ST. GEORGE — Hundreds of cars lined up in the pre-dawn darkness along Zion National Park’s main canyon scenic drive Thursday morning. All of them were waiting to access one of only 400 or so parking spots in the upper section of the canyon where visitors have been flocking since the park reopened following its brief closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Park services and operations were reduced in mid-March, and operations were completely shut down April 3. The park reopened with limited services May 13.
Many of the visitors had arrived in the early morning hours – around 2-3 a.m. – but some arrived as early as 11 p.m. Wednesday and slept in their vehicles in order to be first in line when the gates near Zion Lodge were opened by park staff and they were allowed up the canyon.
Centerville resident Mia Graham went to Zion with a group of friends. The girls had reserved a hotel room but decided last minute to just drive up the canyon to the gate and sleep in their truck, she said.
Graham and her friends were the second vehicle in line, and though she said she wished she had prepared better, it seemed like it was worth it to forego a little sleep to be able to see Zion.
“The stars are beautiful,” she said.
Graham and her friends were hoping to get a parking spot at The Grotto where the trailhead to the popular Angel’s Landing hike is located.
The Angel’s Landing hike is currently only open to Scout Lookout, and park spokesperson Jeff Axel cautioned visitors to heed the signage blocking entrance to the chains portion of the hike, which is currently closed.
Though crowds were relatively low when the park first reopened in May, Axel said that as word about park access spread, largely through social media, visitors soon started lining up in the early morning to be able to secure a coveted parking spot.
Park staff assigned to help manage parking counted 360 cars lined up before the gates were opened just after 6 a.m. Of those 360 cars, about 200 were allowed to find parking past the Zion Lodge, and only 150 were allowed to drive farther up the canyon than The Grotto.
“It’s been a challenge managing all of this, figuring how to keep people safe, keep the employees safe and managing the public’s huge interest in Zion National Park. They love this place for obvious reasons,” Axel said, adding that the staff has put a lot of energy into meeting the needs of the community and helping them access their public lands.
“It really is impressive to me,” he said.
Visitors who have not been lucky enough to get a parking spot have found alternative means to getting up the canyon to see Zion National Park, including walking into the canyon and riding bikes.
Axel said bike rental businesses in Springdale, just outside of Zion, as well as in the surrounding areas are struggling to keep rental bikes in stock, and there have been hundreds of people cycling their way to trailheads.
Axel said the park is discouraging people from walking into the park very far as there are still cars on the road and the high summer temperatures make the additional walking less safe.
Shuttle services, park fees resume July 1
Because of health and safety concerns surrounding the pandemic, the seasonal shuttles – which the park has relied on to transport visitors up the main canyon for two decades – have not been in operation, which has limited the amount of visitor access to the park.
However, modified shuttle services will resume Wednesday on a ticketed system. The park will also resume collecting entrance fees that day.
Starting June 30, visitors can reserve a slot on the shuttles, which have been modified to allow for social distancing.
The ticket system is designed to reduce crowding, lines and congestion as the park service and the shuttle contractor work to increase access to trailheads along the scenic drive including West Rim Trail, the Emerald Pools, the Riverside Walk and The Narrows. Access to other parts of the park, including the east side will not require a shuttle ticket, but park entrance fees will be collected.
Once shuttles are running again, there will be no cars allowed up the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive except for those guests who are staying at the Zion Lodge. A few private shuttle companies will be allowed to continue to take guests up the main canyon for the time being.
Information on private shuttle services as well as bike rentals can be found on the Zion National Park info sheet.
While reinstating shuttle services will likely increase guest access to the park, Axel urged visitors to continue to plan ahead by checking the park website for up-to-date conditions as well as planning for other activities outside the park in case they are unable to secure a shuttle ticket.
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