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Utah’s state parks are drawing record crowds despite the pandemic. See which ones top the list.

Water attractions get the most visitors, with Sand Hollow surpassing the 1 million mark.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) A sunset along the shore of Willard Bay in January 2018. Willard Bay ranked as the third most-visited state park in 2020.

Utah’s state parks saw their biggest jump in visitation ever last year, ticking up by a third at a time when the coronavirus pandemic pushed more and more people outdoors seeking socially distanced recreation.

Most of the 2.6 million increase in park visitation occurred in the summer months, according to the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation. The state’s lake parks near urban areas, such as Willard Bay and Jordanelle, and parks near state borders, such as Sand Hollow and Bear Lake, accounted for most of the gains.

Parking lots at Washington County’s parks were sometimes crammed with cars bearing plates from Nevada and California, said division spokesman Devan Chavez.

In just one year, state park visits climbed from 8 million to 10.6 million. By comparison, Utah’s 13 National Park Service destinations saw 14.4 million visits in 2016.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

The elevated numbers began about two months after the pandemic arrived in Utah.

“Not only that, but record-breaking visitation continued into the fall and winter,” division director Jeff Rasmussen said, “and has not tapered off like it normally does.”

State park visitation has been climbing steadily in recent years, doubling over the past five years, thanks partly to overcrowding at Utah’s five national parks and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Arches, Bryce Canyon and Zion are sometimes so full that the gates close and parking becomes scarce, but you don’t have to look far to find alternative destinations run by the state.

Utah tourism officials have long touted the national parks in their wildly successful “Mighty 5” campaign.

In the face of crowding, however, that push has since been retooled to avoid funneling attention on those iconic parks. The Utah Office of Tourism’s “Red Emerald Initiative” is aimed at spreading southern Utah visitors to a larger variety of destinations.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune A woman walks her dog through the hoodoos of Goblin Valley State Park in a series of photographs from 2003.

And some are state parks, such as Dead Horse Point near Moab, Snow Canyon near St. George and Goblin Valley in the San Rafael Swell. These little parks swarm with people like never before, according to state visitation data. In many instances last year, these parks reached capacity and had to shut their gates.

Many factors are driving the visitor surge.

“It’s not just the pandemic,” Chavez said. “It’s the Red Emerald Initiative. It’s bloggers and storytellers and YouTubers and everyone that are finding out about all these other recreation areas.

[Read more about how visitors from around the world are discovering Utah’s hidden gems.]

The agency welcomed the increased use, which has not been accompanied by the increased vandalism and trash that some officials feared, but it has put pressure on park managers.

Remarkably, the parks hit record visitation even though they were not operating at full capacity in an effort to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission. Once parking lots were three-fourths full, many parks closed their gates, yet Sand Hollow still broke the 1 million mark.

“Instead of just constantly being bombarded on weekends, like we’re used to, it was a lot of midweek visitation,” Chavez said. “Our staff had to ensure that we stepped up patrols for making sure that people were socially distanced and not gathering at trailheads or other common areas. We also partnered with agencies like the Utah Highway Patrol, for example, to make sure that people weren’t parking [outside the parks] to access areas that weren’t at the entrance.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) A fisher takes advantage of the early morning risers of small mouth bass on the banks of Jordanelle Reservoir in 2003.

The National Park Service’s Utah attractions also saw record monthly visitation last summer and fall. Zion, for example had 520,000 visits in September alone, but these parks’ annual numbers for 2020 were down from the previous year because they closed at the beginning of the usually busy spring season and then gradually reopened.

That was not the case with the state parks, which remained open during the pandemic, although at times they were available only to residents from the county where the park was located.

State Parks released its banner 2020 numbers last week just as the Legislature is considering a bill to add two more parks to the 44-park network. Exploding visitation could help grease passage of Rep. Steve Eliason’s HB257, which proposes establishing Utahraptor State Park near Moab and Lost Creek State Park in Morgan County. The House passed the Sandy Republican’s bill in a 62-10 vote. It now awaits action in the Senate.

Both proposed parks already see a lot of recreational traffic.

Morgan and neighboring counties represented by Rep. Kera Birkeland have several parks already, but she told fellow lawmakers recently that they are heavily used by outsiders.

“Everything is very much overcrowded there, so a lot of people end up going to Lost Creek [Reservoir]. But Lost Creek is very undeveloped,” the Morgan Republican told a House committee. “Frankly, it’s a little bit dangerous as it is right now. However, people are still going there, so they’re still utilizing that beautiful area.”

The park would include Lost Creek Reservoir.

“We can help make it a safer place, a place where more people can come, something that generates money to continue its own proper growth. It’ll also help with the economics of the Morgan County,” Birkeland said. There’s just such a need right now for these recreational opportunities for people. And Lost Creek is really going to be a great place to start from for our community.”

Likewise, the area around Dalton Wells, outside Moab, is getting trashed by dispersed campers and unmanaged recreation spilling over from overcrowded developed areas near Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Utah State assistant state paleontologist Don DeBlieux is framed in the skull of a Utahraptor on display at the Utah Capitol in 2018.

Establishing a 6,500-acre state park on state-owned property there would help protect these lands. It would cost about $10 million to develop the campground, trails and interpretive sites. That high price tag doomed the proposal last session, but Eliason brought it back this year with an eye toward capturing the surging interest in outdoor recreation unleashed by the pandemic.

The park would commemorate and protect a neglected, but famous, quarry that is believed to contain some of the greatest concentrations of dinosaur bones in the world. It would be named for the Utahraptor, the small fleet-footed predator first unearthed near the site.

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