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losing the lottery, but winning anyway

Kanab, Utah is an unassuming little town that toes the border with Arizona. It seems about as unlikely a place for the diverse international gathering it hosts daily as can be imagined. We left Bryce Canyon in the wee hours of the morning to make sure we arrived in time to join the throng of visitors from all over the world who gather in large numbers every morning in Kanab. The reason: a chance to secure one of the elusive permits for hiking The Wave.

white toadstools and the moon

Fifteen or twenty years ago, The Wave was largely unknown outside of a handful of backcountry hiking guidebooks. But thanks to the Internet, word of its beauty has spread far and wide. Microsoft started using The Wave as one of its default backgrounds. Tourists began arriving in such alarmingly large droves that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was forced to cap the number of visitors in order to preserve this unique site. The Wave is located in the backcountry of Coyote Buttes. It’s a hard-scrabble land with no marked trails – an oasis of wilderness that the BLM has fought hard to protect.

toadstool landscape

When the lottery system was instituted, only ten people per day were allotted passes and furnished with maps and picture guides that enabled them to reach The Wave. That number has been raised since to twenty – a mere drop in the bucket compared to the demand. Half of the permits are raffled off through an online lottery that must be entered four months before the intended trip. Demand fluctuates with the seasons, but in general less than 5% of online entrants are successful in obtaining a permit. The other ten passes are raffled off during an in-person lottery at the BLM office in Kanab.

Horshoeshoe Bend2

Long before the Wave focused so much attention on this little corner of Utah, Kanab rose to prominence as an ideal locale for filming spaghetti westerns. So many films were shot against its backdrop that Kanab came to be known as “Little Hollywood.” Located within easy driving distance of Zion, the Grand Canyon, Antelope Canyon, and a whole slew of other natural wonders, we figured it would make for a good base of operations for a couple of days. We’d try our luck with The Wave lottery and, if unsuccessful, we’d have plenty of other good hiking options.

The Wave lottery2

It should be obvious from the spoiler above that luck was not on our side, though we almost struck gold on our third try. By then, the strange spectacle had played out before our eyes enough times that all its attendant emotions – the nervous apprehension of watching the park ranger spin the lottery wheel, the sinking feeling of hearing the wrong number called, the fleeting hope of one last chance – had become firmly ingrained in our psyche.

fantastic landscape

There were 74 people our first morning. 33 groups. And only 10 permits. No matter the size, a group can only put forth one entry, but each member of the winning party counts against the ten-permit daily limit. Five winning numbers were picked that morning – five groups of two lucky hikers in each. Better odds than we would have gotten online, but no luck for us. 90 entrants our second morning. 44 groups. Quite a number of familiar faces. Again no dice.

Lake Powell

37 numbers went into the spinner our final morning. With 8 of the 10 permits already assigned, the ranger read off the number on the ball that had tumbled out of the spinner. A moment of silence. A collective groan, followed quickly by a sharp intake of optimistic breath. There were five hikers in the group whose number had just been called. They could have accepted the two remaining permits and then decided among themselves which of them would do the hike or they had the option of maintaining solidarity and passing up the opportunity to see The Wave. As soon as the number was called, the person representing the group said they wouldn’t take the permits, so the ranger cranked the spinner again. Alas, the extra number only produced more disappointment. We had been assigned #36. “Thirty…five,” read out the ranger slowly. Close, but still a world away.


Even though we did not luck out with the Wave lottery, we still consider ourselves incredibly lucky. We used our time in Kanab to check out a bit of northern Arizona, including visiting the Grand Canyon and the unbelievably beautiful Antelope Canyon. We also caught a glimpse of Lake Powell, stopped by the Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River, and watched the sun set over the surreal landscape of the Toadstools.

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