ST. GEORGE — It may not be the Powerball jackpot, but officials at Zion National Park hope a new lottery will result in a winning view.
Park officials on Monday revealed more details about an online lottery system that will be used to decide who will be able to hike the last chain section of the Angels Landing Trail starting in March.
Officials said the reason for a lottery, rather than a reservation system, is so people will have an equal chance at winning a spot whether they have a fast or slow connection and no matter which time they log on. They also said a separate last-chance, day-before lottery will be advantageous for locals in Southern Utah who will be more abreast of the conditions than a tourist from out of town would.
A 2.5 mile trail that is actually a portion of the West Rim Trail starts at The Grotto and leads to a final portion that in 1926 was cut into the rock and leads to a view of Zion Canyon, which appears as a painting with the north fork of the Virgin River below and tall, layered rock walls framing the sky.
But in recent years, that view has been contrasted by the crowds trying to make their way to the top of the landing – as many as 1,000 people per day, park officials say.
Zion National Park Chief of Resource Management Cass Bromley said during a media briefing Monday morning that the new Angels Landing lottery is meant to put the emphasis back on the serenity, rather than on the crowds.
“Our hope is they will be able to focus on the experience, spot condors and just enjoy the view as opposed to worrying about the crowd,” Bromley said.
Much of the Angels Landing Trail will remain fully open to the public. It will be the last 0.9 mile of the trail that will require a permit, starting from Scout Lookout and leading to Angels Landing itself.
The trail leading to the landing has been known to be one of the more dangerous in the National Park System with 13 hikers falling to their death off some of the more narrow portions of the trail since 2000. However, Zion’s chief ranger, Daniel Fagergren, notes that none of the fatalities have happened on the chain section that will be permitted. They usually happen when someone goes off on their own, away from any other eyes.
While the officials said improving the safety of the trail is also a reason to move to the permit system, they were also quick to note that ultimately it comes down to the hikers themselves as far as staying safe.
“In the end, people’s safety is their own responsibility,” Bromley said, which includes minors, who will also be allowed to hike. “You know the capabilities of your children.”
The number of hikers that will be allowed per hour on the chain section is still to be refined during a public comment period that runs through Sept. 12, and will also be refined on a constant basis over the first weeks and months of the lottery. Bromley said it will likely be similar to the six hikers per minute allowed when the park experimented with a queue system for Angels Landing during the Memorial Day holiday.
“People came down commenting how they enjoyed the experience and were just able to enjoy the hike,” Zion National Park Superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh said of the queue system.
How the lottery will work
Those wanting to hike the chain section will not have to apply for each day they want to hike or apply for each individual in a group.
Instead, a non-refundable $6 application fee would apply from one to six people in a group. Going to a page at recreation.gov, they will rank the dates and times they want to take the hike in a ranked-choice system.
“We’re not trying to set up a system where people have to repeat to apply,” Bradybaugh said, adding that the ranking will allow for people to apply once and be done, though officials advise recreators to be flexible if they don’t get their first choice.
Once a group gets a date and time, an additional $3 will be charged if they choose to make the hike at their appointed time.
The first opportunity to enter the lottery will be on Jan. 1 for hikes between March and May. Bromley said using a lottery and ranked choice will help solve the problem of too many people applying for the most popular days. People will choose from a selection of days and it will be random as to who gets to choose first, meaning it doesn’t matter when people log on and everyone has an equal chance of getting the days they choose.
“Our hope with the lottery system is it will allow people more time to get into the system,” Bromley said.
That could also aid in both reducing the number of people on the trail at a time and their safety, Susan McPartland, the park’s visitor use planner, said.
“When this trail is congested with a lot of use, people don’t feel safe,” McPartland said. “This will improve the flow of traffic on the trail.”
The lottery system is similar to the one offered at Coyote Buttes North in Kanab, also known as “The Wave.”
St. George News has heard from readers who have taken issue with the non-refundable application fee, with some saying they have spent up to $100 on application fees only to never win a hiking spot.
Bromley responded that unlike The Wave, there will be many more opportunities than the 64 daily spots usually offered at Coyote Buttes.
“You will have much better odds in this lottery than The Wave lottery,” Bromley said.
Last-minute lottery will offer a better chance for locals
The first people to win spots should find out in February. But there will also be a second, last-minute lottery starting on Feb. 28 that will take place the day before each hike date.
The last-minute lottery will have the same $6 fee for up to six people and also be featured at recreation.gov.
McPartland said while there are no plans to give those local to Southern Utah any special privilege, the last-minute lottery will be especially favorable to them.
She said locals will have more days they will be able to travel to Zion with one-day notice, and will also have a better idea of weather conditions and when crowds would be more likely.
“The weather may be perfect in February and locals will be able to take advantage of that,” McPartland said.
Just the start of controlling crowds
Angels Landing is not the only area of the park dealing with overcrowding, as evidenced by most of Zion’s parking lots being full on weekday mornings before the sun rises above the golden cliffs.
The park set an all-time high for visitors in a month with 670,000 visitors in June. Monsoonal rains, including a devastating flood, tempered the July crowds a tad to make it the sixth-most visited month in park history.
Bradybaugh said the Angels Landing lottery may just be the beginning of measures to better control overcrowding in the park and did not dismiss the idea of ultimately having a reservation system for the entire park. He said a benefit of what he called the unfortunate need to have a ticketing system for the Zion Canyon Shuttle during the pandemic is it helped park officials learn a lot about crowd control.
“Quite frankly, we’re trying to test these techniques out. We can’t say for sure what the future holds, but we need to test out the process,” Bradybaugh said. “This is a pilot … we’re always going to learn new things as we move along.”
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