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

More American families than ever hit the road in 2020 — students packed their laptops and notebooks in the car while parents worked remotely — to see the socially-distanced sights the United States has to offer. Many traveled to southern Utah, where 35 million acres of federal land offered space to breathe and recreate given COVID-19 restrictions nearly everywhere else. 

“This past year has reminded us how important national parks and public lands are to overall wellbeing,” National Parks Service Deputy Director Shawn Benge said. “Throughout the country, national parks provided close-to-home opportunities for people to spend much needed time outdoors for their physical and psychological health.”

Overcrowding can endanger a 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.

This overcrowding has sparked new initiatives for Arches National Park. Two Utah State University professors researched crowding patterns and trends at Arches to determine if visitors stayed socially distanced and wore face masks, and which trails in the park saw the heaviest traffic. The Leave No Trace Center identified Arches as a Leave No Trace Hot Spot — an area that has experienced potentially disastrous levels of human impact.

Record-shattering visitation numbers have also sparked new conversations about conservation and the essential nature of the outdoors for mental and physical health. Land managers hope that they can spread awareness and educate tourists and locals alike about how to practice mindfulness in America’s protected lands — especially in popular Arches National Park. 

“Our goal is to ensure visitors to Arches National Park can experience the park in the most natural state possible,” Arches Backcountry Coordinator Keri Nelson said. “By providing visitors with information on how they can protect the park, we hope it will transfer over to fewer impacts to the park as well as all other public lands they visit.”

USU professors map crowds and COVID

More than 1.8 million people visited southeastern Utah’s national parks in 2020, which include Arches and Canyonlands national parks and Hovenweep and Natural Bridges national monuments. 

Visitation numbers were lower in 2020 than in 2019 due to the coronavirus pandemic — the four national parks and monuments all closed in spring 2020 due to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which contributed to the decline in visitation. But three out of the four parks saw record-breaking numbers during October, November and December of 2020. 

Arches welcomed 1.66 million visitors in 2019 and 1.24 million in 2020 — a decline in over 420,000 visitors. Similarly, Canyonlands decreased from over 730,000 visitors in 2019 to under 500,000 in 2020. Hovenweep National Monument received over 35,000 tourists in 2019 compared to just under 20,000 in 2020, and Natural Bridges decreased from over 88,000 in 2019 to nearly 53,000 tourists in 2020. 

The parks’ visitation patterns show that after the near standstill of visitation in the spring, tourism spiked in the summer and fall as domestic tourists flocked to Utah’s wide open spaces. Fall of 2020 was a particularly busy time; Canyonlands’ 2020 visitation increased by 30% in October, 67% in November and 76% in December compared to 2019 numbers. 

Arches saw similar trends: The fall’s increase in visitors caused frequent temporary closures of the park usually beginning in the morning until early afternoon. In 2020, Arches had to institute 36 temporary delays in the months of September and October; in 2019, it closed its gates due to overcrowding on only eight days. 

Observing the sharp increase in visitation, Zach Miller and Wayne Freimund, USU professors at the Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism in the S.J. and Jessie E. Quinney College of Natural Resources, worried that the record-setting crowds would detrimentally impact the area’s natural resources as well as spread the coronavirus. 

“In Utah, we are lucky enough to have some of the highest concentrations of protected areas in the world — and people have definitely noticed,” said Miller. “In the last five years alone, over a billion people have visited our national parks in the United States…and this high amount of use takes a high amount of science-informed management.”

So Freimund, who teaches at USU’s Moab campus, kept an eye on the Arches Visitor Center and its swarming crowds using motion sensor cameras, which recorded the number of groups, the number of individuals in each group and how many were wearing masks. Infrared trail counters helped monitor foot traffic, and their recorded data was calibrated with the cameras’ to accurately assess the number of people in a given area. 

Their newly published findings concluded that when there was physical space available to avoid strangers, Arches visitors did socially distance. The study also found that most visitors were minimizing their group sizes and wearing masks. But Freimund and Miller’s observations also revealed, as they expected, that as the number of visitors to Arches increased, the number of encounters also increased. The authors wrote that, “[i]n other areas of the parks this ability to avoid encounters may not be as possible,” compared to at the visitor center. They recommended that park personnel continue to enforce Center for Disease Control guidelines. 

Next, Miller, Freimund and the rest of their research team want to help other national parks monitor crowds and trail use. Their technology can help park managers get a sense for how many people walk certain trails and how crowded a space feels, which can be difficult to measure. This information can ultimately help national park personnel predict crowds and manage tourism expectations in future years. 

“If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything about visitor use and parks and protected areas, it’s that access to places for outdoor recreation like our national parks provides an essential service for human health and wellbeing,” said Miller. “We are looking to see how these results might generalize to other parks and protected areas so managers can better understand how to create socially distanced, safe opportunities for visitors.” 

Leaving No Trace

On March 11, the National Parks Service’s Southeast Utah Group announced that Arches National Park had been chosen to be a Hot Spot by the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics in 2021, along with nine other national, state and local parks across the nation. Hot Spots are areas that have experienced effects from heavy human traffic and recreational use, such as erosion, wildlife disturbances, trash volume and other violations. 

“Hot Spot areas are damaged but can recover again with a motivated community and comprehensive infusion of Leave No Trace programs,” said Dana Watts, executive director of Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. 

A Leave No Trace team will work with NPS at Arches to reduce human impacts on protected areas in the outdoors in March and September.  Education and service work, Leave No Trace hopes, will encourage visitors, land managers, local communities and volunteers alike to recreate responsibly.

“By identifying and working with Hot Spots and their communities across the country, Leave No Trace can rapidly move toward recovering and protecting the places we all cherish at a time when the outdoors has proven more critical than ever,” said Leave No Trace team member Erin Collier, who will be leading the work at the Hot Spot in Arches in the coming months. 

The Hot Spot work has already begun this month with training for land managers, guides, outfitters and volunteers. The Leave No Trace team plans to host similar events for the public in September, which will be free and for all ages. 

Southeastern Utah’s four national parks and monuments look forward to an already busy spring and summer, and encourage visitors to follow local and national guidelines to protect against the coronavirus. Masks are required in all NPS buildings and on federal lands when keeping six feet of social distance is impossible, such as on narrow trails, small overlooks, parking lots and other common areas. Visitors should check specific park and monument guidelines before arriving.