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Zion National Park Considering Reservation System To Manage Crowds


Zion National Park officials are considering a move to require visitors to have reservations to enter the park/Kurt Repanshek

In a move that could signal the future of your national park vacation, Zion National Park officials are thinking of moving to a reservation system for entry into the iconic red rock cathedral to protect resources and ensure the enjoyment of visitors.

It's an idea being considered more and more in recent years by superintendents as record-breaking crowds strain places like Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Zion, and many other parks. There likely will be pushback to Zion's proposals. But park staff, budgets, the tight confines of 6-mile-long Zion Canyon, and today's growing crowds cast a reservation system as perhaps the best way to help superintendents meet the National Park Service Organic Act's overriding directive: 

... to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." 

"On Memorial Day Sunday, we had 30,300 people in the park that day," John Marciano, the park's public affairs spokesman, said Saturday. "That's nuts. No one has a good time."

More and more times during the year, the Virgin River in the Zion Narrows is overcrowded/NPS

To provide visitors with a better experience in the park, and to better protect natural resources, Zion officials are seeking public comment through August 14 on three proposals:

  • Alternative A: Make no changes from the current visitor management system.
  • Alternative B: Require all visitors to obtain a reservation for their stay. With this reservation, they would be allowed to go to any of the park's frontcountry areas, places such as Zion Narrows, Angels Landing, and Observation Point.
  • Alternative C: In addition to needing a reservation to enter the park, you'd need specific reservations if you wanted to enter Zion Narrows or hike to the top of Angels Landing. Day hikers heading into wilderness areas also would need to obtain permits.

A reservation system, if implemented, would apply to all areas of the park, from Zion Canyon and Checkerboard Mesa to the Kolob Canyon corner of the park.

Driving the process is overcrowding to the point where it can jeopordize safety and damage the park's natural resources. While there are roughly 13 miles of official trails in Zion Canyon, officials say there are more than 30 miles of visitor-created unofficial trails there.

"The longer we wait, the worse the condition of the resource gets," said Mr. Marciano.

Visitation to Zion has gone up 60 percent over the past decade, to more than 4.3 million a year. While the park years ago moved to requiring visitors to ride shuttle buses into the famous canyon unless they had lodging reservations, the shuttle system has bogged down with increasing demand.

"Visitors are experiencing long lines for basic services," said the park's newsletter that announced the reservation proposals. "The shuttles are routinely over capacity, with buses that have a capacity of 68 seated riders commonly being filled with between 95 and 100 people.

"Vehicular traffic is often backing up along roadways into Springdale, causing traffic congestion problems there," the newsletter went on. "Trails, campgrounds, and other infrastructure are seeing wear and tear more quickly and faster than funding allows for repairs."

Visitor safety also is at risk, as the number of emergency response calls for rangers "has increased exponentially, and emergency response can be delayed because of traffic congestion," said park officials.

Alternative C would also improve traffic flow from the South Entrance along the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway to the East Entrance by prohibiting oversized vehicles -- large RVs, tour buses, motor homes, and travel trailers -- from traveling that route. Alternative B would restrict those oversized vehicles to specific time windows in mornings and evenings.

Alternative B and C also would move the South Campground to a reservation system; it currently operates on a first-come, first-served basis.

Discarded from consideration in the effort to better manage crowds and protect resources was congestion pricing, also known as surge pricing.

"National park units are a public resource, and to the extent possible, should remain affordable to visitors across a range of financial status," the park newsletter said. "Congestion pricing could place unfair financial burdens on some visitors, as price points during peak vacation times would likely need to be very high to maintain visitor capacity by dissuading park visitors from entering during crowded times through paying a high rate."

In developing the proposals open for public consideration, park officials reviewed available data -- "We know how many people come into the canyon every day. We have a breakdown of big vehicles, small vehicles, people who walk in, drive through. We have that breakdown," said Mr. Marciano. "We also have (hiker) numbers for trails, Angels Landing, etc." -- and discussed the issue and possible solutions with Park Service staff in both the Intermountain Region Office in Denver and the agency headquarters in Washington, D.C.

