Arches National Park had long lines. Now it has fewer visitors. Is new reservation system working?

New reservation system has gotten rave reviews but could be a ‘contributing factor’ for drop-off after record season

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) On Saturday, there was a minimum 15-minute wait time for vehicles waiting for entrance to Arches National Park, October 12, 2013.Thanks to a $1.7 million payment from Utah taxpayers, the national parks of southern Utah are being exempted from the federal government shutdown just in time for a traditionally busy fall weekend.

Starting in mid-April of last year, cut-and-paste became the go-too tool for Arches National Park’s social media manager. It seemed every other Twitter post, from the spring through September and even into November, issued the same warning: Parking lots are full. No one is being allowed in. Check back in three hours.

At the same time, the road into the park became its own narrow parking lot of sorts, as cars and RVs already in line waited for the gates to reopen. According to Arches spokesperson Kait Thomas, the park closed its gates more than 100 times over the course of the year because its lots were full.

“It was really an unreliable and chaotic system,” Thomas said, “that people could not depend on.”

This year, Arches implemented a new, timed-entry system to try to resolve its overcrowding problems, becoming one of the first national parks to do so. Compared to last year’s chaos, Thomas said, the new plan “is going exceptionally well.”

“It’s meeting the goal of distributing visitation throughout the day,” she said, “limiting crowding and congestion and making the park much easier to navigate.”

But is it also keeping people away?

Arches started requiring reservations in April and visitors will need them through Oct. 3. They must be made via Recreation.gov and cost $2 per vehicle, which Thomas said mostly just covers credit card fees. Reservations can be made anywhere between three months in advance and minutes before entry, depending on availability, and can be changed up until the time of entry. Reservation fees do not include the cost of entry into the park.

In addition, anyone entering before 6 a.m. or after 5 p.m. does not need a reservation.

If reviews are to be believed, the majority of visitors agree with Thomas that the new scheme is working. Of 4,731 reviews of the entry system left since April on Recreation.gov, 85% of them rated it four or five stars. The ones who rated it lower than that, fall mostly into one of three groups: those who still had to wait up to an hour in line before entering, those who thought the park still felt too overcrowded or those who didn’t know reservations were required.

Yet Thomas said as word is getting out about the system, its efficiency is improving. She estimated only 9-12% of visitors now don’t have a reservation when they arrive at the park. And while reservations cannot be made at the gate, they can be made same day online — even from a person’s phone from just outside the gate — if spots are available.

“We pretty much just say, ‘Hey, here’s the link, here’s a QR code,’” Thomas said of the messaging to people who show up without reservations. “‘Scan this right now, pick up a ticket, flip a U-turn and come right back.”

Typically, reservations are available, Thomas said. That’s in part because Arches managers increased the allotment of entry tickets after a few months under the new system when they realized they weren’t correctly accounting for no-shows.

But it also has to do with fewer people coming to the park.

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Visitors take pictures and hike around Delicate Arch in Arches National Park Saturday March 5, 2016.

Last year, Arches saw a record 1.8 million visits. Visits in July, one of the park’s busiest months, topped 200,000 In four of the past six years. That surge prompted park managers to implement the timed-entry system, something that it had long considered.

In comparison, this year the park saw 158,925 people pass through its gates in July, a decline of about 1,700 people per day from 2021′s record turnout. Nearly 238,000 fewer visitors have roamed the park’s trails and gawked at some of its 2,000 arches than at this time last year.

The discrepancy can’t be blamed entirely on the timed entry system, Thomas said. As the world rebounds from COVID-19, or at least finds work-arounds, people’s habits have shifted. She noted that kids are back in school, people are back to work and gas prices this summer were a lot higher than they have been over the past few years.

“It perhaps is a small contributing factor, maybe a few percent points here and there,” she said of the timed entry system. “But by and large, a lot of other parks in the Intermountain West are seeing significant decreases from 2021 to 2022.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Entrance to Arches National Park, in Moab, on Friday, Sept. 17, 2021.

Yosemite, which has implemented an entry reservation program since 2020, saw its lowest visitation since 1986. However, wildfires have played a role in keeping people away from that popular California park. Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, which has had timed entry since 2020, experienced its least crowded June since 2015.

The two other national parks that have adopted timed entry systems, on the other hand, continue to grow. Haleakala in Hawaii, had its highest June visitation in 22 years. Muir Woods National Monument, meanwhile, saw 82,408 visits in June. That’s about 6,000 more than last year and seems to indicate a return to pre-pandemic popularity, when visits often numbered more than 100,000 for that month.

Thomas said it’s something of a relief not to have back-to-back record breaking years. But she also made it clear the timed entry system wasn’t intended as a mechanism for keeping people away.

“It’s fine for us to be back at pre-pandemic levels because last year was somewhat unmanageable, right? With those over 100 days that we had to close the gates early and with the overcrowding and the chaos that led to,” she said. “So having having visitation decrease just a little bit from such a record-breaking year is all right. And we’re OK with that.

“But we certainly hope you’ll understand that we love having visitors, too, and we don’t want to limit visitation.”

If visitation continues to slump, will Arches get rid of the timed-entry system? Thomas said she doesn’t know.

After the pilot program ends Oct. 3, Thomas said Arches managers will weigh the visitation data, reviews and input from the community to decide whether to keep timed entry in place for at least another year. Will the Arches social media team continue to be able to post about bighorn sheep, desert varnish and other fascinating features of the park? Or will they have to go back to cut and paste?

How to purchase a timed entry ticket to Arches National Park

1. Log into Recreation.gov and search for “Arches National Park timed entry.” Then click “Book Now.”

2. Select your preferred date and time of arrival. Reservations can be made up to three months in advance for entry between 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. Those arriving outside of that block of time do not need reservations.

3. If the day and time you want is not available, be aware that the park will release a limited number of entry slots at 6 p.m. for visitation the following day.

4. Purchase a timed entry ticket for $2. Tickets are nonrefundable. Times and dates can be changed at Recreation.gov within an hour of your designated arrival at no charge.

5. Arrive at the park entrance no earlier than 15 minutes before your designated time. You have one hour after your designated time to enter the park before your ticket becomes void. The person who purchased the ticket must be within the vehicle and must present a photo ID.

6. Pay your park entrance fee or present your annual or lifetime pass. Once admitted, vehicles can leave and return to the park throughout the rest of the day.

Sources: NPS.gov/arch; Recreation.gov

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