Post-COVID visitation surge turning Utah national parks into ‘Disneyland’

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Visitors gather near Delicate Arch at Arches National Park. Angie Richman, chief of Interpretation, Education and Visitor Services at Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, said visitation numbers have increased every month at Arches since September 2020. (National Parks Service)

If you’re planning on visiting one of Utah’s five national parks this summer, be prepared to wait a while to get in, and maybe even bring a backup plan.

Angie Richman, Chief of Interpretation, Education and Visitor Services at Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, said visitation numbers have increased every month at Arches since September 2020. She attributes this to the COVID-19 pandemic limiting international travel and forcing people to go outdoors for many of their activities, creating an unexpected jump in visitation for the national parks.

“We really encouraged the American population to go places that are outdoors, because outdoors is safer (from COVID-19),” Richman said. “Parks are one of those places that people have chosen to go.”

Richman said that on any given afternoon people can walk around the parking lot at Arches and see a license plate from all 50 states. Despite the increased interstate travel, she said the majority of park visitors are still coming from Utah and neighboring Colorado.

To accommodate the increased visitation, Arches has had to temporarily close its gates during the busy morning hours almost every day since March, whereas they previously only had to do so on holiday weekends.

“As the temperatures have increased, visitors are coming earlier and earlier,” Richman said. “At Arches we only have so many parking lots. Once the parking lots are full at 100 percent capacity, then we have to do a temporary entrance delay, where we can’t allow any more people into the park until we have enough people leave.”

These delays can last several hours, as the park has to wait until the parking lots have at least 20 percent capacity to open back up. Because of this, Richman says they encourage visitors to come with a plan B, whether it’s going to another nearby park such as Canyonlands, or just spending time around Moab at the various museums and other hiking trails. Visitors are then invited to return in the afternoon when the park is less busy, though Richman said they may still have to wait in line.

Arches National Park released this video instructing visitors on some of the measures taken to mitigate crowds at the park. (National Parks Service)

Recent BYU graduate Katherine Carling visited Moab in April, and said she decided to go to Canyonlands after seeing a long line at Arches at 8 a.m. She said Canyonlands was not very crowded, but when they went back to Arches at 4 p.m. the same day the line was still “massive.”

“The trip was still fun, but I’d definitely say it could’ve been a lot cooler if we were able to add some variety like we would’ve at Arches,” Carling said. “I bet Arches is more popular because of the Utah license plate. It made Delicate Arch iconic and that hike is always overrun with people now. It’s insane.”

BYU communications professor Ed Carter said he has intentionally avoided national parks since the pandemic started because they are too crowded and “feel like Disneyland or something.” He shared his experience visiting Bryce Canyon National Park this summer when he got partway into the park and a traffic ranger turned him around without explaining what was going on. His group ended up doing a 5-mile hike just inside the park entrance, but he says, “The whole thing reinforced (his) commitment to stay away from national parks and go elsewhere as much as possible.”

Carter added that he has tried to visit more “out-of-the-way outdoor recreation spots that may not have the name recognition but can be just as enjoyable and spectacular.”

Another BYU alumnus, McKayla Robinson, said she visited Zion National Park in October 2020 and “it was the busiest (she has) ever seen it.”

Despite the crowds and long wait times, people are still going out to Utah’s national parks, and they are getting busier by the month. To help adjust to the growth and demand, Richman said her park is researching several ways to deal with the crowds, including a shuttle, secondary entrance and timed entry system. After more research and civic engagement later this summer, the park will put together a recommendation package for approval by regional and national directors.

Richman said possible long-term consequences of the jump in visitation could be staff burnout and an increase in new visitors that are unaware of park rules. “We’ve been really trying to be out on the trails and in the parking lots so we can inform people on how to have a safe and respectful visit.”

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