Zion National Park’s visitor numbers are way down due to COVID-19, but demand isn’t

(Photo courtesy of Zion National Park) Up to 400 bikes are parked at the Temple of Sinawava, a popular trailhead in Zion National Park. Since the park's reopening May 13, bicycling has become a popular way to tour Zion Canyon in the absence of the park's shuttle service. Starting July 1, cars were barred from the canyon as the shuttle service resumed using modified buses to enable social distance. Reservations are required.

Regan Smith estimates that she and her fiance walked about 8 miles more than the typical pre-pandemic visitor during her June 27 trip to Zion National Park.

Smith didn’t rent a bike, and the southern Utah park’s shuttles were closed until July 1. Cars containing an average of 2.5 people lined up before 6 a.m. to drive up the scenic route.

So, at 8 a.m., the Nevada couple “hoofed it” from their parking spot near the Zion-Mount Carmel Highway, seeking an escape from coronavirus concerns in Zion’s redrock canyons and rivers.

“It was just really wonderful to be outside,” she said. “And I think everybody was doing a really good job of distancing. ... So I think that it was just a really sweet way to be together — but apart.”

Compared to last year, Zion has not had nearly as many visitors in 2020, due to COVID-19. The year didn’t start that way. The most popular of Utah’s “Mighty 5” national parks logged more than 260,000 guests in January and February, outpacing 2019′s totals for those winter months.

Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune

But when the pandemic struck Utah in March, that trajectory changed — dramatically. The shuttle service shut down March 17 and all campgrounds closed 10 days later. The park drew about 200,000 visitors during the month. And Once Zion closed to recreational visitors April 3, only about 42,000 people passed through the park during the month.

Zion reopened — with a number of limits — May 13 but to fewer crowds, according to the park’s acting chief of interpretation, Jeff Axel. Only 180,054 people explored Zion during the month, about a third as many as did the previous May.

Last month, the park saw 334,838 visitors, far below June 2019′s 595,388 guests.

While the numbers, naturally, are down, the demand isn’t.

The shuttle service’s reopening will allow more people to explore Zion Canyon, especially for the July Fourth holiday weekend. Tickets are already sold out through July 16, Axel said, and August reservations are expected to be snatched up quickly once they become available July 16.

Zion also sets aside “last-minute” tickets that can be used the day after purchase. Recently, the park sold an estimated 300 within three minutes.

The park also advertises six shuttle services to use instead of Zion’s.

“The more people [who] could experience this place, the better,” Axel said. “We have to still maintain those social distancing norms from the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and the Utah Department of Health.”

Cycling, meanwhile, has become an increasingly popular way to tour the canyon, boosting business at area bike shops.

In fact, Larry Hamill, manager at Bike Zion, said his Springdale store is struggling to keep up. “The first part of the year, we were just dead. We lost our first four months of business,” he said. “And now we’re working like mad dogs trying to catch up.”

About 7,000 people visited the park Thursday, and about 3,400 guests used the shuttle to travel up Zion Canyon from the visitor center.

Still, the park allows only about 33 passengers on each shuttle instead of its usual maximum of 85. Axel said private shuttle services are an option, too.

Masks are not required on park grounds, but they are highly encouraged. On Thursday, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert approved a request from Springdale, the gateway town to Zion, to put in place a mask mandate, a move Axel said may prompt visitors to comply with the face-covering recommendation inside the park.

“It’s neat that they’re finding that [relief] in nature as long as they remember to follow those guidelines,” he said. “But we’re also reminding folks, ‘Hey, do you need to come this summer? Maybe come in the fall, maybe come next year.‘”

Axel is unsure how the pandemic will continue to impact the park but said Zion will adjust as needed. At least the coronavirus cannot change the scenic splendors visitors find there.

“Zion’s a beautiful, wonderful place. Everyone loves to visit it. But if it’s not a safe experience because of the pandemic, then we’ve adapted. That’s just what we had to do for now,” he said. “Zion’s been here a very long time, and it’ll be here in the future.”