Arches National Park used to restrict access eight, maybe 12 times every year due to overcrowding. In 2021, the gates have closed over 100 times.

It’s not a problem unique to the iconic southern Utah park — public lands are being “loved to death” right now, as one official put it. From Acadia National Park in Maine, state parks in Pennsylvania, Big Bend in Texas and Glacier in Montana, Americans are going outside more.

Photo Illustration by Alex Cochran

And as a result, parking lots are filling up, campgrounds are a sought after, sometimes fought after, commodity, and the long lines forming outside of park gates often translate to long lines on the trail.

On a cloudless, 90 degree Sunday in southern Utah, the line outside of Arches formed early.

At 8 a.m., cars were backed up almost a quarter of mile from the gates, a wait that took about 30 minutes. By 8:45 a.m., the parking lot for the famed Delicate Arch Trail was completely full, with rangers directing traffic toward the viewpoint parking lot a mile down the road.

Signage warns approaching cars that Arches National Park is restricting additional entries due to crowding on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Dozens of hikers had parked in the lot, gearing up for the “hike before the hike” as one person called it.

By 10:05 a.m., the park had closed its gates.

By 11 a.m., 20 cars were parked, many of them idling, at the small pullout outside of the park by the highway in front of signs warning “10 minute parking only.” Most of the people waiting were on vacation, and some seemed to be nearing their breaking point.

Despite the signage, cars continued to pour into the park. They were directed past the entry booths, circling through a roundabout, back out through the booths, and eventually past the people gathered at the pullout.

To the 30 or so people gathered at the pullout, the steady stream of cars appeared to be people leaving the park.

“Look! Look at all these (expletive) cars coming out! This is (expletive) ridiculous,” one man shouted, pointing out the window of his rental sedan with New York plates.

“This is totally ridiculous. Honestly, I think the rangers are not doing the work and I don’t know where my tax money is going. ... It’s Sunday, they should be counting cars — look, there’s a constant outflow of cars,” said another man who told the Deseret News he drove to Utah from New York.

“Manage it. Do something, don’t just sit there idle. Manage the gate.”

A visitor services assistant directs traffic around the full Wolfe Ranch lot at Arches National Park.
A visitor services assistant directs traffic around the full Wolfe Ranch parking lot, which serves as the starting point for the popular hike to Delicate Arch, in Arches National Park on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

The numbers

It’s not just national parks — in general, people around the country are going outside more. Whether that means more hiking around neighborhood trails, or more cross-country road trips, America’s public lands are crowding at unprecedented levels.

Many are chalking it up to the pandemic and the collective cabin fever that began sweeping America in 2020.

“(COVID-19) has made people stir-crazy,” said ranger Melissa Hulls, visitor and resource protection supervisor at Arches. “A lot more places have opened up with the increase in vaccinations, I think it’s a great opportunity for people to come out and enjoy their national parks — it’s just they’re all coming at the same time.”

Consider this:

  • As of August, Arches National Park has seen 1,290,125 visits in 2021, already more than it saw in 2020 and on pace to break its 2019 record, according to data from the National Park Service.  
  • In July 2020, sales of bikes, helmets and other bicycle accessories in the U.S. were up 75% to $1 billion for the month — the highest monthly volume in history, according to a report by NPD Research.
  • In April 2021, 61,616 more people visited Dead Horse State Park than in April 2019, according to data from the Utah state parks office.
  • Trail usage around the Wasatch Front has increased 200%, according to data from the Utah governor’s office of economic opportunity.
  • 50,000 people each month rode a trail in Draper on their mountain bike since the start of the pandemic, according to data from the Utah governor’s office of economic opportunity.
  • Little Hole National Recreation Area near Flaming Gorge saw a whopping 2,308% increase in usage, according to data from the Utah governor’s office of economic opportunity.
  • Hole in the Rock Road in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument averaged 1,200 cars each day in 2021, according to data from the Utah governor’s office of economic opportunity.
National Park Service ranger Melissa Hulls, the visitor and resource protection supervisor for Arches National Park, poses for a photo outside of the park’s visitors center on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

If you can think it, the park service has studied it

The Deseret News talked to dozens of people inside Arches. Everyone had their own “million-dollar idea,” as one hiker called it, to cut back on the congestion.

