Overcrowded Arches closes hours after opening; Timed entry system won't be in place until mid-summer

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Arches (General Photo)

[Photo by Murice D. Miller / Moab Sun News]

Arches National Park reopened on May 29, with the parks opening the gates and letting in visitors at 6 a.m.

By 9:10, the gates were closed due to overcrowding.

That same day, the acting Superintendent of the Southeast Utah National Parks group Kayci Cook met online with the Grand County Council, Moab City Council, and Castle Valley Town Council to discuss the National Park Service’s phased reopening of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in a joint special meeting.

The meeting largely focused on strategies to minimize overcrowding in Arches National Park, including a temporary timed entry program to address the busiest hours.

To avoid the reactive pattern of abrupt openings and closings, Cook proposed a temporary timed entry program to mitigate overcrowding during the busiest hours. This would require visitors to get permits via Recreation.gov for specific time slots to enter into the park. Some permits would be available months in advance, while others would be set aside for more last minute travelers and only be available two days prior.

Once visitors entered during their allotted time slot they would be allowed to stay for as long as they like. Also, there would be times where time slot permits would not be required, such as the evening or at night, as they are not typically high volume times.

The temporary timed entry program would likely not be implemented until July, Cook said, as details are still being worked out. The program would not cost visitors additional fees, instead those fees would be part of the current 7-day pass cost.

Cook also stressed that this is intended as a temporary measure to address COVID-19 guidelines and safety practices, and not intended as a long term solution to deal with the overcrowding issues that have grown for the past few years.

Problems with overcrowding in the parks have been debated for years, with proposals for shuttles, timed entry systems and other possible solutions meeting with heavy opposition. Now, with physical distancing measures becoming an issue of public heath due to the pandemic, some of these ideas are being tentatively put forward again. 

Cook said that the NPS is predicting more domestic tourists this summer, perhaps enough to make up for the lack of international travelers.

At the end of the meeting, the gathered local government officials voted to send a joint letter supporting the visitor access strategy proposed by the National Park Service for Arches and Canyonlands national parks, although the support was not unanimous.

Similar visitor access strategies are either in place or in the works for other National Park Service units. Rocky Mountain National Park recently implemented a similar system, also through Recreation.gov. Yosemite is considering a ticketed entry system in order to control the overall number of people in the park. 

This is a developing story and may be updated as more information is released.