do I Win the Wave Lottery?
It is called “The Hardest Permit to Get in the USA” by Outside and Backpacker Magazines. Your chances stand at roughly 3% on any given day. People enter month after month for, in some cases, years before winning (if they ever do). No doubt that The Wave of the Vermillion Cliffs in Arizona is one of the most sought-after destinations in the southwest, and the BLM’s daily quota of just 20 visitors makes it a tough proposition. Is there a strategy that can be employed to increase your chances? We sent The Goat out to do a hard target investigation. This is what he found:
In order to lend ourselves the best chances, we started by pegging dates that were during the week. We decided on having an average group size (4), and picking presumably less-popular times of the year. We divided our applications between the online lottery and the in-person lottery. The in-person lottery is held daily at the BLM office in Kanab, Utah. We had all four people in our “group” apply online, and sent one of our group to the in-person lottery. Our goal was to employ a “blanket” strategy to best monopolize our potential chances. We could also properly calculate what, if any, our success rate might be. Over the course of two months, we employed this strategy following these criteria, and logged our failures and successes.
The Online Lottery
The Wave’s online lottery is where this permit gets it ornery reputation. With the in-person lottery being highly inconvenient for the vast majority of applicants, this lottery is not far from playing the Powerball Jackpot and hoping to win even a modest prize. The BLM splits permits 10/10 for the online and in-person for 20 people each day, so you can imagine what your odds might be. It’s like elbowing through throngs of crazed teenage girls at an NSYNC concert circa 1997. To play this game of chance visit the BLM’s Wave Permit Page.
The In-Person Lottery
The Wave’s in-person lottery, though inconvenient for most, can give the applicant a slightly better chance. For our purposes, we camped near the BLM office and tried to be the first to the door at opening time (8:30am, 7 days a week). In-person permits are typically offered for the next day, although if permits were not filled they may issue you one for the same day.
Kanab Visitor Center in Kanab, UT 745 US-89, Kanab, UT 84741
Playing the Odds
Our success rate at the conclusion of our experiment was quite low, as expected, for the online lottery. Given the cost of the permit ($7/person if you win, with a non-refundable $5 application fee for each application), and the low chances of winning, this strategy is not so much a strategy as a commitment. We spent nearly $500 and obtained two permits for middle-of-the-week in late November, and one in early February. Our final odds of winning, given our failure vs. success rate was a paltry 10%. (20 application, 2 permits).
Though this is higher than the national average, this was our own success rate and not measured against all other applicants. We imagine that the advertised 4% success rate is perhaps even slightly higher than actual. That being said, the thrill of victory is tangible in the face of numerous defeats. Our testers literally cheered and danced when permits were issued. Worth the sacrifice!
On the flip side, the In-Person lottery yielded excellent success. Our employed strategy of having a camper near the BLM office paid off nearly 100% of the time. In fact, the only time it was not successful was when our camper slept through his alarm and ended up being buried in line. The trick to the in-person permit is this: one person may apply for one permit, regardless of group size (up to 10). For example, only three people may apply, but they may each have parties of 4 or more, meaning that only two groups would be successful, and only two people from the remaining group would be issued a permit. For fairness purposes, we gave our permits to those who were behind us. Pay it forward!
The Goat’s Conclusion
Hiking The Wave is a must for anyone interested in wild scenery, challenge, photography, and of course geology. Though winning a permit through The Wave lottery can be an adventure in and of itself, it is highly advisable to take the plunge. Persistence, perseverance, realistic expectations, and a disciplined system with a set budget will pay off eventually. If at all possible, the in-person lottery is absolutely the way to go. But, if this is not a possibility for you at all, you must bear the challenge of the online lottery, which even when employed with a strategy can be difficult to win.
How You Can Apply for Permits to The Wave
Permits to Coyote Buttes North (The Wave) and South are issued by lottery, both online and in-person as discussed. For Coyote Buttes North, the cost is $7/person on the permit, and for Coyote Buttes South the cost is $5/person. For other parts of the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, as well as the Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness just to the north, permits are free and supplied at the trailheads of Wire Pass, White House, and for other areas such as White Pocket. Any overnight stay requires a backcountry permit, obtained either at the trailhead or the Kanab Visitor Center. Be advised there is no overnight camping allowed in the Coyote Buttes permit area.
Permits to The Wave can be applied for four months in advance of your requested date. You have an entire month to apply, and you can apply for up to three entry dates per application. If you are successful you will be authorized for one of the days. There is a non-refundable $5 fee to apply, and you will be notified of the first of the month via e-mail whether or not your application was successful.
Let’s say you wanted to visit Coyote Buttes North (The Wave) in April. Here is the procedure you would follow.
