The odds of winning $1 on certain scratch tickets are just over 20 percent. The odds of winning a permit to visit Coyote Buttes North, home of the famous Wave? About 4 percent during peak season.
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.
Editor’s Note: Some parks may have reduced amenities or limited operating hours due to the pandemic. Be sure to check with the park directly before visiting, and follow all local travel rules.
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 a nonrefundable $9 fee each time they apply (and can only enter the lottery once each month) and can choose up to three potential visitation dates per month. The lottery is run four months ahead, so if you want to visit the Wave in May, apply in January. If you win, the permit cost is $7 per person, and you’ll receive a route map with photos of landmarks and GPS coordinates to help you find your way along the 6.4-mile backcountry hike to the Wave.
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 National Park. 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. In order to limit traffic on the road, the NPS closed all but a small part (15-miles) of it to private vehicles. If you want to travel on it after mile 15, you’ll need to book a trip through one of the tour bus companies that have a contract with the park, go on foot/bicycle—or win the yearly lottery.
The Denali Road lottery runs every year from June 1 through June 30, and winners are assigned one of four dates to drive the road (dates vary by year, but are always the second weekend after Labor Day). To enter, you’ll need to pay a nonrefundable $15 application fee, and winners will have to pay $25 for their permit, plus a $15 per person entrance fee for the park.
An average of 11,000 people with Denali road trip dreams apply every year for the 1,200 available permits (300 per each day of the four-day event).
You’ll be gambling on the weather in this lottery as well, as that will determine how far you are allowed to drive. An early snow might cause the road to only be open for 15-miles, whereas good conditions will allow winners to drive out all the way to the end of the road.
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 2006, the NPS decided that the insanely long waiting list would be replaced by a lottery.
This weighted lottery gives preference to those who were on the old waitlist, as well as people who have not been rafting on the Colorado River recently.
The main lottery is held once a year during the first three weeks in February, and follow-up lotteries are held throughout the year to reassign spots from any cancelled trips. There is $25 fee to apply for the lottery, and the river permit costs $90 per person.
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 swim past during their upstream migration. Can’t bear to miss that? Enter the lottery and you might be one of the lucky 10 people per day that are allowed to view the spectacle between June and August.
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 one of the 185 permits available, you’ll be allowed to camp at the campground, visit the sanctuary, and attend guided bear viewing sessions over a designated four-day period.
Half Dome Cables Lottery
A 14-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 visitors every year.
The steel cables are only up from late May to mid-October, and may be taken down early or put up late due to weather conditions. During this season, only 300 daily permits (225 for hikers and 75 for backpackers) are issued to summit Half Dome. The NPS put together some helpful charts here showing you when you’ll have the best chance of scoring a permit (Wednesdays are the least-popular days).
The lottery runs March 1 through March 31, and you designate a specific date or range of dates you would like to climb. Feeling spontaneous? Around 50 permits are made through a daily lottery that you can enter two days before your chosen hiking date. You’ll pay $10 to enter the lottery and $10 for a permit if you’re successful.
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 $65 per person for a dorm room). Located at 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.
The lottery is even more exclusive this year, as the dormitories are closed through at least February 2022 (private cabins are still available).
The lottery is held monthly between the 1st and 25th and runs 15 months ahead (so entries made in January 2021 will be for reservations in March 2022.) Unlike most of the other lotteries, this one is free to enter.
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Caroline Morse Teel is the Managing Editor at SmarterTravel. Follow her on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline.
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