ST. GEORGE — Zion National Park has a problem, one that is becoming increasingly common in national parks. Tourists are flocking to the soaring crimson walls of Zion and the valley below in ever-growing numbers, overflowing trails and parking areas, damaging the natural resources and straining the capacity of the park.
The park’s chief of concessions and partnerships, Jack Burns, said it took 66 years for Zion to reach 1 million visitors per year. Fifteen years later, he said, the park experienced its first 2-million-visitor year; and 24 years later still, the park reached its first 3-million-visitor year.
In both 2014 and 2015, Zion saw 3 million visitors annually.
Park visitation explosion
In late October and early November 2015, when the shuttle service was due to shut down for the season, lines at the main entrance to Zion canyon were so long the park had to let vehicles in only when a parking spot became available.
Wait times lasted hours. Tourist frustration grew. Some were turned away.
The shuttle service was then reinstated for two weeks longer than normal to accommodate the increased visitation.
At a “brown bag lunch” in January at the Springdale Town Hall, Burns gave a PowerPoint presentation outlining some of the problems Zion National Park is facing.
Several pictures showed the extreme crowding certain trails are experiencing, in particular the Narrows and Angels Landing.
Park Superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh said answers to the problems are not likely to come anytime soon. The park service first needs to gauge what park capacity is – a process he said will take several years.
Several Springdale residents attending the “brown bag lunch” expressed dissatisfaction with Bradybaugh’s answer. Some asked if it would be possible for Congress to enact an emergency decree limiting the number of visitors.
Bradybaugh said it is unlikely Congress would take action on the issue.
Zion is not alone in the issue of overcrowding. Visitation is up at virtually every national park in the U.S.
Yosemite National Park has been dealing with overcrowding for years. At Arches National Park on Memorial Day 2015, a line of cars extended from the park entrance to Highway 101, a distance of over a mile, forcing the Utah Highway Patrol to temporarily limit visitors.
Crowds, bottlenecks and resource damage.
Angels Landing and The Narrows, arguably the two most popular hikes in the park, are experiencing severe overcrowding.
In the case of Angels Landing, bottlenecks form in places where the exposure is severe, creating dangerous conditions for hikers, Bradybaugh said.
One possible option is to possibly implement a permit system, Bradybaugh said.
Aly Baltrus, public information officer for Zion National Park, said The Narrows is experiencing environmental degradation, especially since there is nowhere for hikers to use the bathroom. As a result, waste is deposited throughout the canyon and never very far from the Virgin River that flows through it.
The damage to the park is not limited to the Narrows and Angels Landing.
“What we’re seeing is resource damage,” Baltrus said. “We’re seeing people who are making their own trails, either to get around crowds or just to get away from crowds. That really affects (the canyon) … whether it be soil, plants, erosion … it doesn’t take very much out in the desert and the soils to create a trail that takes years and years to come back.”
Springdale’s double-edged sword
Towns like Springdale that are gateways to the national parks are also experiencing both positive and negative effects from the visitation growth.
While Springdale has seen its revenue grow, it has also led to some problems, Springdale Mayor Stan Smith said. While crime has not been as much of an issue, there has been enough of an increase to justify adding an extra officer to its police force.
As mayor of Springdale, I have a balancing act that I’m trying to do; there’s a lot of businesses … and families that depend on their livelihood of tourists coming in and spending money. The majority of our money comes from sales taxes. But then I also have the residents that want the quiet, the peace, that don’t own businesses or don’t work there, that settle there for … retirement; they want the peace and quiet.
Two of the biggest problems affecting Springdale in the last several years of growth are parking and traffic, Smith said. Parking lots in town are routinely filled to capacity, visitors park illegally along roads and in reserved parking areas. Compounding the problem are huge lines at the park entrance stretching into town, making for difficult driving conditions.
“We do have a problem,” Smith said.
Some of his constituents have said the answer is for Springdale to stop advertising, Smith said, but that isn’t the answer. If Springdale was to cease advertising, towns like Kanab and the municipalities around Bryce Canyon National Park would lure visitors away from Zion and Springdale.
One step Smith would like to see in order to ease the congestion is for the National Park Service to cease the free entrance days during busy holidays.
The issue with the free-entrance days is two-fold, Smith said; on the one hand, the parks are giving away vast sums of revenue during the free days, but on the other hand, the parks do not have enough personnel to deal with the overflow – which adds to the problem.
A crowded place in a tiny space
An issue specific to Zion is its size, Todd Goss, guide and owner of Paragon Adventures, said. While the national parks seeing similar visitation – Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone – are all massive parks where the increased visitation can be spread out, Zion is quite small by comparison. Zion ranks No. 7 in visitation numbers, according to National Geographic.
Zion, at 146,592 acres, is by far the smallest of the seven most-popular parks, according to National Geographic. By comparison, the next smallest of that group is Rocky Mountain National Park, with 265,769 acres, almost twice the size of Zion. The largest, Yellowstone, is over 2,200,000 acres.
“Those are vast parks,” Goss said. “Those are huge areas where you can spread a … ton of people around in a vast geographical area. Zion is singular in that it’s super popular and it’s where everybody wants to go, it’s super-concentrated – way more so than any of those other parks.”
Compounding that problem, Goss said, park staff do little to divert the crush of visitors in the main canyon to the less-crowded sections of the park such as Kolob Canyons, the Kolob Plateau and the east side.
Baltrus agreed with Goss’ assessment that Zion is unique in its size.
