SALT LAKE CITY — As Utah residents gas up and go this holiday weekend, they're likely to find state parks bustling with visitors enjoying the last long holiday of the summer.

A recent analysis by the University of Utah's Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute found that visitation at Utah's 43 state parks jumped 16 percent overall from fiscal year 2015 to fiscal year 2016.

"It's been fantastic," said Fred Hayes, director of the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation. "The last four or five years in a row, we've experienced double-digit growth. We will easily match last year, or maybe go as high as 19 percent this year."

Some parks are experiencing astounding increases. Goosenecks, near Mexican Hat in the southeast corner of the state, had a 156 percent increase in visitors — going from 20,270 visitors in fiscal year 2015 to 51,985 in fiscal year 2016.

"It's a gorgeous park. It has every bit as neat a view as Dead Horse does," Hayes said, referring to the endless expanse of canyons and buttes viewed from the plateaus of the other park.

Hayes said he believes the increase in visitation is due to more people exploring the Southwest U.S., some promotion the division has done for Goosenecks and also some development the state did on the patch of land down there.

"We're also probably doing a better job of counting," he said. "Part of it, too, is we are pushing people there from Edge of the Cedars State Park in Blanding."

Millsite State Park in central Utah near Huntington in Emery County is, as Hayes says, "family reunion central." That park's visitation jumped 120 percent year over year, which Hayes attributes to the reservoir's angling and boating opportunities as well as the park's close proximity to a network of all-terrain vehicle trails.

Other parks that saw dramatic increases include the Great Salt Lake Marina, which climbed nearly 49 percent from year to year. Hayes said the division made a concentrated effort to make the park a stop for tour buses traveling along I-80.

"That was the first year the new visitor center was fully functional. It's a quick easy stop and a great view-point to see the Great Salt Lake."

Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, University of Utah| Aaron Thorup, Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, University of Utah

Some parks, however, experienced decreases in visitation. Utah Lake State Park fell victim to the unprecedented outbreak of blue-green algae, leading to an 11 percent drop in visitors from 2015 to 2016. Scofield experienced a similar decline of 13 percent, which Hayes said is a combination of an algal bloom outbreak there as well as fishing conditions state wildlife officers are working to improve.

Hayes attributed the overall spike in visitation to the division's business-model approach to running parks.

"I put this on the people who are running the parks who were forced with the challenge of having to draw people there. They got more activities going and gave people more of a reason to go. People are finding more to do at their state parks."

Overall, more than 5.1 million people visited Utah state parks.

The parks run on a budget of $37 million, of which $4 million is appropriated from the state's general fund.

View Comments

Hayes said those numbers are a success story, given that parks are now self-sustaining and over the years have generated about $100 million to state coffers for other purposes.

He's hopeful at getting some of that money back in the next fiscal year to address problems like old pipes and other infrastructure that are simply worn out after decades of use.

The division is also going through the environmental review process involving the planned expansion of Goblin Valley State Park. Utah is working with the Bureau of Land Management and other partners to double the capacity of the park in Emery County and take in the Little Wild Horse Mesa, BLM-controlled land which is being overrun by visitors.

"It's a pretty good partnership," he said.

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.