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Californians love southern Utah. For that matter, so do the Germans and Japanese - and a lot of other folks.

Last year, nearly 10 million people visited Utah's national parks, monuments and recreation areas - over 2 million more than in 1986.And statistics through the first four months of 1990 have state officials predicting a growth rate of 10 percent this year.

"The world is discovering Utah," said Utah Travel Council spokesman Joe Rutherford. "We are seeing some amazing numbers."

The numbers that have Utah tourism officials dancing with delight are double-digit growth rates over the past four years for all National Park Service sites in Utah, except Dinosaur National Monument and Timpanogos Cave.

Visitation was up 30 percent from 1986 to 1989 in Utah, while nationally park visitation grew only 0.9 percent during the same period. Most national parks experienced a decline in visitation during that time period.

Yet seven of the 12 Utah parks and monuments listed in the National Park Service Statistical Abstract have experienced growth rates of 30 percent or more over the past four years, while Canyonlands, Natural Bridges, Hovenweep and Lake Powell have all seen more than a 40 percent increase since 1986.

Lake Powell had almost 1 million more visitors in 1989 than it did in 1986, which is a better record than more famous parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite.

"We have made Lake Powell a big part of our promotional program, and word is apparently getting out," Rutherford said. "There are a lot of people in California looking for someplace to get away from the mass of humanity. And Lake Powell is a big place where they can still get away from crowds even with its increased popularity."

State tourism officials say there are a variety of reasons for the visitation increases:

- Utah has done a better job of advertising Utah nationally and internationally.

- The paving of U-12 now links heavily visited parks like Bryce Canyon and Zion to less-visited parks like Capitol Reef and Natural Bridges.

- At Canyonlands and Arches, the unprecedented popularity of mountain biking has helped pushed visitation to record heights.

- The weakness of the American dollar on foreign exchange markets has unleashed a flood of European and Asian visitors on the state, particularly at Zion and Bryce Canyon.

- Gasoline prices have remained low. "A significant percentage of those visiting Utah parks comes from Southern California," said Rutherford. "And it is much more likely they will jump in a car and head to Utah for a week or for a long weekend if gas prices are low."

- Anything carrying a national park or monument designation has come to be recognized as something special to tourists. And only Alaska and California have more national parks than Utah.

"People see the designation, and they are automatically attracted to Utah," Rutherford said.

But puzzling to state officials is why Dinosaur National Monument has seen only a 1 percent increase over the past four years, a period during which it was the beneficiary of state advertising campaigns and a renewed interest nationally in dinosaurs.

"It has a lot of things going for it," Rutherford said, "and with dinosaurs having really taken off in popularity in the past few years, we are really at a loss to explain why the monument has not experienced the same kinds of increases as the other parks."

But apparently it is "too far out of the loop" of southern Utah canyons and parks to benefit.

Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, in the same area with Dinosaur, was not listed in the park service's statistical abstract.



Visits to Utah's national parks

Visitation at Utah's national parks and monuments, in thousands:

1986 1987 1988 1989 Percent increase*

Arches 419.4 468.9 520.5 555.8 32.5

Bryce Canyon 834.7 1013.5 1114.7 1159.1 38.9

Canyonlands 177.1 180.7 214.2 259.2 46.4

Capitol Reef 420.6 471.3 512.2 560.4 33.2

Cedar Breaks 437.4 444.8 490.7 498.5 14.0

Dinosaur 451.3 433.0 493.7 455.8 1.0

Glen Canyon** 2484.0 2883.4 3564.9 3483.9 40.3

Golden Spike 207.7 192.1 214.9 230.6 11.0

Hovenweep 16.2 19.1 22.5 27.3 68.5

Natural Bridges 73.9 90.0 99.4 104.6 41.5

Timp. Cave 124.4 137.3 138.7 126.9 2.0

Zion 1864.9 1986.4 2174.5 2241.2 20.2

Total 7387.2 8183.2 9422.2 9574.4 29.6

*Percentage increase is from 1986 to 1989.

**Rainbow Bridge National Monument figures included within Glen Canyon National Recreation Area figures.