Nearly 300 million people visited national parks in 2021, an increase of 60 million compared to the year prior.

Public lands are being “loved to death,” so officials are studying ways to prevent overcrowding. Starting on Sunday, reservations will be required for those driving to visit Arches National Park in southern Utah in an effort to limit the number of people trying to enter the park at a given time.

Arches reported 1.8 million visitors in 2021, by far the most since tracking began in 1929.

“We’re trying to distribute visitation throughout the course of the day to alleviate that crowding and congestion that we see first thing in the morning, because everyone seems to arrive at the park all at the same time,” said Kaitlyn Thomas, a spokeswoman for five National Park Service parks and monuments in southeastern Utah. “If we can just spread them out, that will alleviate a lot of (the crowds).”

National Park visitation is up. What are solutions to decrease traffic?

Know before you go

Park officials announced a timed ticket entry pilot program last year, which begins on April 3 and runs through Oct. 3.

Tickets can be purchased up to three months in advance either through or over the phone at 877-444-6777. Timed entry tickets come with a $2 fee, which is separate from the regular park entrance fee.

Although tickets are valid for entry only during a one-hour period between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m., after entering during their window, visitors can exit and re-enter the park at any point during the day.

Tickets for April have been available since January, and Thomas said they have already sold out all of the morning time slots for the month. More than 26,000 tickets have been sold for April, which is 68% of the total supply. May and June tickets are selling quickly, too, with 45% and 30% already claimed, respectively.

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Thomas said around 2,700 vehicles will be allowed in each day, which is the estimated maximum occupancy for the park.

Future waves of tickets will go on sale at the beginning of each month. The park will hold a “limited number” of tickets that will go on sale at 6 p.m. the day before entry for those who were unable to reserve in advance.

The entrance road to Arches National Park outside of Moab begins to back up with visitors on Sept. 19, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Which national parks are the busiest?

According to the National Parks Service, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina was the most popular park last year, with 14.1 million visitors. Blue Ridge Parkway — a 469-mile stretch of road maintained by the National Parks Service — was the busiest destination overall, with 15.9 million visits.

Utah’s Zion National Park ranked 10th in the nation with 5 million visitors. Here’s how the rest of Utah’s parks fared in 2021:

  • Zion National Park: 5 million visits.
  • Bryce Canyon National Park: 2.1 million visits.
  • Arches National Park: 1.8 million visits.
  • Capitol Reef National Park: 1.4 million visits.
  • Canyonlands National Park: 911,594 visits.
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