At the grand opening of the Zion National Park transportation system on May 26, 2000, the program noted that the park was going “back to the future.”
“The congestion, noise, pollution, and associated resource damage suggested that we go ‘back to the future,’” the event’s program read.
“Beginning today, we visit Zion Canyon by shuttle to restore the tranquility and power of the early days of Zion National Park.”
That catchphrase meant that the park was hearkening back to a time when buses were the best way to see Zion—the 1920s and 1930s. To mark the occasion, a bus similar to those of the past, borrowed from Yellowstone National Park, was prominently displayed.
When the shuttle started, it was a lifesaver and nearly universally applauded—a way to protect the park’s resources as well as to improve the visitor experience. The impacts of the shuttle after its implementation were immediate in many ways—a quiet canyon, no fights over parking spaces, significantly fewer cars up Zion Canyon (only those with accommodations at Zion Lodge), the resurgence of some wildlife species and less damage to roadside vegetation, which mitigated erosion potential.
Now, 18 years later, it sadly is inadequate, but the park would be chaos without it.
The shuttles are routinely over capacity, with buses that have a capacity of 68 seated riders commonly being filled with between 95 and 100 people.
Today the system is fatigued trying to handle nearly double the visitors (4.5 million last year) it was designed to accommodate (2.42 million in 2000) with the exact same fleet of buses.
Despite its current weaknesses, it was a groundbreaking concept and one current park managers are trying to tweak to keep the visitor experience it sought to improve still manageable.
In 1916 construction of what is now the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive began in what was to become Zion National Park. The road followed an early Mormon wagon route up the canyon and by 1925 extended to its current terminus, Temple of Sinawava.
Buses were the best way to see Zion during the 1920s, when visitors rode 11-passenger Utah Parks Company buses to the park from Cedar City after a 35-mile railroad spur off the main line from Lund reached it in 1923. These long buses featured convertible tops, which provided much better viewing of the park’s spectacular scenery.
To accommodate the growing number of visitors, the Utah Parks Company, a subsidiary of the Union Pacific Railroad, built Zion Lodge in a rustic style designed to blend in with its surroundings.
In a move that could signal the future of your national park visit, Zion National Park officials are considering the implementation of a reservation system for entry into the iconic red rock cathedral to protect resources and ensure the enjoyment of visitors.
It’s an idea being considered more and more in recent years by superintendents as record-breaking crowds strain places like Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Zion, and several other parks.
Vehicular traffic is often backing up along roadways into Springdale, causing traffic congestion problems there.
Trails, campgrounds, and other infrastructure are seeing wear and tear more quickly and faster than funding allows for repairs.
On Memorial Day Sunday in 2017, Zion had 30,300 people in the park that one day. That’s nuts. No one has a good time.
A reservation system, if implemented, would apply to all areas of the park, from Zion Canyon and Checkerboard Mesa to the Kolob Canyon corner of the park.
Driving the process is overcrowding to the point where it can jeopardize safety and damage the park’s natural resources.
Nothing can exceed the wonderful beauty of Zion…
In the nobility and beauty of the sculptures there is no comparison…
There is an eloquence to their forms which stirs the imagination with a singular power
and kindles in the mind a glowing response.
—Clarence E. Dutton, geologist, 1880