Drive into Arches National Park on a clear yet crisp weekday morning this time of year, and it’s still possible to find peace, quiet and solitude almost anywhere you go.
But it’s a different story during much of the tourist season between May and October, when lines of parked cars back up for more than a mile on both sides of the road heading toward Utah’s most iconic rock formation, Delicate Arch.
As one potential solution to the problem, National Park Service Southeast Utah Group Superintendent Kate Cannon said that Arches is in the very early stages of considering a proposal to adopt a reservation-based entry system. In recent weeks, Cannon has been floating the concept around town, and last week, she shared the potentially controversial idea with the Moab Area Travel Council.
“I understand that it’s kind of a jolt. It’s not something that we take on eagerly, and I know that it would be a change, so we’re approaching this cautiously and thoughtfully, and we’ll continue to,” she said.
“We’re not committed to having a reservation system,” she added. “Although, frankly, I don’t know what else we could do at this point.”
Although the park has increased its parking capacity by just under 20 percent in recent years, Cannon said that agency officials are still struggling to keep up with visitation to popular sites like the Delicate Arch trailhead.
“(Visitors) have to walk from there down the road — with the other impatient cars passing them — with their children and their lunch, to get to the trailhead, and then they start the hike they had intended,” Cannon said Nov. 12. “And this is after they’ve waited in line at the gate. This isn’t the product we want to give to people; it’s not what will sustain us into the future.”
Part of the blame – or credit – for the increase can go to the Utah Office of Tourism, whose successful “Mighty 5” marketing campaign is bringing more and more tourists to the state’s national parks and monuments.
In Arches’ case, tourism has increased steadily and steeply since 2001; visitation hit the 1 million mark for the first time in 2010, Cannon said, and it reached an estimated record of 1.25 million during the first 10 months of 2014.
“Unfortunately, growth really is exploding,” she told the travel council Nov. 12.
2014 numbers alone are up by just under 19 percent from the same time last year, according to Cannon.
“That wipes out anything I can do with parking,” she said. “That’s just astonishing. We cannot deal with this. What it does is put us way over our capacity — all for most of the time that visitors are here — and it gives them a crummy experience.”
If park service officials decide that they should take a closer look at the idea, Cannon vowed that the agency will go through a detailed and public planning process.
“This isn’t anything imminent. It may not happen, but if it does, it will be open and public,” she said,
dismissing rumors that her supervisors have already given her the go-ahead to move forward with the idea.
“That’s absolutely not true,” she said.
In fact, Cannon said, she had to receive her supervisors’ approval just to float it past the local business owners and community leaders.
Moving forward, Cannon said she still needs to chat with a long list of people from Moab’s tourism- and recreation-oriented business community.
That list will likely include travel council member Sarah Sidwell of Tag-A-Long Expeditions, who said she isn’t sure that a reservation-based system would necessarily be good for businesses like hers.
“It’s too soon to tell,” she said. “There’s too many unknowns at this point.”
As an outfitter, she said, her initial reaction was, ‘Oh, good lord, this is not going to be good.’
Sidwell agreed that a reservation-based system could be a problem-solver for the National Park Service, but it could potentially create new ones for Tag-A-Long, which books “a lot” of last-minute reservations, according to Sidwell.
She typically sticks to the park’s more remote stretches, including Fiery Furnace, so she said she was not aware of the extent of Arches’ congestion problem throughout the tourist season.
But David Nimkin, who heads the National Parks Conservation Association’s Southwest Regional Office, said he knows all about it.
“The experience that people have when they go to Arches National Park is really in trying to find a parking space,” Nimkin said.
It’s an experience that Nimkin has gone through himself: He said his most recent trip to Delicate Arch reminded him of an earlier visit to Yellowstone National Park’s Old Faithful geyser, which is now surrounded by low-rise, bleacher-style seating.
“It’s like going to a ball game,” Nimkin said.
The challenge, he said, is to promote Arches in a way that enhances visitors’ experiences there, instead of taking away from them.
“I do know that you reach a point of diminishing returns,” Nimkin said. “You can’t keep pushing people into this place and have it be resilient.”
Alternatives under consideration
While some people in the travel council audience voiced support for a shuttle bus system between Moab and the park’s main attractions, Cannon said the idea is “utterly unfeasible” from a financial point of view.
“I would love a shuttle system, but we can’t make it work,” she said.
Other national parks have done so, yet Cannon said their fleets are “astronomically expensive” to maintain.
“They’re all deeply in the red,” she said. “They can’t stand alone without a regular influx of funds.”
Park visitors Tom and Teri Mader of Cooper Landing, Alaska, like the idea, though.
“When you think of all the wasted taxpayer money, maybe that’s not the worst thing,” Tom Mader said Nov. 17. “I think that there are more pros than cons for that one.”
The Maders have been on the shuttle at Zion National Park, and they have fond memories of the experience.
However, they’re more skeptical about the idea of a reservation-based entry system.
“It just seems like a reservation system would be overly complicated,” Tom Mader said.
Teri Mader said she believes that system could inconvenience European or Asian visitors who make their reservations in advance, and then show up on a lousy day.
On the other hand, park visitor Holly Boob of Yakima, Washington, said she thinks the park service should look into the idea.
She noted that the Enchantment Permit Area in the Cascade Mountains near Leavenworth, Washington, has already adopted a lottery-based entry system. That system minimizes impacts to the environment, as well as negative impacts to visitors’ experiences, she said.
Diversifying the visitor experience
In the decades that Tom Mader has been coming to Arches, he’s noticed an uptick in the number of visitors who are seeking the same qualities that drew him there in the first place.
“We like the winters here,” he said. “It’s an attractive place to spend the winter.”
However, unlike some park visitors, he and his wife don’t just stick to Arches: They often hit the road for U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sites in the surrounding area.
That’s exactly the kind of travel itinerary that Cannon wants to promote: She suggested that a trip to Arches should be marketed as one component of many things to see and do during a multi-day visit to Moab.
As for those who have only one day in town, Cannon knows exactly where they should spend all of their time.
“Dead Horse Point (State Park),” she deadpanned.
While some people in the travel council audience chuckled at Cannon’s joke, it might not be such a bad idea, from Nimkin’s perspective.
“To explore the other parts of Grand County and the surrounding area has got to be a priority, and it’s a great opportunity for businesses,” Nimkin said.
Cannon also sees an opportunity to boost visitation during the slower (and colder) months of the year, although Sidwell said those efforts won’t have the desired effect.
“Even if you do bring in more people in the winter months, it’s not going to decrease the traffic in the summer months,” Sidwell said.
Sidwell noted that summer is the time of year when kids are out of school, families are on the road and Europeans are on vacation.
But Sidwell thinks there are other tangible steps that local businesses could take to influence the times of day that people visit Arches during the height of the tourist season, which usually peaks between 9:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. each day.
Hotels could put up informational easels about park visitation in their lobbies, or they could adjust their breakfast times to get their guests on the road to Arches earlier in the day, she said.
As for any other ideas that people may have, Cannon said she’s open to hearing them.
“If you can figure out what Plan C is, I’m all ears,” she said.
Superintendent says record visitor numbers and traffic congestion need to be addressed
“This isn’t anything imminent. It may not happen, but if it does, it will be open and public.”