Fees soar in 2024 for Zion National Park; other changes loom

Reservations for the Narrows and the Subway will be handled by third-party site Recreation.gov, which has been accused by U.S. senators of adding “junk fees.”

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Hikers rest on the Angel's Landing trail in Zion National Park in 2009.

Zion National Park is going all-in with Recreation.gov.

Starting Friday, Utah’s busiest National Park will require visitors to use the website, controversially run by a third party, to make all online reservations. That includes staying in its Watchman, Lava Point and South campgrounds as well as obtaining canyoneering, backpack camping and other wilderness permits.

In addition, the park is raising its camping fees by $15 per night at most campgrounds within Zion in 2024. That represents an increase of more than 50% over the current fees of $20 to $30 at the South and Watchman campgrounds. The rate for a non-electric site at Lava Point will increase from $20 to $25. A $5 fee will be charged to noncampers using the dump station.

Zion has not raised camping or permit fees since 2015. Yearly visitation has increased by more than a million people since then — a 28% surge.

“We adopted these changes to improve accessibility and visitor service,” Jeff Bradybaugh, Zion’s superintendent, said in a news release. “These changes are going to help us maintain essential facilities like restrooms and drinking water systems, rehabilitate campsites, and simplify applications for Wilderness Recreation Permits.”

Zion turned to the site, also known as Rec.gov, when it began requiring permits to hike Angels Landing in 2022. For most other wilderness permits, however — including for hikes through the Subway and down the Narrows (no permit is required to hike up the Narrows) — it has long directed visitors to its own Zion Wilderness Reservations System.

Park operators see several advantages to migrating those permit lotteries to Rec.gov. Not only does it eliminate the confusion of having two reservation systems, they say, it also gives visitors more tools for planning their trips. For instance, Rec.gov allows permit applicants to rank their requests by date and area to better create itinerary-based trips. It also provides phone and chat assistance for permit applicants seven days a week.

Zion, and its visitors by extension, will benefit from tighter system security, privacy protection and more secure financial transactions, according to a press release. It also said Rec.gov’s servers are more reliable than the park’s.

The switch comes with a cost, however.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hikers ascending and descending Zion National Park's Angel's Landing from Scout Lookout cover the mountainside, Sept. 25, 2021. At the time this photo was taken, someone watching the chaos yelled,"Tell them to stop coming up, there's no more room." The following year, Zion National Park implemented a reservation system for the popular hike. It is run through Recreation.gov. This year, the park will hand all of its reservations over to Rec.gov.

Third-party contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, Inc. — which is also a government military contractor that specializes in intelligence — runs Rec.gov for the federal government. In recent years the company has come under fire for the fees it charges on the site, with some comparing them to the “junk fees” that recently got Ticketmaster in trouble.

Rec.gov charges users a service fee for its services. How much it keeps from lottery entry fees and campsite bookings is unclear, though. Booz Allen considers those figures proprietary and has fought against their release. In a copy of the contract obtained by the Tribune via a FOIA request, that information is redacted. However, a spokesperson for Arches National Park told the Tribune that most, if not all, of its $2 timed-entry reservation fee is paid out to Rec.gov.

The $6 lottery fee for a permit to hike Angels Landing is nonrefundable, though it is unknown how much of that is paid out to Booz Allen and how much the park retains. A program manager for Recreation One Stop, the interagency government team that oversees Rec.gov, told OutsideOnline.com that 85% of collected fees go back to the parks and other agencies.

Critics say people wanting to tour or camp or recreate on public lands — activities often accessible only via Rec.gov — have no choice but to pay those fees. And rather than reinvesting it in the parks, as is done with Zion’s current reservation system, the money lines Booz Allen Hamilton’s pockets.

That became the basis for a lawsuit filed by seven outdoor recreators against the company earlier this year. They dropped their case in October with little explanation, according to National Parks Traveler, but two United States Senators aren’t done with the matter yet.

Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and John Barrasso of Wyoming, both Republicans, sent a letter in May to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack seeking answers to questions they have about the government’s contract with Booz Allen. They then sent a follow-up letter in August in which they said responses from Randy Moore, the chief of the U.S. Forest Service, failed to answer six of their eight questions. In addition, they said, the USFS “did not dispute reporting regarding $140 million being invoiced to the government” by Booz Allen between October 2018 and November 2022.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune The Watchman Campground at Zion National Park, Wednesday September 24, 2014.

Among the unanswered questions were how much taxpayer money went to Booz Allen to operate Rec.gov and “how much money in transaction fees and related charges” the company has charged the public since 2017.

According to their second letter, Moore wrote that “Recreation.gov is not funded by taxpayer dollars.” He also noted, the Senators said, that some of the reservation fees do go back to the parks and other agencies. He did not specify what percentage, they said.

“The American people have a right to know the answer to each question we asked,” Grassley and Barrasso wrote, “because the answers involve their parks and their money.”

Zion’s switch in reservation systems coincides with a considerable increase in permit fees.

Reservations for overnight use, such as wilderness camping and bivouac camping on climbs, will cost $20 no matter when obtained. They previously were $5 in advance and free for walk-ups. The camping fee itself will be a flat $7 per person instead of $15 to $25 depending on the size of the group.

Wilderness permit fees have not changed since 2016, when the park saw roughly 3.6 million visits. In 2022, Zion counted nearly 4.7 million visits

Most of Zion’s wilderness permits can be purchased three months in advance of the use date. Permits for the popular Angels Landing and Narrows top-down hikes, however, are part of a seasonal lottery. Applications to experience those this spring — between March 1 to May 31 — must be submitted by Jan. 20. The application period for summer hikes (June 1 to Aug. 31) is April 1-20. Those wanting to hike those trails between Sept. 1 and Nov. 30 must submit their applications between July 1-20. For winter hiking (Dec. 1 to Feb. 28), applications must be in by Oct. 20.