With coronavirus travel limits, Utah’s national parks may be your best — and safest — bet for a getaway

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) In this May 5, 2015, photo, hikers walk on the Canyon Overlook Trail in Zion National Park.

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[Read more: Amid coronavirus threat, many Moab residents fear the worst as tourists fill Grand County for spring fun]

Stan Smith has been around Springdale for nearly 40 years, observing the highs and lows of the scenic southern Utah town at the mouth of Zion Canyon.

A longtime hotel operator, the Springdale mayor is not too worried about the international travel restrictions announced recently to slow the spread of the coronavirus in the United States. He expects the coming decline in European and Asian visitors to Zion National Park to be offset by Utahns and other Americans looking to revamp their spring travel plans in the face of the pandemic gripping the globe and forcing the suspension of sports, concerts, festivals, church services and other events that draw lots of people into close quarters.

Exploring the great outdoors, including Utah's national parks, may now be the safest vacation bet, reasoned Smith, whose livelihood depends on the nearby park.

One of the crown jewels of the National Park Service, Zion has seen exploding visitation over the past decade reaching a record 4.9 million visitors last year, prompting many to wonder if reduced crowds may be what the park actually needs right now.

“I’m telling everybody, ‘Don’t panic,’” Smith said Thursday, the day after President Donald Trump announced restrictions on travel to the United States from many European nations.

Sure, his and other Springdale hotels are seeing cancellations, but they are quickly offset by new reservations.

“Our occupancy rate is higher today than it was Monday,” the mayor said Thursday.

More road trips

Just when Utah’s national and state parks typically see a big uptick in visitors, the rapidly developing coronavirus crisis appears to be putting a damper on travel from the Asian and European countries where many Utah-bound tourists originate. How exactly this will affect park-driven tourism in southern Utah remains to be seen.

Vicki Varela, Utah’s tourism director, expects the state’s $9.75 billion tourism economy to take a hit.

“International travel constitutes about 10% of total visitation,” she wrote in an email. “We saw a significant decline in rural bookings as China flights were suspended, and restricting flights from Europe creates a significant additional economic disruption. In the Salt Lake area, the cancellation of professional basketball and soccer games as well as conventions and conferences creates many ripples through the hotel, restaurant, retail and entertainment industries.”

But in a recent blog post by Entrada Insights, a Utah-based data-analytics firm dedicated to tourism, she noted domestic travel could make up for some of the lost international visits.

“This is shaping up to be a season of domestic travel," she said. “Research and anecdotal feedback tells us people are organizing more road trips. We are encouraging people to enjoy adventures in our wide-open spaces. We are also staying in communication with our international customers, mostly to express our empathy and concern."

Utah’s busiest park destination, Zion has been on track to set yet another visitation record. So far, it has seen no decline, according to park spokeswoman Aly Baltrus.

“Visitors can be assured that facilities at Zion, including the shuttle buses, lodge and restaurant, are being monitored. Specifically, we are monitoring conditions and maintaining high standards related to the health and wellness of staff and visitors,” she said in a text message. “Park and concession staff are working to maintain clean and healthy facilities in parks in accordance with [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidance.”

Arches and Canyonlands national parks’ March numbers are not available yet, but even if they showed a change over past years, it might not be possible to blame the coronavirus, according to park spokeswoman Karen Garthwait.

“Parks do not track visitation by point of origin,” she said, “so it can be difficult to link changes to visitation to any specific factor."

Systemwide, all National Park Service destinations remain open and “facilities are maintaining continuity of operations,” the service announced on its website. The agency is reviewing its 2007 “Influenza Pandemic Plan” and could update it to address the coronavirus.

Zion National Park’s challenges

The Utah parks’ websites and social media sites are silent regarding the COVID-19 outbreak, so it is unclear whether they plan to heed Utah Gov. Gary Herbert’s call to nix large gatherings such as stargazing parties and other interpretive programs for the next two weeks.

Utah Division of Wildlife Resources on Thursday canceled some wildlife-viewing and fishing events through the end of March, and postponed others.

While most of the West’s national parks invite visitors to spread out, Zion is different because so many congregate at key spots in Zion Canyon, boosting the possibility of disease transmission among park visitors. They must ride shuttle buses to cut down on congestion, which means the vehicles are often packed as they cruise along the Virgin River between sandstone walls towering above the canyon floor. The shuttles drop guests off at handful of trailheads, which can get thick with hikers.

Smith and other Springdale business owners attended meetings this week with park officials, who assured them the shuttle buses would be “scoured” and sanitized between runs.

Zion’s numbers typically ramp up this time of year, with about 300,000 visitors in March, and peak in July with about 600,000. Over the past several months, however, the park has been seeing record month-over-month totals through February, indicating the park was on track for another banner year.

That could change this month or in April, when the impact of Trump’s travel restrictions kicks in. And if the park’s crowds do thin, maybe now is a good time for residents of Utah and neighboring states to go on a road trip to enjoy the “Mighty 5” parks.

Seek solace

While Utah parks have not seen much of a reduction in traffic so far, the same cannot be said for some of the travel businesses that guide tourists in the parks.

Wildland Trekking, which leads premium hiking tours in Utah and elsewhere, has seen a mighty drop in interest in its services, according to company co-founder and marketing director Scott Cundy.

"The change started with bookings in early March," Cundy said, "but this week we've seen an exponential increase in people wanting to cancel and wanting more information."

In response to the epidemic, the company has altered its cancellation policy to allow guests to reschedule their trips for a later time regardless of reason.

Based in Flagstaff, Ariz., Wildland Trekking operates globally, but Utah is central to its offerings. According to Cundy, the company hosts about 400 trips a year to national parks in Utah and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. It will try to avoid nixing any scheduled trips because of canceled reservations

"We will do our best to run trips for people who still want to go," Cundy said.

For visitors looking to avoid large gatherings, as the governor recommends, they are advised to steer clear of Zion’s more famous destinations such as Angels Landing, River Walk and Emerald Pools.

Smith, the Springdale mayor, recommends exploring equally spectacular parts of Zion, such as the East Rim, Kolob Terrace or Observation Point. The latter cannot currently be accessed from the canyon due to rockfall. Better yet, he suggested, after emerging from Refrigerator Canyon and arriving at Scout Lookout, don’t follow the masses up Angels Landing, where hundreds of hikers practically exhale into one another’s faces as they clamber along a narrow trail on the edge of a 1,000-foot precipice. Avoid the germs and adrenalin, instead, by continuing up the trail to Zion’s West Rim.

The views are equally amazing but with a lot fewer people.