Labor Day was as good a day as any to commune with the red-rock nature of Zion National Park while simultaneously sitting in traffic.

"It's not uncommon to get 4,000 (cars) a day coming in this time of year," park superintendent Don Falvey said Monday. Labor Day marks the unofficial end of summer but only the start of the home stretch in a visitor season that runs through October for Zion.Half of Monday's visiting vehicles were bound, as usual, up Zion Canyon along a narrow lane that dead-ends six miles from the mouth of the passage.

That's 2,000 cars, or 1,600 more than the number of parking-lot spaces in the canyon and far more than the road was ever intended to handle.

The statistic alone explains why park administrators continue their push toward what seems the inevitable closure of the popular canyon to most motorized traffic.

Plans are for that to happen by the summer of 1999, when visitors will be paying perhaps $1.50 apiece to ride by public transit through the canyon in a radical reconfiguration of how the park is managed.

"Our goal is to have that whole thing be accessed only by people hiking, people biking or people on shuttles," said Falvey, noting that the effort is well on its way.Key to the movement is some $17 million in federal funding - some of it already acquired - to rearrange traffic handling at Zion.

The park recently completed construction of the $744,000 Pa-rus Trail, a 10-foot-wide track that shadows the North Fork of the Virgin Rivers and serves now as the major pedestrian alternative to the Zion Canyon road.

The coming fiscal year holds $5.1 million in federal money earmarked already for paved shuttle stops, road configurations and parking lots outside the canyon.

Hopes are for another $5 million in fiscal 1997 to build a shuttle-maintenance facility and additional bus stops. A fiscal 1998 appropriation of $6 million would buy a fleet of 32 buses that would ply the canyon and run a loop in and out of the nearby town of Springdale, which received $1 million in state transportation grants to build a complementary set of shuttle stops.

Finally, some $2 million in private money raised by the locally run Zion Natural History Association would pay for a new visitor center whose site will be picked later this month.

Falvey said the center could either end up in Springdale next to a big-screen theater that features a Cinemax tour of the park or somewhere inside park boundaries.

The aim for closing the canyon is simple: "We're trying to eliminate the congestion and traffic headaches that have become common and it back into a quality visitor experience," said Falvey.

He noted that Zion - like many national parks - receives more and more traffic each year.

Zion's annual visitation is 2.5 million, about a quarter of it from foreign tourists. The total count has grown by a yearly rate of about 6 percent since 1983.

Originally preserved in 1909 as Mukuntuweap National Monument, the area became Zion National Park in 1919. As additional land was added over the years, its boundaries have expanded gradually, today encompassing 147,000 acres.

Falvey said Zion's increasing popularity has forced a study now in progress to learn how many visitors at a time each of the park's four major areas should be subjected to.

A general management plan in it early stages of drafting would likely put a visitation ceiling on each sector. A permit system would probably be adopted, much like the one in place now to limit traffic through the Narrows section of the park, where 80 hikers a day are allowed and camping is kept to 12 sites.

"It's really another generation of trying to develop a caring capacity for the park," said Falvey.