What happens when a national park becomes so popular that the crush of visitors makes each visit less enjoyable? During the one month of June, 2017, Zion National Park saw over half a million visitors, and 70,000 during the 2016 Memorial Day weekend. In 2007, the park received 2,679,181 visitors, that increased to 4,317,028 in 2016.
On popular days, the line of vehicles approaching the South Entrance Station reaches back through the town of Springdale, snarling traffic for town residents and visitors alike. The parking lot for the Visitor Center and shuttle departures is often full. Cars line the east road so people can walk back to the main canyon road to catch a shuttle. Visitors wait in line to get on the shuttles. Hikers encounter long lines of people using popular trailheads.
The National Park Service is searching for a way to limit park visitors, putting together a new Visitor Use Management Plan. This plan has three alternatives including Alternative A which is the typical “take no action” where everything would stay as it is.
Alternative B would use a reservation system. Visitors would need to pay for a reservation ahead of time covering the day or days they want to visit. Only a certain number of reservations would be permitted on each day.
This would shorten the lines at the entrance station since the entrance fee would already be paid. Visitors would ride the shuttle and hike the trails with fewer other visitors.
Alternative C would require reservations for each place or trailhead in the main canyon. A visitor would select the places they want to visit and get daily reservations for those spots. Popular spots like the Narrow, Emerald Pools or the Grotto (the trailhead for Angel’s Landing) would only receive a certain number of visitors or hikers each day. Although the plan does not specify, apparently people would be allowed to get off the shuttle at a stop only if they could show reservations for that stop on that day.
Another bottleneck is always the large tunnel. When it was built in 1930, vehicles were much smaller. Now, large vehicles, such as RVs and delivery trucks, can only travel down the center of this tunnel. This necessitates one-way traffic during most of the day and long lines of vehicles form at each end waiting for their turn to go through the tunnel.
Alternative B would restrict any large vehicle, RV or delivery truck, to traverse the tunnel only at certain times of the day, probably early morning and evening. During the rest of the day, regular vehicles would traverse the tunnel using both lanes with no restrictions. An RV approaching the park from the East Side would need to travel south through Kanab, west to Hurricane, then back north and east to the South Park Entrance. A 30-mile trip to the visitor’s center through the tunnel, would become a trip of about 100-miles looping around to the South Entrance. Alternative C would eliminate large vehicles from the tunnel at all times.
Thousands of comments have been received about these alternatives. Many comments state something needs to be done to reduce the number of visitors. Some interesting comments worry about a black market developing, where people buy reservations and then offer them at higher prices. Some say with a reservation system, tour buses should be eliminated or very restricted since commercial companies would need to receive enough reservations to fill their buses. Others say Utah residents and then U.S. residents should receive a higher priority to get reservations, although the NPS states these priorities will not happen. A few state visitors should be required to take an online course before getting reservations, learning about the park and visitor etiquette.
Under these alternatives, future visits to Zion would require careful planning months in advance. The lucky ones receiving reservations would have a more enjoyable national park experience, sharing the park with fewer people. The unlucky ones would simply go elsewhere.