Crowds cause Arches National Park to shut gates just three hours after opening

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) This 2013 file photo shows a busy day at the entrance to Arches National Park.

Arches National Park reopened at 6 a.m. Friday to a steady stream of early morning traffic. A little over three hours later, the National Park Service announced via Twitter that the park was at capacity.

“The park is currently full, and we are temporarily delaying additional [entries],” the park account wrote. “Vehicles trying to enter the park will have to come back at another time. Consider returning 3 hours from now or visiting other nearby attractions.”

Arches reopened again shortly after noon.

The busy opening day could foreshadow what’s to come for popular national parks in Utah as states across the country continue to loosen travel restrictions. Arches had been fully closed since March 28 when it heeded requests from the local health department and Moab that it shut down due to coronavirus concerns. More restrictive guidelines from the health department expired Friday in conjunction with the park’s reopening.

Arches temporarily shuts its entrances when its three main parking lots are full. The policy was already in place and is unrelated to the pandemic, a spokesperson said.

Kayci Cook Collins, the acting superintendent of the National Park Service Southeast Utah Group, presented — to a special joint meeting of the Grand County Council, the Moab City Council and the Castle Valley Town Council on Friday morning — a proposal to create a temporary “timed entry system” for Arches to reduce overcrowding.

Collins referenced a recent study that found Americans are prioritizing outdoor recreation in their travel plans this summer, which is seen as a safer alternative to other leisure activities. She pointed to crowded reopening weeks at Yellowstone and other national parks including Zion, where the superintendent reported seeing license plates from 46 states, Canada and Mexico in a single day earlier this month.

“People are coming from all over,” Collins said. “They’re coming to enjoy outdoor recreation in places like the national parks, and I think we can probably expect to see that here as well. So the challenge becomes: How do we facilitate visitation so that visitors can have a reasonable opportunity to follow health guidelines and still we are able to ensure the safety of our local community and our staff?”

The timed entry proposal, which was supported by all three local government bodies attending the meeting, could help address overcrowding issues, Collins said. The system would require visitors to reserve a two-hour time slot during peak hours on the website recreation.gov and arrive within that window. There would be no required exit time.

A similar proposal was floated in 2017, which park service officials said was not designed to limit the number of visitors but rather to spread visitation out during the course of the day and throughout the year.

The plan was met with opposition from some business owners who pointed to a study that said a reservation system would stifle the area economy, at least in the short term, partly because it might discourage tour buses serving foreign tourists from stopping at the park. The timed entry proposal was ultimately rejected by park managers.

Collins said that the revival of the proposal is entirely in response to the coronavirus pandemic. The key considerations for the plan, she said, were “protecting the health and safety of staff, visitors and local community members" and reducing the chances of another complete park closure. Additional considerations included protecting park resources and improving visitor experiences.

Friday’s letter in support of the proposal from Grand County, Moab and Castle Valley cited similar rationale. “Timed entry would spread visitation out across the day and reduce the potential for crowding that makes social distancing a challenge,” wrote Grand County Council Chairwoman Mary McGann. “It will also provide visitor confidence that they will be able to enter the park instead of being turned away when the park reaches capacity.”

“I’m very surprised that [Arches] was so full by 9, 10 this morning, and I think we’re going to have a lot more domestic travel visitation ... this summer,” said Moab Mayor Emily Niehaus, though she added international visitation would likely be down. She spoke in favor of the timed entry proposal, noting that many federal public lands agencies use recreation.gov for reservations.

Visitation to Arches has been rising since 2004. It reached nearly 1.7 million in 2018. June is typically the busiest month, according to park service data.

As of Friday, all roads, trails and restrooms in Arches have reopened. The visitors center, Fiery Furnace, Devils Garden Campground and backcountry camping are closed. Park fees typically collected at entrance booths are currently waived to reduce risk of coronavirus spread to park employees, Collins said.

Grand County joined most of Utah in moving to “yellow," or low-risk, coronavirus guidelines under the state’s phased reopening plan Friday. The County Council asked to keep additional restrictions on lodging in place such as a required 24-hour rest period between room occupancies, but that request was denied Thursday by the Utah Department of Health and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.

If approved by the park service, the time entry system for Arches could be implemented as soon as July.

This developing story will be updated.

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.