Posted by: kerryl29 | August 22, 2022

“The Wave”: The Backstory

In my previous installment in this series, I provided a broad introduction to this past winter’s trip to Vermillion Cliffs National Monument and Death Valley National Park. This installment will detail the experience traveling from the Midwest to Las Vegas and the lottery process for “The Wave.” There will be very little imagery in this post; I will make up for that in the installment that follows.

The trip started with significant travel problems.  A snowstorm hit a huge portion of the mid-section of the United States on the day that I was supposed to fly from Chicago to Las Vegas.  The storm was not unexpected, and in the days leading up to the date of departure, Jason and I had discussed what we were going to do if there was a massive travel mishap for either one of us.  I say either one because Jason, who was planning to drive from Colorado Springs to Kanab, Utah, was facing the prospect of crossing the Rocky Mountains in a snowstorm.  Ultimately, we basically crossed our fingers and hoped.

I received updates from United Airlines, my carrier for the flight, through the day telling me that there would be delays and suggesting, not very subtly, that I consider rebooking on another flight.  The problem was, if I didn’t arrive on the scheduled day, I was facing all kinds of logistical issues, like having to rebook a rental vehicle and losing the cost of a night’s lodging.  So, I went to the airport and tried to think optimistic thoughts. 

On the drive to O’Hare, I received a text from United telling me that the flight had been delayed—but not canceled.  At least not yet.  I decided to chance it and continued to the airport through a steady snowfall.  Traffic was bad, but not totally impossible.

When I arrived at O’Hare and got myself inside, I was astonished at what I saw…or didn’t see.  The place was a ghost town.  I have been inside the United terminal at O’Hare hundreds of times over the years and I have never, ever seen it like it was that afternoon.  When I checked the flight departure board, I saw why:  at least ¾ of the day’s flights had already been canceled.  There was no arrival board, but I’m sure at least that many incoming flights had been killed for the day as well.  My flight was still shown as delayed—with a projected flight time, a couple of hours later than originally scheduled.  I had a bag to check, but didn’t want to do so until I was confident that the flight would actually go out at some point, because I feared the process of trying to reclaim my bag if the flight was axed.  I also, briefly, considered what I’d do to get home if the flight was canceled.  I had no brilliant ideas.

I hung around the virtually empty terminal.  I received at least four updates from United—all rescheduling the flight again.  At one point they suggested that it would leave roughly five hours after it was originally scheduled, but that was later revised to an earlier time.  The issue, I ultimately discovered, dealt with the plane.  Basically, there wasn’t one.  Unless a flight came in from—of all places—Miami, there was no craft.  And that Miami to Chicago flight kept being delayed (but not canceled).  I decided that, once I was certain that the flight from Miami was in the air, I would check my bag.  Monitoring the situation on the United app on my phone, I finally got that confirmation at something like 4 PM—about 2 ½ hours after I arrived at O’Hare.  I went ahead and checked my bag.  There was no line.  There was no line at security either (I have TSA Precheck, but it wouldn’t have mattered in this day).  There was almost no one in the gate part of the terminal either.  Most of the concessions were closed—employees had either been unable to get to work that day due to the weather or had been told to stay home since there would be little business. 

After a wait of roughly two hours at the gate—the crew for the outgoing flight was there, which made me feel just about certain that the plane would eventually leave—the Miami flight came in.  About a dozen passengers straggled off.  I figured that this was just the start of the usual deplaning, but shortly after the first group of passengers came off, the entire flight crew did as well.  Knowing that the flight crew doesn’t leave the plane until all of the passengers are off, I realized that a nearly empty plane had arrived from Miami.

We boarded.  It became clear pretty quickly that, while this plane wasn’t anything like empty, it wasn’t remotely close to being full, either.  It’s been ages since I was on a plane anywhere near as empty as this one—it was half full, perhaps a tad more.  A flight attendant came down the aisle after the door was closed and asked if anyone wanted to move because there was plenty of room elsewhere.  I had an entire bank of seats to myself.  The captain addressed the cabin before push back, apologizing for all the delays, and told us that there would be one more; the plane needed to be deiced.  That would add at least another 20 minutes before we left, but it had to be done.

