Pandemic isn’t keeping Zion National Park from posting record visitation numbers

ST. GEORGE — On a warm, sunny Friday around 3 p.m. hundreds of people lined up near the Zion National Park Visitor Center. They were hoping for one of only a few hundred walk-on shuttle tickets to visit Zion’s Main Canyon Scenic Drive, a commodity only readily available by making an advanced shuttle reservation – and one that typically sells out early.

Visitors to Zion National Park line up to board the shuttle to take them up the Main Canyon Scenic Drive, Zion National Park, Utah, Oct. 16, 2020 | Photo by Hollie Stark, St. George News

But despite the shuttle reservation system, implemented due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, visitation to the park is high.

In fact, Zion National Park reported record-high visitation numbers for the month of September.

Statistics posted to the park’s recreation visits by month webpage show that 520,987 people visited the park in September. According to the stats, that is the highest number of visitors for any September on record.

By comparison, in September 2019, 497,433 people visited Zion. The only other year September had over 500,000 visitors was 2017 with 512,940.

The webpage contains visitation statistics for each month along with a yearly total dating back to 1979.

The highest visitation ever recorded in a single month was July 2019 with 629,802 people entering Zion National Park. The highest yearly visitation was in 2017 when 4,504,812 visited the park.

Both January and February of this year had record visitation as well with 126,944 and 133,718 visitors respectively.

However, March through August saw total visitation drop over the previous year, in some cases drastically, due to the ongoing pandemic.

Visitors to Zion National Park line up to board the shuttle to take them up the Main Canyon Scenic Drive, Zion National Park, Utah, Oct. 16, 2020 | Photo by Hollie Stark, St. George News

In March, the park closed many of its facilities, including the shuttles and entrance fee stations in response to the pandemic, but the park remained open for people to drive in until April 3 when Gov. Gary Herbert announced in a press conference that the park would close all operations immediately.

April saw only 40,396 visitors.

But as the park began to reopen, starting with a phased reopening that started May 13 and the resumption of the shuttles with a reserved ticket system on July 1, people from across the United States started returning to the park.

July, August and September all posted visitation above 400,000 per month.

And that is without the usual visitation from foreign tourists that typically visit the park.

“Usually, when the park is so busy, we know that a significant percentage of the visitors are from foreign countries. But right now, we don’t have foreign visitors so even that gap is being made up by Americans who are drawn by some powerful force to Zion,” Lyman Hafen said.

Hafen is the executive director of the Zion Forever Project, the park’s official nonprofit partner. He has been driving to the national park from his home near St. George for 22 years and said he has never seen anything like the number of domestic tourists the park has been hosting recently.

“The Zion Forever Project doesn’t keep official visitation statistics, but anecdotally we’ve been amazed at the number of folks in the park over the last couple of months and the variety of places across the country that they’re coming from,” Hafen said, noting the various license plates he had seen heading toward the park just in a single day.

A sign invites walk-up shuttle guests to board, Zion National Park, Utah, Oct. 16, 2020 | Photo by Hollie Stark, St. George News

“I’ve never seen the volume of automobiles on the road that I’ve been seeing in recent weeks, and I certainly have never seen the variety of license plates … Maine, New Jersey, New York, Alabama, Florida, Iowa … and that was just today. The vast majority in my informal poll are from California and Nevada, but they are coming from every corner of the country.”

Speaking only anecdotally, Zion National Park spokesperson Amanda Rowland said that the feedback they are getting from park visitors is that they are coming to Zion, as well as other national parks and recreation areas, to get out of their homes – potentially because of lockdowns or other isolation measures put in place due to COVID-19.

“Anecdotally, hearing from visitors that they simply needed to get out of the house and are looking for places like national parks to recreate in. This is reflected in much of the national and state tourism data as well. People are seeking out road trip opportunities, and when they do so, national parks are often a destination,” Rowland said in an email to St. George News.

