A scenic overlook in Canyonlands National Park

How to Enter the National Park Lottery System

15 Lotteries Every Outdoor Enthusiast Should Enter

If you think you can just hike down to Phantom Ranch or cable up Half Dome on a whim, think again. Nature tourism has been enjoying a huge boom in the last few years. Those responsible for high-traffic destinations have had to take steps to protect them as a result. 

Protecting local ecosystems, preventing dangerous conditions on trails, and maximizing equal opportunity is all part of why the lottery system is now a commonly used form of management.     

We can’t cover everything in a single post, but we do want to explore some bucket list worthy lotteries with you. Hopefully you’ll come away with a good understanding of what to look for so you can understand the system and add some cool spots to your travel plans!

Phantom Ranch Lottery

The bottom of the Grand Canyon offers a unique outdoor experience, no doubt about it. 

There’s no motorized transportation to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. You either hike in, ride a mule, or take a raft down the Colorado River. Day trips are simple and don’t require permits. But if you want to spend the night, it’s time to join the crowd and enter the lottery. 

Phantom Ranch offers cabins and has a restaurant that requires reservations for a sit-down meal. The lottery is on-going, with applications being received 15 months in advance. That’s right… you’ve got to plan WAY ahead for one of these spots! Selections are made 14 months in advance, and leftovers are released to the public 13 months ahead of intended visits.

Backcountry permits are also on the lottery system. These permits are a requirement for overnight stops outside of reservation campgrounds. The application periods run from the 16th of the month through the 1st of the following month, 4-months prior to the desired travel month. 

The 2024 applications process has moved to Recreation.gov

An Illustration of Grand Canyon National Park by Artist Madeleine Mathis

The Wave Lottery

Within the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness, a particularly striking sandstone formation called The Wave has drawn a lot of attention in recent years. Its curves and layers are easily recognizable and everyone wants a chance to see them in person. 

Overnight trips aren’t an option at The Wave and day hikes are by permit only. This is partly because of being located in a wilderness location with no developed trails… hikers need to be able to navigate off GPS coordinates. But it’s also important to limit visitors to protect the natural formations. 

The lottery for The Wave hike is ongoing with month-long application windows. Selections are made each month for travel 4 months ahead. For instance, during January applications are accepted for a chance to visit in May.

You can make reservations for overnight permits in Paria Canyon. These are not on a lottery system, but can be booked 3 months ahead of your travel dates.

A pic of the wave in Utah.

The Wave from Coyote Buttes North

Yosemite National Park Lottery

While most of the park isn’t on a lottery system, there are certain high-demand campgrounds and trails that are. In 2022 the park decided to test the method for North Pines Campground and received more than 22,000 applicants for the 640 time slots available. The result was that almost half of all sites and dates were reserved in advance of general access booking.

The early access lottery for North Pines Campground in 2023 opened on November 28, 2022 and ran through December 12. Winners were notified December 22.

Half Dome hiking permits are another highly sought after prize now relegated to the lottery system. The pre-season lottery draws for 255 day-hikers for each day starting from when the cables go up. That date is dependent on conditions… for instance, the park estimated they would be up on May 26, 2023 but later reported they were installed on June 13.

The goal of hiking permits is to hit the right volume of traffic. So what about cancellations, you ask? Well, Yosemite has a second lottery to grant access to people that didn’t make the cut in the pre-season drawing. You can apply for these passes 2 days in advance of your desired hiking day and will hopefully get your good news the same evening.

A view of Half Dome from Lower pines campground in Yosemite.

Half Dome from Lower Pines Campground – NPS

Zion National Park Lottery

In Zion National Park, some popular attractions remain open to the public with no reservations necessary. For instance, day-hiking the Narrows doesn’t even require a permit. Thru-hiking it does though, since you’ll be entering wilderness areas. It’s not on a permit system though, so you just need to pay your fee and enjoy your trip! 

But there are a few spots in Zion that do require some forethought and a little luck to access. 

The Left Fork of North Creek (Subway) holds an Advance lottery that is opened for application 2 months before your chosen travel month. Winners are notified on the 5th day of the following month with necessary details and payment deadlines. 

Angel’s Landing features both a seasonal and daily lottery. To plan in advance, throw your hat in the ring for a chance at selecting 7 potential dates/times 2 months in advance of your visit. If you’re already in the area, you can try your luck on a day-before permit. 

All applications and lottery entries can be obtained by creating a Zion account

Descending one of Zion’s many canyons.

Katmai National Park Lottery

If bears are your thing (they should be), a visit to Katmai National Park is probably on your bucket list. An afternoon overlooking Brooks Falls during a summer salmon run will provide plenty of entertainment. 

Staying in Katmai National Park runs the gamut from a permitless backcountry experience, to lottery-free campground reservations, to a stay at Brooks Lodge… but only if you’re lucky on that last one.

The 2024 lottery is already closed, so start making 2025 plans if you want a roof over your head! 

The application period for 2025 stays will begin on December 1, 2023 and run through December 31. Winners are contacted by the end of January in the order they are drawn. 50% of your booking fees will be due within 7 days of confirmation, so have finances in order when you apply.  

A hiker sitting with a BearVault BV450 Bear Canister in Alaska.

A BearVault BV450 with a view in Alaska.

San Juan River Float Lottery

Southeast Utah is home to the picturesque San Juan river, running through red rock canyons rich with history and archaeological wonders. River flow is controlled by the Navajo Dam in New Mexico and the water level is generally high enough for boating no matter what season. 

Floating the San Juan requires a permit year-round. If you want to float during peak season (April 15 – July 15), you’ll want to apply to the advanced reservation seasonal lottery. It opens on December 1, 2023 and will close on January 31, 2024. The date for announcing winners hasn’t been posted but has historically been mid-February. 

The Navajo Nation manages river left between Montezuma Creek and Trimble Camp. If you plan on camping or exploring on that stretch of the river, check for further permitting requirements. 

A group of kayakers float down the San Juan river in Utah.

A float group enjoys the scenery on the San Juan – BLM

Snake River in Hell’s Canyon Lottery

Another canyon river that draws a crowd is the Snake River that forms the boundary between Idaho and Oregon. Multi-day float trips are common given the length of the river and designated first-come-first-serve campsites are scattered along the way. 

Snake River in Hells Canyon participates in the 4 Rivers Lottery Float Reservation System. Application periods begin on December 1 and end on January 31 to issue permits for the following Primary season, which begins on the Friday before Memorial Day and ends on September 10. Dates with extra openings are released to the public in March.

Be sure and communicate a cancellation if you need to! Failing to do so will result in ineligibility for future lotteries.

The Snake River Floaters’ Guide is full of information to make sure your trip is thoughtfully planned. 

A view of Hells Canyon in Idaho.

Hell’s Canyon has some of the most rugged terrain in all of North America – USFS

Congaree National Park Lottery

Whether you call them fireflies or lightning bugs, the cool factor of those flying beetles with fluorescent booties gets a boost at Congaree. Late spring is mating season, and part of that ritual includes syncing up their flashes with each other. When you get swarms of them together the result is impressive. 

Viewing dates for 2023 have passed. Applications were accepted from April 6 at 10:00am EST to April 12 at 10:00am EST. Winners were announced on April 17. Viewings were held on May 13-16 & 19-24. 

2024 viewing and entry dates have yet to be announced. 

In 2023 the cost for application was $1 and winners owed the remaining $24 towards park entry fees. 130 passes were awarded for each night the event was held. Passes were for cars, not people.

2024 details will be posted on this event page.

A field of Butterweed growing in Congaree National Park

A field of butterweed growing in the forest – Congaree NPS

What other tourism lotteries are there?

This isn’t a comprehensive list of attractions utilizing the lottery system to distribute permits. The BLM lists 23 on its website and there are a staggering 1282 closed lotteries on the US government website. Many of those are recurring, daily lotteries, but still… 

Always check your desired location to find out if permits are required and how to get one! A few others to explore are…

And remember, just because a lottery application date has passed doesn’t mean that ship has sailed! You can always check to see what’s available when it opens to the general public. I was surprised to find multiple options for Yellowstone backcountry permits available immediately while researching for this article. You never know, so you might as well look! 

You should definitely bookmark the Available Lotteries page on the government’s reservation website and check it regularly. 

Winning the lottery comes with responsibility

When you’re lucky enough to win the jackpot of North American tourism, please take it seriously. These locations are protected for a reason. Take care of the ecosystems you’re fixing to enjoy… or will enjoy in a year and half, depending on what you won. 

That includes leaving no trace, practicing safe food storage, and staying bear aware when you’re in bear country. Check out this list of locations that require bear canisters to make sure you help keep the wild things wild. 

Doing your part by recreating responsibly will maintain these spots for future outdoorists. Maybe you can even give them a tip on landing their first lottery permit.    

Author Profile

Jessica Cockroft

Jess merges her passion for words and an insatiable longing for adventure as an outdoor freelance content writer and marketer. When she’s not busy stringing words together you’ll probably find her planning another camping trip for her crew of kids or taking care of the homestead. You can find her on LinkedIn and Instagram, as well as on her own website.  

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