Long lines to enter Arches National Park have made local, and sometimes national, headlines for years. Traffic inside and surrounding the park, crowding at popular areas, and frequent closures can conflict with the park’s mission of preserving the natural landscapes and ecosystems for the enjoyment of current and future generations. The congestion is only getting worse, it appears, and park managers are considering possible solutions, including a timed-entry reservation system.

Arches isn’t the only park with a congestion problem. Some of the nation’s most iconic parks, like Yosemite, Yellowstone, Glacier, and Rocky Mountain, have been struggling to balance increasing visitation with preservation of both natural resources and the visitor experience. On top of those concerns, the coronavirus pandemic not only prompted more people to visit outdoor destinations, but also made the crowding a public health risk. Some parks used vehicle reservation systems to mitigate the crowding, either for popular points within parks—like Going to the Sun Road in Glacier National Park and Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park—or for entire parks, like in Rocky Mountain and Yosemite during popular months.

On July 28, Senator Angus King (Indep., Maine), chairman of Congress’s national parks subcommittee, held a hearing to discuss different approaches to managing the traffic and crowding in the nation’s most popular parks. Senators heard from representatives from the National Park Service and adjacent organizations, and focused on two strategies: implementing more timed-entry reservation systems for vehicles at America’s most popular parks, and trying to channel more visitors to some of the nation’s lesser-known, less popular parks, monuments, and outdoor destinations. [See “City and county request reservation system for the national park,” May 6 edition. -ed.]

Increasing visitation

“From 2009 to 2019, visitation to Arches National Park grew over 66 percent, from 996,312 to 1,659,702,” wrote Kaitlyn Thomas in an email to the Moab Sun News. Thomas is the public affairs specialist for the Southeast Utah Group of parks, which includes Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Hovenweep and Natural Bridges national monuments. As a result of the spike in visitation, she said, public safety, visitors’ experiences, and natural resources are being negatively impacted.

Across all national parks, visitation from 2009 to 2019 rose from 285,579,941 to

327,516,619 annual visits. However, the crowds are not distributed evenly across all 423 park units in the system.

Mike Reynolds is the Regional Director of the Department of the Interior Lower Colorado Basin, Upper Colorado Basin, and Arkansas-Rio Grande-Texas-Gulf regions; in that role, he oversees 89 parks in 9 states. Prior to taking on that position, he served as the superintendent of Yosemite National Park. He presented at the July 28 congressional subcommittee hearing.

Reynolds pointed out that half of all recreation visits to national parks are to the 23 most visited parks in the country; significant congestion is a problem at the top 15 or so parks. That observation prompted the idea that spreading visitors out to lesser-known, less visited locations could help ease the crowding at the most recognizable, iconic spots.

Reservations at Arches

“Arches National Park is considering a timed-entry pilot in spring of 2022,” said Thomas, emphasizing that the park plans to collaborate with the community in deciding what approaches to use and how to implement them. Arches National Park Superintendent Patricia Trap echoed that point, saying in an Aug. 25 press release,

“Arches National Park is part of the Moab community, not separate from it. I am committed to working with the community collaboratively to find solutions that promote quality visitor experiences and address congestion in a thoughtful way.”

The Park Service will hold two hour-long, virtual public meetings to invite public input on solutions to congestion, the first on Sept. 8 at 6 p.m. and the second on Sept. 10 at 10 a.m. Park Service officials will share collected data and discuss ongoing studies, present possible strategies to address congestion, and listen to comments from the public. Online comments will be accepted from Sept. 6 through Oct. 5. For more information, to comment, or to join the meetings, visit https://parkplanning.nps.gov/ARCHvisitoruse.

“We want the local community and our stakeholders to have a seat at the table throughout the planning process - especially should we pilot a reservation system for the park,” said Trap.

This is not the first time a reservation system has been proposed, and in the past local businesses have balked at the plan, worried that such a system would discourage visitors (and shoppers) from coming.

A 2018 study commissioned by the National Park Service found that implementing a reservation system could reduce local revenues in the Moab area by $11 - $22 million in the first year, though it also predicted that once people were used to the system, visitation and spending would rebound to what it would have been without the reservation system.

Thomas said that “public feedback and support has changed over the last few years” regarding a reservation system. “Community leaders from Grand County, City of Moab, and Friends of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks recently sent letters supporting a pilot timed entry system to improve access into the park,” she said.

Reservations at other parks

Parks that are already using timed entry systems can offer a clue on how successful such a system might be in Arches.

“Many of these timed-entry programs have been successful across the National Park Service,” said Thomas. “The key is promoting public awareness. If, after meeting with community members, stakeholders, and the public, Arches does implement a timed entry pilot in 2022, we will share this information widely so visitors can plan ahead for their trips and come prepared.”

Rocky Mountain National Park did not respond to requests for comment on the success of its timed entry system. Comments on the online reservation page for the park are mixed. Some applaud the system, saying it's easy to use, allows for certainty in planning, and reduces crowding in the park. Others say it’s problematic, limiting, and unfair.

“The amount of planning you have to do, to do anything in RMNP now, takes the fun out of the trip and makes it stressful,” said one reviewer who gave the system one out of five stars. Many users reported that the online reservation system was overloaded when they tried to reserve a slot.

Positive reviews said the reservation system reduced crowds inside the parks and created a more pleasant experience.

Of almost 3000 reviews of the pass for the Bear Lake Road corridor along with full park access, almost 1800 gave five stars, and a little over 200 gave one star--however, some of the positive reviews reflected appreciation for the park itself, and still included complaints about the reservation system.

