Development begins on app that will track parking, trail crowding in Zion National Park

Angels Landing towers over the Virgin River in Zion National Park, date, location unspecified | Photo courtesy of Pixabay, St. George News

ST. GEORGE— A collaborative effort to develop an app for Zion National Park is underway, with plans to allow visitors to track parking availability, road congestion and the number of people on trails.

The app will use data from sensors placed throughout the park which will allow visitors to see how many people are in the park and where they are in real time.

The app is being designed by Southern Utah-based CABOsoft. Students and professors from Dixie Technical College, Dixie State University and Southern Utah University will help in its development.

CABOsoft was co-founded by Brad Campbell, a digital media design instructor at Dixie Technical College. Students from all three Southern Utah colleges and universities will be involved in the project. Dixie Tech is designing and will host the mobile app, Southern Utah University is running the internship program and Dixie State University is working on data collection and installing sensors in the park.

“What it does for our students is so cool. It just thrusts them into a real-world experience, and what better way to learn,” Dixie Technical College President Kelle Stephens said. “We’re on the cusp of something really important.”

One of the app’s main functions will be to help visitors find parking. Sensors will be placed to determine how many parking spaces are available, and the app provides a map showing visitors where to find the open spots, said state Rep. Walt Brooks, the vice chair of the state Technology Committee who is helping to coordinate the project.

I think it’s a very, very effective way to utilize technology to better the quality of the experience,” he said.

If there are no available parking spots within the park, it will make recommendations of alternative parking locations, which the park hopes will help ease congestion on the roadways.

“It will definitely help visitors understand how busy the park is prior to arriving,” Zion spokesperson Aly Baltrus said. “For those that decide to come on busy days, hopefully it will encourage them to save time looking for parking inside the park once it is full and go ahead and instead park in Springdale and take the free shuttle to the park.”

The app will also alert visitors of road congestion by determining the exact number of vehicles in the park at any given time. Sensors under the road will count the vehicles driving in and out of the park, and cameras using technology from MIT will be able to recognize a vehicle based on its make, model and color. The technology will keep track of when a vehicle enters the park, when it leaves and how long it was there.

The line forming at the Grotto to hike Angels Landing was hours long over Memorial Day weekend, Zion National Park, May 25, 2019 | Photo courtesy of Zion National Park, St. George News

The app will also be capable of tracking how many people are on a trail at any given time. Sensors will be placed in different areas along trails which can track how many people walk over them and in which direction they are traveling.

The app will start with Angels Landing, which already has sensors in place that the park uses for its own information. Sensors will be installed on all of the rest of the trails over the course of several years.

The app can recommend hikes in the park that are less congested, and it will suggest better times to visit the park that are typically less crowded. In the case of overcrowding, it will suggest alternative destinations in the area like Sand Hollow and Snow Canyon State Park. A map will also show nearby hotels and restaurants.

“It can manage expectations but also manage how you want to use your time,” Brooks said.

Brooks is currently working to involve the Utah Department of Transportation to transmit the data collected about parking and congestion to signs along the roadways for those who don’t have the app.

“If they can coordinate with us to help alleviate congestion before it starts, that saves taxpayer money,” Brooks said.

Stock image of Zion National park | St. George News

The development is still in the early stages, as they just began work on the design last week. They anticipate that an early version of the app, showing some congestion and parking locations, will be released in two to three months, while a more complete version will be released in March 2020.

Members of the Zion Regional Collaborative will form a governing board to help oversee and fund the project, which is estimated to cost around $1 million.

“Writing an app, and keeping it up, and keeping it current is not an inexpensive venture,” Washington County Commissioner Dean Cox said. “What we’re trying to do is just get these people to be a little more patient, spend a little more time and a little more money in Washington County.”

The county recently contributed $250,000 from the transient room tax fund to help pay for the software development.

The project likely won’t end with Zion, Campbell said. They anticipate that the app will eventually spread to include most of Washington County’s trail systems.

Other national parks have already expressed interest in a partnership to develop apps as well, Brooks said.

“All of them are looking at this system. They’re using Zion as a model, and that means that this hardware … is going to bring attention to what technology advances we have and the opportunities we have here in Southern Utah,” he said.

Because of their involvement in developing the app, digital media design students focusing on app development at Dixie Tech will have future internship opportunities at CABOsoft, though Cambell said they will likely hire students from all three schools to help maintain the app and develop apps for future national park partnerships.  

Email: mshoup@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews | @MikaylaShoup

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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