1. Go to the Permit Page between Dec. 1 and Dec. 31.
2. Follow the directions, choosing up to three possible entry dates. If successful, you will only be authorized one date.
3. You will be notified via e-mail the first day in January whether your lottery application was successful or not.
4. After being notified, you will have 14 calendar days to pay for your permit. You can pay online with your credit card. Your e-mail notification will contain a link to a secure web page, where you can go to pay and submit the remainder of your trip information.
5. Your permit will be mailed to you four to six weeks after you have paid your fees, unless you chose the option to pick it up in Kanab, St. George, or the Paria Contact Station when you filled out your permit application.
The way the lottery works essentially nullifies any attempt to be an “early bird gets the worm” type of situation, and you have as good of a chance of winning the lottery regardless of your application date or time. Applications received in the month of April, for example, have equal chances of being selected for permits issued in August regardless of what day in April the application was received by the BLM.
Rules and Regulations
From time to time, people will ask us “can I go to The Wave without a permit?” The answer here is simply, NO. Your permit must be displayed visibly on your pack/person at all times, must account for all people in your group, be paid in full, and for the dates displayed on the permit. Violation of any of these will result in immediate ejection from Coyote Buttes, and a $1200/person fine. Multiple violations can result in lifetime bans, and even federal criminal trespassing charges. But what are the chances you’ll be caught in such a remote place? The Wave, while remote in terms of general ideal, is very popular and highly regulated.
The BLM devotes quite a bit of time and resources to The Wave for safety, environmental study, and conservation purposes. Though they are not “out to get you”, they will enforce regulations. The chances of having your hiking party interact with a BLM Ranger in the Coyote Buttes area is almost 100%. Please, please go through the permitting process. The more people that violate the regulations may result in stricter rules, less permits, and even a shutdown of the area altogether.
Safety and Transportation
Located adjacent to highway 89A near the Arizona/Utah border, The Vermillion Cliffs National Monument is one of the most spectacular, wild, and unspoiled places in the American Southwest. Consequently, it is a rugged place that can be difficult to navigate. Do not even consider visiting The Wave, or any other part of Vermillion Cliffs without 4WD (AWD is NOT 4WD), several detailed maps, a compass, GPS (not in-dash), and plenty of water. If heading to White Pocket or Coyote Buttes, be prepared to drive in sand, which can be very challenging if you have not done it before. Many a truck have been lampooned in the sands of Vermillion Cliffs.
So you’ve won the lottery, great job! Now you need to get there and enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to its fullest extent. A guide can be an invaluable resource in a place like this, and there a no better than the geologist/guides of Blue Marble Adventure GeoTourism. We will help you plan your visit from start to finish and ensure that you see all the highlights of Vermillion Cliffs (more than just The Wave). After your epic adventure we get you back safe and sound, and guarantee an intensely special and memorable experience.
The Final Word
Everybody wants to go to The Wave and The Wave is absolutely worth the visit. It’s a right of passage for many world travelers and backcountry adventurers. However, the lottery and regulations can make it tough to see, particularly if the online lottery is your only possibility. Coyote Buttes South permits are somewhat easier permits to obtain, and still works on the calendar system, giving you the possibility of specifically choosing a date. Your chances are much higher (like 25% higher), and Coyote Buttes South has some astounding and gorgeous scenery.
White Pocket also is among the most fabulous places in the Southwest, and regarded by some as even more spectacular than The Wave and Coyote Buttes North. It only requires a day permit and has no lottery, making it highly accessible. Other areas of the Vermillion Cliffs such as Paria Canyon and the Buckskin Gulch are among the most excellent canyons in the world, with Buckskin Gulch in particular being regarded as the longest, deepest slot in the world. Whatever your choice, rest assured that just because you didn’t score that permit to The Wave you won’t be missing out on some of the best the American Southwest has to offer.
Hiking and exploring Vermillion Cliffs and The Wave is a special experience. Although it is possible to see these places yourself, hiring a guide is a great idea. For instance, guiding services provide logistical support, and plan everything for your best possible trip. They provide a great safety net on the trail, and are trained in backcountry medicine. Above all, they provide a depth of knowledge of the region that turns a walk into a true adventure.
Blue Marble Adventure GeoTourism provides all of the support you need, and pairs that with expert geologist/guides. Our backcountry meals use fresh ingredients, and are planned by a professional chef. Furthermore, we provide top-of-the-line gear and passion for the places we explore. In conclusion, you can visit wild places, but going with a guide can create an even more memorable experience. Don’t be shy, and call us!
Read our blog!
For adventure hiking vacations in a geologic time machine, see our epic tours in Grand Canyon, Utah, and Arizona!
For geological musings read The Goat’s geology blog.
Explore Further, Be Wild, See Through Time — Blue Marble Adventure GeoTourism