‘I don’t think that that number is sustainable’: local communities feel strain as Zion sets visitor record

5 million visitors in 2021 breaks visitation records.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Unofficial numbers from the National Park Service report that over five million visitors came to Zion in 2021, according to the park’s monthly preliminary report it tracks on its website.

Over seven years ago, Patty Kubeja moved to Kanab to get away from the rat race of living in Seattle. Now Kanab is becoming busier and less of a retirement refuge as more and more visitors make the small town busier as they flock to hike and camp in nearby Zion National Park. Unofficial numbers from the National Park Service report that over five million visitors came to Zion in 2021, according to the park’s monthly report.

“I have not been (to Zion) recently because a lot of it is because it’s crowded,” Kubeja, who is running for county commissioner said. “Now you have to go early in the morning or I’ve taken visitors before and now, usually, they just go by themselves.”

Jonathan Shafer, spokesman for the National Park Service at Zion National Park, said the visitor count is still unofficial and needs to be reviewed by the agency. The NPS will release official numbers in an announcement later this month, he said.

Since 2016, the park has trended upward and has averaged about 4 million visitors annually, except for 2020 when the pandemic wreaked its havoc on communities nationwide with public health lockdowns.

“Regarding visitation, we are glad millions of people enjoy and value travel to Zion National Park,” Shafer said. “So that we sustain the landscapes, plants, animals, and history visitors travel here to enjoy, we’re in the process of updating our Visitor Use Management Plan to protect those resources today and forever.”

From the gateway community of Springdale, Mayor Barbara Bruno says that the number of visitors swarming to Zion is not surprising. Springdale needs to fill jobs to keep up with the number of visitors coming to Zion, but there is not enough housing for them as tourists pack vacation rentals, she said.

“I don’t think that that number is sustainable in the long run unless we make some changes in how we, I say we, I really mean Zion National Park is able to accommodate visitors,” Bruno added. She sits on the visitor management team with the park service, counties and other partners.

Bruno supports solutions like the recent addition of a lottery for the hike at Angels Landing to keep down traffic.

“We love our visitors and we’re set up well for them and being a gateway community we’re used to that but we do think that five million people in the park unless there’s some kind of a plan in place, is probably not creating the best experience for the for the people visiting the park,” she said.

Tourism in and around the Greater Zion region, including in Kane County, is one of the reasons Kubeja is running for county commissioner.

While Kubeja generally does not mind the visitors, she worries about locals bearing the burden of building infrastructure for visitors. Officials are trying to disperse crowds from the main entrance of Zion to other areas of the region, including East Zion and to Kanab, and Kubeja wants to make sure the strategy does not consume local taxes.

A $16 million visitor center on the park’s east side would spread out tourists in the park. A proposed shuttle service that would bus visitors from Kanab to Zion was voted down by county residents in Kane County last year but there are now efforts to resurrect the idea.

Correction: 7:30 a.m. Feb. 14: This article has been updated to correctly identify the year the pandemic started.