As they gradually reopen, Utah’s national parks brace for busy holiday weekend

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Visitors enjoy the views from Bryce Point in Bryce Canyon National Park on May 9, the first weekend day after it reopened. The rest of Utah's national parks have since open or are poised to reopen.

With the arrival of the busiest holiday weekend, three of Utah’s national parks are bracing for their largest crowds since reopening earlier this month with reduced services, while the other two, Canyonlands and Arches, are preparing to open later this week with nearly all their terrain available for public access.

After Zion’s partial reopening May 13, visitors streamed into Utah’s most popular national park, but at numbers far below what is usual for this time of year, as was the case the week before at Bryce Canyon, Utah’s second-most-visited national park

“We had fewer people coming out than we were expecting, down a third from normal visitation for mid-May,” said Zion’s acting director of interpretation, Jeff Axel. He estimated 4,500 people a day have been coming into the park on weekdays, many more on weekends.

The park’s shuttle service remains idled, so officials are closing access to Zion Canyon once 400 cars enter. By limiting the number of vehicles to the number of parking spaces, officials are effectively capping the number of people to 1,000 at any one time in the canyon, which harbors Zion’s most popular destinations, such as Temple of Sinawava, the Grotto and the Kayenta Trail.

Axel said the canyon’s scenic drive was closed at times on weekends, but many visitors did not have to wait too long before they were able to drive in. Those on foot or bike didn’t have to wait at all.

“With Angels Landing’s chained section and The Narrows closed [the latter because of high water], which tend to be the longer hikes," Axel said, “parking was turning around quicker because they were doing the shorter trails.”

‘Delicate’ balance

Grand County's health department-imposed restrictions, imposed weeks ago to slow transmission of the coronavirus, expire May 29, so that is the day the National Park Service picked for reopening Canyonlands and Arches.

Businesses in the gateway city of Moab had been concerned about the potential impact of the parks’ extended closing on tourism traffic over Memorial Day weekend, Mayor Emily Niehaus said. But she believes it is more important for Moab to send a message in support of social distancing, mask wearing and other health guidelines promoted by the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

A leading proponent for closing the parks two months ago, Niehaus said she wants to know more about Arches and Canyonlands' plans before fully endorsing their reopenings.

“What I would like to hear from [the park service’s] Southeast Utah Group is a specific plan so government and business can comment and message to our visitors and residents,” Niehaus said. “If there is not a mechanism in place to disperse visitation, especially at Delicate Arch, then I’m going to be concerned.”

While mask wearing has proved controversial among some in Utah and the United States, Niehaus wants to see everyone in Moab, residents and visitors alike, covering their faces in public. Her city has received 75,000 masks from the Governor’s Office of Economic Development.

“We have passed them out to businesses to distribute to their employees," Niehaus said, “as well as to visitors interested in wearing them in the city.”

Starting Friday, visitors to Arches and Canyonlands will have access to all these parks’ roads, restrooms and trails, with the exception of the Fiery Furnace. Permits for backcountry trips, climbing and canyoneering will start being issued the next day. The parks’ three campgrounds, however, will remain closed, along with visitor centers and stores.

Niehaus was uncomfortable with the parks’ decision not to staff entrance stations, where visitors normally pay entry fees and have their first contact with park staff.

“While I think access to all is important, I also know that this is a critical time to use that entry fee money. They are working overtime managing visitors following CDC guidelines,” Niehaus said. “There is a human able to answer questions and in this case there would be someone to provide a mask and information on social distance and safe use of trails. It’s a missed opportunity for having someone to provide that information.”

Limits at Bryce, Zion

Entry has been free at all 419 sites administered by the National Park Service since the coronavirus epidemic hit the United States in March, but the fee waiver has begun lifting, starting with Bryce Canyon, which resumed collecting its $35 per-vehicle fee Wednesday. Credit cards are preferred

Open trails at Bryce Canyon are limited to the Bryce Amphitheater network accessed from Fairyland Point along the Rim Trail to Bryce Point.

Sunset Campground opens for reservation use starting June 7 and private horseback tours will resume June 15. No opening dates have been set for The Lodge or the park shuttle service, while backcountry permitting will resume no later than July 1. The first-come-first-served North Campground will open once a repaving project is completed. The annual astronomy festival in June was canceled, while a decision has not been made on July’s annual geology festival.

The Bryce visitor center is open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., although the museum and theater remain closed.

Anyone planning to visit a national park or other sites administered by the park service, like Natural Bridges National Monument or Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, should check each park’s website to get the latest information.

Zion will be open for day use only, except for those staying at the Zion Lodge or Watchman Campground, and the park’s reopening will be staged in phases spread over the next few months.

Outside Zion Canyon, the park's east entrance trailhead and those along the Kolob Terrace Road are open all the way to Lava Point, but the Kolob Canyons entrance remains closed.

Visitor centers and the museum are also shuttered, and no permits for backcountry hiking, canyoneering or climbing are being issued. Horseback rides are available along the Canyon Trail.

The Narrows Trail at the end of the River Walk opened this week after flows on the Virgin River dropped below 150 cubic feet per second, while Weeping Rock and lower Emerald Pools trails are closed for reconstruction.

“Visitors should come prepared, both for crowded conditions, and for the activities they are planning,” Zion Superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh said in a statement. “With a great many people visiting, please be patient with others and remember to use COVID-19 sanitation practices. Health and safety is everyone’s responsibility. Please avoid unsafe behaviors and risk-taking. Multiple emergencies are common during busy periods, stretching the availability of search and rescue, emergency medical, and firefighting capabilities.”