Confessions up front: I didn’t get to see the Wave. We did not get a permit. What is the Wave, you may ask? Well, go check out this link and then come back here. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
Access to the Wave is governed by a lottery process, with only twenty visitors allowed per day. Ten are assigned via a lottery several months in advance, and ten are distributed via lottery the day prior to the permitted date. The advance lottery process is described clearly and in great detail here. The in-person lottery is a bit more mysterious so I thought I’d describe my experience for those planning on trying for one.
So how does the Walk-In lottery process for The Wave work?
In general I’ll say that it is handled quite well by cheerful and friendly volunteers. The atmosphere was nervous but fun as people waited around for the drawing.
1: Arriving at the Office
The drawing is at 9 am MST (DST in summer) and they open the office doors at 8:30. It doesn’t matter when you arrive – everyone who is there before the 9 am drawing has the same chance. Pay attention to the time zone issues with Northern Arizona and Southern Utah – there are always people who show up an hour late. The permits are currently issued through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument Visitor Center in Kanab, Utah. When we did it we had to go to the Paria Contact Station. I believe the location is based on time of year. Make sure you double check.
2. Submitting the Application
Due to the small size of the office they asked that a single representative for each group come in while everyone else waited outside. Each representative filled out a form listing the number of people and the names of the people in their group. If more than one person from a group filled out a form both would be disqualified – one chance per group. As the volunteers collected the forms they checked through the other forms for name duplicates. There is no benefit for people who have showed up multiple days in a row. Somewhere I read that you got an extra chance per day you’d showed up but that was not (or no longer) the case when we were there. In fact, as we stood around we chatted with a guy who was on his 5th day of trying for a permit. At 9 am sharp they stopped accepting applications.
3. The Drawing
Each form was numbered at the top. I believe there were 16 groups totaling around 45 people. The volunteers said this was a very low number (probably due to the weather). In fact, on the door they had a list of the previous month’s daily lottery entries and the numbers were closer to 70 people per day. They took out a bingo wheel and a box of bingo balls with numbers on them. They put the balls numbered 1-16 in the wheel and drew them.
In order to assign the permits they would match the number on the ball to a numbered application. So, if the first one drawn was an application for two people, they would get two permits and they would draw again for the remaining 8. If the next group was four, they would draw again for the final four. If they then drew a group of six, the group would have an option of taking the four and having to leave two people behind, or passing entirely. The process went on until the ten spots were filled.
Issues, Observations, and Suggestions
The Wave permits are clearly in huge demand. There are some simple changes I believe they could make to leave fewer people frustrated and make sure the permits are being issued to people who will actually use them. The big complaint I have about the way that permits are handled all boil down to one thing: there is no common sense applied. They know that there are significantly more people who want to visit than they can accommodate, but their process does not maximize the chances that people they give permits to will actually get to see the Wave.
First, the half of the permits that are pre-determined by lottery are just mailed out, never to be seen again. For all they know, none of the 10 people actually showed up that day. And they have people requesting them from all over the world, trying for anything. How many of them get the permit and then actually arrange to travel there? Meanwhile they have a room full of people standing RIGHT THERE who desperately want to go. I would suggest that if you get one of the advance lottery permits that you be required to pick it up in person ahead of time or forfeit your spot. Yes, it is inconvenient to have to pick up a permit, but I’ve done it a 100 times with minimal inconvenience. If you don’t pick it up by a certain time it can go into the pool for the people who are there that day.
Second, we were there during horrible weather. While collecting the applications the volunteers clearly said many, many times that the road was impassible to all but the most capable 4WD drivers and vehicles (even then, incoming storms were making things worse). However, that didn’t deter anyone from entering the lottery, that’s for sure. Sure enough, as the permit spots filled and I watched the permit winners get into their cars, they were all small rental sedans from Las Vegas – a Ford Focus, a Nissan Altima, etc. So great, they got the permit, but there was no way for them to actually get to the Wave. They were told by the volunteers: you will not get in there. It’s hopeless. Meanwhile, the handful of us with vehicles most capable of negotiating the conditions were stuck with nothing. Most likely the Wave saw NO visitors that day.
I’m glad I experienced the process so that I know what to expect. I’m disappointed that we didn’t get a permit, especially considering that the people who did get them that day probably didn’t even use them. The weather really skunked us in this whole area and we didn’t get to see much of anything. But what we did visit was incredible. Although the Wave is the big famous focal point of the area, don’t let tunnel vision take hold. There are miles and miles of unique scenery to explore in the area. I cannot wait to go back and visit in good weather. Even if we don’t get a permit for the Wave again, I know I could stay busy for weeks.