ST. GEORGE, Utah — New numbers show the stunning red rocks at Zion National Park are on pace to set another record for visits, as park managers consider a first-of-its-kind plan to require reservations.
The crowds at Zion continue to stay ahead of last year’s record pace. The official July count shows 2.7 million visitors to the park. The park says there were 4.3 million visitors in 2016.
Attendance at Zion has risen steadily over the past decade, up about 60 percent since 2010, when there were 2.7 million visitors for the year.
Park officials are developing a visitor management plan to address overcrowding, with drafts suggesting a reservation system could be implemented.
Zion, still operating on a budget that hasn’t changed significantly since it was cut 5 percent during the Great Recession, is struggling to keep up with the crowds. National Park Service reports suggest the park is more than $70 million behind on maintenance work, The Spectrum reported (http://bit.ly/2vJE0yf ).
Park supporters have tried to address the crowding by developing a new campaign through the Zion Forever Project, the official nonprofit of Zion and neighboring Cedar Breaks and Pipe Springs national monuments.
Zion ranked as the fifth-most-visited national park in 2016, and its main attractions are mostly funneled into a main set of canyons via two entrances.
The park’s shuttle system often sees 95 to 100 people crowding onto buses that are designed to sit 68, park officials said.
Vehicle traffic at the park’s main entrance regularly backs up into the neighboring town of Springdale, search and rescue incidents are at an all-time high, and park managers are reporting increased trampling of vegetation and soil erosion
The new visitor-use management plan is exploring a reservation system as a potential solution, although such a year-round requirement would be a first for a national park.
One of the three alternatives proposed is to maintain the current management rules, although authors of the draft report note that “natural and cultural resources and visitor experience would continue to be degraded.”
The two other alternatives propose a registration system. Under one, park managers would set a visitor limit for each day and then require online registration before visiting any “frontcountry” areas in the park, a designation that would require further definition.
The second alternative proposes reservation systems for specific sites, especially heavily used trails and crowded areas, along with a permitting system for day-use hikers venturing into wilderness areas outside of the main sites..