“Zion is actually quite small,” Baltrus said. “The main canyon is where 99.9 percent of visitors go to. So you’re trying to filter a lot of people in that area, and when you compare us to a lot of the other parks that have high visitation … a lot of them are up on the top of canyons like Grand Canyon and you can spread out along the outside, or they’re just bigger in general.”
The overcrowding has had a direct affect on Goss’s guiding company.
“This year we did not renew our Zion permit,” Goss said. “Because the park has progressively raised its fees and it’s especially been raising its fees on commercial use, … as I sat down and looked at our use and looked at our margin — there’s no margin. I’m basically almost paying people to go to Zion National Park, which is dumb. So we gave up our Zion permit this year.”
Clients are not looking for the type of experience that Zion now provides, Goss said. They didn’t come to Utah to stand in crowds more associated with downtown Manhattan, which is what Zion is starting to resemble at times.
Baltrus said even the shuttle system is becoming taxed by the huge crowds. In addition to the shuttles operating for several weeks beyond their normal shutdown date, the sheer volume of riders means the buses are almost always running at maximum capacity. She said:
We’ve been running shuttles in the peak of the season every four to five minutes, and each of those shuttles carries 68 people sitting down. Sometimes over 100 standing, every four minutes. You can imagine the capacity in the main canyon.
“So,” she said, “that’s where people are starting to complain to us about the overcrowding.”
The Mighty 5 effect
The Utah Office of Tourism embarked on the “Mighty 5” ad campaign in the spring of 2013. The goal of the campaign was to create a call to action and make Utah’s natural wonders — in particular its national parks — stand out from neighboring states, Vicki Varela, managing director of the state’s tourism office said.
“The Mighty 5 was a huge breakthrough for us in helping people realize that there’s no place else in the world that you can have this Mighty 5 national park experience,” Varela said. “Our visitation numbers have skyrocketed in the last several years.”
The campaign has not only pushed visitation figures higher for its national parks, but Utah’s state parks as well. While the national parks in Utah experienced a 14 percent increase in visitation since the beginning of the Mighty 5 campaign, Varela said, the state parks themselves saw a 19 percent increase.
Increased press coverage of Utah’s natural wonders will likely add to the visitation numbers. A recent article by Fodor’s Travel named Utah its top travel destination in the world.
“Hiking the red-rock canyons of southern Utah’s ‘Mighty Five’ national parks — Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Capitol Reef, and Canyonlands — may change your life,” the Fodor’s article said.
“Whenever you’ve had this kind of success,” Varela said, “it sets the bar even higher. That’s how we can continue to grow our tourism economy while not flooding our national parks with more visitors than they can safely accommodate and without diminishing the visitor’s experience. It’s really important to us that we get that next step right … we’re working very closely with the national parks.”
The responsibility of the Tourism Office is multifacted, Varela said. Not only is it responsible for promoting tourism and visitation, its personnel are obligated to listen carefully to concerns of the various entities directly influenced by that influx of visitors. National parks, hotels, restaurants and all the other service providers have a say in the decisions of the Tourism Office.
“We are improving our collaboration with the national parks,” Valera said. “I think there’s still a lot more that we can do on that front.”
St. George Area Tourism Office Director Roxie Sherwin said the “Mighty 5” campaign has had a noticeable affect on area tourism.
“They went out with huge (marketing) and that was enough to tip us over,” Sherwin said. “We had pretty good, strong visitation before that, but when that piled on top of what we’ve done, it really tipped the scales.”
The St. George Area Tourism Office still emphasizes tourism to the area but the focus has shifted from the traditional tourist season. Sherwin said:
We have been kind of addressing that for several years, in the way that we market the shoulder seasons (spring and fall) more. We started pushing more visitation January, February, October, November, December. We started marketing to countries that are on opposite schedules as we are, like Australia – their summertime is now …. We’ve also started marketing other things to do besides the national parks.
Doing more with less
Another issue facing every national park is that while growth has continued unabated, the budgets and staffing of parks has remained stagnant. Park employees are forced to take on more tasks in the same amount of time.
Baltrus said, concerning Zion National Park:
“Our budget hasn’t changed even though our visitation has increased greatly. How we deal with that is by tackling the most important things first. It’s re-prioritizing constantly. We tend to call it adaptive management and being … proactive that way and utilizing what money we have.”
Varela said the Utah Office of Tourism would like to advocate in Washington D.C. for an increased budget for the national parks.
While most tourists still report a positive experience in the national parks, in Zion, complaints about the crowds are becoming more frequent.
“Literally it has been the last two-three years that we’ve been struggling with capacity issues,” Baltrus said. “Just recently we’ve had some people complaining about how busy it is …. We are embarking on a visitor-use management plan that we’ll be starting up this year and looking at all different (kinds of) things of what we can do to better manage people.”
The positive aspects of growth are felt in a ripple effect by areas surrounding Zion.
In a report released by the park service in April 2015, the local communities surrounding Zion National Park benefited by $233,123,400 in 2014. In the same period, 2,423 jobs were supported by tourism. Thirty percent of those tourism dollars went to lodging; twenty percent to food and beverage; close to 12 percent to gas and oil; ten percent to admission and fees; and other expenses totaled around 10 percent.
Overall, Varela said, the feedback from visitors to the national parks in Utah is very positive. She said:
There was a study done by Southern Utah University. The survey was to visitors to Arches, Zion and Bryce Canyon. Ninety percent of respondents were overall or very satisfied with their visits.
We also have a national study … their results show that 85 percent of nonresidents were extremely or very satisfied and 89 percent of Utah residents were extremely or very satisfied.
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