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State park managers notice influx in out-of-state visitors during busy weekend

Efforts to prevent overcrowding prove difficult
Posted at 7:35 PM, May 03, 2020

WASHINGTON COUNTY, Utah -- Several state parks in southern Utah reached capacity this past weekend, and officials noticed that many came from other states.

“The Governor has been very supportive of state parks and wants us the give people a place to get out, and we understand that, but they need to come out to the park and enjoy the day and do it responsibly," said Gunlock State Park Manager Jon Allred.

Overcrowding at Gunlock Falls, an overflow area from the reservoir, became an issue on Saturday. Park staff put 'closed' signage around the falls and near the entry points, but that didn't deter visitors from coming.

“When you get crowds like that that are coming from every direction it’s a battle,” said Allred.

Utah State Epidemiologist Dr. Angela Dunn on Monday emphasized the importance of keeping a safe social distance from others when in public, even when participating in outdoor recreation.

“Social distancing is still very important, no matter where we come into contact with someone or where the person's from, maintaining social distancing is important to prevent the spread of COVID-19," Dunn said.

A Las Vegas woman had to rescued and air-lifted to a hospital with injuries sustained from cliff-jumping into the falls on Saturday.

"Accidents like the one yesterday at Gunlock are extremely unfortunate. We express concern for the woman’s health and wish her well in her recovery," said Eugene Swalberg with Utah State Parks. Swalberg noted that other parks in Utah experienced larger crowds, but the area at Gunlock is unique. “The downside is because the falls are so spectacular, lots of people wanted to come and see them.”

According to Swalberg, this weekend saw mixed visitation across the state. Some parks in northern Utah were busier than normal for the time of year, while others didn't experience any crowding at all.

In addition to Gunlock, Goblin Valley, Snow Canyon, Quail Creek and Sand Hollow all had to restrict visitors from entering the park in order to manage the amount of visitors. However, Gunlock had one of the most noticeable crowds with frequent social media posts from out-of-state visitors.

“There is a lot of Nevada people in the area right now, a lot of people from out of state and quite a few Californians," said Allred regarding the out-of-state license plates, although he says a lot of seasonal residents call Washington County home. “It’s unfortunate that no matter how hard you push for responsible recreation and that kind of thing, it’s difficult to control crowds when they get that big.”

Swalberg echoed similar sentiments, that many out-of-state visitors seemed to be flocking to Utah's parks. However, both he and Dunn noted that it is not illegal to enter the state for these purposes.

“Our surrounding states are similar to what we’re dealing with here," Dunn said. "We don’t have any plans right now to prevent tourists from out-of-state from coming into Utah, but that’s something we can keep a close eye as again restrictions start loosening up.”

Utah State Parks released a statement to FOX 13 regarding the weekend concerns at Gunlock Falls:

"Gunlock poses unique challenges, with several access points to the waterfalls that exist outside the management authority of state parks. Even with an enhanced law enforcement presence this weekend, oversight at the falls has proven difficult. Park management is in the process of working with local officials to address parking concerns outside of the park, along Gunlock Road, to encourage safe social distancing and responsible recreation."

Perhaps the most concerning piece of this weekend's crowd restriction is the amount of cleanup that parks staff is doing after visitors leave for the day.

“We are going to be cleaning up for the next week," said Allred, who noted his team began cleaning up trash scattered about the falls area beginning at 6:30 a.m. Sunday. “It’s unfortunate, it really is. We asked people to respect the area and clean up after themselves.”

Park managers want visitors to not only recreate responsibly, but check individual parks' social media pages in order to know if the parks are at capacity.

“Everyone understands that it’s a difficult situation and we recommend that people genuinely look before they come to the park,” said Allred.

On Monday, Gov. Gary Herbert made a statement on the issue of overcrowding at parks:

“Utah State Parks and the Utah Highway Patrol are adapting to the pent-up demand for outdoor recreation as restrictions ease and the weather warms up. They have identified and are now sharing system-wide the best practices for limited entry that have worked at the vast majority of our state parks.”