The flight from Chicago to Las Vegas takes nearly four hours, and we didn’t get off the ground until at least 7 PM Chicago time (roughly 4 ½ hours after the scheduled departure).  By picking up two time zone hours, we arrived in Las Vegas around 9 PM local time.  I had to claim baggage and then go through an absurd process to pick up my rental car, which I will not recount in detail in an attempt to retain my sanity.  Suffice to say that, by the time I arrived at the hotel I was staying at that evening, it was nearly 11 PM Pacific Time (that would be 1 AM back In Chicago).  I hadn’t eaten anything, at that point, in something like 12 hours.  I will not detail the experience of getting something to eat, either.

Fortunately, I had all day the following day to make the drive to Kanab, which is about 3 ½ hours from Las Vegas.  The drive, I’m happy to report, was uneventful, and I arrived there mid-afternoon.  Jason had needed to postpone his departure by at least 12 hours to give road crews time to clear the high mountain passes on I-70 in Colorado, but he eventually texted me that he was on his way.  He hoped he’d be able to make it without stopping, but if he did, it would be probably 2 AM, or later.  I told him not to hurry.

We actually did have something going on the following day.  That was dealing with the lottery for a permit to visit The Wave.  Let me explain.  The Wave is a unique rock formation in a permit-restricted area located in the Coyote Buttes North (CBN) section of Vermillion Cliffs National Monument in Arizona, just south of the border with Utah.  Many of you reading this have surely heard of this feature as it’s one of the world’s most iconic natural features.  People come from all over the globe to see “The Wave.”  The area is under the auspices of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). 

Because there is so much interest in The Wave, the BLM imposed permit limitations many years ago, in an attempt to preserve the area.  An online lottery system was put into place, with limited entry allowed.  The demand for this online lottery so exceeds the supply of daily permits that the odds of winning a permit via the online lottery are extremely low.  But there is another crack at the lottery…or, to be accurate, there was another crack at the lottery.  (The BLM has, relatively recently, eliminated this “second crack” that I’m about to describe.  When we made our plans to visit the area—our trip was in the first half of February, 2022–we did not know that the system I’m about to describe was about to become extinct.)  The deal was that there was a “walk-in” permit drawing, held at a site in Kanab, awarding permits for the following day.  So, if you were there on a Monday, you could enter this walk-in lottery that morning for a permit applicble for Tuesday.  During most of the year, these walk-in lotteries were held every day, but for a few months in the winter, the drawings were only held Monday through Friday.  On Friday during these winter months, a drawing was held for permits for the following three days—Saturday, Sunday and Monday.  If you’re thinking that, if you have any flexibility at all, you get the biggest bang for the buck by entering a Friday walk-in lottery drawing during the winter months, you’re dead on.  At least you used to be, as this process has, as I mentioned above, disappeared entirely.

Jason, having been to the Wave once, several years prior, knew all about the ins and outs of the drawings, so it was no accident that our plan involved being in Kanab, in the winter, for a Friday morning drawing.  Typically, a few dozen groups of people showed up for the Friday drawing at that time of year.  When we were there, the limit was up to four groups of people or a total of 16 people for each day, whichever comes first.  What Jason told me, based on his experience, was that many of the people who show up on Friday aren’t prepared to take any of the three days when they might win a spot; they were hoping for one specific day of the three.  The Friday walk-in drawing—which is literally done using a bingo wheel with numbered balls—is done chronologically.  The permits for Saturday are done first, then Sunday, etc.  You don’t have a choice of which day—you either take the permit for the day drawn when offered, or your number goes back in the wheel and another ball is drawn.

When we were there, the drawing had been moved from the joint Park Service/BLM visitor center to a public meeting location in town, to provide more space during the age of COVID.

While I was on my own Thursday afternoon, the day I arrived in Kanab, I took a drive—Kanab is a very small town—and found the drawing site.  I had spoken to Jason while he was driving from Colorado Springs, and it was understood that if he couldn’t make it in one night, I would go to the lottery site and enter the drawing for both of us.

