Utah’s five national parks are more popular than ever.
The pandemic brought about only a slight setback in the ever-increasing number of visitors.
“Over the past few years, we have had entrance lines that sometimes stretch for over an hour,” said Kaitlyn Thomas, a public affairs specialist for Arches National Park.
Arches National Park opened in 1929 and for the first eight years had fewer than 1,000 visitors annually.
As for 2021, Thomas said: “We don’t have the official numbers yet, but we will have our busiest year ever."
When the final tally for Zion National Park visitors is released, it will likely have had more than 5 million visitors in 2021, setting a new record.
“Our unofficial number right now, we’re looking at 1.4 million at Capitol Reef,” said Shauna Cottrell, a park ranger.
In many ways, increased visitation is a good thing. More visitors means more tourist dollars spent in Utah, and job growth, particularly in parts of rural Utah.
“We have residents who never go to the park, and may not be terribly aware of it. I think it kind of depends on who you are,” said Rani Derasary, who has lived in Moab since 1999 and serves on the city council.
“For the last few years, we started seeing a lot of traffic build-ups,” Derasary said.
With one road in and out of Arches, traffic from those waiting to enter the park sometimes backs up all the way into downtown Moab. Come April, a pilot program aimed at reducing the number of visitors all trying to enter at once will go into effect.
“We’re looking to time entry not to really limit visitation, but distribute it throughout the day so that we can still maximize this as best as we can while still preserving visitor experience,” said Thomas.
"Timed Entry" is basically a reservation system for entry passes available through the park’s website. The passes can be reserved online three months in advance and will be required between April 3 and Oct. 3.
“We’re calling this a temporary pilot program because we will use the data that we collect throughout the duration of the project really to determine the feasibility of timed entry in the future,” said Thomas.
Zion National Park will not be requiring a reservation to enter the park in 2022, but will introduce a lottery system for those wishing to tackle the popular Angels Landing hike.
Other parks, like Capitol Reef, say no extra permits or reservation systems are in the works for this year.
“We are getting a lot of calls from people who are planning their trips and see [other parks' reservation systems] and are wondering if they need to do that for Capitol Reef as well," Cottrell said. "I don’t know that it’s something we’re racing to do right now."