But whatever your idea is to reduce traffic jams and improve the visitor experience, the National Park Service has probably already studied it.

Some suggested paving the Salt Valley Road, a rugged dirt road north of the park only accessible with a high-clearance vehicle, in hopes that a separate entry would cut back on the lines forming at the current entrance.

“We did look at that ... it wouldn’t do anything. It gives people a way to leave, it doesn't change the amount of people coming at one time,” said Hulls.

More and bigger parking lots was one idea — another tourist said the park should build more trails so visitors would spread out.

“We could totally build a five-story parking garage but do you want to add that many people to the trail? What would that do to the experience while you’re hiking if you're shoulder to shoulder and you’re waiting hours to get a picture under the arch,” she said.

Some said the National Park Service should open new parks in the Moab area, or just more parks in general.

“That’s the mentality in town with more hotels as well,” Hulls said, referring to the explosion of growth in Moab’s tourism and hospitality industry. “I’m all for protecting these beautiful places, and not to say that we don’t need more, but I don’t see that solving our congestion issue.”

A particularly popular idea was to implement a shuttle system, similar to what Zion National Park did years ago.

Visitors board a shuttle at Zion National Park on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020.
Visitors board a shuttle at Zion National Park on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2020. | Ravell Call, Deseret News

“We did look at what it would take to have a shuttle, but we have a completely different infrastructure than Zion,” Hulls said, noting Arches has more trails, more stops, and according to a traffic study conducted in 2016, a different approach to visitation.

Parkgoers treat Arches like an artery, Hulls said — they go north to the top of the park in one straight shot, then turn around, stopping at trailheads and overlooks on their way back toward the visitors center.

She said a shuttle system is not completely out of the question. And during a Sept. 28 Moab City Council meeting, Superintendent of Arches Patricia Trap said the park is considering both a mandatory and optional shuttle service as a possible plan to cut back on congestion.

But it would be an expensive, systematic overhaul to the park requiring what could be millions spent on new infrastructure. And with visitation increasing around the country, shuttles are not immune to congestion. The wait for the Zion shuttle is sometimes three hours, with crowds forming around bathrooms, water fountains and shade structures.

“I’ve also heard conversely they don’t want to have that shuttle anymore,” she said. 

Arches has tried other smaller scale mitigation efforts. Rangers closed down certain parking lots, forcing people to go to other, less visited sections of the park. They tried counting cars, letting one person in for each car that left — the line of cars backed up onto the highway. They tried a pulsed entry, where every 15 minutes they would let a certain number of people in. The line of cars spilled onto the highway then, too. They added an extra lane to the entrance road in 2017, expanded some of the more popular parking lots and built new bathrooms.

“We’ve tried all these different measures throughout the years to try and make it better, but it’s only getting worse,” Hulls said.

Visitors to Arches National Park make the hike to and from Delicate Arch, one of the park’s most popular attractions, on Sunday, Sept. 19, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

No perfect solution

There is one solution Hulls has faith in — a timed entry, reservation system allowing visitors to enter the park on a two-hour block basis.

It’s an idea gaining traction across the National Parks Service, with Rocky Mountain, Glacier and Acadia recently requiring reservations, and Arches now following suit.

During the September city council meeting, Trap told Moab officials that Arches will be piloting a timed-entry system in the spring. It’s a strategy Trap says will address three main issues with congestion.

The majority of visitors are confined to three main areas — Delicate Arch, the Windows and Devils Garden. Visitors are arriving earlier than ever, although there are notable traffic patterns including a peak from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. and an afternoon plateau that lasts until 6 p.m.

And at these three popular locations, during these popular times, park visitors “expressed belief that the National Park Service should take action or, the visitors stated, they would not return again to the park,” Trap said.

“This pilot will help us proactively pace visitation into the park and provide visitors with a safe, reliable and more enjoyable experience, while protecting the resources that made this park so special,” Trap told city officials.

Glacier requires all visitors to buy a ticket ahead of time for anyone hoping to drive the popular Going-to-the-Sun Road between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m., while anyone trying to enter Rocky Mountain needs to make a reservation.

The idea wasn’t popular for the parkgoers the Deseret News spoke to at Arches, who lamented about a potential backlog of reservations and a loss of spontaneity, especially for locals.