Kevin Schneider, superintendent of Acadia National Park in Maine, also attended the July 28 congressional subcommittee hearing and reported that the vehicle reservation system in place for a popular point within Acadia called Cadillac Mountain was working successfully. Schneider recalled a conversation he had with a visitor on the summit of the mountain on the first day of the pilot reservation system in May of this year.

“He said that he had been there a week prior to watch the sunrise, and he said it was a complete mess,” Schneider remembered. “He said, 'This is so much better with the reservation system.’”

Schneider said that before the pilot reservation system was implemented, there could be as many as 500 cars vying for 150 parking spaces in the parking area for Cadillac Mountain, which is said to be the first place on the North American continent to see the sunrise.

Other approaches

Schneider noted that Acadia employs other strategies for mitigating congestion along with the reservation system, like a park-and-ride bus system.

Zion National Park, in southwestern Utah, has long used a shuttle system that’s considered successful, though visitors have had to wait for hours to board the shuttle on busy days.

At the congressional subcommittee hearing, Utah Senator Mike Lee expressed his opposition to reservation systems for national parks, and he praised the East Zion Initiative as a model for creative solutions. The effort is a partnership between Zion National Park and various nonprofit, private, state and federal entities. The goal is to build a new visitor center and expanded amenities on the currently sparsely developed east side of the park. It’s hoped that more trails and activities at this less-used entrance will draw some congestion away from the jammed south entrance and still allow for unlimited entry to the park.

“The East Zion Initiative can serve as an excellent test case for what can be done to address these issues without capping visitors or degrading resources,” said Lee at the July 28 meeting.

Kevin Gartland is the executive director of the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce. Whitefish is one of the gateway towns to Glacier National Park. At the subcommittee hearing, Gartland described how important the park is to the local economy. In Montana, officials estimate that the park is responsible for nearly 10,000 jobs and $640 million in spending in gateway communities.

Gartland reported that business is booming in Whitefish this summer. Hotel occupancy and airport traffic are up, and local shops and services are so busy they’re having a hard time finding employees to keep up with demand.

“I think it’s safe to say 2021 will be the busiest tourist season ever in our region, and for Glacier National Park as well,” said Gartland. “Of course it's nothing new; visitation to Glacier has been setting all-time records for most of the ten years I’ve been here in town.”

Gartland said the business community cares deeply about preserving the park and is keenly aware that its success depends on it.

“Business owners here in Whitefish and in Northwestern Montana are like any others,” he said. “They’re here to make a profit, but they also have a strong sense of ownership and stewardship for the park, and they believe it should be protected and preserved, not exploited.”

But he said the recently implemented reservation system was the worst part of many visitors’ experience this summer. It was announced too late and inadequately advertised and explained, he said, leaving many travelers devastated that they couldn’t get a ticket to get into the park.

Gartland also highlighted residents who live near national parks; many people choose those locations, he pointed out, because they want more access to those parks.

“Locals are feeling like they’ve been left out,” he said of Whitefish residents’ reaction to the reservation system. “These folks live and work here, they have park passes, and they’re competing with three million other people to get a limited number of daily tickets to get into the park when they can. I think something needs to be done about that.”

In spite of the problems, Gartland acknowledged that the reservation system was achieving the objective of reducing crowding and improving visitor experiences.

“I would say the majority of folks that are able to get into the park are having a great experience,” Gartland said.

Other solutions in Arches

Other potential solutions are also on the table for Arches National Park. “The timed entry pilot is just one tool in a suite of options we are considering as we gather additional data to inform long-term strategies for congestion management at the park,” said Thomas. For example, Arches has considered both voluntary and mandatory shuttle bus operations.

“Our models predict that such systems would reduce entrance station congestion; however, during peak periods those models predict considerable wait times to board and arrive at popular destinations,” Thomas wrote.

“We've also considered improving additional entrance roads like Salt Valley and Willow Springs roads,” Thomas said, listing other options for relieving congestion in Arches. 

“Shifting some traffic from the entrance station to secondary entrance roads may reduce some of the entrance station congestion,” she said, but added, “Traffic volumes inside the park would remain the same and the secondary entrance roads would not address congestion at key destinations within the park.”

Asked about the other strategy deeply discussed at the congressional subcommittee hearing, of channeling visitors to lesser-known destinations, Thomas said the potential results of that approach are limited for Moab’s trademark park.

“Arches already works with state, local, and national partners to encourage visitation at other destinations near Moab, especially during peak visitation periods and on busy days when the park must limit the number of park entries,” said Thomas, but she added, “This strategy alone, however, is not enough to lessen congestion at Arches.”

In fact, in the Moab area, alternative destinations surrounding Arches are also experiencing pressure from crowds. Places like Canyonlands National Park, Dead Horse Point State Park, and popular trails and areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management have seen increasing use along with Arches.

Ongoing process

The park uses the “interagency visitor use management framework” to plan and implement projects. The framework outlines a process of understanding the need for a project, developing an approach, defining the desired outcome, identifying strategies, implementing those actions, and adjusting based on monitoring and evaluations.

Currently, Thomas said, Arches is in the phase of defining and describing the desired conditions in the park; there will be more opportunities for the public to comment before any changes are made. In the meantime, visitors to Arches can expect crowds. Thomas noted that park officials expect continued high visitation over Labor Day weekend and into the fall.

“Visitors should expect entrance delays and heavy congestion at popular park trails and viewpoints,” she warned. “Pack your patience and always remember to follow Leave No Trace principles during your visit to help protect the park for future generations!”