Climbing, canyoneering now require permits at Utah’s Capitol Reef

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hikers at Hickman Natural Bridge in Capitol Reef National Park on Friday May 10, 2019. Canyoneering and climbing have become so popular at the southern Utah park that the National Park Service will soon require visitors to obtain permits to engage in those activities.

Starting with the new year, permits will be required for climbing, bouldering and canyoneering at Capitol Reef, highlighting the growing popularity — and impacts — of these activities in one of Utah’s quieter national parks.

Climbing and canyoneering have been far more popular at southern Utah’s busier national parks, Arches and Zion, but, in the past decade, Capitol Reef has seen a substantial rise in roped endeavors, leading to potential user conflicts and resource damage.

“The pilot permit system will allow managers to track use and determine levels and locations of activity,” officials said in an alert posted on the park website. “... These efforts help park managers understand visitor use and recreation and the impacts to park resources, which provides valuable information when making management decisions to preserve and protect Capitol Reef.”

Park officials could not be reached for further comment.

The park features a thick formation of Wingate sandstone that makes for great climbing at Capitol Gorge and other places, which feature long vertical cracks, but it presents risks.

“The hardness of the Wingate lends itself more readily to the successful use of chocks, nuts, and camming devices; however it can flake off easily and be very unpredictable,” the park’s website states. “Climbing in canyon country is not something to be taken lightly.”

The permits are free and require self-registration, either at the visitor center or on the park website.

Rules restrict climbing to free climbing or “clean aid” equipment, techniques that employ removable protection gear, such as stoppers, chocks and camming devices, which can leave minimal damage to the rock if used properly. Fixed pitons and bolts may not be drilled or hammered into the rock except to replace an existing anchor that is deemed unsafe, or for emergency self-rescue.

“This [rule] will limit all climbing to existing routes or new routes not requiring placement of fixed anchors,” the park regulations state.

Climbing is banned on any arch whose opening is larger than three feet; within 300 feet of a known archaeological site; or a quarter-mile from known eagle, hawk or falcon nesting sites. Prohibitions include the use of white chalk, power drills, or anything that physically alters rock surfaces, such as chiseling and glue reinforcements on belay anchors, trundling and removal of natural lichens or plants.

These rules mimic those for climbing at Arches and Zion national parks. Free permits are also required at Arches, but not at Zion, except for overnight bivouacs on the sandstone faces that tower 2,000 feet above the canyon floor. Overnight climbs are not allowed at the other parks, where the routes can generally be scaled in less than a few hours.

Specific climbing spots in Zion are subject to seasonal closures to protect rare raptor species, including condors and falcons, that nest in the park’s famous sandstone walls.

There are no daily limits and climbers can get their permits on the day of the climb at any of the parks.

Canyoneering group sizes are limited to eight at Capitol Reef, including guides, except for some routes, such as Cassidy Arch Canyon and Beaver Bay, where the limit is 12.

At Zion, canyoneering is heavily regulated, often requiring highly coveted permits that can be hard to get.