“The reservation system is so frustrating, not only for the clients that are coming in but the people that have to work those reservations because there’s not necessarily a penalty if you don’t show up,” said Christine Donk, who worked at Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska, but spoke to the Deseret News during her first trip to Arches.

“For people that live here, the locals, I’m sure if they want to pop in to see something, or if they’ve got family coming in and they want to pop in, they don’t want to reserve anything. They live here, they don’t want to do that.”

But for park officials, it’s the best answer to a difficult question.

As visitation rises, how do you balance the demands of tourists, most of whom want to enter the park on their own accord, in a way that doesn’t conflict with the core tenet of a national park — resource protection.

“There is no perfect solution or we would have done it by now,” said Jim Ireland, superintendent of Bryce Canyon National Park. “That’s the tough question that we have to answer — is there a limit and are people willing to accept some sort of restriction on when they can and can’t come, in exchange for a better experience and better resource protection when they get here.”

Hulls likened it to the handful of other things tourists already do that require reservations — renting a car, booking a hotel or eating at a restaurant.

She acknowledged it might not be popular at first. It would do away with the spontaneity, as many pointed out. The parking lots might still be crowded, and the visitors might still get cranky. Many people will still be turned away.

“But it would give people a chance,” she said. “A lot of it is just changing the expectation.”

If the pilot system becomes permanent, Hulls hopes to see a coordinated effort with the hospitality industry in Moab to spread the word about reservations. Hotel clerks can tell those booking a room by phone about the system, and websites can include a link to the reservation page.

It would allow people to plan around a national park visit. Instead of setting aside the entire day to (hopefully) get into Arches, families would have a designated two-hour block where they were guaranteed entry. The disappointment of planning a trip to see Delicate Arch, only to be turned around at the gate, would be gone.

“I can’t imagine coming to a national park and having this be the only thing I wanted to do on vacation and be told I need to come back in five hours,” said Hulls. “That would suck. Immensely.”

The sun sets as a rainstorm blows over Delicate Arch in Arches National Park near Moab on Saturday, Sept. 18, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

‘It served its purpose better than ever imagined’

Speaking during a recent Western Governors Association event in Salt Lake City, Vicki Varela, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism, laid out the overall goal of her department.

The vision: “A state united in welcoming the world to experience soul-awakening adventure.”

The mission: “Elevate life in Utah through responsible tourism stewardship.”

“This is a dramatically different vision and mission statement than we had 10 years ago,” Varela said, referring to the Mighty Five campaign launched in 2013, intended to promote Utah’s five national parks and bolster the state’s rural tourism economies.

“It’s part of my legacy,” Varela said. “I take credit for it. I take responsibility for it. Because it served its purpose better than ever imagined to completely shift people’s understanding of our beautiful state.”

Since then, the office of tourism has shifted its approach, launching the “red emerald” strategy in 2017 that seeks to find a balance between a “perpetual tourism economy” that meshes with proper stewardship and the values of both rural and urban Utah.

“It’s about prioritizing not just the quantity of visitors but the quality of visitors, and the quality of the visitor experience,” she said.

Part of that is tailoring a strategy around tourism and visitation that fits the unique geography of each area — for national parks, that means using the right tool in the toolkit, as Ireland puts it.

“The toolkit is the same, we all have the same set of tools — shuttles, traffic management, timed entry, reservations — you have to apply them differently in different parks,” he told the Deseret News.

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For instance, Ireland said alternative methods of transportation are gaining popularity at Bryce Canyon. Whether that’s a shuttle or the bike path that takes people from Bryce Canyon City into the park, finding ways for people to get out of their cars and into the park is essential to managing congestion.

Ireland said this approach has given a small boost to the surrounding tourism economy, as more and more businesses in the area are now offering bike rentals.

“We compare notes and talk to each other,” Ireland said of the rest of Utah’s national parks. “I think everybody has a slightly unique situation. Some of the approaches will be good in some places and not good for others.”

Will the traffic ever go away?

“I don’t foresee it happening,” Hulls said, noting that congestion was an issue for the parks service before the pandemic, and it has only worsened in the last two years. “But ask me to predict human behavior, and I’ll have a different answer tomorrow.”

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