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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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I absolutely HATE the idea, but what are the alternatives?

I'm waiting for the same thing to occur at Glacier and at Mount Rainier National Parks.  I can't begin to tell you the crowds I saw in the Longmire and Paradise areas of Mount Rainier during my visit this past week.  I had to get up pretty early in order to photograph spots like Narada Falls and Christine Falls before all the parking spaces were filled and people parked alongside the road at some good distance and then walked along the road where there are no shoulders.  And Paradise was a madhouse.  Sunrise, interestingly enough, was not quite as crowded and there always seemed to be parking spaces.  Perhaps because there is no overnight lodging there or that you have to drive a good bit further to reach this area of the park?  Dunno.

Don't require any more reservations. The National Park Service helped create this mess by promoting and advertising the parks, especially for the 2016 Centennial. Desist with all advertising and promotion of parks that are overused. If you require reservations to visit Zion for people of the West, then you should damn well require reservations to visit the National Mall for people of the East. 

..." The National Park Service helped create this mess by promoting and advertising the parks...".


Perhaps instead a major dose of Congress not providing adequate funding to build and maintain appropriate infrastructure.

For what it's worth, the state of Utah last year conducted a massive, national advertising campaign around its five national parks -- Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capital Reef, and Zion. 

I understand there is need for a change. We were recently at Yellowstone, and it was very busy. One thing we noticed was bus loads of foreign tourists. If there are limitations to who can enter the park I wonder how this issue will be handled. I felt proud that  folks from other countries wanted to see our national treasures. If visitation is limited however, how do you tell taxpayers they can't come in? Tough problem with no easy answers!

Rick, you say, "Perhaps instead a major dose of Congress not providing adequate funding to build and maintain appropriate infrastructure." 

I'm gonna have to respectfully disagree with you on that one.  Big time!  (Or is it YUGE now?)

I completely agree that Congress needs to adequately fund our parks, but NOT for any more infrastructure.

If we continue adding to infrastructure but fail to somehow control the number of people, vehicles and other humanoid impacts upon our parks, Zion Canyon, Yosemite Valley, and all of Hayden Valley will have to be paved for parking.

And if it ever becomes necessary to have reservations to enter the National Mall or Great Smokey or Shenandoah or Gettysburg, then so be it.  

Remember the mandate; ". . . to preserve unimpaired for the enjoyment of the future . . . "

How much will the future enjoy asphalt.  (But then the way things are going, asphalt everything may be the future for our great grandkids.)

It's hard to be very optimistic right now. 

I guess we're just fortunate we're not one of those park superintendents who will be blamed for anything that doesn't go right and never get any credit for things that do.  

I have no problem with daily entry quotas, which are long-overdue at many parks, but reservation systems favor the well-off portion of society.and tour companies, who can afford to make reservations they may not use.  Escalating fees, scalping, and the sort of corruption displayed at the USS Arizona Memorial tours will likely increasingly exclude the average American from the most popular NPS destinations.  If quotas are required, reservation-only days should alternate with days having only first-come, first-served entry.

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