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Crowd solutions needed for Utah's packed national parks

Zion Cars.jpg
Posted at 4:23 PM, Jun 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-21 21:05:04-04

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's national parks saw a dip in visitation last year due to the pandemic, but most are on track to break records this year.

FOX 13 spoke with one Texas couple who visited Zion and Bryce Canyon in early June. It was Layne and Misty Hill's first time at both parks and they said they were shocked at how many people were on the trails with them.

"We had been wanting to do this trip for a long time and had been researching it for a long time," Layne said.

"The one thing once we got there that I was not prepared for was the amount of people," Misty added.

READ: Yosemite National Park to require reservations starting May 21

They expected some "alone time" in nature with their children, only to arrive to find thousands of other people at Zion National Park as well.

"I thought it would be just more family," Misty said. "Just us going through the trails and everything and not having to work your way through everyone."

The Hills avoided some of Zion's more famous hikes due to overcrowding at the trailhead.

"We were actually going to do Angel's Landing, but because of how crowded it was, we decided against it," Layne said.

"Yeah, we felt like it would be unsafe," Misty added.

Long lines and wait times to get into the parks are becoming a regular occurrence. Zion and Arches are already seeing monthly visitation rates surpassing their pre-pandemic levels.

Zion had over 610,000 visitors in May of this year alone compared to over 529,000 in May of 2019. The latest data for Arches comes from April, with nearly 194,000 visitors this year compared to more than 168,000 in 2019.

READ: Zion National Park designated as Int'l Dark Sky Park

Bryce Canyon, which has seen a steady increase in visitation over the last ten years, is still catching up to pre-pandemic rates. It had close to 299,000 visitors in May with nearly 328,000 people heading to the park in May of 2019.

High attendance numbers have some in communities like Moab and Springdale calling for a reservation, or timed entry, system that would stagger entrance into the park. Some argue this would help with the crowding and give rangers the chance to maintain trails.

"I think it would be a good idea. Especially for Angel's Landing, it's just too dangerous," Layne said.

"Just for the safety issues, I think that would be a great option," Misty added.

Others think it would hurt local businesses. A 2018 study commissioned by the National Parks Service found that a reservation system would suck $22 million from Moab's economy in just the first year.

READ: Zion National Park warns of toxins in Virgin River

Those in favor point to a reservation program implemented by Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado where the nearby town of Estes Park saw a sales tax increase as visitors shopped and dined in town while they waited to enter the park.

The public information officer for Zion National Park was not available for an on-camera interview for this story, but said on the phone that the park has been breaking visitation records every month since September, and they don't expect it to let up anytime soon.