Kevin and Linda O’Brien were standing in line for the shuttle Friday afternoon. The pair were visiting Zion National Park from the nation’s capitol and said that the change of scenery after being on lockdown for months was one of the reasons that drew them to the area.

“You don’t want to be in the city right now,” Kevin O’Brien said. “We think Southern Utah is amazing.”

That trend of rising visitation seems to hold true in nearby Cedar Breaks National Monument as well.

In a previous St. George News article, Cedar Breaks Superintendent Kathleen Gonder said visitation at Cedar Breaks National Monument for June was up 20% from 2019 and visitation in July was up 25% with almost no international visitors.

But as visitation rises, so does the need to educate park guests – many of whom have never visited a national park before.

Screenshot from video by Facebook user and Southern Utah resident Sunny Bodeen showing the extent of the graffiti in The Narrows portion of Zion National Park, Utah, Sept. 19, 2020 | Photo still from video by Sunny Bodeen, St. George News

“We’re seeing visitors who have never come to a national park before, they’ve never camped, they don’t know how to set up a tent, they don’t know and understand the etiquette for a campfire,” Gonder said in the same St. George News report.

This adds an extra burden on park staff as they work to teach a new type of visitor to the park proper “leave no trace” etiquette.

“There is a need for the leave no trace principle being instilled in what appears to be a new cohort of visitors based upon the level of graffiti, trash, etc.,” Rowland said in the same email.

Recently, Zion National Park has seen a large increase of graffiti across the park.

“I have seen more graffiti than I have ever seen before. It’s all over, and we’re trying to get ahead of it,” Zion’s chief ranger Daniel Fagergren said in another St. George News report detailing the level of graffiti.

According to the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, there are seven principles which guides responsible outdoor recreation including respecting wildlife, leaving what is found, removing trash, being considerate of others, planning ahead and more.

To the latter end, Rowland said that the key to navigating rising visitation and enjoying the natural wonders of Zion National Park is being prepared and planning ahead.

“Now even more than previous years, planning ahead is key. Knowing what to expect before they arrive and making plans, even if done more short-term, will help ensure that they can have good experiences even if those experiences are different than what they originally may have wanted to do,” she said.

The main takeaway, Rowland said, is to remind visitors to reserve their shuttle tickets in advance of their visit. Shuttle tickets are $1 per person over 2 years old and must be purchased in advance. However, a very limited number of walk-0n shuttle tickets are available beginning at 3 p.m. each day.

Information from Zion National Park said the following regarding shuttle services:

  • Passengers must have a ticket to board.
  • Seating on each shuttle has been reduced. There is no standing allowed.
  • Tickets are only valid for the date purchased.
  • The assigned boarding time for stop 1 at the visitor center is on the ticket.
  • Stops 5, 6, 8 and 9 can be boarded at any time with a same-day ticket.
  • Stops 2, 4 and 7 are out of service.
  • Visitors should not return to the visitor center until they are done for the day. Once a passenger returns to the visitor center their ticket is expired.
  • Shuttle tickets are not included in the park entrance fee nor does it guarantee parking inside the park.
  • The last shuttle leaves stop 9, the Temple of Sinawava, at 8:15 p.m. and only holds 33 people. Visitors are advised not to wait for the last shuttle.
View of Zion National Park from the Visitor Center, Zion National Park, Utah, Oct. 16, 2020 | Photo by Hollie Stark, St. George News

For guests who are unable to obtain a shuttle ticket, there are still other options to access the canyon. Visitors can bike up the canyon or rent space on a commercial shuttle operating out of Springdale.

Rowland also stressed the need for visitors to safely patronize Springdale businesses, as many of them lost a lot of revenue during the shut down.

Rowland said that no matter what, visitors should check the park’s websiteFacebook page and Twitter account prior to their visit for up-to-date information.

As visitors continue to flock to Zion, Hafen said he understands the allure of the park and what it offers guests, particularly during this time.

“There’s something about the time we are in and the lure of a national park like Zion. The hope, the peace, the healing that comes from being in such a place,” he said.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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