Arches National Park crowd-relief study will look at shuttles, new entrances, entry by reservation

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Overcrowding at Arches National Park has been a problem for years and the park service is launching a study of possible solutions — from shuttles to entry by reservation. In this Oct. 12, 2013, file photo, visitors faced a minimum 15-minute wait time to enter the park during a typically busy fall weekend.

Moab • Arches National Park is launching a new study to examine in detail the overcrowding problem that is dampening the experience for many visitors.

“Nobody wants to be excited to come to the park and then be faced with that line,” says Kate Cannon, Arches superintendent.

During an open house Tuesday, Cannon told The Salt Lake Tribune that the National Park Service is trying to “flesh out” concepts for traffic and transportation solutions.

The open house in Moab’s Grand Center outlined four transportation studies for 2019 and 2020, including a revived 2012 study for shuttle service previously scrapped by Cannon.

(Murice D. Miller | Special to the Tribune) Arches National Park Superintendent Kate Cannon, center, talks to Carol Mayer, right, and her daughter Kiley Miller during an open house Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019, in Moab's Grand Center.

“Through this [study project]," Cannon said, “we hope we can find better ways to bring people in.”

This time around, the park service is looking at the operational costs for a mandatory shuttle service. An exception would be made for cars entering the park with campground reservations.

The 2012 study assessed a voluntary shuttle service in the park, a problematic scenario if the park’s goal is to reduce traffic congestion, Erica Cole, transportation planner for the parks service’s regional office, told The Tribune.

“A voluntary shuttle system doesn’t really solve the congestion issues because you’re still having the same amount of cars that are coming in," Cole said, “and then you’re providing another option for people to come in [shuttles], so parking lots will still be full.”

The study will help to create estimates for the type and size of a shuttle fleet, how often a shuttle would stop in the park as well as the feasibility of electric buses similar to those in Zion National Park. None of those factors can be quantified until the study is complete. A possible outcome is that such a system, including long-term maintenance, would be too costly for Arches.

Whether dirt roads north of the park, such as Salt Valley and Willow Springs, can be paved to open a second entrance is another option being studied.

“We’re going to look to see how congestion will be impacted by adding these additional roads,” Cole said of the study.

Next spring, the park will begin collecting data on visitor origin and destinations. To understand how people travel in the park to different locations, Bluetooth receivers will be placed throughout the park to collect mobile data.

With its 3 million annual visitors, more than 1,000 vehicles will enter Arches National Park each day this month. Visitors will find limited or no parking available between 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and Cannon said they should plan to arrive earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon — a short-term fix to the problem as long-term solutions are sorted out.

The park service will continue to study and consider an advance-reservation entry system. Visitors would gain access through the park’s website, similar to making online campground reservations now.

Some area residents and businesses dislike this option, with concerns about accessibility and the potential economic hit.

Many visitors don’t plan their trips to Arches six months in advance, and some fear entry by reservation would deter too many from coming.

A study released this year by the park service estimated 13 counties in the larger region would see an initial reduction in economic spending if such a system were implemented for the first time in any of the country’s national parks.

Alan Margolies has seen Moab’s popularity grow for 20 years. A rock climber who lives in his Moab home for part of the year, Margolies told The Tribune he’s mostly against the concept of an advanced-reservation entry system but said he sees potential in technology’s ability to help expedite the current entry system.

“Everyone should have some kind of pass before they get to the gate,” he said. “You could have a kiosk in town where you pay [and show it at the park entrance] like a boarding pass.”

But, for now, visitors will have to wait in line at the entrance to pay and time their arrivals to find open parking spaces once inside the park.

“The project we have before us here is to help us find how best to provide a way people can come to parks without having some of the frustrations of those crowded conditions,” Cannon said. The park service doesn’t currently have a preferred option and a combination of concepts may be needed to combat congestion.

Visitors leaving Arches at certain times of the year can face yet another line — of backed-up traffic on U.S. 191 south to Moab. That was the case last weekend, when traffic was slowed to a crawl for 2.5 miles, adding an extra half-hour drive from the park.

“Last weekend was very busy," Cannon said, “and that’s not unusual for this time of year.”