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A rise in tourism comes with headaches for officials at Zion National Park

June was the busiest month for the park.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Zion National Park hikers hoping to beat the crowds on park trails wait their tun in line to catch a free shuttle at first light. Every bus leaving the Zion Canyon Visitor's Center in the morning is filled to capacity, carrying some 60 people in each car of the two-car shuttle. "This is nothing," said shuttle host Celeste Fuentes about the endless rows of hikers. "Sometimes it's all the way to the parking lot."

Even on a light traffic day, it’s hard to find a moment of Zen on top of Angels Landing. The chains that begin at Scout’s Lookout become heavy with clunkier noise as hikers hold on and ascend toward the goal: a view of the red earth’s canyon walls. Not a minute goes by that a hiker, a group of friends or a family reaches the top of the ledge. Click. Snap. Upload.

One by one, they move around the top of the cliff until they get the proper pose, Zion Canyon as their backdrop. Zion is crowded these days, but that does not mean it is safe. If they are not careful, hikers require a rescue operation — or even fall to their deaths.

The threat is not an illusion. Since 2000 there have been at least 13 deaths on Angels Landing. It certainly feels more dangerous with hikers crowding the chains on this 5-mile hike.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hikers ascending and descending Zion National Park's Angel's Landing from Scout Lookout cover the mountainside, Sept. 25, 2021. At the time this photo was taken, someone watching the chaos yelled, "Tell them to stop coming up, there's no more room."

Pandemic or not, tourism at Zion National Park is on the rise. June was the busiest month ever for the park, which opened its doors in 1919. With 4.05 million visiting the park already this year, the park is on course to have its busiest year ever, surpassing 2019′s 4.5 million visitors.

When visitors come to the Greater Zion region, they boost local economies but create bumper-to-bumper traffic. They also leave trash and graffiti and require rescues. And, occasionally, they die. Just this year, there have been five deaths at the park.

For the cramped and dangerous Angels Landing hike, park officials are hoping that a lottery-based permit system can keep the trail from being overrun. But the bigger question for the park is how much impact the wilderness can handle.

Zion is the third popular national park in the U.S., behind the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Yellowstone National Park, according to the National Park Service’s Social Science Program, which collects and records visitation numbers.

Cory MacNulty, associate director for the Southwest Region of the National Parks Conservation Association, said one of the greatest threats to Utah’s national parks “is crowding and congestion in the parks as visitation levels have increased.”

“And it’s a long-term trend that has really spiked in the past several years,” she added.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Zion National Park hikers hoping to beat the crowds on park trails wait their tun in line to catch a free shuttle at first light. Every bus leaving the Zion Canyon Visitor's Center in the morning is filled to capacity, carrying some 60 people in each car of the two-car shuttle. "This is nothing," said shuttle host Celeste Fuentes about the endless rows of hikers. "Sometimes it's all the way to the parking lot."

More people, more bad apples

With the increased demands on the park comes an increase in bad behavior, like vandalism, graffiti on Indigenous cultural sites and piles of trash and human waste.

Sometimes visitors spray paint the iconic sandstone rock walls of the canyon or carve their names or initials in them. Vandals also target the ancient drawings in the rock, cultural sites considered sacred to the Paiute peoples as well as the Diné, Hopi, Zuni, Ute, Goshute, and Pueblos in New Mexico.

(National Park Service) A ranger looks at a sandstone wall with blue spray paint graffiti at Zion National Park. In 2020, the park saw an uptick in graffiti, forcing park leaders to make a plea on social media for visitors to not leave their "mark" and to report any information about those who've damaged park resources and facilities.

Sometimes logs, trees, and park buildings get hit as well.

Amanda Rowland, public information officer for Zion National Park, says that there have been 68 graffiti incidents in 2021. There were 47 graffiti incidents reported in 2020 and 49 in 2019, Rowland said. Graffiti and vandalism are punishable by a federal misdemeanor charge of up to six months in jail and a $5,000 fine.

Visitors also bring trash. Tourists produced more garbage in 2020 than they did over the last three years, resulting in 763 pounds of trash from human neglect. These incidents have since prompted park officials to launch a “take only photographs and leave only footprints” campaign over a year ago.

