Washington County state parks saw more visitors than ever in 2020

In this 2020 file photo, crowds gather at the waterfalls in Gunlock State Park days before the falls were closed, Washington County, Utah, | Photo by Hollie Reina, St. George News

ST. GEORGE —All four Washington County state parks – Sand Hollow, Snow Canyon, Quail Creek and Gunlock – saw a significant increase in visitation in 2020, according to data provided by the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation.

In this file photo, students gather for a lake day at Sand Hollow State Park in Hurricane, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Get Outside Utah, St. George News

Despite containing just four of the 44 state parks in Utah, Washington County hosted 22% of state park visitors in 2020.

Sand Hollow admitted more visitors than any other state park: its 1,315,668 guests represented a 52% increase over 2019 entrants. As far as local parks, Quail Creek saw the most growth in visitation last year, welcoming 75% more visitors with its 295,290 guests in 2020.

“If you asked what was different at the park, it’s that we had heavy visitation seven days a week, from May clear up until October,” said Jonathan Hunt, park manager at Sand Hollow. “We did not have room on the weekends last year. The park opens at 6 a.m., instead of just the usual fishermen or occasional water-skiers, we had hundreds of cars in lines. There were days the park was full before 9 a.m.”

It wasn’t just local parks that saw more travelers: state parks throughout Utah saw 2.6 million more visitors than in 2019, straining capacity limits as residents and out-of-state visitors alike flocked to outdoor recreation.

“Especially when COVID(-19) hit, it kind of was a combination of larger crowds and trying to keep people socially distanced,” said Jon Allred, park manager at Gunlock State Park. “A lot of the summer we had to actually close the park because we reached capacity.”

At the onset of the pandemic, the National Park Service closed its parks, and even after reopening there were partial closures and lower operating capacities. This may have contributed to the increased traffic at Utah state parks, which certainly saw a boom in 2020.

In this 2016 file photo, Ironman cyclists ride through Snow Canyon State Park | Photo by Joe Neuman, St. George News

While three of the local parks saw visitation increases of 50% or more, Snow Canyon saw a more modest growth of 17%. Park manager Kristen Comella told St. George News the more restrictive precautions put in place at the beginning of the pandemic had a disproportionate impact.

“It’s safe to say that 2020 was a very different year for everybody,” Comella said. “It was a very wild ride for Utah state parks and Snow Canyon State Park as well. Our visits may have dipped for a short while last April, when we had to cancel camping reservations while the park was only open to county residents. Mid-February through June is typically our busy season.”

Comella and Allred both stressed the importance of “recreating responsibly,” as part of the statewide initiative to protect the health and safety of visitors and employees. Common health precautions like physical distancing, hand washing and straying home while sick are still encouraged at state parks.

“The first thing I’d say is that the park is much busier than we’ve seen in previous years,” Comella said. “Folks should be flexible with their travel plans. The second message is that COVID(-19) is still here. People still need to be aware, and if they’re not feeling well, they should stay home. We work really hard to keep the park clean and safe, and we want visitors to come play and experience.”

Across the state, increased park visits correlated with increased boating reported across the state by the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation. According to a press release, programs tracking recreational vehicle registration noted increases in both the numbers of registered boats and off-highway vehicle permits compared to previous years. 

In this 2016 file photo, a family enjoys the water at Gunlock State Park | Photo by Hollie Reina, St. George News

As a water attraction, Gunlock saw its fair share of boaters and off-road use. Additionally, park officials chose to divert the overflow water that creates Gunlock’s waterfalls in order to discourage large groups of people from gathering and limit potential COVID-19 exposure.

“The amount of boat, kayak and paddleboard owners is increasing significantly, which creates an educational opportunity for us at state parks to focus on life jackets and water safety,” Allred said. “OHV use is up, and I think people naturally understand that they need to be safe and respectful. But that’s something we really stressed last year.”

While precautions remain in place, the early signs seem to indicate that 2021 will be another big year for local parks, Hunt said. Washington County’s growing population and rising status as a tourist destination will continue to affect local state parks, and vice versa.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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