ST. GEORGE — Zion National Park reopened with limited services Wednesday after over a month-long closure due to health and safety issues related to COVID-19.
The reopening is a day that national park staff, the Zion Forever Project – the park’s official nonprofit partner – and Springdale businesses have been preparing for and looking forward to since the closure was announced.
Park services and operations were reduced in mid-March and operations were completely shut down April 3.
Lyman Hafen, executive director of the Zion Forever Project, said it has been amazing to watch park management as they have prepared to effectively and safely open the park to the public again.
“It’s historic, it’s groundbreaking, but it’s a huge, huge challenge and my hat is off to them for the way that they have approached this and the way that we’ve reached this day,” Hafen said.
In what the National Park Service is calling a phased reopening, access to parts of the park are now available to the public with more services becoming available in the weeks to come, parks spokesperson, Jeff Axel, said.
Know before you go
As of Wednesday, Zion’s main canyon scenic drive, as well as all currently open trails, were made accessible to visitors during daylight hours only.
Currently, all overnight accommodations within the park, including the lodge and campgrounds, are closed.
Entrance booths are not staffed, but the main canyon scenic drive from Canyon Junction to the Temple of Sinawava will be gated at night.
Access between Zion’s south entrance and east entrance on state Route 9 is also open. However, Zion’s chief ranger Daniel Fagergren said that if the park becomes too congested, both the scenic drive and SR-9 may be temporarily closed.
Because it would be impossible to maintain six feet of distance between passengers, shuttle services will not be resuming in the near future and visitors should be aware that parking spots within Zion are limited. Once parking lots are full, the park could be shut down for hours or potentially the entire day.
“If we reach complete capacity and we have no more room in all of Zion main canyon, we might just swing the proverbial gate and stop traffic until some of that alleviates,” Fagergren said.
Restrooms within the park are open and additional hand sanitizer is available outside restrooms to help keep visitors safe.
As park personnel continue to monitor operations with the health and safety of both staff and visitors in mind, available services will be contingent upon visitors’ ability to adhere to proper social distancing and follow park guidelines regarding trail closures and designated parking.
Trail closures include Lower Emerald Pools due to trail construction, all of the trails from the Weeping Rock shuttle stop including Weeping Rock, Observation Point, East Rim and Hidden Canyon due to continued closures from the 2019 rockslide, The Narrows due to high water flow from snowmelt, Canyon Overlook on the east side of the tunnel and the chain portion of Angel’s Landing.
Both Canyon Overlook and the chains portion of Angel’s Landing are closed for health reasons, Axel said, given that they cannot ensure the health of visitors who need to touch the handrails and chains located on those trails.
The Angel’s Landing trail to Scout Lookout and West Rim Trail are open.
As the month continues, Axel said they hope to reopen parts of Zion Lodge and the Watchman Campground May 22.
Both Axel and Fagergren said that accessibility is subject to change on short notice and they encourage potential guests to visit the park website while planning their trip and prior to arriving.
Additional available services and visitor restrictions are listed on a park info sheet on their website.
While Zion takes a phased approach to opening, Axel said visitors should plan to be flexible with their schedules and activities, adding that there are plenty of scenic and adventurous recreation areas just outside the park which he encourages visitors to discover.
Axel offered several websites, including greaterzion.com, visitutah.com, visitsouthernutah.com and visitcedarcity.com as jumping-off points to find recreation opportunities near Zion, both as a way to enhance their visit while maintaining social distancing and in case the park reaches capacity.
Reservations vs. cancellations
The reopening of Zion, even with limited services, is good news for Springdale businesses, who, like most tourism-driven businesses in Southern Utah, have been deeply impacted by the closure of Zion National Park.
Nate Wells, president of the Zion Canyon Visitors Bureau, described how the closure has affected the small gateway town.
“Over the last month, we have been so severely impacted with cancellations that there really just has been no one around,” Wells said. “We’ve essentially been a ghost town with the park closed.”
