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Utah’s ‘Mighty Five’ national parks suffer mightily from low visitation

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Maui Taua and his wife, Shynell, sit with their children, Renee and Rose, in the Saw Mill picnic site near Timpanogos Cave in American Fork Canyon on Tuesday, July 21, 2020. Visits to all national parks in Utah this summer are drastically down with the exception of Timpanogos Cave.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The closure of Utah’s national parks this spring and their phased reopenings with multiple restrictions naturally led to drastic reductions in visitation, but the parks continue to struggle as people hunker down and stay closer to home.

Zion National Park, for example, experienced a 45% decrease in recreational visits in June compared to last year and had to cope with its popular shuttle service shuttered until the month of July, according to the National Park Service.

Park spokesman Jeff Axel said even as shuttle service resumed this month through a reservation only and timed ticketed system, visitation remains about 75% of where it usually is.

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“It is still staying much lower than normal and I believe that is largely due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said. “In Zion you really can’t social distance; we in are in a canyon.”

For Canyonlands and Arches, which closed at the end of March and didn’t reopen until late May, year-to-date visitation plunged for Arches by nearly 71% and at Canyonlands to 85% compared to last year’s numbers.

“It is a challenge and we are really concerned about safety and responding to this pandemic,” said Jim Ireland, Utah state coordinator for the National Park Service.

“I think the parks have done a remarkable job to stay open where they can.”

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The entrance to Bryce National Park was closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak on Thursday, April 15, 2020.

Alex Cabrero, Deseret News

Vicki Varela, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism, said it is no surprise to her that national parks are struggling with low visitation even as the state has moved to reopen.

“If people start to feel safer, they will travel farther. If they start to feel anxious, they stay closer to home. I think that is the nature of the beast — that until we have stability and a sense of safety through immunization, through flattening the curve, we are going to see these travel spikes and downturns.”

Hotels, like national parks, are suffering as well.

With conventions canceled, the downtown Salt Lake City hotels are seeing brutal drops, Varela said, with occupancy at just 28% for the week ending July 11.

The best occupancy is in gateway communities, such as Springdale, which saw hotel occupancy at 73% for the same time period, Varela said.

Parks are doing what they can to adjust, and while visitor centers remain closed, spokesman Angie Richman said employees at Canyonlands and Arches are conducting patio visitor orientations because health guidance says it is safer to be outdoors than inside.

Gift shops within the visitor centers are open, she added, but operate with strict limits on how many people can be inside at a given time.

Even as national parks are mired in lower than usual visitation numbers, the exact opposite scenario is playing out at recreation destinations closer to population centers as people hunger for the therapeutic benefit that nature provides.

At Timpanogos Cave National Monument, where Ireland serves as superintendent, visitation has skyrocketed in dramatic fashion in day use areas.

“We are just getting slammed,” he said, noting a more than tripling of visitors this spring.

“The numbers are three to four times what we normally get.”

In March of 2019, for example, officials counted 869 visitors compared to 3,848 this year — a 344% increase, Ireland said.

The trend continued in April, with 9,355 users in the picnic area compared to 2019’s number of 2,787.

He noted that day use at the monument is expected to go up in warm weather and milder spring temperatures, but this year has been particularly crazy.

May was a stunning month for day use visitation, he added, with 13,364 people using the picnic area. Last May, there were 4,543 visitors.

“People are trying to get out and they are getting out locally. We see that in our numbers,” he said. “It is a challenge. People are frustrated and people want to get out.”