If a final decision is made to go with a reservation system of some sort -- either Alternative B, Alternative C, or some sort of hybrid -- then Zion staff will have to settle on a daily visitor capacity.

Details of the proposal, and a page to comment, can be found at this site.

In a common scene at Zion in summer, traffic backs up from the South Entrance down into the gateway community of Springdale/Kurt Repanshek

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As a lifelong resident who lives on the highway lead into zion national park I have mixed emotion. I have noticed the increase of tourist traffic leading into zion it has been years since I have been into the main canyon in Zion because of the crowding. If the park limits the tourism then I feel for all the business owners who depend on tourism. As a property owner who owns property inside zion national park backcountry I have seen first hand the ridiculousness of some of the park rangers who have harassed my family for decades and the wastefulness of the park they claim they are understaffed I think they are wasteful and refuse to do what needs to be done 

The problem is not too many visitors. The problem is not enough national parks, and not enough funding for existing parks.

Though park attendance has skyrocketed, we have barely expanded our park system since the mid-1990s. Meanwhile, anti-park interests and their allies in government have deliberately suppressed park funding to bolster their efforts to privatize our parks and prevent any new ones from being created.

Instead of discouraging and limiting public access to our parks, we need to strengthen and expand our National Park System. If even a small percentage of the tens of millions of people who visit our national parks each year were informed, inspired, and activated, they could be the foundation of a powerful effort to make that happen.

Great idea of alternating the days. We visited all three above mentioned parks in June, way to many tour buses. Especially at the Grand Canyon! What crushed my heart was most folks showed no respect for our great treasures.....crawling all over the rocks for a 'selfie' chasing after the animals at Yellowston, Glacier had so much traffic you couldnt enjoy it. We were guilty in that we pulled our 5th wheel. I think camping should be limited to small campers, no larger that 20ft. I felt guilty for all the room our rig took up at Coulter Bay. We were at Yellowstone back in '05, I was so surprised at all the  conveniences everywhere . There were souvenir shops all over the parks. Taking away from the natural beauty....... 

Rick B.

But the funding to our national parks was cut drastically 10yesrs ago. It recovered a bit during Obama's reign, but I see it being cut drastically again - in fact, I'm sure you've heard the talk of mining and drilling along or in the parks too. 

Funding needs to increase for the parks to be maintained which includes everything from bathroom facilities (have seen some gross bathrooms in Yellowstone) to the trails to upkeep of visitor lodging And employment of park rangers.  

Also, stop the travel/tourist companies from grabbing all the reservations for lodging in the parks. Reservations go crazy fast. It's a task to get our 3 tickets. Large tourist groups are more encouraged than the average family. 

The advertising campaign is still affecting the number of visitors to the point that Angel's Landing and Heart Lake - sites a little off the beaten path - now get swarms of visitors. 

I'm also glad that people want to see our national treasures, but when it gets so difficult for the average Joe and Jane to see them, maybe shuttles and reservations to enter are the answer. 

We were in Zion early January. You can take your car in. No crowds. More beautiful with a bit of snow cover. Instead of doing summer promotions, recommended people visit in the winter. Just dress for it.

You wouldn't expect to have an empty camp site or hotel room waiting for you upon arrival in a national park. Permits have been required for camping in wilderness areas for years and years. It may be controversial as a new suggestion, but these kind of reservations will probably become more common in time.

I get the fact the park is over-crowded. At the same time, Utah is running a myriad of "visit the Mighty Five" commercials.

We live in Kanab and travel to Springdale for business a couple times per week through the tunnel. How about lobbying for an exemption for locals?

I can also see this could potentially hurt local business in some ways not yet revealed.

The National Parks are definitely getting crowded - too crowded for an unplanned quiet stroll through the parks.  I too am a photographer - and the only way to get shots without lots of people are early morning shots.  I am not a fan of reservations - but I don't see an alternative.  Just too many people - and not all of them are too focused on taking care of the environment with regard to staying on trails, trash, noise, etc.  I've even passed people hiking while listening to a stereo blarring off their back for all to hear.  Seems contrary to me. 

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