Why Are Spring Visits Down to National Parks and Utah State Parks?

After a year of shattered records, it looks like the crowds are thinning out on Utah’s public lands.

The ‘Mighty Five’ recorded 11.2 million leisure visits in 2021 as pandemic-induced cabin fever draws Americans to their public lands in unprecedented numbers – all but Bryce Canyon National Park recorded record visits that year.

Zion National Park alone recorded more than 5 million recreational visits, while Canyonlands National Park nearly doubled the number of visitors it welcomed during the pandemic lull of 2020.

Utah’s state parks weren’t spared the crowds either, with a record 2.2 million visits in June 2021, the most for a month.

But with few exceptions, visits are down across the board in the spring — typically the busiest time of year — for Utah’s state and national parks, according to the latest data.

“Last year was unprecedented, it was so high that we have just settled down, at least for the last two months, to pre-pandemic levels. Which is still high for visitation, but not as high as we’ve seen in 2020 and 2021,” said Kaitlyn Thomas, public affairs specialist for the National Park Service.

There are a few factors at play. Many Americans have been working remotely in 2020 and 2021, creating a flexible schedule with the ability to combine work and travel.

“People could jump in their car and telecommute from a national park, for example. And that may not be the case as we return to a more pre-pandemic way of life,” Thomas said.

High fuel prices and inflation are causing many people to postpone driving and vacation plans — it’s hard to budget for that cross-country trip when gas hovers around $5 a gallon. A recent Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll found that a majority of Utah voters are now considering cutting or postponing summer travel plans due to rising gas prices.

Over the past two years, Americans have also been inundated with media reports of crowded departure points, long lines and unruly tourists – nearly every national media outlet has run a story detailing the unprecedented rise the number of visits.

“I’m thinking about my own travel planning — if I’m bombarded with information that generalizes and ends up containing misinformation, then I’m going to be careful,” said Vicki Varela, chief executive of the Utah Office of Tourism. .

“If you look everywhere for over a year of news suggesting that all national parks and so on were overbooked, and now you see the numbers, they are not. Certainly there are constraints in some national parks, but they are all very different,” she said.

The “Mighty Five”

There are a few exceptions – in April and May of this year, Bryce Canyon saw a slight increase in visits compared to 2021. Meanwhile, Zion saw nearly 22,000 more visits in April and 17,000 from more in March than in those months in 2021.

But these are outliers, and from March to June, significantly fewer people passed through the gateways to Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks.

Part of that could be due to a shift in marketing, with Grand County and Moab — home to Arches and Canyonlands — easing the promotion of tourism.

“Community elected officials wanted to curb their marketing. And when you’re not marketing, it usually reduces visits. This is an important factor,” Varela said.

Varela’s office is also investigating the sudden interest in outdoor recreation and whether the rush to public lands was simply a substitute for international travel, sporting events and destinations like Disneyland that were off the table for much of 2020 and 2021.

  • In 2021, Arches National Park recorded 809,279 recreational visits during the spring months. This spring, the park recorded 634,836 visits. That suggests attendance is lower than what the park saw before the pandemic, with 743,659 in spring 2019.
  • Bryce Canyon is the only national park in Utah to see an increase in visitation this spring – 968,147 tourists came to the park, up from 962,617 in 2021. It’s also the only park that hasn’t seen the same record numbers during the pandemic, and in the spring of 2019 the park had over a million visits.
  • Canyonlands generally sees the fewest tourists among Utah’s national parks. This spring, 377,697 people visited the sprawling, sometimes remote park. In 2021, the park service recorded 449,258 visits.
  • Capitol Reef is still well above its pre-pandemic numbers, where in 2019 it saw 568,822 visits over the spring months. Still, spring attendance is down, according to park data — in 2021 it recorded 692,035, down from 626,537 in 2022.
  • Zion, the most popular of the “Mighty Five” and the tenth most-visited park nationally in 2021, continues to experience unprecedented attendance. But that’s down from spring 2021, when a record 2,185,330 visits were recorded. This spring, Zion recorded 2,047,080 visits.

Considering the past decade, attendance is still on the rise despite this year’s downward trend.

But inflation and rising prices are worrying many in the hospitality industry. “Some of our industry partners are actually very concerned about their numbers for this year and the long term,” Varela said.

“People are still traveling, but they’re traveling shorter distances, finding ways to cut corners,” she said. “Maybe they don’t go out to dinner, they don’t shop while they travel. Maybe they are staying in an RV rather than a hotel. These are impacts that our industry is watching very closely. And we are worried.

State parks are also seeing a decline

June data from the Utah State Parks Division is not yet available – but to match the record of 12 million visits in fiscal year 2021, more than 3.2 million people will need to visit the 46 Beehive State Parks in June, which would be incredibly high.

Sand Hollow, Dead Horse and Antelope Island state parks have been the most visited over the past three years, in that order. And according to state data, all three parks saw fewer crowds in March, April and May.

  • Sand Hollow recorded 382,458 visits in spring 2021 – in 2022, 318,979.
  • Dead Horse recorded 486,507 visits in spring 2021 – in 2022, 378,894.
  • Antelope Island recorded 323,729 visits in spring 2021 – in 2022 it saw 267,101.

“Even though this trend is down, that doesn’t mean there won’t be any waits at some of these state parks. We strongly encourage people visiting our parks to check to see if they’re full. capacity,” said Devan Chavez, spokesman for the state parks division. “We don’t see as much as we used to, but they’re still really busy some of these weekends.”

Like national parks, there are outliers – for example, Wasatch Mountain State Park had over 25,000 more visitors in April than in April 2021. And Goosenecks State Park has already had more visitors in fiscal 2022 than in 2021, despite the whole month of June not being counted.