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These U.S. Parks Require Winning the Lottery to Visit

By Lauren David
January 27, 2022
Shutterstock Rf 477545791
©Kris Wiktor/Shutterstock
These great parks have a lottery system. Here's how to enter.

Many of us may be feeling the itch to travel after staying home for almost a year as we continue living through a pandemic. When it is safe to travel again, it’s possible that our travel priorities have shifted. Maybe you prefer to spend more time outdoors. If you're wanting to get out more in nature and visit specific parks or recreation areas, you’re going to need to do some extra planning. Several U.S. parks require entering and winning a lottery to have the opportunity to visit, such as reaching the summit of Half Dome or rafting down the San Juan River. Implementing a lottery is one way to minimize human impact on fragile ecosystems by reducing crowds and traffic.

Please make sure you check for any COVID-19 pandemic restrictions before you plan or depart on any trip.

San Juan River, Utah

Floating or rafting down the San Juan River in southeast Utah may be high on your list, especially if you want to traverse through splendid red rock canyons full of history and wildlife. A permit is required between Montezuma Creek and Clay Hills Crossing, comprising 102 miles of the river. Some sections of the river are known for being calm and mellow, while other parts of the river require boating and rafting skills to navigate Class II to III rapids.

How to enter: Lottery opens from December to the end of January for trips launching April 15 - July 15. Applicants will be informed on February 16. Any cancelled or unclaimed trips are released to reserve online starting March 16. Trips from July 16- December 31 also become available for advanced reservation.

Costs: A $6 non-refundable fee for lottery or advanced reservations. There are additional permit fees with varying prices, depending on the river segment, as well as if you camp or hike within the Navajo Nation section of the river.


Rafts and kayaks descend the Snake River in Hells Canyon on the border between Idaho and Oregon. ©thinair28/Getty Images

Snake River in Hells Canyon Oregon, Washington and Idaho

The majestic Snake River ebbs and flows through the deepest river-carved gorge in North America, known as Hells Canyon. Nestled between eastern Oregon and Washington and western Idaho, Hell’s Canyon is popular for braving rapids from Class II to Class V. There are also sections of the river for relaxing float trips. With the help of binoculars, you can often spot the great blue heron or bighorn sheep. Three private launches are allowed per day with no more than 24 people per group or launch (depending on type of watercraft), as well as two commercial launches during the primary season, from the end of May through September 10th each year.

How to enter: Lottery opens in December and the application closes at the end of January. On March 16, any permits unclaimed or cancelled are released to the public and are available to reserve online.

Costs: A non-refundable $6 fee to enter the lottery. If awarded a permit, there are no (additional) entrance fees.


Half Dome Cables, Yosemite California

The striking granite dome that rises about 5,000 feet above Yosemite Valley is a symbol of this National park. For many hikers and mountain climbers, reaching the top is a rite of passage. But this 10-12 hour hike isn’t for the faint of heart; it’s a strenuous trail and requires hikers to be in good physical health. The last 400 feet may seem to be the hardest part requiring the famous cables to ascend to the summit but it’s only one of the many challenges.

How to enter: The preseason lottery is open from March 1-March 31 with around 225 permits offered each day. Daily lotteries occur from May 31- October 13 (though dates subject to change) with a two day advanced window. So if you want to hike on a Tuesday, you need to apply on Sunday and hope you get lucky. Fifty permits are usually allotted per day.

Costs: There is a $10 non-refundable fee to partake in the lottery. If selected, you will incur a $10 permit fee per person for a specific day.



Rafting the Grand Canyon
Rafting on the Colorado River in the Gran Canyon at sunrise. ©Jim Mallouk/Shutterstock

Grand Canyon Rafting, Arizona

Rafting down the Colorado River through the incredible Grand Canyon may be a dream come true. But you’re definitely going to need to plan in advance to have a chance at the unique view from the water. Self-guided tours, often referred to as private rafting, are available via the weighted lottery.

Because the river is challenging and technical, the National Park Service requires that at least one person in the group has whitewater rafting experience and skills to navigate the river.

How to enter: The lottery takes place for three weeks in February for the opportunity to choose up to 5 specific dates for the following year. If there are cancellations by winners or unclaimed trips, applicants can partake in additional lotteries. But hopefuls will need to be attentive to their email as extra lotteries have a super short window, usually two days, to enter.

Costs: Applying to the lottery incurs a non-refundable $25 fee. If you win a launch date, you’ll be required to pay a deposit confirming your spot and will go towards covering additional expenses, including a park entrance fee and river permit per person.


The Wave, located in the desert close the border of Arizona and Utah, is probably one of the most colorful and amazing sandstone rock formations in the world. Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, Colorado Plateau, Coyote Buttes, Arizona. ©Jim Mallouk/Shutterstock

Coyote Buttes North (The Wave), Utah

Coyote Buttes North is most well-known for the The Wave, an impressive geological sandstone formation, located within the 112,500-acre Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness. Permits are required to access this undeveloped area and is considered the backcountry—there are no designated trails or bathrooms. Permit-holders should be in good physical health to hike the challenging 6.4 round-trip trail. A maximum of 64 people are allowed to enter the park each day and in groups of up to six people.

How to enter: The lottery opens on the first of each month for the chance to get a day use permit four months later. For example, if you apply during the month of April, if you “win” a permit, you’ll be given a date in August. There are two lottery systems: advanced online and walk-in. The advanced lottery awards permits for forty-eight people or 12 groups per day and up to sixteen people can get lucky in the walk-in lottery. Each person must be listed on the permit, including babies, and pay an entrance fee.

Cost: The lottery costs a non-refundable $9 application fee. If you are granted a permit, the cost per person is $7.



Havasu Falls, waterfalls in the Grand Canyon, Arizona. ©ronnybas/Shutterstock

Havasupai Falls, Arizona

Havasupai Falls is part of the Grand Canyon system in Arizona but it is technically outside the park in tribal land that belongs to the Havasupai tribe. It is a known bucket-list hike for hikers and campers who want to experience the beautiful blue water falling over the canyon. In order to hike the canyon, people are required to have a reservation of at least 3 nights, so people should be comfortable with distance hiking.

How to enter: The lottery closes on February 1 each year, though it is closed in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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