A thick line of people wrapped along nearly every trail, plugging up slot canyons and switchbacks. There were two-hour waits to get on a shuttle bus — and once on board, it was a stuffed and sweaty ride through the scenic redrock landscape. The parking lots were full, too. The trash cans overflowed. And maintenance staff couldn’t restock toilet paper fast enough.
There were just too many tourists.
On Sunday, more than 30,000 people visited Zion National Park in southwestern Utah to celebrate Memorial Day weekend. While that’s likely to be the single busiest day for 2018, it’s also only the beginning of the summer season for the state’s recreation hot spots that teem with visitors and wind up looking more like small cities than secluded nature preserves.
“It’s overwhelming,” said park spokesman John Marciano. “It’s just going to be loved to death, and people aren’t going to have a good experience.”
At Zion, one of the most-visited national parks in the country, 4.5 million people drove through the gates in 2017. That’s up nearly 60 percent from a decade ago. It’s expected to rise again this year.
The crowding, though certainly not unique to the national park system, is particularly magnified in these clogged narrow slots. Resources are strained. Desert trails are eroding. Graffiti marks are becoming more frequent. Shuttles are running every five minutes — but even with 38 buses that hold up to 90 people, folks still are parking a mile away and walking to the stations to get into the park.
The space is overrun, overburdened, overused.
“It’s wonderful that they come, and they keep coming,” Marciano added. “But that’s really too many people for the park to manage.”
During Memorial Day weekend, Zion posted on Facebook advising visitors to come in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid the congestion. The comment section turned into a chorus of frustration. “This park has become a nightmare,” one man wrote. “Crowds detract from the entire experience!” said another. A third, confronted with the visitation numbers that topped 60,000 for the three-day holiday celebration, simply added, “Holy s---!”
Some commenters battled over whether an in-the-works plan to initiate a reservation system at Zion infringes on the National Park Service’s democratic mission to provide access for all residents to “the natural and cultural resources” of the United States. Some said limitations are necessary to preserve the space for “the enjoyment, education and inspiration of this and future generations.”
Marciano said: “We have to do something.”
Zion managers are currently considering limiting the number of visitors per day, adding a system for people to reserve a check-in window to enter the park and requiring permits for popular trails, including Angels Landing and the Narrows. There will be public comment on the proposals later this summer.
On the southeastern side of Utah, Arches National Park saw a similar Memorial Day surge. It closed its entrance for a few hours on Saturday and Sunday during the middle of the day and amid intense crowding. Rangers turned away cars, which had lined down Highway 191, and asked people to return later after other groups had left the park.
“We don’t have a problem of too many people,” said Arches Superintendent Kate Cannon. “We have a problem of too many people at one time.”
Arches, which saw nearly 1.6 million visitors last year, has room to spare in winter and early spring. But its 900 parking spots are almost always full during the summer. Visitation numbers for this month haven’t been compiled yet, but on the Sunday before Memorial Day last year, Cannon said, 3,000 cars drove into the park (each vehicle averages 2.7 people, so that would mean about 8,100 visitors). She expects the same or more for 2018.
Jenny McKinsey, 27, of Salt Lake City, visited Arches for the first time last weekend. She and her husband got to the trailhead of Delicate Arch, the park’s most popular path, at 5:45 a.m. Sunday to beat the heat and the crowds. They found some solitude on the way up, but by the time they trekked back down, a steady stream of hikers was coming in.
The couple then left the park to grab lunch and were blocked from re-entering at 11 a.m. when the entry restrictions started. “We had to wait a couple of hours to try to get back in again,” McKinsey said. She tried to warn other visitors by responding to the park’s Facebook post. One commenter responded: “Welcome to summer in the national parks.”
The McKinseys turned around and came back about 1 p.m. to do a few shorter hikes. The trails were packed, and there were 30-minute waits to get into the bathrooms.
“I know some people try to avoid Memorial Day,” McKinsey said, but she and her husband had reserved their Moab camping space in February and were excited for the quick weekend getaway.
Cannon, who also oversees the nearby Canyonlands National Park, said there were long waits there, too. Staffers let in 10 cars every 10 minutes to try to stagger the flow and create “a more relaxed and fulfilling experience.” At both spaces, Cannon has helped draft plans to create a reservation system similar to what Zion might implement.
The neighboring parks decided against adding shuttles because it “was far too costly for us to undertake,” she said. And even if they had done that two years ago, Cannon added, “we’d be right back to where we are now” with the overcrowding crisis.
Utah’s five national parks — Zion, Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef — will continue to be flooded with visitors throughout the summer. After Memorial Day, there will be smaller peaks on July 4 and 24 before the second biggest visitation holiday of the year: Labor Day.