Utah national parks prepare to reopen, but don’t expect a normal park experience

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Visitors to Bryce Canyon National Park stand in a closed-off area covered in snow on at Bryce Point during last year's government shutdown. The last of Utah's national parks to close in the face of this year's coronavirus epidemic, it will be the first to welcome visitors back on May. 6 with limited services and destinations available.

Bryce Canyon, Utah’s last national park to close as the coronavirus swept the nation, is poised to be the first to resume operations May 6 even as new infections climb in other parts of the state.

For the time being, visitors will be restricted to limited reaches of the high-elevation park and services will be all but nonexistent.

“We shy away from saying ‘reopening’ because people won’t be able to experience the parks the way they have in the past,” said National Park Service spokeswoman Vanessa Lacayo.

Acting on a directive from President Donald Trump, the National Park Service is looking to open its shuttered parks and other destinations in the coming weeks. Decisions will be made on a park-by-park basis and in concert with state and local health authorities, Lacayo said. Numerous measures will be in place to minimize the chance of coronavirus transmission.

“For the staff and the visitors that are coming, there is still an inherent risk of coronavirus that we have to manage for," Lacayo said. "You are going to see park rangers wear masks and staff wear personal protection gear as they do maintenance.”

While Gov. Gary Herbert called for the national parks to reopen as soon as possible, “at least to Utahns,” some advocates fear the park service is acting too quickly and without sufficient information.

“I could not disagree more with this premature and dangerous move, which could put park staff, visitors and community members at serious risk,” Theresa Pierno, president of the National Parks Conservation Association, wrote in a blog post Thursday before the Bryce opening was announced. “People may feel safe outdoors, but national park sites are not designed to accommodate basic physical distancing guidelines. Park roads, trails, overlooks and other points of interest lead visitors to specific attractions, which naturally results in crowding.”

The COVID-19 epidemic has left 46 Utahns dead and put 403 in the hospital. The daily number of new infections is not abating. The coronavirus risk in Garfield County, however, has eased to the point that the park service decided it was reasonably safe to allow visitors back to Bryce Canyon, famous for its eerie hoodoos eroding out of the pink cliffs on the ponderosa-covered Paunsaugunt Plateau.

"It is a hard one. Given Bryce is open and Arches is not shows the local pressure to open the parks. What’s challenging is it was piecemeal closings and now piecemeal openings,” said Cory MacNulty, the conservation association’s program director for the Southwest region. “What’s different now than when they closed [Bryce] three weeks ago?”

On Wednesday, Bryce Canyon will start increasing recreational access and services with limited options. No fees will be collected when the gate lifts. Visitors will be confined to the main road, which will be open all the way to its terminus at the Rainbow Point Overlook. The roadside viewpoints will be open but not the trails. The only hiking available will be around and into the Bryce Amphitheater, the park’s most popular destination. The only restrooms open will be those at Sunset Point, serving the Amphitheater trailheads.

Remaining closed will be the visitors center, campgrounds, Mossy Cave parking and trailhead, backcountry trails — including the popular Under the Rim Trail and campsites — and park concessions facilities, such as the historical lodge and pizzeria.

Last week, Herbert lifted his order that had closed Utah’s 44 state parks to those who don’t live in the counties where the parks were located, triggering a rush to some of the more popular destinations in southern Utah, such as Snow Canyon and Sand Hollow.

"After last weekend, it’s evident that a few changes are necessary to increase safety and social distancing at our busiest parks,” said Jeff Rasmussen, director of the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation. “We all play a role in keeping each other safe and healthy. We hope these changes contribute to a better visitor experience, and we ask those coming to state parks to do their part and practice responsible recreation.”

Among the temporary measures are restrictions on the number of visitors allowed and a prohibition on primitive camping in high-traffic parks. Visitor capacity is to be determined by the number of developed parking spaces in each park. Utah Highway Patrol and sheriff’s deputies will enforce parking restrictions along highways at the parks. Sand Hollow and Quail Creek state parks reached capacity on Friday afternoon.

Establishing visitor capacity limits is something some groups have been asking the National Park Service to do in recent years as visitation has soared, leading to congestion and stressing the resources the parks are supposed to safeguard.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility this week renewed its long-standing request for the park service to follow the requirements of the National Parks and Recreation Act of 1978. More than 40 years after that law’s enactment, no major park has identified its appropriate carrying capacity, according to PEER Executive Director Tim Whitehouse.

“Social distancing may prove an antidote to destructive overcrowding,” Whitehouse said. “With a new era of park management dawning, revisiting bedrock principles central to preserving ‘America’s best idea’ may be especially timely."

Park service officials promised that the resumption of park operations will be careful and deliberate. Openings will be gradual and phased, pegged to epidemic risk levels in the counties where the parks are located.

“We’ll start to see parks working through statewide guidelines and working within our own framework with [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines,” Lacayo said. “It’s not quite that easy. It’s up to each park to figure out where they can start opening recreational access. We can expect to start seeing access open to other parks in Utah in short manner.”

The National Parks Conservation Association praised the park service’s cautious approach but wondered if partial openings could lead to unintended consequences, such as concentrated use on the few areas open.

“If they could actually control the number of people coming in, they could better succeed at meeting CDC guidelines. When you are on those trails below the rim [of Bryce Canyon], you can’t keep 6-foot distance when you are passing,” MacNulty said. “We are supportive of doing a little at a time and making it as gradual as possible, like starting with auto tours only and then open trails.”

Lacayo emphasized the park service cannot set blanket rules and dates covering all its Utah destinations, which include Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Dinosaur National Monument, both of which span a state line. Each park has different resources to protect, different staffing levels and different volumes of visitors.

"The fact that we are opening [Bryce Canyon] on a Wednesday is not a coincidence," Lacayo said.

Early May is not the ideal time to visit Bryce Canyon, due to its high elevation where trails can still be muddy or snowy. Zion or Arches, on the other hand, see massive crowds this time of year, often congregating at key destinations, like Angels Landing, Scout Lookout and Emerald Pools at Zion and Windows and Delicate Arch at Arches.

In March, Grand County officials pressed the park service to close Arches and Canyonlands. They were concerned that those parks would attract throngs of tourists through Moab. They also closed overnight accommodations and all public lands to camping for nonlocals. The county reaffirmed those concerns Thursday with a new order extending those closures.

Glen Canyon has announced a phased reopening of its boat ramps starting May 8 at Wahweap and Bullfrog, which will be available to all boaters for day use from 7 a.m to 8 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Starting May 15, those ramps will be open seven days a week, and Halls Crossing will be open Friday through Sunday.

Most recreational access remains open to hiking, paddle craft and shore fishing across much of Glen Canyon’s 1.2 million acres. Most park concessions and visitor services remain closed until further notice.