Local businesses say timed entry at Arches has hurt them

The public has until the end of the day Friday to submit comments on making timed entry permanent at Arches National Park.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Visitors climb the sandstone near Turret Arch to view and photograph the sunset in Arches National Park, Monday, May 15, 2023. In April 2023, Arches National Park implemented a timed entry system to pace visitors' arrival times to alleviate overcrowding and congestion among some 1.8 million visitors a year.

Visitors to Arches National Park could always count on beautiful views of red-rock formations. But in recent years, they could also count on full parking lots and lines of cars stretching from the main entrance station to Highway 191.

The National Park Service reports that between 2011 and 2021, visitation to Arches National Park increased by 74%, hitting a record high of 1.8 million visitors during 2021.

The visitation has impacted Arches’ infrastructure, personnel and visitor experience, the National Park Service says. Arches had to close its gates multiple times during its busy season when parking lots at popular attractions filled to capacity, sometimes for up to five hours.

To manage the flood of visitation, Arches National Park instituted a timed-entry pilot program in April of 2022.

The National Park Service just announced a third year of the pilot program at Arches, and now, they’re looking to make timed entry permanent or pursue other long-term management strategies.

Under the timed-entry program, Arches visitors must log into Rec.gov, the federal government’s travel and planning platform, to purchase an entry reservation for a one-hour time slot. Timed entry applies between April 1 and Oct. 31, 2024.

Timed-entry permits cost $2 per vehicle, separate from the fee that the national park charges for entry. Visitors can make timed-entry reservations at any time — months before traveling to Utah or minutes before entering the park — as long as permits last for their desired time slot. Reservations are not required for visitors who want to get into the park before 7 a.m. and after 4 p.m.

“The opportunity in front of folks right now is to let the Park Service know what their experience has been like at Arches, whether that’s over the years or if they had an experience recently with timed entry,” Cassidy Jones, senior visitation program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “What do you feel like could be improved?”

Arches National Park draws tourists from all over the world to southeastern Utah. The City of Moab is home to the hotels, restaurants, guiding services and shops that visitors depend on while in the area.

Some of those local companies say that timed entry has made them lose business.

Brian Hunnings, resort manager at Red Cliffs Lodge, said the hotel saw over 2,000 bookings canceled in 2022, the first year of the program at the park. Hunnings attributed that loss to timed entry.

Shayne Wittwer, part owner of Sleep Inn and MainStay Suites in Moab, blamed Arches’ timed-entry program for visitation being down 11% at his hotel in 2023. Jason Taylor of the Moab Adventure Center and Western River Expeditions added that in 2023, visitor numbers had decreased by about 10%.

Jason Murray, who owns Southwest Adventure Tours, argued that the timed-entry system hurts international travelers “exponentially” more because they tend to plan their travel well in advance.

And Lori McFarland, co-owner of High Point Hummer, said that the timed-entry system was a stain on Moab’s reputation and the point of national parks as a whole.

“Teddy Roosevelt would roll over in his grave for people to not have that awe-inspiring feeling of driving through the park,” she said.

Moab’s local government and the National Park Service argue that the system has improved the visitor experience.

At their Nov. 14 meeting, the Moab City Council declared its support for the Arches timed-entry system. Council members said they would send a letter in support of making the program permanent.

According to Brendan Bray, acting superintendent for the Southeast Utah Group of National Parks and Monuments, timed entry has reduced congestion and the park’s need to close its gates.

Bray reported that 83% of Arches visitors were able to get into the park during their selected time slot. Visitors who weren’t able to enter spent time in public lands surrounding Moab and got into the park the following day.

Only 4% of visitors weren’t aware of the timed-entry system, Bray said, and most of them had decided to visit Arches at the last minute.

Bray said that instituting timed entry between April and October “clearly prevented a repeat of the daily closures last October [2022].”

“It’s been a really successful couple of years,” he said.

Visitors have ranked the Arches timed-entry program 4.6 out of 5 stars, according to a Rec.gov site where guests can expand on their experience at the park.

“I highly recommend the timed entry! It made for a very easy entry and a good start to the trip,” wrote Jon L. in October.

“Besides the fact that the park is a stunning beauty, the system of booking a spot to visit the park is well organized. Thank you for a smooth experience,” Stan N. contributed.

“Timed entry was very helpful! I was able to get in during my timed window with 15 min[.] or less wait time on a long October weekend[.] Frankly I would have been scared to try and visit without this system....” wrote Kelly W.

Other strategies that Arches National Park has considered to address congestion and overcrowding long-term include a daily reservation system, shuttle systems, site-specific reservations and developing additional parking lots, roads and entrance stations.

The National Park Service encourages visitors to submit comments on the Arches timed-entry program at this link, which they will review in order to release a comment summary report this winter.

The park will be taking comments on the timed-entry program until Dec. 1.