Two trail closures add to Zion National Park’s Memorial Day weekend woes

Park could close entrance gates if crowds become unmanageable.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Zion National Park, seen in September 2021, could close its entrance gates during the Memorial Day Weekend, when it sees more visitors in three days than some national parks see during an entire year.

Memorial Day weekend may seem like the perfect time to visit Zion National Park. Temperatures typically are moderate at the end of May, wildflowers are likely to be in bloom and rivers are running full.

Also running full, however, are shuttle buses, trails, restaurants and restrooms.

Last year, southern Utah’s most popular park saw 82,000 visits during the three-day holiday weekend. That’s almost twice as many as the park saw in any other three-day span last May. It’s more people than a third of the National Parks saw in all of 2022.

Visitation is trending lower this year. Still, park managers don’t expect that to relieve the queuing and crowding that took root last year — especially since two of Zion’s most popular hikes have been deemed off limits.

“Anytime it’s a holiday weekend we expect a lot of people to be here to visit,” Zion spokesperson Jonathan Shafer said. “They should be prepared for lines and to encounter a large number of people.”

(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."

High water levels in the Virgin River, the result of Utah’s record snowpack, has kept the Narrows hike closed since April. It is currently running at three times what the park considers safe for hiking and Shafer said it will not open before the end of the weekend.

Then last week park rangers also closed off access to the Emerald Pools trail via the bridge across from Zion Lodge. During a routine inspection, park engineers found the bridge was shifting on its foundation. It has no estimated repair date, Shafer said.

Visitors can still access the Emerald Pools, Zion’s most popular destination, via two other routes, however. One is the Kayenta trail, which forms the northeast side of the traditional 3-mile loop hike but is slightly steeper and longer than the Middle Emerald Pools side. It is accessed from the Grotto shuttle stop. The other is via the Sand Bench trail, which embark from the Court of the Patriarchs shuttle stop and links to the Middle Emerald Pools trail. This route is closer to five miles round trip.

Most people gravitate to the route that begins at the Grotto, Shafer said. And even before the Memorial Day crowds descended, those hikers usually had plenty of company.

“We went around 6:30 p.m. and had the trail to ourselves with the exception of one other small group,” Anders Jecha posted in an AllTrails review Saturday. “Definitely advise trying to be there as early or as late as possible otherwise it’s a constant stream of people.”

In addition to the closure of those two popular trails, Zion is still requiring permits to hike to Angels Landing. A lottery is held daily for a limited number of permits valid for hiking the following day.

Add all of that up, and park managers expect the long lines to start as soon as visitors arrive at the entrance stations. In fact, Shafer said Zion staff “may temporarily limit vehicle entry to reduce crowding and traffic congestion.” If the impact of that measure resembles what happened when Arches National Park employed the same tactic before turning to a timed entry program last year, it could, in turn, lead to backups within the nearby town of Springdale.

Those who can get inside Zion should expect lines at trailheads, restrooms and in the visitors center. Shafer also warned that waits for shuttles could be lengthy and that visitors should “pack their patience.”

That’s sound advice for anyone planning to visit the park this summer. May, June and July have traditionally been Zion’s busiest months and visitation typically doesn’t decline discernibly until November.

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