A long line of cars waited behind the park's main entrance over Memorial Day Weekend. The entrance was closed for two hours on Saturday, May 23, and at one point, traffic backed up to Potash Road. [Photo courtesy of the National Park Service]

It’s a gorgeous place to be stuck in a traffic jam.

U.S. Highway 191 was clogged with cars over Memorial Day Weekend. But despite heavy congestion near Arches National Park’s main entrance and throughout downtown Moab, there were no reports of serious incidents – traffic-related, or otherwise – during the three-day holiday.

“It’s pretty hard to get hurt in your car when you’re stuck in traffic,” National Park Service Southeast Utah Group Superintendent Kate Cannon deadpanned.

At one point on Saturday, May 23, there were so many cars on the highway that park service and Utah Highway Patrol (UHP) officials closed Arches’ main entrance for two hours.

“The UHP very prudently saw a significant safety hazard there,” Cannon said.

“It wasn’t that Arches closed down because it was too crowded,” she added. “It was because the intersection was too dangerous … it couldn’t handle that volume of traffic.”

After the initial closure, the park opened the main entrance every 30 minutes to admit a designated number of cars; the same entry process continued periodically during the heaviest visitation times over the weekend, Cannon said.

While park service employees struggled to accommodate the heavy traffic, local business owners and managers said they welcomed the influx of visitors from all over the world.

ACT Campground and Learning Center co-owner Cherie Major, whose RV park and camp site opened just ahead of Moab Jeep Safari earlier this spring, said that business was booming to the point that they were forced to turn hundreds of potential customers away.

“I wouldn’t even know how to count (how many),” Major said. “I’d say we turned at least 500 people away. It may have been even more.”

“I think that we probably could have filled this site five times over,” she added.

Moab Brewery manager Gary Ranch said that although his restaurant is always busy, it had a waiting list all weekend long, from its opening to closing hours.

Even so, he said, there were no complaints.

“The wait did reach up to an hour-plus, and they didn’t seem to mind,” Ranch said.

It may have helped that they could walk into the brewery’s bar and cool off with a beer or another drink, even if the crowd was standing-room only.

“We had a great weekend, and everything went well,” Ranch said.

For local law enforcement agencies, things went just as smoothly, considering just how many people were in town over the holiday.

“It was actually quieter than most weekends,” Grand County Sheriff’s Lt. Kim Neal said. “The only thing that seemed to cause consternation was the traffic.”

Oh, but that traffic…

While Memorial Day Weekend is traditionally the busiest time of the tourist season in Moab, visitation to Arches National Park reached record highs. By Cannon’s estimates, just under 8,000 people passed through Arches on Monday, May 25 – the most hectic day of the weekend.

“It was bumper to bumper in both directions,” Cannon said.

Traffic was also heavy at Canyonlands National Park’s Island in the Sky unit, where a two-mile line of cars stretched behind the main entrance station at one point.

“We were pretty quick in moving people through, but there was just that huge volume of traffic,” Cannon said.

Cannon herself was stuck behind a seemingly endless line of cars for half an hour on her way to Island in the Sky.

When she returned to Arches, she tallied 300 cars at the Devil’s Garden parking area, which has just under 190 parking spaces.

Parking lot attendants at Arches and Island in the Sky were on hand to direct traffic and keep things moving as orderly as possible under the circumstances.

“(They) helped quite a bit, but both places were just packed,” Cannon said.

It was no less busy downtown.

Moab City Police Chief Mike Navarre said his office also fielded numerous calls about traffic, but again, no major incidents were reported.

“There was a lot of gridlock on Main Street,” Navarre said. “It took about 30 minutes to get from one end of town to the other.”

In the backcountry, however, things were comparatively quiet, according to Grand County Search and Rescue commander Jim Webster.

Two minor bicycling incidents occurred at roughly the same time on Monday – one along the Slickrock Trail in the Sand Flats Recreation Area, and one near the Utah-Colorado state line in the Westwater area. In both cases, the injured cyclists found help and left the scenes before search and rescue teams arrived.

“They resolved it by themselves,” Webster said. “We didn’t even get to the people.”

Ironically, help is often never far away during peak visitor periods.

“If they have a stable injury or they’re lost, they may be found by fellow backcountry travelers,” Webster said. “We see that on these busy weekends.”

Coping with crowds

Major said that many of her customers made plans ahead of time to deal with the throngs of visitors.

“I didn’t see anybody who was angry or upset,” Major said. “People seemed to understand that it was just a busy weekend.”

Cannon said that visitors’ reactions to the crowds likely varied from one person to the next.

Anecodatally speaking, though, Cannon said that park service employees did hear from visitors who were frustrated with overcrowding at Arches and Canyonlands.

St. Louis resident David Scally Jr. took reports of park congestion in stride, though.

“The worst day in a national park is still better than the best day in the office,” he said in a posting on Arches’ Facebook page.

However, Arches was perhaps the last place that St. Petersburg, Florida, resident Donna Hatfield Puckett would have chosen as a Memorial Day destination.

“I would never dream of going there during a holiday,” she wrote. “It’s too beautiful to share with that many people and I imagine it (would) be a bit stressful creeping along … kind of defeats the purpose of being in a peaceful place.”

Maxine Franklin of Wasilla, Alaska, said in a Facebook post that the congestion was a sign that tourists are loving Arches “to death.”

Neal said he believes the problem is largely the result of current visitation trends.

“It seems like everybody wants to go to Arches at 10 in the morning, after they’ve had their breakfast,” he said.

The park service is well aware of the issue, and it plans to launch a public planning process in July to address overcrowding at Arches, in particular. Long before this weekend arrived, Cannon said her agency was exploring the possibility of implementing a reservation-based entry system to the park.

The agency hasn’t made any decisions on that controversial proposal, but it is on the verge of implementing one idea that local residents came up with, she said.

In order to spread visitation more evenly throughout each day, Arches will soon begin to charge visitors a lower rate if they visit the park during off-peak hours.

“We expect that (the off-peak rate) will be implemented in the next three months,” Cannon said.

Cannon said that she and other park officials are also working closely with the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) to address a number of issues at the intersection of Highway 191 and Arches’ main entrance.

County tourism officials have linked some of the problems with overcrowding to the state tourism office’s wildly successful “Mighty Five” national parks marketing campaign, which is expected to wind down next year.

Grand County Council vice chair Chris Baird, in turn, raised questions about the increased number of visitors, noting that the issue was just about the only bipartisan concern he heard on the campaign trail last year.

“I’m just wondering if there’s such a thing as too many tourists,” he said during the council’s May 19 meeting.

If visitation continues at current levels, he said, the number of tourists will “literally double” every eight to 10 years.

Moab Area Travel Council Executive Director Marian DeLay said that most business owners are able to handle the increase.

“It’s not really as much of a strain on the visitor as we think it is from our standpoint,” DeLay said.

Sam Wainer, who serves as the travel council advisory board’s chair, said the council does not spend any money to lure visitors to the Moab area during the summer months. What’s more, he said, the travel council promotes the entire area, and not just Arches.

“We can help defuse that issue,” Wainer said.

But Cannon said she believes that congestion-related issues at Arches are just part and parcel of the problems that Moab and Grand County face.

For the time being, at least, she’s on the mend from the strain.

“I’m fine,” she said. “It’s not Memorial Day anymore.”

As for Neal, he had a fantastic weekend – because he wasn’t here in town.

“I go to Colorado on the long holiday weekends,” he laughed.

Crowding and traffic mark holiday weekend, but no serious public safety incidents reported

It seems like everybody wants to go to Arches at 10 in the morning, after they’ve had their breakfast.