Arches National Park may have found a magic bullet for overcrowding. Could it work at other parks?

Timed-entry pilot program has been a success, but can it help other crowded parks?

(Nicole Segnini/NPS) Hikers explore The Windows section of Arches National Park in April 2022. The park instituted a timed-entry pilot program that month and it has received praise for alleviating crowding on trails, at parking lots and at the entrance gate.

Arches National Park managers have been seeing stars lately, and not just the ones in the Milky Way. These stars are lighting up the darkness of Recreation.gov and shining through the cynicism of TripAdvisor.

“Absolutely wonderful,” reviewer Steven D. wrote on a Rec.gov site dedicated to the park’s pilot timed-entry program, giving it five stars. “We entered two times and never waited more than 10 minutes. Once in the park we always found parking at even the most popular sites. It’s unusual that one simple innovative idea can result in such a huge improvement. Thank you!!”

While giving the system three stars on the same review site, Allison I. commented, “I think it is a good idea and it worked well for us.”

The reviews are in, and critics are raving — or at least not overtly grumbling — about the national park’s timed-entry pilot program. Arches instituted it in April 2022 as an experiment in reining in overcrowding. In the year since, it has, according to studies by both the National Park Service and independently by Utah State University, effectively spread out traffic both at the entry station and within the park at parking lots and on the trails.

Still, questions remain around what impact, if any, the program had on a decline in park attendance last year and whether other parks would see analogous benefits under a similar program.

Under the timed entry program, prospective visitors to the park between April 1 and early October had to log into Rec.gov and, for $2 per vehicle, purchase an entry reservation for a one-hour time slot. The reservation could be made anywhere from three months ahead to minutes before a vehicle reached the entrance gate. It does not include the cost of entry into the park, and no reservation was required for anyone entering before 6 a.m. or after 5 p.m. (those times have been changed to 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. for 2023).

Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune There was a minimum 15-minute wait time for vehicles waiting for entrance to Arches National Park on Oct. 12, 2013. Lines of vehicles waiting to get into the park no longer stretch to highway 191 now that it is using a timed-entry pilot program that has gotten a positive response.

The problem Arches was attempting to solve for was a midday rush hour. Most of its visitors would show up around the same time and leave around the same time, which created gluts of traffic on trails and parking lots as well as at the entry station. When parking lots filled, park management would temporarily close Arches to incoming traffic for up to four hours at a time. Between April 1 and Oct. 31, 2021, it pulled that crowd-control lever 140 times.

Last year under timed entry, the entry station never closed. Plus, while people could expect to wait for hours in a line that snaked out onto the highway during busy periods prior to timed entry, the wait in 2022 was, according to the NPS study, an hour max.

A pretty simple concept is at the center of the success of the program, according to Iree Wheeler. Wheeler is a graduate student at USU and the lead researcher of the study conducted by the school under Wayne Freimund, a professor of environment and society.

“If you can get in and you can get to the hike you want to do and the parking lot that you need to access and there’s facilities that are available,” Wheeler said, “then people were really willing to go through this timed entry.

“If they realize that timed entry is making their experience better than it could be otherwise, then they’re very supportive.”

(Veronica Verdin/NPS) An RV is parked in a vehicle pullout along a steep road leading into Arches National Park with red rock spires and cliffs in the background on July 30, 2020. The line of vehicles waiting to enter the park used to stretch to highway 191. Then the park instituted a timed-entry pilot program in 2022 that has received praise for alleviating crowding on trails, at parking lots and at the entrance gate.

Wheeler isn’t just relying on the anecdotal evidence from online reviews posted about the park and its entry system. She went to trailheads and asked visitors herself.

Wheeler and her colleagues randomly surveyed nearly 1,000 people at Arches about their experience in the park. They talked to about half of those people during the summer months, when timed entry was in effect, and about half in the fall after the program had been suspended. They found that 78% of summer park-goers knew about the entry reservation program before they arrived and that 89% succeeded in reserving an entry slot. Of those, 98% got the day they preferred.

Yet even those who didn’t get their first choice in regard to day or time didn’t take it too hard, with 88% saying it didn’t impact their experience.

Erika Pollard of the National Park Conservation Association, which funded the USU study, said that is due to the park’s cachet.

“These visitors that come to see Arches — and a lot of them [are seeing it] for their first time — they’re going to see it no matter what,” she said. “They’re willing to alter their plans to make that happen.”

That flexibility, even if somewhat forced, has paid off inside the park as well, according to both studies. The NPS report said it found somewhat fewer “people per viewscape” at all of its most popular sites — Delicate Arch, The Windows and Devils Garden — in 2022 vs. 2019. Focused more on the visitor experience, the USU study found that people making a return trip to Arches found the trails, parking lots and the park as a whole to be generally less crowded than when they previously visited.

“Things like parking or availability of parking or people walking on the road or too many people in the park or crowding on the trails — most people did not consider those things a problem,” the NPCA’s Cassidy Jones said, “which feels like a great success for timed entry.