“Some of that is just due to pure numbers,” added Cassity Bromley, program manager of resources and research for Zion. “If you have a percentage of people that are going to behave improperly in a park, and you increase your numbers, you’re going to increase the number of people that are some of those outliers.”

Along with malicious visitors come the unprepared. Chief Ranger Daniel Fagergren says that there have been over 160 search and rescues this year, which is more than the average of 110 yearly search and rescue operations.

At a news conference Monday after a recent search and rescue operation that lasted four nights and five days, Fagergren pleaded with visitors to be prepared when visiting Zion. They should plan, hike with a partner and be prepared with supplies, he said.

“Bring plenty of food, water, equipment and clothing — not just for the time you plan on being out there but for an emergency as well,” Fagergren said.

Permitting Zion’s most popular hike

On August 25, the 105th birthday of the National Park Service, two friends were crossing an item off their bucket list. Caitlynn Barney, of Mexican Springs, N.M., and Rachel Tom, of Pinehill, N.M., traveled hundreds of miles from the Navajo Nation to celebrate Barney’s birthday and make the trek up Angels Landing.

“I feel successful, accomplished and very motivated to hike more and see other places,” Barney said after hiking the strenuous 5.2-mile roundtrip Angels Landing trail, which has an elevation gain of 1,500-feet. “It’s a really beautiful place.”

The hour wait to park and begin hiking at Angels Landing did not prevent the pair from enjoying their visit. They made sure to leave early in the morning to avoid traffic jams, although they still waited for an hour for parking.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) A steady line of hikers make their way up Walter's Wiggles on the trail to Angel's Landing in Zion National Park, the most sought-after bucket list hike for visitors, Sept. 25, 2021. June 2021 was the busiest month ever for the park, which is on course to have its busiest year ever, surpassing 2019's 4.5 million visitors

Over the summer there was a public comment period on whether a lottery system should be employed on this trail and park officials still haven’t announced an official decision.

Tom did note the path could get quite crowded. “There are a lot of people going up,” she said, before adding that she’s on the fence of whether to support the lottery system for Angels Landing.

“Maybe it would be better if there were less people, but at the same time I do not think I should wait to hike something,” Tom said.

Tom added that she and other associated tribal members should be exempt from the lottery process for Angels Landing since Zion is the ancestral land of many Indigenous people.

The planned lottery system for Angels Landing should help slow traffic down, said Zion’s Bromley.

Diversifying the experience of red rock Utah

Zion’s infrastructure has not kept up with the traffic boom.

Due to budget constraints, more than $11.9 billion in NPS infrastructure upgrades have been delayed by more than a year, says Kevin Lewis, Director for the Greater Zion Tourism Office and Visitor Center.

“The federal government has not been funding the national parks, at least some of them in the way that they need to be to keep up with the interest and the need there,” Lewis said.

Some of those infrastructure needs include improvements to paved roads, trails, and buildings.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) A young boy waves as he rides a full shuttle down the canyon from Zion Lodge, Sept. 25, 2021. Zion is the third popular national park in the U.S., behind the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Yellowstone National Park, according to the National Park Service's Social Science Program, which collects and records visitation numbers.

“What I can say is that the National Park Service, and I think they will admit to this, they are way behind in being able to adapt and change appropriately for the growth of, in the interest of national parks,” Lewis said. “I think that’s been the struggle is that we’ve, we’ve been operating under a system that was built for a time when there weren’t as many people there weren’t as many visitors, and we haven’t been able to keep up with the changes.”

Lewis hopes to get tourists to learn more about other tourism opportunities in the area to lessen the impact on the park.

“We are finding ways to diversify the experience,” he said, adding that his office recently won a grant worth $11 million to build a new trail from La Verkin to Springdale.

But as hard as tourism is on the park, it’s also a boon for the region. The nearby town of Springdale, population 529, sees about 16,000 tourists a day. Mayor Stan Smith says that the sales tax generated from tourism keeps the town operating. Approximately $7.5 million, he says, is made from visitors who either stay or eat in the small town.

Standing outside his office last month, Smith said off-peak season traffic is slower during the day and picks up during the rush hours of the mornings and evenings.

“Traffic is not bad,” he explained. “We’re still inviting people. We still want people to come.”

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