On Friday morning, I was up in plenty of time for the 9 AM drawing.  Jason contacted me…he’d made it to Kanab in the middle of the night and had crashed in one of the local motels and managed to get about four hours of sleep.  I told him I could handle the drawing myself, but he said he’d meet me there.  I went early and was the second car In the parking lot.  Slowly but surely more people showed up.  The building was not yet open.  Eventually, I saw someone open a door to the site and very shortly after that Jason arrived.  We exchanged greetings and made our way into the center.  Roughly 35 groups/individuals entered the lottery, including us.  As is my wont, I immediately figured the approximate odds of us winning one of the spots—it had to be approximate, because there was no way to know exactly how many people were in each group or what percentage of the groups present were willing to accept any day offered.  If I’d known those things, I would have calculated the odds exactly.  (It’s what I do.)

The lottery started.  The bingo wheel was spun and a ball was withdrawn.  The number on it wasn’t ours.  When people had their numbers drawn, they were asked whether they would accept the permit for that day.  If they said yes, most of the people assembled applauded.  I’m not kidding, that’s how valued these permits are.

We proceeded through Saturday’s offerings, and all five permits were offered and, eventually, accepted.  Several people turned the permits down, apparently hoping for either Sunday or Monday.  When Saturday was completed, a significant minority of the remaining people got up and left.  Jason had told me this would happen; these were folks who couldn’t or wouldn’t stick around for Sunday or Monday.  There were fewer permits available now, but our odds were almost certainly better now than they had been at the start. 

The Sunday drawing started.  A ball was drawn and, again, it wasn’t ours.  Another ball was drawn and the number this time matched ours!  We indicated that we held the application number matching the ball.  Did we accept the permit?  Yes, we both said, rather loudly.  The audience cheered.  We had won a permit to The Wave on Sunday!

The settling up and actual issuing of the permits took place at the end of the lottery.  Eventually, all of the permits were spoken for and the lottery ended.  A fairly large number of those in attendance left empty-handed and, presumably, disappointed.  We had been lucky.

We paid our fee and got our permit.  It was technically in my name and I tied it on to my backpack.  We had to be prepared, on Sunday, to prove we belonged in the area in case anyone from the BLM was checking—something that apparently happens quite frequently.  We were then given a brief orientation about CBN.  We were told, for instance, that there was no truly marked trail from the parking area to The Wave, but that were a few modest trail markers and some landmarks we could use to make the 3 ½ mile (one way) hike.  We were told that the hike was “moderate” in difficulty, that we needed to be sure to bring plenty of water, food and sunscreen with us, and that we really needed to be back at the trailhead by dark.  There was no hard and fast rule that required us to be out of the area by dark, but we were told it was in our best interests to do so since,“by far,” the biggest problem in terms of search and rescue at CBN was represented by people staying out too long and getting lost in the dark trying to find their way back to the parking area.

Sunday was now accounted for.  In the meantime, we had Saturday to fill.  Our plan had been to visit another permit-restricted area—Cottonwood Cove, by name—in the Coyote Buttes South (CBS) part of Vermillion Cliffs.  While CBS, a designated wilderness area, requires a permit, demand for these permits is minimal.  Jason told me that, unlike The Wave, we’d have no problem securing a permit for CBS.  He was right.  All we needed to do was fork over the required fee and we had a permit for CBS for Saturday.  We decided that we’d head up to Cottonwood Cove—the primitive roads need to be taken slowly and a four-wheel drive vehicle is a must, as it was for our foray into the nearby White Pocket section of Vermillion Cliffs the previous spring.  It was late morning by the time we were done at the center.  We went back to our respective hotels and checked out.  The drive to the access to the Vermillion Cliffs back country (a usually decently graded unpaved thoroughfare known as House Rock Valley Road), is about an hour’s drive from Kanab.  From there, it’s another 90 minutes or so on some very confusing unmaintained 4WD roads to Cottonwood Cove.  The point is, there was no practical way to stay in Kanab and spend time at Cottonwood Cove.  We were going to have to camp (we knew this), as we did at White Pocket, and Jason had brought all of the same camping gear we used during our Utah trip in the spring of 2021.

We drove our vehicles to House Rock Valley Road.  At a spot along the road, just off the main highway, there is a large parking area.  We moved all the camping gear, and everything else Jason had brought that he’d need for the next couple of days, from his Toyota Prius into the large SUV I had rented. Jason locked his car and we piled into the SUV, and made the drive to Cottonwood Cove, carefully following a map that we had of the monument’s road system.  We arrived at Cottonwood Cove about 2 ½ hours before sunset.  There was no one there.

