They say you have to start somewhere.
For many boaters floating the Colorado River in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, that jumping off point is a place: the Glen Canyon Reach. And for the managers of that 16-mile stretch through northern Arizona to Lees Ferry, it’s a date: June 1.
For the first time in the 50 years that Glen Canyon has been a national park, park managers are making an effort to empirically measure how many and what kind of users are traveling through one of its most popular waterways. Beginning Thursday, a free permit will be required to launch a watercraft into the Glen Canyon Reach. The information provided on the form will then serve as a baseline for park managers as they assess visitor needs and address potential overcrowding.
Previously, that information was mostly supplied by rangers, who passed it along through observations and anecdotes, according to Kendall Neisess, the outdoor recreation planner for Glen Canyon and Rainbow Bridge National Monument.
“We are needing data,” Neisess said. “We have seen the area get more popular. The types of activities that visitors are participating in, it seems to us like it’s slightly shifting, like things like kayaking and paddleboarding are becoming more popular than we are used to seeing. And we just don’t have any way to collect any actual data on that without this permitting system.”
Anyone putting in a pontoon, paddleboard or other watercraft at Glen Canyon Dam will be required to acquire a permit. Only one permit is needed per group and they can be obtained at any hour from a self-serve kiosk in the parking lot above the Lees Ferry launch ramp. Because the permit is being used primarily for informational purposes, an unlimited number of permits is available. Rangers will be checking for permits, Neisess said.
Permits do not serve as campsite reservations. Anyone hiking or fishing along the riverbank or taking a professionally guided float trip does not need a permit. However, one is required for any group floating down the river and taking a shuttle service back from Lees Ferry, which is often the starting point for Grand Canyon rafting trips.
Neisess said the permit seeks information on how many people are in a party, what day they plan to begin and end, how they are getting from one part of the stretch to another and what activities they plan to partake in along the way. She noted that visitors are not restricted to the activities they included on their permit.
“It doesn’t change anything about their use,” she said. “The only thing that’s changing is that we need them to take a few minutes to fill this out before they go get on the river.”
Within the Glen Canyon Reach, river floaters pass vertical, red canyon walls; panels of petroglyphs and, potentially, herds of bighorn sheep. The highlight of the trip, however, is usually a trip through Horseshoe Bend.
The trip can be made in a half day and has become increasingly popular in recent years — at least that’s the impression.
“This Glen Canyon stretch of the Colorado River is experiencing increased visitation and changes in visitor use,” superintendent Michelle Kerns said in a statement. “This free river permit system will provide visitor use information to inform decisions about future management of the area and improvements needed to address visitor needs.”
Data collected from concessionaires and from commercial guides has provided a glimpse of what’s happening on the Reach, but not the full picture. In addition, the National Parks Service has tracked the number of people who enter Glen Canyon through its fee station since 1964. In 2017, a record 4.575 million visitors descended on the park, almost twice as many as visited just three years earlier. Crowds dropped off during the pandemic but have slowly built back up. Last year, Glen Canyon saw nearly 3 million visits.
As Neisess pointed out, however, not all of those people will end up on the river. And historically park managers haven’t had any way to know who does and who doesn’t.
“We just want to start capturing it now,” she said. “I wish that we would have something in the past to compare it to, but ….”
Starting Thursday, they will.