A thick line of people wrapped along nearly every trail, plugging up slot canyons and switchbacks.
There were two-hour waits to get on a shuttle bus—and once on board, it was a stuffed and sweaty ride through the scenic red rock landscape.
The parking lots were full, too. The trash cans overflowed. And maintenance staff couldn’t restock toilet paper fast enough.
There were just too many tourists.
On Sunday, more than 30,000 people visited Zion National Park in southwestern Utah to celebrate Memorial Day weekend as park managers worked to manage the throngs of visitors. And, it’s only the beginning of the summer travel season for the recreation hot spots that teem with visitors and wind up looking more like small cities than secluded nature preserves.
Visitation to Zion spiked 60 percent over the last decade, and most people flood to Zion Canyon, a 6-mile corridor along the Virgin River.
Sunday’s visitation didn’t quite set a record—33,000 people came on that day last year—but “it’s still over the top,” Zion National Park Ranger John Marciano said.
“It’s overwhelming. It’s just going to be loved to death, and people aren’t going to have a good experience.”
At Zion, one of the most-visited national parks in the country, 4.5 million people drove through the gates in 2017. It’s expected to rise again this year.
The crowding, though certainly not unique to the national park system, is particularly magnified in these clogged narrow slots. Resources are strained. Desert trails are eroding. Graffiti marks are becoming more frequent.
The park’s shuttle system often sees 95 to 100 people cramming onto buses designed to sit 68. The space is overrun, overburdened, overused.
“It’s wonderful that they come, and they keep coming,” Marciano added. “But that’s really too many people for the park to manage.”
During Memorial Day weekend, Zion posted on Facebook advising visitors to come in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid the congestion. The comment section turned into a chorus of frustration. “This park has become a nightmare,” one man wrote. “Crowds detract from the entire experience!” said another. A third, confronted with the visitation numbers that topped 60,000 for the three-day holiday celebration, simply added, “Holy s—!”
Marciano said: “We have to do something.”
Zion managers are currently considering limiting the number of visitors per day, adding a system for people to reserve a check-in window to enter the park and requiring permits for popular trails, including Angels Landing and the Narrows. There will be public comment on the proposals later this summer.
On the southeastern side of Utah, Arches National Park saw a similar Memorial Day surge. It closed its entrance for a few hours on Saturday and Sunday during the middle of the day and amid intense crowding. Rangers turned away cars, which had lined down Highway 191, and asked people to return later after other groups had left the park.
“We don’t have a problem of too many people,” said Arches Superintendent Kate Cannon. “We have a problem of too many people at one time.”
Arches, which saw nearly 1.6 million visitors last year, has room to spare in winter and early spring and late fall. But its 900 parking spots are almost always full during the summer. Visitation numbers for this month haven’t been compiled yet, but on the Sunday before Memorial Day last year, Cannon said, 3,000 cars drove into the park (each vehicle averages 2.7 people, so that would mean about 8,100 visitors). She expects the same or more for 2018.
There were long waits at Canyonlands National Parks, too. Staffers let in 10 cars every 10 minutes to try to stagger the flow and create “a more relaxed and fulfilling experience.”
Utah’s Big Five— Zion, Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, and Capitol Reef—will continue to be flooded with visitors throughout the summer. After Memorial Day, there will be smaller peaks on July 4 and 24 before the second biggest visitation holiday of the year: Labor Day.
Welcome to summer in the national parks!
It is what we think we know already that often prevents us from learning.