I remember every detail of my lunch date on January 1st, 2020. That was the day I found out about winning The Wave Arizona lottery — the first time.
As we waited for our food, S said, “I just got my email about The Wave Coyote Buttes permit!” I assumed it was a rejection letter, identical to the one I received. But he started reading and it wasn’t a rejection at all. It started out, “Congratulations! We wanted to let you know the lottery drawing recently took place and you’ve been awarded a permit reservation at Coyote Buttes North (The Wave)…”
I don’t remember the exact words I used, but I know I shrieked them loudly enough that everyone in the restaurant turned around. I had happy tears running down my face and I remember thinking that people probably thought he just proposed.
You see, winning The Wave Arizona lottery had been on my bucket list for nearly a decade, along with visiting Big Sky, Montana, and hiking in Hawaii (check, check, and check!). I tried to get a Coyote Buttes North hiking permit at least a few dozen times. The Wave Arizona permit is one of the most difficult to get in the entire US.
At that time, just 20 people per day were allowed into the wilderness area. Note: In January 2021, the government increased the number of visitors allowed per day to 64. More on that later.
If you want to know how to get a permit for The Wave, you’re in the right place. As I mentioned, we beat The Wave lottery odds twice in 2020. I don’t have any magic tricks up my sleeve, but I’m definitely familiar with the process and have a few tips to share. I’m breaking it all down, to (hopefully!) help you win a permit yourself.
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What exactly is The Wave?
On the off-chance that you’re unfamiliar with The Wave — or The Wave Arizona lottery — it’s a truly spectacular natural sandstone formation in the remote wilderness near the Arizona-Utah border. It’s so close to the border, in fact, that you hike through both states along the way.
The Wave itself is situated in an area known as Coyote Buttes North, a section of the rugged Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness. Like much of the American Southwest, erosion formed it — first from water and later, by wind.
Up until the mid-1990s, virtually no one knew about The Wave. Then in 1996, the wordless German documentary Fascinating Nature featured the unforgettable landscape. It quickly became a bucket list destination for Europeans, although it remained a mostly unknown treasure to the rest of the world.
Fast-forward to 2009: Microsoft launched Windows 7 and The Wave was one of the featured wallpaper image options. Unsurprisingly, its popularity skyrocketed.
The Wave Arizona lottery system
Backcountry access to the entire Coyote Buttes North area is strictly by permit only. And the only way to get a permit is to enter The Wave Arizona lottery.
Both times we hiked The Wave, the maximum number of hikers allowed was just 20 per day. In January 2021, the US government increased that number to 64. It’s important to note that’s 64 people total — OR 16 groups per day, whichever comes first. That means The Wave lottery odds are, well, not great — but certainly not impossible and significantly higher than they were before the increase.
If you think The Wave Arizona permit and lottery system seems restrictive, that’s because it is. But it exists solely to protect the delicate landscape. On both our trips, even with no more than 16 other permit holders out there, we saw a handful of other hikers. I truly can’t imagine what it would be like if access to The Wave was unregulated.
On another note, don’t even consider hiking The Wave without a permit. For one thing, Bureau of Land Management employees go out there every day and check license plates against official records. Yes, you must register a specific vehicle when you win a permit for The Wave. Visiting without one results in a hefty fine. Plus, that’s just a super un-cool thing to do.
There are so few truly wild, untouched places left in the world. Let’s leave this one as close to that as possible.
How to get a permit for The Wave
There are two ways to enter The Wave Arizona lottery: online four months in advance or in-person, the day before your hike.
We got both of our permits online, which I highly recommend for a number of reasons. Primarily so you can plan ahead, but also because they issue more online permits (48 people or 12 groups, whichever comes first, as opposed to 16 people or 4 groups in-person).
The Wave Arizona lottery online
Recreation.gov issues permits four months out, and you may apply any time during the calendar month. The drawing is on the first day of the subsequent month. For example, apply any day in January for May permits. Permit winners are then notified on February 1st.
To enter The Wave Arizona lottery online, head to recreation.gov and choose “Register for Open Lottery.” Fill out your basic information, then select three dates and pay the $9 application fee. Even though you can select one or two, pick three — The Wave lottery odds are substantially better with three potential days.
Here are some other pro tips for improving your group’s chances of winning The Wave Arizona lottery.
- Have all of your travel/hiking partners enter the same dates as you.
