Editor’s note: It gives me great pleasure to introduce Dan Warren, our newest writer here at The Royal Tour. I’ve known Dan since kindergarten, traveled with him on several occasions, and am lucky to consider him one of my closest friends. I know you’ll love hearing his perspective on travel and the world. His index can be found here.
I first learned about the Wave about five years ago. I was doing some travel research to revamp my bucket list, when I realized that there was an amazing natural wonder in my backyard. Well, technically, it is a five-hour drive, but close enough. I have always been fascinated with natural landscapes and the Wave is nature at her best. Sounds like a perfect spot for a weekend getaway, right? The only problem was, that I was not the only one interested.
The Wave began forming approximately 190 million years ago during the Jurassic period. Millions of years of erosion and voila! No one knows who first discovered the Wave, but the story goes that the locals knew about it for decades before it was found by outsiders. After being popularized in the 1990s on a German travel brochure, it was featured in a German movie Faszination Natur in 1996. How a rock formation in Arizona became a part of German cinema still baffles me. But needless to say, the word started to spread. However, it still was relatively unknown until Microsoft released Windows 7 on July 22, 2009. And guess what was featured front and center on the desktop wallpaper? By then, millions of people were clamoring to see the Wave in person and as a result, the Bureau of Land Management decided that they had better protect if it was going to last. Enter the lottery.
The online lottery system was created to limit the number of daily visitors to the Wave in order to preserve it. On the first of every month, they issue ten passes for each day of the month. But it is not the month that you apply, it is for 3+ months down the road. So, for example, if you apply in November, the winners for March are announced on December 1. You can apply only once per month and the max group size that you can apply for is 6. It costs $9 each time you apply and the fee is non-refundable if you win or lose. If you do get lucky enough to win, then it is an additional $7 for the permit. Seems like a small price to pay, right? If you win on your first try, then yes. But since the lottery system was created nearly a decade ago, the chances of winning have decreased each year. In 2017, there were 161,467 applicants for 7,300 permits. That represented about a 4.5% chance of winning. Since then, the number of applicants has increased considerably and it is estimated that the chances of winning now is about 1-3%, depending on which month you apply. Winter and summer months are less desirable, so it is slightly easier to win for these months. Now, if the online lottery isn’t your thing, you can take the risk and apply in person. Each day, at the Kanab Visitor Center, they issue an additional 10 permits per day for the following day. It costs $5 per entry and a $7 fee for the permit if you win. The odds are much higher to win in person, but they are still not great. And of course, you run the risk of making a trip to Northern Arizona empty-handed.
Although I live relatively close to the Wave compared to most, my wife and I save most of our time off for international traveling. The thought of ten hours of driving with no payout seemed too high of price to pay. So, back in 2017, I decided that I was going to apply for the lottery every month until I won. How long could it really take? Three years later, I still hadn’t won.
At the end of April 2020, I applied to the lottery as I always had. At the time, you could see how many people applied for each day and so there was a small advantage to waiting to the very end of the month to apply on the days that had less applicants. Unfortunately, now you can’t see how many people apply for each day, so it doesn’t really matter when you apply. I looked at my email on May 1 and at first glance, I thought I saw the words I had seen so many times before: “Unfortunately the dates and entries you chose did not become available to you in our lottery application process for a Coyote Buttes North permit.” But after looking again, I was surprised to see the words “Congratulations, you were selected in our lottery application process for a Coyote Buttes North permit.” I was at work at the time and I literally raised my arms and shouted. My colleagues looked at me with curiosity. I had won the lottery for August 12, right in the middle of the hottest month of the year. But I didn’t care one bit.
Since the day I won was on a Wednesday, I decided to take the entire week off from work and make a vacation out of it. The closest towns to the Wave trailhead are Kanab, Utah and Page, Arizona. The trailhead is actually in Utah, but the Wave itself is in Arizona. I chose Page even though it is slightly farther because we wanted to go to Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend. We knew that we had to get to the Wave early because of the extreme heat. Although the pass was good for 24 hours, my goal was to be back to the car by noon. The hike to the Wave from the Wire Pass Trailhead is approximately three miles each way. The hike itself is not that strenuous, but the conditions and directions can be a challenge.
When you win the lottery, they send you a several important items, including a map, a permit for your car, and a permit that you must attach to your pack that can be visible at all times. The trail itself is unmarked. This is probably to discourage those who haven’t procured passes to stay away. Supposedly, there are several rangers who check the cars and your hiking permit, though we didn’t see them. If you get caught, it is punishable by a fine between $1000-$10000 and some jail time for trespassing. A stiff penalty that is not worth the risk in my opinion.
When the day of the hike finally came, we woke up at 4:30 AM. The drive was about an hour and we made it to the trailhead around 6 AM. There were already three other cars in the parking lot, so clearly we weren’t the only ones with a plan to beat the heat. We brought plenty of snacks and about a gallon of water each. It was still dark when we began hiking, so we brought our headlamps. One of the perks of how restrictive they are with permits is that we didn’t see a single person on the hike to the Wave. The hike itself took about two hours. We probably could have made it quicker if we knew where we going, but the directions on the map are not great. There were more than a couple times where we were not sure if we were going the right way.
After hiking for a while, we followed a trail up a steep mountainside. Venturing deeper along the mountain pass, we began to see the striations in the rock. We followed them down a small slope and as we turned the corner, the famous red rock exploded into view. And just like that, we were there.
Because this had been such a long time coming and I had done a lot of research on the Wave, my expectations were high. I was a bit afraid that I would be disappointed as a result. But this was not the case. The Wave is one of those special places that makes you in awe of nature’s capabilities. A true marvel that sticks in the fabric of your memory forever.
The area itself is not that large. You can pretty much explore it all within 10-15 minutes. But if you want to photograph the Wave, like most do, then you can spend hours trying to get the light right. When we first arrived, I spent a good amount of time capturing the rock formations from multiple angles. We then got to know the other couples who had made the same journey and then enjoyed some well-deserved rest. I would have liked to stay there all day, but I knew were we had a time limit because of the weather. We ended up spending about two hours at the Wave, which was just enough time to appreciate it.
Although we knew the way, the hike back was considerably more difficult due to the heat. By 10 AM, it was close to 100 degrees and we felt it. We drank as much water as we could, but the lack of shade made it challenging. Both of us felt the beginning phases of heat stroke by the time we made it back to the car, but thankfully it was nothing that cold air and water couldn’t fix. If you happen to win passes during the summer months, I recommend you plan on leaving early. Although it took a lot of planning and a bit of sacrifice, it was an adventure that I will remember for the rest of my life. And one that I hope you get to experience someday.
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