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Zion National Park proposes increased fees for permits, camping

Park sees more than a million more visitors a year since last time prices were raised, which necessitates bump, managers say

Erin Alberty | The Salt Lake Tribune The permit to hike The Subway will cost more if Zion National Park follows through on a proposed plan to raise fees for camping and permits.

When Zion National Park last raised camping fees in 2015, one million fewer visitors were cramming into the canyon each year. That’s 2,740 fewer people per day, most of whom will need a campsite or a place to put their trash or even a few sheets of toilet paper. All of that costs the park money.

To help balance the budget, park managers have proposed a suite of fee increases for camping reservations, wilderness permits and related lotteries. Under the proposal, the cost of camping in both traditional campgrounds, like Watchman, and in wilderness areas, like a bivouac along a rock wall, would go up in most instances. Applying for and obtaining various permits, including to hike down from the top of the Narrows, would also generally be more expensive.

The park is seeking public feedback on the proposed changes, which can be submitted via its Park Planning and Environmental Compliance website. The deadline for comments is Aug. 31.

Fee dollars do great things for visitors at Zion,” superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh said in a statement. “These funds help us maintain essential facilities like restrooms and drinking water systems, rehabilitate campsites, and ensure rangers are available to patrol trails, canyoneering routes and other wilderness areas.”

The fee adjustments would hit large groups and those acquiring walk-up permits particularly hard.

A permit for a group of 12 to hike the Left Fork Trail through The Subway — a remote but popular slot canyon — for example, would cost $120 under the new fee schedule, or $10 per person. That’s a 380% increase over the current flat permit cost of $25. If the group waited until the night before the hike to secure that permit, it would pay an additional $6. Currently, walk-up permit applications are free.

Need to know

• Zion National Park is proposing fee increases for camping reservations, wilderness permits and lotteries.

• The changes would hit large groups and those acquiring walk-up permits hardest.

• The deadline for public comment on the proposed changes is Aug. 31

• The Angels Landing permit program will remain unchanged.

Camping permits and reservations will also be more expensive for groups and spontaneous visitors. Permits are required for wilderness sites, bivouac camping on climbs and at-large camping in designated areas. Again, if a group of 12 wanted to make a top-down trek of the Narrows and stay in one of the 12 wilderness campsites along the Virgin River, the cost to camp would be $84 ($7 per person), up from a flat rate of $25. The cost of securing that campsite permit the day of the trip or the night prior would jump from free to $20. Even securing the reservation in advance would be more costly, potentially increasing from $5 to $20.

While most wilderness fees would be more expensive, a solo traveler or a couple would actually enjoy a rate cut on a wilderness camping permit under the proposal. Zion is recommending a fee of $7 per person instead of the current charge of $15 for up to two people.

Those wanting to keep to more traditional campgrounds could also see increased rates. The price of camping in the Watchman and South campgrounds could rise by $15 a night (to $35-$45) and camping at Lava Point Campground would go up by $5 (to $25).

The last time wilderness fees were raised was 2016. In 2015, when camping fees last changed, Zion attracted 3.6 million visitors. Since then, Zion has seen an increase of more than a million visitors, with 4.7 million visits recorded in 2022.

Amidst all the potential fee changes, one of Zion’s most popular permit programs will not be affected.

The Angels Landing pilot permit program — which was established last year to spread out crowds along the narrow and sometimes deadly hike — will remain unchanged, according to the release.

The Angels Landing permit program is run through Recreation.gov, which handles reservations for most campsites and permits on federal lands. That includes a majority of national forest and Bureau of Land Management properties as well as Zion’s established campgrounds. For the rest of its lotteries and backcountry camping and day-use permits, though, Zion has traditionally used a separate, third-party entity. That, too, may be about to change.

Zion is considering turning those processes over to Recreation.gov as well, according to the proposal released Wednesday. Using Rec.gov would “streamline” the permit application process, according to the press release, and “simplify access to trip-planning information.” The booking experience would be similar to those used at other parks and the migration would help Zion comply with federal online data security regulations.

Yet Recreation.gov won’t necessarily be easier on users. The site, run for the federal government by third-party contractor Booz Hamilton, has come under fire in recent years. It was caught unprepared for the pandemic-spurred surge in outdoor interest, which has led to would-be travelers being unable to secure campsites and permits a year or more prior to their trips.

In addition, the website is at the center of a federal lawsuit filed in Virginia that claims operators charge “junk fees,” similar to the ones that got Ticketmaster in trouble, on its transactions. People wanting to recreate on many public lands have no choice but to pay those fees, and Booz Hamilton takes advantage of that to line its own pockets, the lawsuit alleges.

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