Hey spider lovers. If arachnids are your thing — even those hairy tarantulas — the Antelope Island State Park in Davis County is prepared to give you some fun with your eight-legged friends.

On July 29, you can embark on a spider-themed event, complete with walks, face painting, food, crafts and more. At 2 p.m., tarantulas are the star attraction.

Or perhaps you prefer bunking in a Conestoga wagon, originally designed centuries ago to carry up to six tons. Today at East Canyon State Park you will find a mini-fridge, a king-sized bed and bunk-beds for the children in the wagons.

There’s really not a limit to what you can do: archery, horseback riding, sleeping in yurts, playing at an inflatable water park, catching the breeze with a zip line or boating at the aquamarine waters at Bear Lake, known as the “Caribbean of the Rockies.”

Welcome to Utah state parks, with 46 of them scattered from north to south, offering unique experiences for whatever a visitor might crave. But this much diversification has not been easy.

Two Conestoga Wagons at East Canyon State Park in Morgan on Monday, July 17, 2023. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

Money woes

You have to flash back to a 2011 legislative audit that excoriated the state parks division with findings that very few of the parks actually made money and were too dependent on state taxpayer subsidies.

The audit came as Utah lawmakers were being forced to make drastic cuts in the aftermath of the Great Recession, the most significant economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Jeff Rasmussen, who has been with state parks 31 years and now serves as its division director, said it was a painful time. Ongoing funding for the division was cut 59%, delivering a crippling blow that led to layoffs and other drastic measures.

But he understood.

“Funding was especially tight, to put it mildly, and I always say everybody loves recreation, including the Legislature — but when it really comes down to it, they’ve got to pay the bills for the road department and social services, the prisons and schools. Unfortunately, recreation doesn’t rank high on those priority lists. It may be looked at more as a want than a need.”

The state parks’ budget went from having 50% of its operational costs paid for out of the general fund to 10%, where it remains today.

“It was a very difficult adjustment making that happen,” Rasmussen said. “But it also brought about a lot of really cool things and I want to tell you that it was the right decision that they made. I firmly believe the people who use the parks should pay for the parks. I think it totally makes sense.”

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Under threat of possible closures or privatization of some of the parks, the division went about the business of being more business-like, putting on its innovation cap to make its portfolio of offerings unique and desirable to the general public.

Utah has no problem generating visitation to its stable of national parks, from the iconic Zion with its geographical wonders to the more than 2,000 documented sandstone arches for the aptly named Arches National Park outside Moab.

Crowds, in fact, have become the new reality at the Mighty Five.

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Utah’s bevy of state parks are a pressure valve for that visitation, with multiple locations closer to home along the Wasatch Front — think Jordanelle, Antelope Island, the Great Salt Lake and East Canyon, to name a few.

And Sand Hollow State Park in Washington County, given its reservoir offering and proximity to neighboring states such as Nevada, Arizona and California, has seen more than a million visitors a year for three consecutive years.

People enjoy being in the water on a hot day at East Canyon State Park in Morgan on Monday, July 17, 2023. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

If you build it they will come

Rasmussen said over the last several years the state Legislature has directed a combination of funding — about $250 million — to accommodate the surge in visitors and to invest in capital improvements. From July 2022 through May of this year, the latest numbers available, nearly 9.3 million people patronized state parks.

The division is responding to that surge by adding a variety of attractions and unique lodging experiences.

Park spokesman Devan Chavez said while many people enjoy tent camping, others opt for a different experience.

“Lodging is one area we want to have a lot of variety,” he said. “We want to give people different ways to experience camping.”

Sturdy, oversized yurts are available at some state parks, as are traditional cabins, of course, but Rasmussen said the division is branching out.

“We have some very unique housing at Fremont Indian State Park. It is a Native American pit house replica. You look at it and it looks like just a pile of dirt. But it’s got a cedar frame door that you open up and it’s like walking into a hotel room, but a rustic hotel room with air conditioning and heating for the winter and some really nice comfortable beds,” he said. “It’s just a really unique experience.”

This year, the division has celebrated several groundbreakings of new offerings, including:

  • The addition of 31 new camping sites at Deer Creek’s Fox Den.
  • The addition of cottages or tiny homes at Echo, which Rasmussen describes as traditional camping cabins on steroids.
  • 30 new campsites at Sand Hollow to help accommodate the surge in visitation.

Chavez said Echo also underwent a massive overhaul, with the addition of a store, a new beach, new entrance and a significant extension and improvement of the boat ramps. And earlier this week, the division celebrated the opening of a brand new archery range at Antelope Island.

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The division said there are no long-distance archery ranges in Davis County, even though interest in archery has spiked dramatically.

Along with the 100-yard range, the archery addition features 20-, 30- and 40-yard lanes that are ADA approved and there is a six-station walk-through course that simulates outdoor landscapes with various challenges such as changes in elevation. Participation in archery comes at no extra charge — just the price to get into the park.

The new archery offering is the result of a combination of public and private funding, including monies from Davis County Tourism, the nonprofit Friends of Antelope Island, retailer Wilde Arrow Archery, Beehive Wasatch Bowhunter, manufacturer Hoyt Archery and the Utah Archery Association.

“It’s just one more thing for people to do when they come to our state parks and it totally aligns with our philosophy: more people having more fun and spending more time in our state parks,” Rasmussen said.

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