The odds of winning $1 on certain scratch tickets are just over 10 percent. The odds of winning a permit to visit Coyote Buttes North, home of the famous Wave? About 4 percent during peak season.
American Parks Lottery
In order to keep certain parts of America’s park system from getting overrun with visitors, some parks have instituted a lottery system for entrance. Here are some of the best worth trying your luck at.
Coyote Buttes North Lottery
The Wave is a surreal-looking natural sandstone rock formation that undulates across the desert landscape of Coyote Buttes. In order to protect this fragile formation, only 20 people are allowed to visit it each day, with 10 permits being given away in advance in an online lottery and the remaining 10 spots drawn during a same-day walk-in lottery. Applicants must pay $5 each time they apply, and they can only apply for up to three potential dates per month. If you win, the permit cost is $7 per person, and you’ll receive a map with photographic landmarks showing the way to the Wave, which can be hard to find as there are no marked trails.
Fun fact: The Wave’s popularity is in part due to its feature as desktop wallpaper on Windows 7, which gave cubicle-dwellers everywhere something to dream about while trapped at their desks.
Denali Road Lottery
The 92-mile long Denali Park Road runs parallel to the breathtaking Alaska range, and is the only road in the Denali. This scenic path is popular for its mountain and valley views and wildlife sightings, but you can’t just take an impromptu road trip here. After the road became too crowded, attracting nearly 2,000 vehicles per day, the NPS decided to limit the drive to 400 permit holders daily.
An average of 10,000 people with Denali road trip dreams apply every year for the 1,600 available permits. Bus trips are available to tourists in the summer, and no lottery is required for those. Private vehicles are only allowed to drive the first 15 miles of the road without a permit.
Private Grand Canyon Rafting Trip Lottery
Want to raft down the Grand Canyon, but don’t want your experience ruined by a terrible guide or annoying tour groups? Apparently a lot of people feel the same way, as permits for 12- to 25-day self-guided raft trips from Lees Ferry to Diamond Creek formerly had a 27-year waitlist. In 2012, the NPS decided that the insanely long waiting list would be replaced by a lottery.
This weighted lottery gives those who have entered in previous years a better chance at winning than first-timers, so don’t give up if you don’t snag one of the 460 permits on your first try.
Guided Bear Viewing at McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and Refuge
In the summer, up to 144 wild brown bears a day descend on McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and Refuge to fish for the thousands of salmon that swimg past during their upstream migration. Can’t bear to miss that? Enter the lottery and you might be one of the lucky 10 people allowed to view the spectacle each day between June 7 and August 25.
The program limits the number of people who may be present at McNeil River Falls (or the other viewing locations) to no more than 10 individuals, so as not to disturb the bears. If you win, you’ll be allowed to camp at the campground, visit the sanctuary, and attend guided bear viewing sessions.
Half Dome Cables Lottery
A 17-mile hike seems tough enough to weed out most people, but not at Yosemite’s most famous attraction, Half Dome. Despite the fact that this incredibly hard hike involves scrambling up steep granite domes using steel cables and wooden planks as makeshift stairs to reach the summit, the hike attracts hundreds of would-be hikers.
The steel cables are only up from late May to October, and during this time only 300 permits are issued per day for the top of Half Dome. The NPS put together some helpful charts here showing you when you’ll have the best chance of scoring a permit (Weekdays have a 7 percent chance of success for the preseason lottery, versus 2 percent on weekends).
Phantom Ranch Lottery
Phantom Ranch is one of the most exclusive accommodations in the world, and it’s not because of the cost (which starts at a very reasonable $51 per person for a dorm room). Located in the bottom of the Grand Canyon, Phantom Ranch is only accessible by hiking or riding a mule the approximately 7.5 miles down, or by rafting in via the Colorado River.
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Caroline Morse Teel is a Senior Editor at SmarterTravel. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline.