FEATURE – At the grand opening of the Zion National Park transportation system on May 26, 2000, the program noted that the park was going “back to the future,” not because park managers wanted to emulate Marty McFly or because they were even fans of the popular 1980s movie trilogy.
“The congestion, noise, pollution, and associated resource damage suggested that we go ‘back to the future,’” the event’s program read. “Beginning today, we visit Zion Canyon by shuttle to restore the tranquility and power of the early days of Zion National Park.”
That catchphrase meant that the park was hearkening back to a time when buses were the best way to see Zion – the 1920s and 1930s. To mark the occasion, a bus similar to those of the past, borrowed from Yellowstone National Park, was prominently displayed.
When the shuttle started, it was a lifesaver and nearly universally applauded – a way to protect the park’s resources as well as to improve the visitor experience. The impacts of the shuttle after its implementation were immediate in many ways – a quiet canyon, no fights over parking spaces, significantly fewer cars up Zion Canyon (only those with accommodations at Zion Lodge), the resurgence of some wildlife species and less damage to roadside vegetation, which mitigated erosion potential.
Now, 18 years later, it sadly is inadequate, but the park would be chaos without it.
Overall, however, it is the story of a major National Park Service achievement for an agency notorious for making big plans and not carrying them out. Case in point was a plan to reduce Yosemite National Park’s overcrowding in 2000, to which then Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt remarked, “We produced paper,” but developed “planning fatigue.”
Today the system itself is fatigued trying to handle nearly double the visitors (4.5 million last year) it was designed to accommodate (2.42 million in 2000) with the exact same fleet of buses.
Despite its current weaknesses, it was a groundbreaking concept and one current park managers are trying to tweak to keep the visitor experience it sought to improve still manageable.
Zion’s early transportation history
Believe it or not, several national parks banned cars when they first made their way into the national consciousness in the early 20th century. Yosemite was one of them. Early automobile enthusiasts visiting Yosemite had to chain their cars to a tree and leave their keys in the park office so their newfangled machines would not spook the most reliable form of transportation at the time – horses.
Great Britain’s Lord James Bryce, when he visited Yosemite in 1913, voiced his concerns about “horseless carriages” to park officials, who planned to lift the early ban on automobile travel.
“If Adam had known what harm the serpent was going to work, he would have tried to prevent him from finding lodgment in Eden,” Bryce said. “And if you were to realize what the result of the automobile will be in that incomparable valley, you will keep it out.”
Park administrators didn’t heed Bryce’s warning and just a few years later saw the results, which included trampled grass and shrubbery, scattered litter, traffic congestion, air pollution, the lack of adequate traffic control, overcrowded facilities and unhappy visitors, prompting them to come up with a management plan. By 1916, more tourists came to Yosemite in their cars than they did by rail like most visitors did in the earliest part of the century.
That same year construction of what is now the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive began in what was to become Zion National Park. The road followed an early Mormon wagon route up the canyon and by 1925 extended to its current terminus, Temple of Sinawava.
Buses were the best way to see Zion during the 1920s, when visitors rode 11-passenger Utah Parks Company buses to the park from Cedar City after a 35-mile railroad spur off the main line from Lund reached it in 1923. These long buses featured convertible tops, which provided much better viewing of the park’s spectacular scenery. To accommodate the growing number of visitors, the Utah Parks Company, a subsidiary of the Union Pacific Railroad, built Zion Lodge in a rustic style designed to blend in with its surroundings, known as Parkitecture.
Overcrowding and full-to-capacity parking lots are nothing new to Zion. The park’s relationship with cars played out just like Yosemite – traffic congestion, litter, trampled vegetation and the like. Pictures available in the archives of the park’s Temple of Sinawava parking lot in the late 1940s and the Weeping Rock parking lot in the 1970s, for instance, show overrun parking lots on busy holiday weekends.
It was the mid-1970s when park managers started looking for ways to alleviate the overcrowded conditions to help improve the visitor experience.
Early shuttle planning
The first talk of a shuttle system came in the 1975 and 1977 park management plans. Those documents foresaw it as a voluntary shuttle system that would be an extension of the park’s interpretation program, outlining an ambitious plan to reach more visitors and educate them about the park.
In August 1988, park management conducted a five-day experiment to test a voluntary shuttle system, directing approximately 10 percent of the park’s visitors to use that system. The experiment earned positive reviews as park managers noted that it noticeably reduced vehicle congestion.
By 1994, park management prescribed the establishment of a mandatory shuttle system instead of a voluntary one to better protect the park’s natural resources and reduce congestion in the main canyon area.
A fortuitous meeting in the early 1990s between Zion’s superintendent Don Falvey and then Assistant Secretary of the Interior George Frampton is what truly gave the transportation system the green light.
During that time period, Congress designated Grand Canyon National Park, Yellowstone and Yosemite for development of a comprehensive effort to improve public transit, authorizing transportation studies in those parks. Frampton invited Falvey to do a briefing on transportation issues in Zion at the same meeting the other parks presented their transportation study findings.
Frampton had been a frequent visitor to Zion, loved the park and realized the need for a transportation system to relieve congestion. After the three other parks presented their studies first with elaborate graphics, Falvey followed with a description of how he envisioned a transportation system working in Zion using only a map of the park and some simple, handmade graphics.
Years later, in 2003, Falvey gave an interview to then administrator Kirk Scott, with Parks Transportation Inc., which manages the shuttle system. In that interview, Falvey related Frampton commenting after his presentation, “I want to see a transportation system in Zion.”
Frampton realized that a transportation system in Zion would cost a fraction of what it would take to implement one in Yosemite, Yellowstone and Grand Canyon national parks. Zion’s transportation proposal proved the most feasible to implement due to Zion Canyon’s ideal geography; the 6.5-mile Zion Canyon Scenic Drive is a dead end, facilitating easy control of traffic flow. Pulling off a similar project in the three larger parks would have required a lot more money and work.
Of the meeting and its favorable outcome, Falvey told Scott: “We kind of slipped in the back door. We got the prize.”
After the Falvey-Frampton meeting in the ’90s, Zion received an all-important servicewide construction priority number from the park service.
“That was the key that unlocked the door to this whole thing,” Falvey said in the 2003 interview. “If you didn’t have a priority number, you didn’t go anywhere. The Service Center wouldn’t look at you, because you didn’t have the money coming.”
The park then started working closely with the park service’s Denver Service Center, which Falvey had just left before becoming Zion’s superintendent in 1991, so he knew many of the people and how the system worked. They didn’t have to hire out to get a good team, they already had one in-house.
“We got one of the top teams you could ever imagine to come here,” Falvey said.
The Zion-Springdale partnership
In the late 1980s and 1990s the relationship between Zion National Park and Springdale Town, its gateway community, was completely different than it is today. Back then, Town Council and planning commission meetings were the town’s version of live theater, just as if not more entertaining than a TV show. Choice language and near brawls were the norm. To ensure nothing got out of hand, County Sheriff’s deputies made regular appearances. It was so bad that the town’s mayor at the time, Bob Ralston, tried to sue some city staff for incompetence and a headless chicken appeared on a town councilman’s lawn.
At the time, townspeople were at odds with each other over the way development would go in Springdale, which was being discovered by resort and second-home developers. They were asking themselves if they should preserve its quaint image made up largely of mom-and-pop shops or give way to large-scale development and sell out to tourist-trap tackiness and become another Gatlinburg, Tennessee, gateway community of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
It was into this environment that Chicago native Phillip Bimstein moved to the area. He did cartwheels after he bought a house in town on a whim after a 1988 hiking trip. A composer, Bimstein quickly made a name for himself in a town where he knew no one until his arrival. He served as president of the town’s arts council, accomplishing things such as convincing the New Music Festival to come to Springdale in 1992.
Desperate to take the town in a new direction, a group of residents asked him to run for mayor, saying that they felt he was the one public figure that was actively involved in improving the town’s reputation. At first reluctant, Bimstein embraced the idea and adopted “civility” as his platform, personally visiting many town residents during his campaign. He won by a landslide.
Bimstein opened up communication in a new way. He purposely appointed people to advisory committees with differing views so both sides of an issue were represented. This communicative atmosphere and Bimstein’s unlikely friendship with Falvey became a perfect combination to mend fences and establish a climate ideal for the shuttle’s implementation. Bimstein and Falvey forged a partnership that helped both park and town realize that they shared the same problems and had to solve them together. They even adopted the motto “Synergy.”
Their best performance came in 1995, when rumors that the shuttle system would ruin the town were running rampant, prompting them to call a town hall meeting that attracted a fifth of Springdale’s population.
To open the meeting, Bimstein said, “We hear people are worried that the federal government is coming in here and telling us what to do.” Then he donned a park ranger hat and said in retort, “I don’t know where people are getting this idea.”
Bimstein’s antics broke the ice. Falvey then took out a flip chart and asked everyone what rumors they had been hearing, writing down every concern expressed. The unlikely duo then addressed every single one of the concerns. Their approach was successful as the gathering turned from an adversarial encounter into more of a chat among friends.
As a result of the entities’ unprecedented cooperation, they won prestigious awards and prompted park personnel from parks across the country to travel to Zion to find out how they could solve their transportation problems in a similar way. Falvey and Bimstein also gave several presentations explaining how to make parks’ relationships with their gateway communities stronger.
Out of this partnership between park and town, knowing they had to solve problems together, came what was then considered a novel idea for shuttle implementation; instead of building a large parking area in the park, parking could be dispersed throughout the town and a town shuttle could be established to take visitors with accommodations in Springdale and those who parked in town to the entrance of the park.
That idea put less strain on the park and continues in force to this day.
Interestingly, the first phase of construction of the park’s transportation system came in 1994 with the Pa’rus Trail, which follows the river’s course from the new visitor center to the intersection of the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway and the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive.
That first stage set a pattern, construction was done in stand-alone stages in case funding for future stages was cut.
In actuality, the political climate in the 1990s during the Clinton administration was a favorable one for the approval of funding for park projects, which is an oft-overlooked major reason the shuttle system came to fruition. The entire system cost approximately $32 million with the bulk of the funding coming through congressional appropriations through programs such as the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) passed in 1993.
Construction on the transportation system, which included the new visitor center, began in November 1998 and was mostly done in the wintertime when visitation is at its lowest. The Utah Department of Transportation was a tremendous ally of the program and some grants it received helped pay for portions of the project. UDOT did things it was not used to for the project, including constructing traffic-calming islands narrower than the actual roadway. It was accustomed to widening roads, not narrowing them.
The choice of buses for the system became a little bit of a conundrum. One of the earliest plans was for buses to be open-air trams, but park officials rethought that, realizing that such a bus would be unsafe in rollovers and would expose passengers to rain and wind, among other disadvantages.
In the end, park managers decided to build their own propane-powered buses that pulled a trailer. These buses were not met without complaints. The main complaint has been the buses’ lack of air conditioning, which was done on purpose to reduce noise levels, one of the transportation system’s major aims. With the windows open, park managers argued that the buses would get enough airflow to make the temperature tolerable. The windows were another complaint because some visitors felt like the windows did not offer a very conducive viewing experience while riding through the canyon.
Many might think that the park itself administers the buses, but from the beginning the park felt it would be best to get an outside contractor to manage them, which it did. Parks Transportation Incorporated manages the buses but the park actually owns them.
Shuttle reception and future directions
Visitors who went to Zion National Park in the summer of 1999 and again in the summer of 2000 returned to a very different experience. Visitors in 1999 had to jockey for a parking place or park on the road shoulder. Some, in exasperation at not finding a parking space, gave up and moved on. In 2000, they didn’t have to do that. They simply had to board the shuttle, relax and view the scenery before arriving at their chosen trailhead.
In essence, Zion figured out a way to improve visitor access to places within the park while better protecting the park’s resources, welding two seemingly competing mandates of the National Park Service’s founding legislation.
At first, the shuttle system met with near universal praise. Tom Haraden, the park’s assistant chief of interpretation at the time, told stories of visitors who parked their car at their hotel and didn’t see it again until they were ready to leave.
Many visitors said they did not even miss the freedom of driving their own automobiles into the park.
“After seeing the limited space for parking and the fairly narrow road, I was happy not to be driving myself,” one shuttle passenger said in an early survey. “The congestion would have been terrible.”
Statistics showed that people were staying in the park longer, which was good news for Springdale residents, some of whom were formerly dead set against the shuttle. In an ironic twist, some Springdale residents who at first were the shuttle’s biggest critics became shuttle drivers. Most Springdale residents became ambassadors of the shuttle system; at the time, Springdale was the only small town in Utah that had its own transit system.
One of the biggest overall complaints about the shuttle system was the fact that visitors had to plan ahead like they never had before. They had to think of everything they would need for the day and pack it with them on the shuttle.
One of the biggest and unanticipated positives from the shuttle system is the socialization that has ensued. Shuttle riders regularly strike up conversations with complete strangers and share tips and experiences about the park as well as exchange stories about where they have come from, where they have been and where they are going.
Not only did visitors praise the shuttle system, but national publications did as well. One of the most interesting lauds of the shuttle system came in the October 2006 issue of National Geographic magazine, which, in a full-page spread, showed a picture of a Zion shuttle from a high vantage point on an otherwise empty Scenic Drive juxtaposed with a photo of a Yosemite Valley bus caught in gridlock – a sea of private automobiles.
The caption next to the photo of the shuttle touted how it eliminated approximately 4,000 vehicle trips a day and how much its operation cost, about $1 per visitor per year at the time, was a relatively small price to pay for the shuttle’s many benefits; the caption noted, “stress and noise down, air quality and quiet up.”
Fast forward 11 ½ years from the National Geographic article’s publication: Stress, especially, is definitely up. Zion visitors wait in line for up to an hour just to board the shuttle. Shuttles themselves are now standing room only, exceeding their 68-person seating capacity on most trips. The park originally envisioned the shuttle operating year-round instead of just during the busier warmer months. That busy season is being extended and today, December and January are the only months the shuttle does not run; and it only runs weekends in November and February to accommodate heightened weekend traffic.
The park is still using the same fleet of buses the shuttle started with. One plan to “replace” the buses recently shot down was to simply retrofit the current buses with electric motors, said Jack Burns, Zion’s chief of commercial services and partnerships.
Burns admits the buses are “getting up there” in age but are still in good condition, partly because they’ve been rehabilitating some of them over the last few years with new motors, transmissions and seats. They have also repainted them and put on new decals.
Last fall the park did an experiment with a few electric buses but, Burns told St. George News, they’re still exploring their options and have not decided the future direction of the shuttle.
Today, with its crushing visitation, one of the best ways to avoid Zion’s crowds is to not ride the shuttle at all.
If visitors want peace and solitude during their visit to Zion, they can consider exploring the park as famous environmentalist Edward Abbey would have wanted them to, by riding bikes up the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive. That way, they can literally watch the crowds on the shuttles pass them by. Of course, they will need to make sure they stop on the side of the road when they hear a shuttle coming so the bus will pass them.
See more photos in the gallery below.
Riding the Zion shuttle
To access Zion Canyon during its busiest months, Zion National Park visitors must either ride the shuttle, walk or bicycle in – private vehicles are prohibited except for Zion Lodge guests. For more information on the shuttle, including its current schedule, please visit the park’s shuttle web page.
Note, as this article publishes, there is currently a temporary modified in-town shuttle route and schedule in place due to public improvements ongoing into mid-April in Springdale.
Editors note: This story is a summary of the author’s master’s thesis entitled “Shuttle to Serenity: The History and Impact of the Zion National Park Transportation System.” The full text of the thesis can be read at this University of Nevada, Las Vegas, university libraries link.
Click on a photo then use your left-right arrow keys to cycle through the gallery.
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