With the news that Zion would begin resuming access to recreation, Wells said that for the first time in a month-and-a-half, cancellations at Springdale hotels were lower than reservations.
The uptick in reservations and visitation will go a long way toward helping businesses who depend on tourists to stay afloat as they work to recover their losses.
“We’re hoping that we can have a great season towards recovering and helping the families that are employed at all these businesses throughout the canyon,” Wells said.
Like park management inside Zion, business owners and staff at restaurants, gift shops, outfitters and hotels in Springdale have been taking extra precautions and training to open to visitors while following the guidelines of the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local health authorities, Wells said.
Wells said he believes it is important for potential visitors of Springdale and Zion to know they are coming to a place where the people are educated and informed and where the community takes the health and safety of visitors very seriously.
“We feel like people can recreate and enjoy the park safely at this time,” Wells said. “Zion has long been considered a sanctuary, and we think we can keep it that way if everyone will just do their part.”
If you open, they will come
And while the reopening of Zion is great for businesses, it is equally great for visitors, some of whom expressed to St. George News Wednesday how excited they were to be in the park.
“I’m thrilled that it’s reopening, thrilled,” Las Vegas resident Kendra Rich said.
Rich and her friend Penny Sinisi were visiting Utah and planned to hike in St. George as well as ride their bikes through Zion’s main canyon.
Bike access along the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive will remain open regardless of whether parking lots reach capacity, Axel said, but he cautioned cyclists to be aware of the many motorists who will be sharing the road in the absence of the shuttles.
Cyclists are allowed to ride on the Pa’rus trail, but bikes are not allowed on any other park trail nor in the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel.
Sinisi said she was also glad to be in the park, particularly because she felt as if park management had taken great care to open the park in a way that promoted health and safety.
“I’m glad that they’re practicing social distancing and being cautious and taking their time,” Sinisi said. “It appears from first glance that they’re doing it right.”
Though some parking lots like The Grotto Picnic Area where the popular Angel’s Landing trailhead is located did reach capacity, visitation remained relatively low on Wednesday’s opening.
“There was kind of an expectation that once Zion reopened and as they resumed their day-use recreational activities that we were expecting crowds of people, we’re not seeing that today and that’s OK,” Wells said. “We want to gradually ease into it.”
That said, both Axel and Fagergren said they know that crowds won’t remain low, particularly as they approach the Memorial Day holiday weekend.
Memorial Day weekend in Zion can bring upwards of 30,000 visitors per day, Axel said. In a normal year that means about 80,000 to 100,000 visitors on the busy holiday weekend. With only about 400 parking spots in the park, those kinds of crowds just aren’t feasible, Axel added.
Axel urged tourists that are able to plan their trip to Zion for times when crowds are lower such as later in the afternoon, in the middle of the week or even later in the summer or fall.
Everyone a steward
As the crowds do return to the park, the Zion Forever Project stressed how important it is for every individual to take upon themselves the mantle of being a steward of Zion.
The nonprofit partner of the park calls Zion stewards, “keepers of the sanctuary,” a name which reflects an ownership of Zion meant to empower guests to take care of it.
“Zion National Park belongs to all of us. We feel and love and sense that ownership that we all have,” Hafen said. “So, hopefully, that ownership will translate to stewardship as well.”
The nonprofit’s executive director said he hopes newly returned visitors will treat Zion the way it should always be treated so it can be preserved for generations to come.
“Every one of us, individually, have a huge responsibility to take care of this place,” Hafen said. “That does mean that we can’t just open the floodgates and tear down the walls and bust in … and I think each one of us needs to, individually, consider what that means and how we not only consume this place as consumers but how we care for it and protect it for the future.”
Visitors and potential visitors who want to learn more about Zion and Zion stewardship can view the new park film “We The Keepers,” free online while the Zion Natural History Museum and its theater remain closed.
While Zion National Park is not charging entrance fees, guests are encouraged by park staff to support the Zion Forever Project, which allows visitors to experience the park in more enhanced ways as they continue to work with the national park on myriad projects from trail reconstruction, education programs, conservation efforts and more.
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