The inundation of Utah’s ‘Mighty Five’ national parks, in four charts

Are the national parks and monuments of the American West getting overrun by hordes of tourists? The short answer: Yes.

The long answer? Well, it’s also yes, with caveats.

Last year, Zion National Park in southwestern Utah swarmed with more than 4.4 million visitors. That’s a bit like stuffing all of the people living in the greater Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale metro area onto Zion’s trails and viewpoints. Sure, it’s spread out over an entire year, but you’re still talking about 12,000 people — the population of a small, Western city — per day, on average.

Arches National Park clocks in at a mere 1.5 million per year, all crammed into a much smaller area than in Zion. The one entrance gate, on the one road into the park, regularly has a long line of cars stretching out to the highway and down toward Moab.

Perhaps more stunning than the sheer numbers is the way visitation has steadily increased over the past five years — with no apparent end in sight. Bryce Canyon National Park’s visitation has doubled since 2010; Zion’s has shot up by more than 150 percent since 2012. These trends are mirrored at Utah’s three other “Mighty 5®” national parks, as is apparent in the graph at the top of this story.

What’s this Mighty 5® thing, you ask? It’s a big-dollar marketing campaign with global reach — I once saw a London cab emblazoned with a graphic of Delicate Arch — launched in 2013 by the State of Utah’s tourism office. (Yes, this is the same Utah that fought against monument designation for Bears Ears in southeastern Utah, then marketed that same monument after its designation, then celebrated the monument’s shrinkage, and just joined a lawsuit on the side of the shrinkers). It appears that the marketing campaign was successful. Right around the turn of the millennium, visitation at all five of the parks hit a bit of a plateau. Then, in 2013, the steep climb commenced. Utah branded its public lands, and the masses came.

Or maybe that’s not it at all. Take a look at the numbers for two national parks in Colorado, that aren’t included in Utah’s campaign. They, too, saw an influx of visitors beginning in 2013. And while Mesa Verde National Park’s visitor surge could be attributed to Mighty Five spillover, given its close proximity to Arches and Canyonlands, the same cannot be said regarding Rocky Mountain National Park, which is six hours away from the nearest Utah park, Arches.

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Visitation at both Rocky Mountain and Mesa Verde national parks surged after 2013. That said, Mesa Verde is nowhere near as popular as it was during the 1980s and 1990s. National Park Service statistics. Note: Graphs are not on the same scale. 

So what gives? When I first compiled these charts I assumed that the post-2013 surge had something to do with the strength of the U.S. dollar relative to other currencies. After all, these national parks, in particular, get a lot of visitors from overseas. But the dollar actually strengthened relative to the Euro and the Chinese Yuan after 2013, which should have discouraged travelers from coming to the U.S.

So I looked at another metric, U.S. gas prices, which certainly have an effect on tourism in national parks since there’s really no other way of getting to them except by car or bus. Here the correlation is a lot stronger: After jumping up to near record highs, gas prices — like oil prices — crashed beginning in late 2014, making it far more affordable to traverse the long distances between national parks. And it happened even as the National Park Service celebrated its centennial in 2016, which brought renewed attention to, and appreciation for, the park system.

There are those who believe that the simple act of designating public land as a national monument will automatically result in this same sort of visitation surge. Indeed, one of the most convincing arguments against the designation of Bears Ears National Monument is that it would lure the masses, who would then trample the place to death. Since the new monument has no visitors center or entrance gate, there’s no way to accurately track whether the prophecies have come true. But taking a look at stats for the national monuments that are close to or within the original Bears Ears monument boundaries can give us a sense of whether the hordes are converging on the general area.

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The first thing you’ll notice from looking at this graph is that the number of folks coming to these national monuments is a mere fraction of those that throng to their Mighty Five counterparts. Natural Bridges National Monument, which lies in the heart of the original boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument, barely gets 100,000 visitors per year. Hovenweep has only exceeded 40,000 visitors a few times during its near-century of existence. Rainbow Bridge was popular back when Lake Powell’s waters backed up underneath the formation, but visitation ebbed significantly as water levels fell.

Both Natural Bridges and Rainbow Bridge saw a discernible bump in visitation after 2013, just like the Mighty Fives and other parks, presumably due to the same combination of factors. The statistics do not reveal any similar jump in visitation that can be attributed to the Bears Ears designation in late 2016, or even the brouhaha surrounding the potential designation, which began in earnest in autumn of 2015.

That said, it’s almost certain that more folks are tromping around what has become known as the Bears Ears area — the Bureau of Land Management ranger station at Kane Gulch (which is inside the original boundaries, but outside the shrunken boundaries) has seen a steep uptick in visitors. Some are run-of-the-mill tourists who learned about the area from the media accounts of the debate over the monument. Others are the bloggers staking mining claims just to show how easy it is, journalists passing through to get a sense of why people are so fired up about it all, and others racing to be the first to write guidebooks and profit off of luring more crowds to the new national monument.

Still, the Bears Ears are no Delicate Arch, and the numbers so far show that Cedar Mesa is not going to have a line of traffic a la Arches — at least not anytime soon.

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Postscript: Judging from year-to-date visitation stats available from some of the parks and monuments, it looks like the trend toward more and more crowds continues — with a few surprising exceptions:

+Arches NP: Total visitation up 8.9 percent.

+Hovenweep NM: Total visitation up 5.7 percent; total overnight stays are down 7.5 percent

+Bryce Canyon NP: Total visitation up 5.9 percent; overnight stays down 10 percent.

+Capitol Reef NP: Total visitation up 7.0 percent.

+Rocky Mountain NP: Total visitation up 5 percent.

-Canyonlands NP: Total visitation down 1.3 percent; overnight stays down 3.5 percent.

-Zion NP: Total visitation down 3.9 percent.

-Mesa Verde NP: Total visitation down 7.3 percent; overnight stays up by 18.8 percent.

For more on industrial tourism in the Four Corners Country, read my essay, Instagram Pilgrim: Meditations on Industrial Tourism, the Bears Ears, and loving a place to death. 

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RLSCoverSmallJonathan P. Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News and the author of River of Lost Souls: The Science, Politics, and Greed Behind the Gold King Mine DisasterGet a copy of River of Lost Souls.

“(Thompson) combines science, law, metallurgy, water pollution, bar fights and the occasional murder into one of the best books written about the Southwest in years.”

— Andrew Gulliford, historian and writer, in The Gulch magazine. 

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