We poked around and found what we thought would make a suitable campsite (this was a dispersed camping situation) and I assisted Jason as he set up the tent.  When we were done, there was perhaps an hour and-a-half minutes until sunset. We technically weren’t permitted to hit the Cottonwood Cove area until the next day, so we decided to explore the non-permit-restricted adjoining area for a little while, until it got dark.  That didn’t take long.  I pulled the camera out once during this time, and the image I produced—the very first image I made with my newly acquired 100-400 mm Z lens—is below.

Cottonwood Cove, Coyote Buttes South, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, Arizona

Though it was cloudless, it got dark quickly.  It also got cold quickly.  Cottonwood Cove is more than 5000 feet above sea level and, while the temperature was cool (probably not even 40 degrees F in the shade) while the sun was out, it became downright cold very quickly thereafter.  It was pitch dark by 7 PM and we weren’t anywhere near ready to go to sleep quite yet.  We also didn’t much feel like sitting outside, so we retreated to the car.  I turned on the ignition and ran the heater periodically, to keep things pleasant, and we watched as the car’s thermometer dropped.  It wasn’t long before it dropped below 20 degrees (F).  This was becoming worrisome.  We had two zero-degree sleeping bags and two 20-degree sleeping bags but how cold was it going to get, and how well were we going to be able to tolerate being out in it?

Eventually, we decided what to do.  Jason was going to sleep in the tent, but he’d have one zero-degree bag stuffed inside the other, while sleeping on a low cot, to keep him off the ground.  I’d sleep (or try to) in the back of the vehicle (with the back seat down, I could stretch out).  I’d have the two 20-degree bags.  I used one as a pad and climbed inside the other.  My job was to set my phone’s alarm so we could get up early enough to be out and about to photograph sunrise the following morning.

It was brutally cold in the car—I can only imagine how bad it was outside.  (We estimated it dropped to at least 12 degrees—very possibly lower—overnight.)  I kept all of my clothing—thermal long underwear, top and bottom, heavy wool socks, and a winter hat, as well as a mid-weight lined jacket and gloves on my hands—on the entire time.  The only things I took off were my shoes.  And I was still cold, at least at first.  But eventually, after I managed to settle my feet, I discovered that if I zipped the sleeping bag all the way up, it was possible to stay comfortable.  Eventually, I fell asleep.

The alarm woke me about an hour before sunrise.  It had become so cold in the car that the water bottles we had filled had frozen solid.  I carefully got myself out of the car—it was still almost completely dark—and roused Jason in the tent.  He had done okay—the two bags had been enough.  We slogged our way into Cottonwood Cove and tried to stay warm while we looked for a suitable sunrise location, as the light—and eventually the temperature—gradually rose. 

I will detail our day at Cottonwood Cove in the next installment.


  1. Kerry, very interesting account of your lottery and camping experiences. I didn’t know the lottery process had changed, but now that I’ve read the BLM description, it makes a lot of sense. I was afraid that the same-day lottery had been abandoned, so was relieved that it’s still there, just (apparently) more convenient — just minus the Friday for the weekend drawing (from what I can tell after a quick reading).

    • Steve, yeah, there is still an “online walk-in lottery,” which, if it works, would actually be slightly more convenient than the old system. The concern I have is whether some “enterprising” individual or group might find a way to exploit or completely override the geofence. And, to be honest, even if it’s proven to be airtight, the fact that you don’t have to be physically present at the drawing–you can be in Page, for instance, and still participate–and that you have a 12-hour window to put in a walk-in permit application, is almost certainly going to at least marginally increase the number of people who apply.

      On the other hand…assuming that security is air-tight, you have to commit three days to the entire process: first day is the application window (applying for two days hence); second day (assuming you won) you pick up the permits and go through the orientation; third days is the day of the hike. With the old system, the commitment was (typically) only two days. So maybe that will counter some of the tendencies to increase the application volume.

  2. What a nightmare with the flight situation and it is happening world-wide. Sad that it is happening when we need to get the economy going.

    • It’s probably worth reiterating that all of the flight delays I dealt with back in February were (legitimately) weather-related. What’s been going on around the world regarding air travel disruptions for the past few months is systemic.

  3. It can cold very fast soon as the sun goes down. You may have nice day, with a decent temperature, but once the sun goes down, be ready for winter. One time, in May, it was a very warm day around 90, but it snowed very late, that night. Next day, on-and-off snow, temps in the low 30s. It is Colorado at its best regarding changeable weather.

