The Wave: Navigating the Permit Process

What’s “The Wave” you ask? Essentially it is the most difficult-to-visit area of public land in the entire United States. You’ve probably seen photos of it on your computer desktop, on a variety of magazine covers, and previously in commercials advertising the Utah Olympics (even though it is actually in Arizona). In reality it is just a really cool rock formation in the middle of an area called Coyote Buttes North… but let’s be real, it’s still just a rock. Due to the fragile nature of The Wave formation and the hoards of visitors wishing to take the exact same photo as everyone else who’s been there before them, there are only 20 people allowed to visit the The Wave per day and the permits are obtained through a lottery system. 10 of the permits are issued through an online lottery 4 months in advance and 10 next-day permits are issued in-person on the day before via a walk-in lottery.

I’ll pause here to say that we were two of the lucky (or just stubborn?) ones and after 6 days of trying for a walk-in permit we finally won the permit lottery. That being said, those 6 days were pretty freaking annoying. When we were trying our luck at the lottery we found loads of info on the online lottery process but hardly anything regarding what to expect with the in-person process. So here is a hopefully thorough and helpful picture of what to expect if you decide to add this to your bucket list and a few fun things you can do in the area while you wait.

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The Coyote Buttes

DSC_5074There are two Buttes; North and South. Coyote Buttes North is exponentially more popular because it contains “The Wave” although I would argue that the South Buttes are just as beautiful and significantly easier to obtain a permit for. On our first day of losing the 9:00am lottery for the North Buttes we waited until 10:00am for the South Buttes lottery. Supposedly if there are more than 10 people who want to go, they go through the same lottery process but that day there were only 6 of us waiting (keep in mind that there were probably 100+ people trying for the North Buttes lottery the hour before).

Fees to visit The Wave

The fee for Coyote Buttes North (where you’ll find The Wave) is $7.00/person and $7.00/dog per day. The fee for Coyote Buttes South is $5.00/person and $5.00/dog per day. Don’t worry about the fees. Starting the day being depressed and annoyed each time you are not a successful lottery winner is far more costly to your poor soul.

The Online Permit Lottery for The Wave

We are more, shall we say, fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants travelers. So picking a date 4 months in advance via the online lottery process was not an option for us. But loads of people do it and you can find all the info you need here.

The Walk-In Permit Lottery for The Wave

IMG_6221Year-round the lottery is held at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Visitor Center in Kanab, UT. The lottery for the walk-in permits takes place at 9:00am 7 days/week during peak season. You should arrive at 8:30am to hear the ranger’s aggressive speech about people dying in The Wave and to fill out your application. If you don’t get your application in by 9:00am you’ll be denied and if you get it in at 8:59am you’ll likely get booed by the large anxious, angry crowd. The ranger keeps the applications on file for 24 hours so if you were there the day before you don’t need to fill out another application, you can just reuse your old one but you’ll be reassigned a new number. Or if you are like us you can place yourself strategically in line to get your lucky number every day (for us it was #8).

 

The drawing is for a permit on the following day; so if you are entering the lottery on Monday and you are the lucky winner, your permit will be for Tuesday. You can go to Coyote Buttes North at anytime of the day and as many times as you would like (however the hike out to The Wave is approximately 3 miles each way).

During the low season the visitor’s center is closed on the weekends so on Fridays they do a drawing for the following Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. Meaning that instead of only drawing 10 names, they draw 30. On around March 15th they change hours and open on Saturday and Sunday so the lottery is conducted 7 days/week (except on federal holidays). In hindsight we decided that trying for the lottery on Fridays during the low season is the way to go – more people but 30 applications drawn instead of 10 so way better odds.

IMG_6222You can only fill out one application per group, no matter what size your group is. So, for example, there were an average of 40 applications submitted every morning that we entered the lottery and there were probably 100+ people waiting every day. Each application receives a number and for each number there is a corresponding wooden ball. All of the balls are placed in a spinner and drawn one at a time. Let’s say the first ball drawn is #10 and there are 2 people on the application, that means that there are 8 more permits available that day. Generally there were 4-6 balls drawn in a day (so not terrible odds) but on one particularly bad day the first number drawn was a party of 5 (ugh).

If your party is larger than the amount of permits available (so, for example, there are 2 permits left and you are a party of 4), you must choose whether to have just 2 members of your group go or forgo your permits altogether.

IMG_6216If, in the unlikely occurrence there is only 1 permit left at the end of the drawing, the ranger will authorize an additional permit for the day so that you don’t have to hike alone.

Every single day that we went to the BLM office to apply for the lottery, the exact same ranger was running the show (I refer to him as “The Dude” due to his Big Lebowski likliness). And he made the exact same speech. And told the exact same jokes. Every. Single. Day. “If you are one of the lucky winners, stick around after the drawing to get your permits. If you’re not… leave…” and “forgive me in advance if I mis-proununicate your name”. As if the groundhog day routine isn’t bad enough as it is.

