SPRINGDALE — Before the month is over, Zion National Park's roads — once clogged with vehicles packed bumper-to-bumper — will know only the throaty whirring of a few passing buses.
On May 23, precisely at 6:30 a.m., Zion will initiate the first mandatory bus system in a national park in the lower 48 states. Between May 23 and Oct. 31, park visitors planning to view some of the most popular areas inside Zion will have to park and bus.
"We feel like we're re-inventing the wheel," said Denny Davies, chief of interpretation for the National Park Service, of the new bus program. "We can only hope that instead of a 'thud, thud,' everything we hear is smooth and quiet."
Faced with major traffic problems within the park, which attracts more than 2.5 million visitors each year, officials began looking for a solution five years ago. Busing, said Davies, "was the best answer."
Actually, he said, the Park Service "was working on busing programs for the Grand Canyon and Yosemite Valley at the same time, but our program leapfrogged over the others because our system involved a smaller capital outlay, and it was easier for planners to implement."
Vehicles will still be able to drive through the park over the main road between Springdale and Mount Carmel. They will also be able to drive into the Kolob Canyon section at the park's northern tip near Cedar City.
But they will no longer be able to turn off the main road at the Canyon Junction to reach some of the more popular areas of the park, including the Zion Lodge, The Grotto, Angels Landing, Weeping Rock, Observation Point and the Temple of the Simawava.
Davies said the park will begin operations with 26 buses and 18 trailers or bus shells that will be towed. To maintain a respectful amount of quiet in the park, all the buses will be propane powered.
To reach the heart of the park, visitors will have two options. They can park in the town of Springdale, located near the southern entrance, and ride a free bus to the entrance, then unload and catch the fee system into the park. Or they can leave their vehicles near the new visitor center, pay the entrance fee and ride in on the park system. Buses will stop at eight points of interest along the scenic loop. Inside the park, passengers will be able to get on and off buses as often as they like.
Buses will run every 30 minutes during slow times, jump to 15 minutes as traffic picks up and then every six to seven minutes during peak hours. The last shuttle will leave the center at 9:30 p.m. The round trip will take a minimum of 90 minutes.
A pass, good for seven days, to drive through or park and bus in Zion will remain at $20. Individual entrance fee on the bus will be $10. A family pass on the bus will not exceed the vehicle fee or $20.
The problem officials faced is that the park was originally designed to accommodate no more than 1 million people in a year. Overcrowding in the summer resulted in a less desirable experience. The environment has been damaged by vehicles parking anywhere there was space.
Under the new system there will be parking for 400 vehicles near the new visitor center and room for 600 to 800 more vehicles in Springdale. Currently, there is limited parking along the scenic loop and parking for only 80 vehicles near the old visitor center.
On peak days, such as this past Easter weekend, the park draws more than 2,000 vehicles over a 24-hour period.
"What we've found," explained Davies, "is the average stay of a visitor inside the park is four hours. We expect parking to turn over three to four times in a day.
"This program is not only important to Zion but to all the other parks in the system with similar problems. This system could become a real trendsetter."
Opening at the same time will be the new Zion Park Visitor Center — a building being called "visionary." Because of the mild weather, said Davies, 90 percent of the center's exhibits will be outdoors.
"There will be 180 interpretive panels along routes to the center covering everything from information on the park's history, to information about the vegetation, an exhibit on the phenomenon of water in the desert and a history of human inhabitants in the area," he said.
The building itself is of a sustainable design, meaning it will have a passive solar power system, large fanless coolers and environmentally friendly features such as low-flush toilets.
"It's nice to see all of this come to fruition. At the same time we're taking a very fluid approach, meaning we'll go to wherever things need fine tuning. And, like I said, we hope everything runs smoothly."
The bus system will stop running in November and then resume operation the following April.
You can reach Ray Grass by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org