Zion shuttle returning in Utah’s busiest national park, but you’ll need a reservation

(Photo courtesy of Zion National Park) Up to 400 bikes are parked at the Temple of Sinawava, a popular trailhead in Zion National Park. Since the park's reopening May 13, bicycling has become a popular way to tour Zion Canyon in the absence of the park's shuttle service. Starting July 1, cars will be barred from the canyon as the shuttle service resumes using modified buses to enable social distance. Reservations will be required.

In recent years, Zion National Park has toyed with the idea of a timed-entry system to reduce overcrowding, but the proposal has never gone over well with Utah’s political leaders who helped scuttle such a plan developed for Arches National Park.

Now the coronavirus epidemic is forcing reservation protocols upon one of Utah's most popular and crowded tourist destinations.

Starting on Wednesday, July 1, Zion will resume its idled shuttle service and require all those visiting Zion Canyon to make reservations to use it, thus eliminating recent gridlock caused by private vehicles. Reservations can be made online, each costing $1. The goal of reservations, which will be needed through year’s end to ride the shuttle, is to ensure park visitors won’t queue up in big groups to board at the visitor center, according to Jeff Axel, Zion’s acting chief of interpretation.

“Bringing the shuttles on line will increase access. If we don’t go to a system with timed-entry tickets, we would have worse lines than we would in normal summers because there are fewer seats in the shuttles [to provide social distancing],” Axel said. “This gives more certainty to people visiting the park.”

Private vehicles will be barred from the canyon, but the 6.2-mile road will remain open to those entering on bicycles. Cycling has become a popular way to tour the canyon since the park reopened May 13 because cyclists can avoid the hassles of finding a parking space.

On Wednesday, Zion, the busiest of Utah’s “Mighty 5″ national parks, also will resume collecting entrance fees, set at $35 per vehicle or $20 per person entering without a vehicle.

The 65-seat shuttles have been modified to maximize social distancing among passengers. Half the seats have been removed from each bus and trailer, and plastic sheets are installed around the driver.

As a result, only 33 passengers can ride a shuttle at a time. The park expects to get 3,500 to 4,000 into Zion Canyon on buses each day, a far cry from the 9,000 on a typical busy summer day.

(Tribune file photo) A shuttle bus leaves the Zion Canyon Village.

During peak hours, Axel said, buses will leave the visitors center on four-minute intervals for the ride to the Temple of Sinawava, the last of five stops in the canyon where visitors can access The Narrows and the River Walk.

Reservations are not required to access trailheads outside the canyon at the east entrance and along Kolob Terrace Road, but the Kolob Canyons entrance remains closed because of staffing constraints.

Utah’s national parks were all closed in early April as the economy throttled down to slow the spread of the coronavirus. They began gradual reopenings in May, starting with Capitol Reef and Bryce.

Critics have alleged that the southern Utah park reopenings were rushed and not adequately coordinated with what’s happening at other destinations in the region. Advocacy groups worry that the National Park Service has ignored warnings from its own public health officials and have not taken adequate steps to protect staffers and rangers from coronavirus transmission.

With Zion’s phased reopening, officials had sidelined the park’s shuttle system, which visitors have been required to use during normal times to keep private vehicles from clogging the canyon. Since the reopening, only 400 cars were allowed in the canyon at a time, resulting in huge lines each morning, with people arriving in the middle of the night.

Before the park’s opening Thursday morning, for example, Axel counted 360 cars lined up on the canyon road from Zion Lodge, where the street is gated at night, all the way down to the junction with State Road 9. During June, motorists had a 20% to 40% chance of finding a place to park, depending on the day of the week.

The parking crunch has pushed visitors to ride bikes and to use commercial shuttles.

"We have six companies that offer shuttle service," Axel said. "Their phones are ringing off the hook."

The headache of finding a place to park will now be replaced with the hassle of obtaining a shuttle reservation that fits your schedule. Reservations can be made on Recreation.gov starting June 30 to enter the canyon in July between 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. Each ticket will allow you to board at the visitors center during a designated one-hour window. Tickets for August go on sale starting July 16.

Those without access to a computer or a smartphone may make a reservation by calling 877-444-6777.

The park and its nonprofit partners will make masks available for shuttle riders, Axel said, but wearing them will not be required.

“We are going to be messaging that [personal responsibility for COVID-19 safety] really hard,” he said. “[But] it won’t be an enforcement action.”

Cycling will remain an option for visiting the canyon, especially with no cars on the road, Axel added, but it would be smart to bring your own bike or rent one in Hurricane or St. George because finding rentals Springdale has grown difficult.