Odds of Winning

Permits for Coyote Buttes South are usually available if you walk-in, however when we checked the online permit availability they were all spoken for for months in advance. According to their website, if you enter the online lottery for Coyote Buttes North, attempting to obtain a permit for April-June and September-November, the odds were about 4-5% in 2013. For other months (off-season), the odds vary from 8% (August) to 25% (January). You can see how many people have entered The  Wave lottery for each day on the BLM website. I just checked today, only the 2nd day of April, and already the number of permit lottery applications for August ranged from 44 – 162 applications per day. So by the last day of the month there are probably several thousand people attempting for each day.

We were trying in March of 2017 and determined that our odds were about 10% but the number of applications per day was slowing increasing every day.

We met a few people at The Wave that had been trying their luck online for 4 years! According to The Dude, the record number of people trying for the in-person lottery was 278. One lady tried for the in-person lottery 38 days in a row before getting a permit for The Wave and another person tried 17 days in a row and never won the lottery. 

Checkpoints and Penalties for The Wave

I asked the “the dude” ranger if they often caught people sneaking into The Wave and if so, what the penalty was. He said that yes, occasionally they did and that the fee for trespassing was anywhere from $1,000 – $10,000 per person. Insane! I figured that the locals must sneak in all of the time so I asked around at our favorite morning coffee shop and found that most of the people I talked to had never even been to The Wave before. One girl knew someone who snuck in on a holiday but that was as much info as I got.

We got a permit to attach to our backpack as well as a car parking pass (although you park at the Wire Pass trailhead which is the parking lot for a variety of hikes so I’m not sure why they would check your car) – both pictured below. We did get checked by a BLM ranger who said she hikes out there every other day. We ran into her at The Wave at around 10:00am and saw her back at the trailhead parking lot at around 3:00pm. We asked her about what she does when she catches people sneaking in and she said that she takes down their information and gives it to the police department and what they do with it depends on how far you got. If you are near the start of the trail they may not follow up but you’ll likely get a big fine if you make it all the way to The Wave. She figured that she would catch a few people trying to sneak in later that day.

 

We didn’t see a single soul when we hiked out to Coyote Buttes South. It’s a rough road to get there and it’s massive so the likelihood of rangers going out that far seems… slim.

Coyote Buttes South

The roads to get to the two parking lots for Coyote Buttes South are pretty rough; 4-wheel drive and high clearance required. The ranger informed us that the road to the Pawhole parking lot was far better than the road to the Cottonwood Cove parking lot which has deep sand so we opted for the former. From Kanab it took us about an hour and 40 minutes to drive to the Pawhole parking lot and we arrived around 11:00am. We started exploring the area in the far North and it was spectacular; awesome formations as far as the eye could see. We were informed that the formations near the Pawhole parking lot were quite different from the formations near the Cottonwood Cove area so after exploring for a while we decided to make our way east toward Cottonwood Cove.

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The formations near Pawhole were bright orange in color

Keep in mind, the Coyote Buttes area is HUGE and there is so much to explore so it’s quite easy to spend hours zigzagging around. We finally made it to Cottonwood Cove and after exploring that area for a few hours we determined that if we wanted to make it back to our car before dark we’d need to start heading back around 4:00pm. We were also exhausted and thought that perhaps we could walk along the road that connects the two parking lots and a friendly hiker driving by would pick us up. Alas, that area is desolate (we didn’t see a single hiker for the entire 7 hours that we were out there) so we had a long and dusty walk back. All in all we walked just over 12 miles that day (the length of the South Buttes is about 3 miles from the north end to the south end).

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The Cottonwood Cove area is considerably lighter colored and smoother sandstone

Coyote Buttes North (AKA “The Wave”)

I’m not going to lie… after all of the hype around attempting to get a permit for The Wave, I was pretty over it. And I was quite certain that I would be underwhelmed. The reality is that when I finally gazed on the awe-inspiring, epic Wave I was absolutely, totally in love and if it weren’t for an impending rainstorm I may never have left. It is every bit as amazing as everyone says it is and it is SO worth the time and patience to get a permit.

We decided to begin our 3-mile trek to The Wave at 5:00am to beat the rain and the crowds and to hopefully get there in time for sunrise. The day before, immediately following the permit lottery, “the dude” ranger gave us a super detailed picture map (below) to help us find The Wave and a dreadful speech about people getting lost in the dark and walking off of cliffs. We are quite skilled at following GPS so we figured it was no problem to find it.

 

Turns out, the ranger was right. It is super difficult to find in the dark. He said not to follow footprints (mostly true) or trail markers (we never even saw any). After meandering around for several hours and about 4.2 miles we finally found it! We arrived around 7:45am and had the entire area to ourselves until about 9:00am when the other 18 hikers began arriving.

