Utah State Parks absorbing visitors displaced by federal shutdown
Utah's "other" parks have benefited from an upsurge in visitation since their federal counterparts put up closed signs on Tuesday. Some, like Snow Canyon State Park near St. George and Dead Horse Point State Park near Moab, are still seeing waves of tourists displaced by the federal government shutdown.
"This is normally a busy time for us and we were prepared to be even more busy if the shutdown happened, but the onslaught we did get was pretty overwhelming," said Megan Blackwelder, manager of Dead Horse Point State Park. "We have been swamped."
The park, which provides stunning views of the Colorado River from high on the mesa as well as hiking and mountain biking trails, busted records for cars and tourist buses in the parking lot.
The previous record was about 350 cars on Memorial Day. Staffers counted 588 cars on Tuesday, the day national parks were shuttered. Most of the tourists visiting Dead Horse Point State Park this week were likely headed for Canyonlands National Park (the Island in the Sky District is just up the road from the state park). Others may have planned on visiting Arches National Park.
"We are putting cars wherever we can and our gift shop manager has been more busy than ever," Blackwelder said. "We haven't turned anybody away."
Others like Kodachrome Basin State Park near Bryce Canyon National Park and the Utah Field House of Natural History State Park Museum in Vernal had a wild 2-day ride, but are returning to more normal day use.
"The number of visitors has started to decrease, but they were really coming in Monday and Tuesday," said Steve Sroka, manager of the Utah Field House said Thursday morning. "We had three people today; a couple from England and a federal government employee."
Most tourists in the Uintah Basin are often headed for Dinosaur National Monument on the Utah/Colorado border and often drive right past the Field House and its massive collection of fossils and geologic history.
Ignoring Utah State Parks while en route to the national parks happens all too often and some are hoping this opportunity to be in the spotlight will change things.
"We have been thrilled with the attention," said Utah State Parks director Fred Hayes. "We have trouble sometimes dragging people away from the national parks; they seem to think that is all there is to see."
Hayes knows the spike in visitation won't last, but he feels his agency took advantage of it and thinks it will reap benefits down the road.
"Folks will go back and talk about their vacation with friends and people will expect them to say 'our trip was ruined'," he said. "We hope they respond and say 'we saw some really cool stuff and you should include it on your Utah itinerary when you go'. We know their trip this week was memorable, but we hope state parks made it a positive memory."
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert talked about the shutdown and how the state has tried to send people to other tourist options.
"Our tour and travel people have been very much in touch with folks involved in the tourism and travel industry, particularly in Southern Utah. And 10 percent, approaching 10 percent, which is about a billion dollars by the way, of revenues that we get in October is in jeopardy now because of the shutdown of our National Parks," the governor said during his monthly news conference on KUED-Channel 7. "What we've tried to do to help them is redirect people to other state parks. The good news is our state parks are available and some of those are just as spectacular and just as convenient as some of our national parks."
Snow Canyon State Park manager Kristen Comella said day-use visitation has been up 50 percent this week. She has heard a little bit of everything from the people.
"The general tone from U.S. travelers is of disappointment and disgust; that they were expecting more from their government," she said. "International travelers seem pretty shocked. This was not something they expected from the U.S. government. It is sad to talk to the international visitors. I had a women from Spain in tears telling me that she had just arrived Monday and had planned their entire vacation around national parks."
Many of the tourists arriving at state parks this week have been stepping off of commercial tour buses or were part of scrambling tour groups originally headed for places like Bryce Canyon National Park.
"We weren't quite sure what would happen. We knew it would either be quiet or we would get killed; we got killed," said Kodachrome Basin State Park manager Aaron Farmer. We get an average of one or two commercial groups per month and we had five Wednesday and six Tuesday. We had a line of people waiting to get in."
Managers are hopeful those tour buses find their way back to the parks.
"We had a bus driver here who said he had never been to Dead Horse Point," Blackwelder said. "We had some really happy bus tour guides because they had a place to come. They told me they needed to call the tour planners and get Dead Horse Point on the list. I hope they do."
Tribune reporter Robert Gehrke contributed to this story.