- Although there is an option to enter the names of “alternate permit holders,” don’t. Doing this will disqualify those people from applying for permits themselves. Don’t worry — you don’t have to name the other people under your permit; the BLM just offers the alternates as an option.
- The Wave lottery odds are substantially better on weekdays versus weekends. Along the same lines, avoid holiday weekends or major school breaks.
- Set a reminder or alarm on your phone so you don’t forget to apply for The Wave Arizona permit each month.
Applying for The Wave Coyote Buttes permit in-person
If you don’t have success with The Wave Arizona lottery online and you have the flexibility, there’s another option for how to get a permit for The Wave. There’s an in-person lottery held at the Kanab Center Gymnasium in Kanab Utah (about one hour from The Wave trailhead).
The BLM issues Wave Coyote Buttes permits in person at 9:00 AM the day before the intended hike. During the “summer” months (approximately mid-March to mid-November), permits are issued seven days a week. In the winter, the lottery is Monday through Friday, with weekend and Monday permits being drawn on Fridays.
As you may expect, The Wave lottery odds are significantly better in person because the pool of people is far smaller. However, there are a few things you should know specific to entering The Wave Arizona lottery in person.
- Make special note of time changes, especially if you travel from Arizona. The Grand Canyon State doesn’t observe daylight savings time, so times may be different depending on the time of year. We met someone who completely missed the in-person lottery because they didn’t realize Utah was in a different timezone.
- You can only pay your permit fee with exact cash or check. Credit cards aren’t accepted and change isn’t available.
- Unlike when you apply for The Wave Arizona permit online, only one person from your group may enter the in-person lottery. If caught submitting multiple applications, your entire group will be disqualified. It’s not worth trying.
What are The Wave lottery odds?
There’s good news and bad news when it comes to The Wave lottery odds. According to BLM data, your chances of winning a permit online are between 4-8% on average. A couple thousand people typically apply on any given day throughout the year.
However, the good news is that data only exists for the old system — when just 20 people won permits each day. That means that The Wave lottery odds are substantially higher now, since 64 permits are issued daily. And don’t forget, we won permits twice when only 20 were given out!
Prior to the BLM hosting The Wave Arizona lottery on recreation.gov, you could see the number of applicants for any given day. That was extremely helpful because if you waited until the last day of the month, you could apply only for dates with fewer applications.
That’s unfortunately no longer the case, so you have to choose dates blindly. Just remember that you have much better odds if you apply for weekdays and avoid most holidays.
It’s much more difficult to predict the odds of The Wave Arizona lottery in-person. I’ve heard that sometimes only a dozen people show up, while other days might see over 100 applicants. If you decide to apply for a permit in-person, go into it with high hopes, but no expectations.
A few things to note about The Wave Arizona
Before entering The Wave Arizona lottery, there are some things you should know. First and foremost, The Wave Coyote Buttes permits are non-refundable and non-transferrable. Be absolutely sure you can go on the dates you choose!
The Wave is in an extremely remote desert area and the hike is fairly strenuous. There is no shade at any point, much of it goes through sand, and there’s no discernible trail in most sections. This combination of factors quickly tires out even the most experienced hikers.
We had fantastic weather on both trips, with high temperatures in the 60s and 40s. Yet, we peeled layers off and felt hot! The sun really does burn hotter in the Southwest. I strongly advise against hiking The Wave in the summer.
Technically, the hike to The Wave Arizona is 6.4 miles round-trip. The first time we did it, we hiked 14 miles — there is a ton to see beyond The Wave itself.
This is not a situation where you drive up to the trailhead, hike, then head home in the afternoon. Aside from the difficulty of the hike, The Wave trail is over an hour from the closest services and over four hours from both the Las Vegas and Phoenix airports.
Plus, Lake Powell, Horseshoe Bend, Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, and the Grand Canyon are all so close (two hours away or less!). It would be a shame to win The Wave Arizona lottery and not make a bigger trip out of it.
Finally, do not lose your permit. The BLM sends The Wave Arizona lottery winners a physical one, and you must attach it to your bag so it’s visible. The same goes for the parking pass that comes with your hiking permit — don’t lose (or forget) it!
I hope this guide on how to get a permit for The Wave is helpful! If you do win, you can figure out where to stay near The Wave later. For now, Pin this post for later and bask in the glory that you beat The Wave lottery odds!