“The one thing people reported was still a problem was the wait time at the gate.”

So, no, the timed-entry system isn’t perfect.

By far the most complaints, and the majority of the one- and two-star reviews, centered around getting through the entrance gate. Some expressed consternation that after reserving an entrance time they still had to wait in line for up to an hour at the gate. Others fretted, understandably but ultimately unnecessarily, that they would be denied entry after missing their reservation window while stuck in such a line.

“It’s definitely bubbled up as this is something that the park really needs to focus on and do kind of everything in its power with creative solutions to address,” Jones said. “And they were very aware of it.”

Park managers made some tweaks they hope will help remedy those issues when they reinstated the program this year from April 1 through Oct. 31. Call it Timed Entry 2.0.

Visitors can now purchase their park entry pass ($30 per car for a seven-day pass or $55 for a one-year pass) at the same time they make their timed entry reservation on Rec.gov. Arches spokesperson Kaitlyn Thomas also noted that upgrades have been to the internet service near the entrance, which should allow visitors and park staff to call up reservations and run credit cards faster. Additionally, the park will no longer require people to show identification when presenting their timed entry reservation.

Park management is hoping those tweaks and increased awareness about the program will course correct another issue Arches faced in 2022: decreased visitation. Arches recorded 1.46 million visits last year. That’s the sixth-most in its history and a nearly 20% drop from the record 1.8 million visits it saw a year prior.

Thomas said not all of that decline can be pinned on timed entry. Gas prices were higher, inflation was up and fewer people were working remotely than the year prior. She also noted that several national parks — including all but Bryce Canyon in Utah’s Mighty 5 — recorded fewer visits last year than in 2021.

“We certainly don’t want to say, ‘Oh, no, no, no, no, no,’ because that sounds disingenuous, but we think that [timed entry] was a smaller factor than the rest of the conditions,” Thomas said. “And this year is looking to be a little bit better.”

Visitation in the first three months of 2023 — when no reservations were required — was down compared to the past two years. Yet Thomas said April’s numbers, after timed entry was reinstated, are ahead of what they were in 2022.

(Nicole Segnini/NPS) A hiker, joined by several other visitors, takes a picture of the Delicate Arch and the landscape before sunset at Arches National Park in April 2022. The park instituted a timed-entry pilot program that month and it has received praise for alleviating crowding on trails, at parking lots and at the entrance gate.

Arches will continue to tinker with and study the timed-entry system before deciding if it will adopt it permanently. It is among the options in a National Environmental Policy Act plan the park wants to have ready for public comment by this fall. Thomas said she expects to see the policies set forth by that plan begin to be implemented in early 2024.

Would timed entry work for other parks also struggling to balance popularity with preservation? A handful are already experimenting with it or a similar reservation system, including Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado and Glacier National Park in Montana. Thomas said enthusiasm for the program is building nationally.

Managers of Zion National Park, which ranks among the three most visited of the 63 national parks with 4.7 million visits last year, considered a reservation program when they began to lay out a visitor use management plan in 2016. Ultimately that system, which was presented as more of a one-in-one-out format, was dismissed as a nonviable option, the St. George News reported. As Zion crafts new visitor-use-management alternatives, however, a spokesperson said it is considering a reservation system with elements of the one used at Arches.

Thomas pointed out that one major difference between the two is that while Arches is smaller in overall size, it has more miles of road on which to spread people out. Most of Zion’s visitors cram into the 10 miles between the visitor center and The Narrows in Zion Canyon.

“Every park is different based on its size, the distance of its roads, the amount of visitation per year,” Thomas said. “And so I think that for Arches, timed entry is working really well. It might [also] work well at other parks with great distances involved, like Canyonlands or something like that.”

Similarly, timed entry doesn’t work for all visitors. Just ask Chris T. who on April 24 gave timed entry a three-star, and perhaps sarcastic, review on Rec.gov.

“It’s terrible. There are rattlesnakes and fire ants,” the reviewer wrote. “There is no air conditioning at the arches. They charge for everything in the gift shop! What did my fee pay for!! My advice is to stay home.”

How to purchase a timed entry reservation 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 7 a.m. and 4 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. every day for visitation the following day.

4. Purchase a timed entry ticket for $2. Tickets are nonrefundable. To change your arrival time or date, you will need to cancel your previous reservation and make a new one.

5. New:* You can add a park entry pass ($30 for seven days or $55 for a year) to your cart at the same time you are booking a timed-entry reservation. A link to the pass options can be found in the ‘Need to Know’ section of the timed-entry booking page.

6. 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. A grace period exists for those caught in line at the entry gate. No photo ID will be required.*

7. Present your confirmation email or QR code at the entry gate. If you have not already, 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.

*New for April 1 - Oct. 31, 2023

Correction: May 9, 9:28 p.m. >> Zion is considering a reservation system with elements of the one used at Arches. The timed-entry plan that was dismissed in 2017 more closely resembled a one-in, one-out system.

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