    I think you came at the right time when you shot the fall colors here, 2-3 years back. The drought has tightened, higher fire danger. Pretty cool your son is living out here. You can come whenever you want to shoot Colorado, Four Corners, even Wyoming and Montana.

    • Just to clarify, Jason isn’t my son, he’s a friend of mine, a dozen-odd years my junior, who resides with his wife and family in the Springs.

  4. Got it. Hope you’ve been doing well. The last couple of years have been crazy with the covid stuff and unexpected fires.

    • I’m hanging in there, all things considered; plenty of ups and downs, of varying levels of consequence.. I hope things are okay on your end.

  5. […] the first full day of this trip, I was aroused by the alarm on my phone in the freezing cold of our rented SUV’s interior. It was still dark and very cold, and there was a pretty strong […]

  6. Very interesting story! I’ve wanted to go to The Wave for a long time, but it’s looking more and more like I never will. I’m 66 and my husband is 78 and we’re not going to camp out in zero degree weather for any reason. We’d be lucky to be able to stand up after spending a night in temps like that! I’ll have to do it vicariously through you. Enjoy!

    • Thanks for leaving a comment. Couple points of clarification, because there are some incorrect conclusions being drawn here.

      You don’t need to camp out in freezing weather to visit The Wave. You don’t have to camp out at all, in fact. You could stay in Kanab or Page and drive to the trailhead for The Wave, no problem. (You also don’t have to visit The Wave in February, but that’s a different matter entirely.) Accessing the trailhead to the Wave is actually quite easy; unless there’s been recent significant rain (which will turn House Rock Valley Road into muck) you can get there in a regular passenger vehicle. Under normal circumstances, if I had a permit to visit The Wave and wanted to get out on the trail at (or shortly before) first light, I’d stay in Kanab, and make an early morning of it (it would take about 45 minutes to drive to the trailhead–99% of the route is via a paved U.S. highway). If I didn’t care if I was there first thing, I’d get up at a normal hour take my time.

      Bottom line, again: you absolutely don’t need to camp–in any kind of weather–to visit The Wave. The only advantages to camping (assuming you use Stateline Campground, which is just a few minutes drive from the Wire Pass parking area, which is the jumping off point for The Wave) are the proximity to the start of the hike and saving a few bucks on a hotel room. That’s it.

      We camped for a couple of reasons. One was that we pretty much did have to camp at Cottonwood Cove if we wanted to get out and photograph in the best light of morning, given how remote the location is. And since we were going to be hiking to The Wave first thing the next day, the thought of driving all the way from Cottonwood Cove back to Kanab and then back to the trailhead for The Wave early the following morning wasn’t desirable. All that said, it was MUCH colder than we expected it to be and I wouldn’t have done what we did if I knew it would be that chilly.

      The real problems with gaining access to The Wave are securing a permit to do so in the first place (the demand ALWAYS outstrips the supply), and the physical requirements involved in getting to The Wave. It’s a seven-mile round trip hike and it’s rated, I believe, as moderate. There are few trail markers (so you need some skill in using natural landmarks as guide posts) and it can be a bit strenuous in spots (there are sand dunes as you get close that need to be climbed and descended very near The Wave formation itself). If you’re an experienced hiker and in good shape, you won’t have any problem. Jason and I had no issues at all, and we not only made the round trip, we did a ton of secondary hiking while were there. You need to carry enough water, food and sunscreen to spend most of (or, in our case, all of) the daylight hours out in the field. There are no services out there and, while there will be other people around most of the time, they’ll be relatively few outside of the immediate area around The Wave. We were the last people to clear the area that day. We had considered staying out until sunset and hiking back in the dark, but it was a bald sky day, which meant that it wasn’t going to be a great sunset, and we were a bit dubious about walking back in the pitch dark, given that it’s hard to find the route back to the trailhead without daylight. That worked out as we were making the final hike up a dry wash at dusk, so there were no problems.

      Anyway…while it’s important to be realistic about what a foray to The Wave involves, don’t let the story about the frigid camping deter you, as there’s no need to replicate that experience. There may well be reasons why you choose not to make the pilgrimage, but that shouldn’t be one of them.

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