ST. GEORGE — It was a recent Thursday morning just 40 minutes after sunrise in Zion National Park and the sun was still so low that it had yet to peek over the park’s colorful peaks.
And the parking lot was already full.
With unprecedented crowds flooding into Southern Utah’s most prominent national park, that has meant an even greater reliance on Zion’s in-park shuttle system to take visitors on the Scenic Drive to important points of interest and trailheads.
Zion National Park spokesperson Amanda Rowland told St. George News adjustments to that shuttle system are occurring on a daily basis.
“We’re still figuring that out,” Rowland said, adding that the park is working with the contractor that runs the shuttle, Springdale-based Park Transportation Inc. “Working with PTI and having consistent communication on what are they seeing on the ground.”
One of those changes came May 28, when a $2 ticket system for the Zion Canyon shuttles implemented in February 2020 to control crowds during the COVID-19 pandemic was eliminated.
Starting this season, there are actually two shuttle systems that Rowland said are sometimes confused into being one.
The Zion Canyon Shuttle, which has been operating since 2000, goes from the Zion Visitors Center to the rest of the park. A separate Springdale Shuttle, first implemented March 13, takes visitors from paid lots and other points around the nearby town to the park pedestrian/bike entrance.
Originally, the $2 tickets for the Zion Canyon Shuttle were to be ended with the end of the peak season in November. But the unpredictability of the pandemic combined with the virus sticking around longer and federal guidance meant it stuck around through the spring.
“I think to be fair, if we all were to think back and say, we’re going to be in a global pandemic for over a year … I think there was a lot of unknowns and there’s this larger conversation of who has the crystal ball to tell us,” Rowland said, adding that new Centers for Disease Control guidance was also a factor in ending the ticket system.
“We received updated guidance for the National Park Service. We basically then implemented that. I think it’s important for folks to realize there are changes. As we expect the public to understand those changes, we ourselves are also working through those changes.”
Other pandemic-related changes to the shuttles remain.
While most people in Southern Utah have taken their masks off, they are still required on the park shuttles per national park requirements.
Seat space, which had been reduced in the last year, is slowly being returned. Per Rowland, there are daily reviews as to further post-pandemic returns to normalcy.
Speaking of space, as far as crowd control, the paid shuttles may have helped control the flow of the crowds in the park, but even during the pandemic the park saw record crowds in the fall.
And those crowds continue to be a frustration for some visitors. Rowland said park officials hear daily from people with their ideas for how to reduce the crowds ranging from moving to an advance reservation system to get into the park to ending annual passes.
But Rowland said existing federal regulations are limiting many of the park’s options.
“We’re continuing to listen to those suggestions, but we also are following those federal regulations. It’s a tough balance,” Rowland said. “But I think it’s also a tough balance for the visitor. Because sometimes when you come in, you’re expected maybe to know some things, and that’s where we need to do a better job of getting the word out on social media, through our education programs, through our park ranger programs.”
Also taking time will be the replacement of the shuttle fleet with battery-electric busses. The U.S. Department of Transportation gave a $33 million grant in February toward the new fleet, but Rowland said while the charging-station infrastructure is going in now, it isn’t a matter of months before the new buses arrive. It’s more like years.
“This electric shuttle, you know, it’s going to take time,” Rowland said. “When folks think about the project, and we’re really excited about this new fleet, but at the same time, it’s between purchasing them and having them all come online. It’s gonna take some time to develop.”
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