Utah state parks see visitation increase this year

Visitors enjoy the water at Gunlock State Park in Washington County. Utah’s state parks have had higher visitation rates during the COVID-19 pandemic than in recent years. (Gunlock State Park)

Utah’s state parks remained open to visitors throughout the spring and summer despite widespread COVID-19 closures, resulting in significantly higher visitation numbers than in recent years.

According to Utah State Parks public affairs coordinator Eugene Swalberg, visitation to most state parks sharply decreased in March and April due to county restrictions during the pandemic, but the number of visitors started increasing again in May. “Outdoors is a great place to social distance,” Swalberg said.

Swalberg said the most visited park this summer was Jordanelle State Park in Heber City, followed closely by Sand Hollow State Park and Deer Creek State Park.

“People can’t go to the movies; they couldn’t do a lot of the normal activities maybe they were going to do,” said East Canyon State Park manager Chris Haramoto. “And so they were looking for an outdoor recreation outlet.”

As part of his “Stay Safe, Stay Home” directive, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert instated an executive order on March 28 that only allowed visitors of the county where the state park is located to enter.

For example, East Canyon State Park is located in Morgan County, but Haramoto said most visitors usually come from Weber, Davis and Salt Lake County. As soon as the mandate was lifted near the end of April, visitation numbers shot up at East Canyon.

He said the park normally doesn’t start getting busy until Memorial Day weekend but this year it started getting busier almost a full month before that. He talked to several people who told him it was their first time visiting East Canyon this year.

Gunlock State Park in Washington County actually had increased visitation not only for the summer but even during March and April.

Gunlock’s park manager Jon Allred said a lot of people from the Wasatch Front were taking their spring breaks at the park in early spring, and then visitation just kept going up throughout the summer. He said the parks in Washington County likely had higher numbers in those early months because of the warmer weather.

Allred said part of the reason for higher visitation could be the stricter regulations in California and Nevada, so people from those states would drive to Southern Utah to visit the parks. “I think people discovered that it’s not that far to travel to a state park, and Utah has some really great state parks.”

East Canyon and Gunlock State parks are currently limiting capacity by monitoring the parking lot. Allred said they are limiting it to 3/4 full. Haramoto said East Canyon has overflow parking, but they have closed that and now when the main parking lot is full they stop letting people in.

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