Angela Richman, chief of interpretation at Arches and Canyonlands national parks, recently met a couple visiting Arches from Boston, Mass. They told her that they’d planned a trip to Costa Rica for the fall, but COVID-19 had canceled their plans. They told her they chose to travel to Utah for its wide-open spaces where they could easily socially distance. She saw one flaw with their plan.
“Well, you picked one of the busiest parks to come to!” Richman responded.
Arches National Park, which receives an average of 1.5 million visitors annually, has seen unprecedented visitation this fall as thousands of Americans have headed to public lands due to canceled vacation plans, online school and a desire to get outdoors in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
The increase in visitors has caused frequent temporary closures of the park usually beginning in the morning until early afternoon. Arches National Park has instituted temporary closures when necessary since 2015.
In 2020, Arches has had to institute 36 temporary delays in the months of September and October; last year, it closed its gates due to overcrowding on only eight days.
These delays typically occur when crowds hit the gate in the morning and last an average of two hours, Richman reported. The park then reopens to visitors in the afternoon, when those turned away earlier in the day can return.
“We have not heard of anyone who we turned away who could not get back in the park later that day,” she said.
Arches personnel follow a specific procedure to determine when the park should close due to overcrowding. The three busiest and largest parking lots in the park — Devil’s Garden, Delicate Arch and The Windows — must all be full. These lots have less than 1,000 parking spaces combined.
“Everyone goes to those locations because of the hikes they can access from there, so they tend to stay there for three to four hours,” said Richman.
Park rangers stationed at these three parking lots constantly monitor vehicles coming and going and notify law enforcement officers when it’s time to close the park temporarily.
“When those parking lots fill, people start parking along the roads and pull-outs and walk down the road to get to the trailheads,” said Richman. “That’s when we feel that we’re at a point where we need to do the temporary delays.”
Other parking lots, such as at Park Avenue and Balanced Rock, are sometimes less crowded due to their lack of trailheads when rangers decide to close the park, but most visitors head to the three most popular lots.
“We try to tell people that if they can’t get into Delicate Arch or Devil’s Garden right away, there are a number of other places to go,” Richman said.
Overcrowding can endanger the park’s rare landscape and wildlife when many visitors hike the same trails. Moreover, considering current public health concerns, physical-distancing guidelines are harder to follow with increased visitation.
Richman explained that normally, the park sees more international and retired visitors in the fall, since schools are in session and families aren’t traveling. This year, even though international and retired visitors are less likely to travel due to the pandemic, more domestic families have traveled to Utah’s parks. As a result, more cars rather than tour buses are entering the park, contributing to parking lot overcrowding.
Park staff said that when turned away from Arches, visitors often head to Canyonlands National Park. With traffic backed up from the only entrance station to the Island in the Sky district of the park, Canyonlands temporarily closed its gates for the first time in 2020 during Fall Break, a school holiday also known as Utah Education Association weekend. Canyonlands has experienced temporary closures in previous years, with visitors waiting in line for up to an hour, Richman said.
With overcrowding and increased visitation expected to continue through Thanksgiving, Arches has extended a number of their seasonal employees into November and December. These seasonal workers usually leave earlier in the season, but given the current rate of visitation, park officials aren’t sure that the crowds will let up.
“The congestion at Arches is not anything new,” Richman said. “It’s something that the National Park Service has been working on for a number of years, as well as the local community, [and will continue to to do so] until we come up with a really good long-term solution.”
Mitigation proposals have included a mandatory shuttle, a new entrance road into the park from the north and a timed-entry system.
A time- entry proposal, wherein visitors would have to reserve a two-hour time slot during which to enter the park, was floated on May 25 at a special joint meeting of the Grand County Council, the Moab City Council and the Castle Valley Town Council. Local businesses spoke against a similar proposal in 2017, concerned that the plan would negatively impact the local economy. The system was again discussed earlier this year, but Arches has not implemented it.
“We’re looking at many studies in progress right now,” Richman said.
One option is introducing an optional or mandatory shuttle, much like Zion National Park, that can bring many visitors into the park without as much vehicular overcrowding. Officials have also toyed with opening a second entrance into the park from the north to ease traffic and congestion on Highway 191 into Moab.
Social science researchers sponsored by the National Parks Service will also visit the park in February to conduct surveys among visitors to solicit their feedback about what the park can do to enhance tourists’ experiences.
“We’re gathering data and hoping that once we get more information, we can look at all the different options and compare them against what visitors are telling us and come up with a good long-term solution,” Richman said. “It may be that we do a couple of those options.”
Until the overcrowding lessens, Richman encourages visitors to explore the park during less heavily trafficked times, such as in the late afternoon, evening and night.
“The park is lovely in the evening hours, too. Delicate Arch is just as pretty at sunset as it is at sunrise, and the park doesn’t close at night,” she said. “We have amazing, beautiful, dark night skies, and we hope that everyone will remain flexible and understanding in these busy times.”