They walked four abreast down the paved walkway toward me, and had I not squeezed out of the way the crowd would have simply trampled me with the garish shoes they had rented in town. Further on, a young couple stopped in the same walkway to pet the fattest squirrel I’ve ever seen. And around the bend, a young woman, who appeared to be clad only in her underwear, posed for a selfie in the middle of the trail. That’s when the wedding party passed by. No, I was not in Disneyland’s new Bizzaro-world theme park, I was in Zion National Park.
A year ago, I wrote here about the burgeoning crowds flooding Utah’s “Mighty Five” national parks. The news was alarming: Park visitation had been increasing significantly, particularly in Zion and Arches, each year for the last decade or so. This year I had an opportunity to go see the crowds or, more accurately, to add myself to them (for as the saying goes, you’re not stuck in traffic, you are traffic) in Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Capitol Reef National Parks.
And what did I find? The statistics don’t lie. People from all over the globe are flocking to these uniquely spectacular landscapes, and for good reason. Many of those folks have what a friend of mine called LOSA, or lack of situational awareness, big-time. And the crowds are generally growing (along with the LOSA epidemic, apparently). While visitation to Zion, the busiest park in Utah, dropped in 2018 — perhaps because of drought or the “Trump effect” on international tourism — the most recent stats show a rebound for 2019.
The huge numbers of visitors have park officials grasping for solutions. Zion’s shuttle system is clearly overloaded, and all those folks tramping through the Virgin River in the Narrows cannot be good for the stream or its surroundings. But efforts to stem visitor numbers here and in other parks have been met by resistance from neighboring towns’ business communities.
As I threaded my way through the masses, I found myself wondering if maybe the crowds are a positive thing. I can’t say I enjoyed them. On the other hand, the parks are introducing millions of people to semi-wild places, and perhaps building up a constituency for those places. While in Zion I saw a guy with a MAGA hat on; had I been a more extroverted type I might have approached him and pointed out that his guy is intent on wrecking these types of landscapes. Besides, if you were to start turning people away from the major sites in Zion, Arches, and Bryce Canyon, then where would they go? Disneyland? Vegas? Probably not. Most likely they’d just spill out onto less-visited, less-protected public lands.
And when it comes down to it, the crowds may impinge on my experience of the parks, but they don’t diminish the beauty of these places. And so, I leave you with a few images from some of Utah’s most popular national parks…