The Utah Hiking Permit Lottery

No, we know. Utah doesn’t have a conventional lottery where people can win something as mundane as money. Otherwise, Utahns wouldn’t be rushing over the border to Evanston, Wyo. every time the Powerball Jackpot climbs over $1 billion. But there is a lottery that you can play right here in the Beehive State, with a prize you can’t put a value on: a rare, coveted permit to enjoy Utah’s most exceptional, pristine trails and (almost) untouched landscapes. 

Limiting the number of visitors through a lottery process helps preserve and protect these national treasures by preventing damage to the natural landscape, so more visitors can enjoy them for years to come. But, we’re not going to lie…it’s kind of a pain. You can’t just walk into a gas station or convenience store, pick out some numbers and buy a ticket. 

Zion National Park has three popular hiking areas that require separate day-use permits which can only be acquired through various online lottery and drawing systems and can require planning  your trip up-to three months in advance (only to have it all fall through if you don’t win): 

The Virgin River Narrows, a 16-mile hike through dizzying slot canyons and the Virgin River; Angels Landing, a tricky 5.4-mile round-trip hike on a trail cut out of solid red rock up 1,488 feet to the top of a rock formation and breathtaking views of the park; and The Subway, a 9-mile round-trip hike through a uniquely tunnel-shaped slot canyon that requires hikers to wade in knee-deep water and scramble over large boulders.

The most coveted of all permits is to hike The Wave in the BLM’s Coyote Buttes North area, which, as locals tell it, it’s the hardest permit to get. It’s also pretty tough to get there, too, even if you have a permit. The hike to the Wave, a stunning and colorful sandstone formation evocative of its namesake, is a demanding 6.4 mile round-trip. Each day of the season (Spring–Fall), of the thousands of people applying only 64 visitors can get a permit. Of the people planning four months in advance, 48 of them are picked ahead of time through the online lottery system, but—for the true risk-seeking gamblers—16 people can get permits in the daily lottery. Those folks travel all the way to the Utah-Arizona border, two days before the day they want to hike, and go all-in just hoping their number comes up. 

Even with the best laid plans, we’re gambling on quite a bit when we hop in our cars and head to Southern Utah for an excursion in the great outdoors. We have to factor in the trickiness of reserving a high-demand campground, getting a timed entry slot for the National Park itself, and finding (legal) parking. And this time of year, inclement weather and flash flooding could close just about any trail in or around Zion or Arches the day you’re scheduled to hike it. And no, you can’t reschedule and there are no refunds. 

Once you calculate all of that…Who are we kidding? Those odds are still way better than the odds of winning the actual lottery and, for some, the rewards are much greater. 

Christie Porter
Christie Porter
Christie Porter is the managing editor of Salt Lake Magazine. She has worked as a journalist for nearly a decade, writing about everything under the sun, but she really loves writing about nerdy things and the weird stuff. She recently published her first comic book short this year.

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