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Is the pandemic surge over for Utah’s national and state parks?

After a year of breaking records, visitation is trending down for some of Utah’s public land destinations

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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

After a year of shattered records, it appears the crowds are thinning out across Utah’s public lands.

The “Mighty Five” saw a whopping 11.2 million recreation visits in 2021, with pandemic-induced cabin fever pulling Americans to their public lands in unprecedented numbers — all but Bryce Canyon National Park saw record-breaking visitation that year.

Zion National Park alone had over 5 million recreation visits, while Canyonlands National Park had nearly double the visitors it did during the 2020 pandemic lull.

Utah’s state parks weren’t spared from the crowds, either, with a record-breaking 2.2 million visits in June 2021, the most for any month.

But with a few exceptions, visitation is down across the board in the spring — typically the busiest time of year — for Utah’s state and national parks, according to the latest data.

“Last year was unprecedented, it was so high that we’ve just settled back down, at least the last couple of months, to pre-pandemic levels. Which is still high for visitation, but not nearly as high as we saw during 2020 and 2021,” said Kaitlyn Thomas, a public affairs specialist for the National Park Service.

There are a few factors at play. Many Americans worked remotely in 2020 and 2021, creating a flexible schedule with the ability to mix work with travel.

“People could hop in their car and telework from a national park, for example. And that might not be the case anymore as we return to a more pre-pandemic lifestyle,” said Thomas.

High fuel prices and inflation are leading many to put off their driving and vacation plans — it’s tough to budget for that cross-country road trip when gas is hovering around $5 per gallon. A recent Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found a majority of Utah voters are now considering scaling back or postponing summer travel plans because of rising gas prices.

For the past two years, Americans have also been inundated by media reports of crowded trailheads, long entry lines and unruly tourists — nearly every national news outlet ran a story detailing the unprecedented spike in visitation.

“I think about my own travel planning — if I’m being bombarded with information that generalizes, and ends up having misinformation in it, then I’m going to be cautious,” said Vicki Varela, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism.

“If you look at more than a year of news everywhere suggesting that all the national parks and so forth were overbooked, and now you see the numbers, they’re not. There are certainly constraints at some national parks, but they’re each very different,” she said.

The ‘Mighty Five’

There are some exceptions — in April and May of this year, Bryce Canyon saw a slight bump in visitation compared to 2021. Meanwhile Zion had nearly 22,000 more visits in April, and 17,000 more in March, than it did during those months in 2021.

But those are outliers, and from March through June, markedly less people drove through the entrance gates of Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks.

That could be partly due to a shift in marketing, with Grand County and Moab — home to Arches and Canyonlands — easing up on promoting tourism.

“Community elected officials wanted to put the brakes on their marketing. And when you don’t market, it usually reduces visitation. That’s a big factor,” Varela said.

Varela’s office is also studying the sudden interest in outdoor recreation, and whether the rush to public lands was simply a substitute for international travel, sporting events and destinations like Disneyland that were off the table for much of 2020 and 2021.

  • In 2021, Arches National Park had 809,279 recreation visits during the spring months. This spring, the park saw 634,836 visits. That suggests visitation is trending below what the park saw pre-pandemic, with 743,659 in spring 2019.
  • Bryce Canyon is the only national park in Utah that saw a bump in visitation this spring — 968,147 tourists came to the park, up from 962,617 in 2021. It’s also the only park that didn’t see the same record-breaking numbers during the pandemic, and during spring 2019, the park had over 1 million visits.
  • Canyonlands typically sees the least amount of tourists among Utah’s national parks. This spring, 377,697 people visited the sprawling, at times remote, park. In 2021, the park service recorded 449,258 visits.
  • Capitol Reef is still far above its pre-pandemic numbers, where in 2019 it recorded 568,822 visits during the spring months. Still, spring visitation is down, according to park data — in 2021 it saw 692,035, compared to 626,537 in 2022.
  • Zion, the most popular of the “Mighty Five” and the tenth most visited park nationwide in 2021, is still seeing unprecedented visitation. But it’s down when compared to spring 2021, when a record 2,185,330 visits was recorded. This spring, Zion saw 2,047,080 visits.

Taking the last decade into consideration, visitation is still up despite this year’s downward trend.

But inflation and rising prices have many in the hospitality industry worried. “Some of our industry partners are actually very concerned about their numbers for this year and long term,” Varela said.

“People are still traveling, but they’re traveling shorter distances, finding ways to cut corners,” she said. “Maybe they’re not going out to dinner, not shopping while they travel. Maybe they’re staying in a camper rather than a hotel. These are impacts our industry is watching very closely. And we are concerned.”

State parks also seeing a drop

June data from the Utah Division of State Parks is not yet available — but in order to match the record-breaking 12 million visits in fiscal 2021, over 3.2 million people will need to visit the Beehive State’s 46 parks in June, which would be incredibly high.

Sand Hollow, Dead Horse and Antelope Island state parks have been the most visited over the last three years, in that order. And according to state data, all three parks saw less people during March, April and May.

  • Sand Hollow had 382,458 visits during spring 2021 — in 2022, it saw 318,979.
  • Dead Horse had 486,507 visits during spring 2021 — in 2022, it saw 378,894.
  • Antelope Island had 323,729 visits during spring 2021 — in 2022, it saw 267,101.

“Even though that trend is down, it doesn’t mean there’s going to be no wait at some of these state parks. We strongly encourage people visiting our parks to check to see if they are at capacity,” said Devan Chavez, a state parks division spokesman. “We’re not seeing as much as we were seeing before, but they are still quite busy on some of these weekends.”

Like the national parks, there are outliers — for instance, Wasatch Mountain State Park had over 25,000 more visitors this April than in April 2021. And Goosenecks State Park already had more visitors in fiscal 2022 than in 2021, despite the entire month of June not being accounted for.