 

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The day before our hike, after we found out that we won The Wave lottery, we hit the Kanab Thriftstore for some awesome photoshoot props (including a vintage wedding dress) so for that 1-ish hour of solitude we were able to take strange and awesome photos to our hearts delight.

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The entire Coyote Buttes North area is beautiful so we explored around a bit (there is also a “mini-wave” nearby) but found that we kept coming back to The Wave for more photos. We just couldn’t get enough. We couldn’t take a bad photo if we tried. And while it’s pretty annoying that they only let 20 people in per day, it’s actually SO NICE when you’re there that it’s not loaded with tourists all taking the same photo. It got fairly busy around noon but there were many times when we had the entire area all to ourselves.

We knew that rain was coming at around 3:00pm so we sadly bid farewell to The Wave to begin our journey back to the car. We knew that this was truly a once in a lifetime experience and the likelihood of us every coming back was slim so it was difficult to finally make the decision to leave. If rain weren’t on the horizon, we most definitely would have stayed until sunset.

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Menacing Rain Clouds!

We knew that rain was coming at around 3:00pm so we sadly bid farewell to The Wave to begin our journey back to the car. We knew that this was truly a once in a lifetime experience and the likelihood of us every coming back was slim so it was difficult to finally make the decision to leave. If rain weren’t on the horizon, we most definitely would have stayed until sunset.

The hike back to the car was not nearly as challenging as our hike out to The Wave in the dark. The pictured map was super helpful and we were fairly successful in sticking to the trail.

 

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Alternatives to The Wave in Vermilion Cliffs…

It seemed to us that most of the people trying to get into The Wave would try for a day or two and then move on to their next destination without really exploring the area. And there are a TON of awesome things to do in the Vermilion Cliff area! Seeing as we had 6 days to kill, we tried to make the most of our time there.

Buckskin Gulch

The first day that we were not able to obtain a permit for Coyote Buttes North, we were successful in obtaining a permit for Coyote Buttes South but it was for the next day. So we talked to the rangers about other good options for the area and they suggested Buckskin Gulch which is a hike that actually starts in the same location as The Wave hike; in a dry lake bed near the Wire Pass parking lot. We hiked into the canyon and at the confluence we took a right which took us into a narrow slot canyon (it reminded us of The Narrows in Zion NP but without all of the water). In the evening we stopped at the Toad Stools which is a short hike just off the side of the road for sunset.FullSizeRender (1)

Our second unsuccessful day was spent at Coyote Buttes South (see info above). After our third unsuccessful attempt we decided to take a break and head to Sedona and then on to our pre-reserved Havasu Falls adventure. A week and a half later we were back for more Wave lottery punishment.

Zion

FullSizeRender (4)On our forth day of an unsuccessful lottery attempt we drove to Zion which is less than an hour from Kanab and hiked to Hidden Canyon and then enjoyed a few beers in the Zion brewery (FYI – apparently Utah law requires that you order food with your beer, lame).

A few years back we hit Zion during a roadtrip from Vegas to Flagstaff over Thanksgiving weekend. During that trip we hiked Angel’s Landing which is most certainly a must-do but it is also the most horrifying hike I’ve ever done. Ever. BUT it was snowy and icy and slippery and most likely isn’t as terrifying in better weather.

We also hiked The Narrows which is an out-and-back through a slot canyon that has a river running through it. During the time we were there we needed dry suits (we opted to rent dry pants only) and wetsocks. This hike is only scary during wet season because there is a potential for flash floods.

White Pocket

On our forth unsuccessful attempt day we drove out to White Pocket which had been recommended to us by several locals. It took us about 2.5 hours to get there from Kanab and the road was horrendous – someone in the recent past had driven much of the road when it was muddy so there were deep ruts for most of the way as well as deep sand. 4-wheel drive and high clearance are definitely required. White Pocket is a fairly small and compact area of epic white and orange sandstone formations that are pretty easy to explore without putting in too many miles. We scoured the area and only ended up walking about 4 miles total for the day.

White Pocket is still fairly unknown and most definitely worth the trip. We assume that in the near future it will also require a permit to visit.

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So… was it worth it? All the wasted mornings not getting our number called at the BLM office and sticking around Kanab, never knowing if we would actually ever get in or not, and wanting to punch that Dude ranger in the face? A HUNDRED TIMES YES!!! It was by far one of the most amazing places we have ever visited and truly an adventure of a lifetime. But… if I were you I’d stick to playing the online lottery and once you (hopefully) win, plan on spending a full week exploring the amazing Vermillion Cliffs wilderness and all of the other awesomeness in the area surrounding Kanab.

May the odds be ever in your favor!

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