Saturday, August 29, 2015

Smithsonian Butte Road

Each time I visit Zion NP, I drive up Smithsonian Butte Road.  It's a short 4wd road south of Rockville, UT that heads up to the top of the mesa and continues south to highway 59.  I like driving this road because it's a nice break away from the crowds, the temperature is cooler on top the mesa, and the 4wd conditions are sometimes kinda rugged.

The hard part is the shelf road that goes up the mesa.  It's short: less than a half mile long.  Sometimes it's easy and smooth.  Sometimes it's very hard and I have to stop and choose my line over/around big embedded rocks.  I've never had to get out and scout the line or move any boulders.

On my last visit, I noticed that shiny new high-visibility warning signs had been posted at the top and bottom of the hill.  I wonder what precipitated those.  I didn't see any signs of anybody having fallen off the road.

If you have a 4wd car with high clearance (important in this case) then you might enjoy this road.  On top of the mesa, there are more 4wd trails off the main road.  They're also interesting, but more brushy and so you might get scratches.  It's BLM land so you can camp in the area - at least 0.5 mile from the main road.  There are plenty of "previously disturbed" camp sites along the side trails.  I've camped there in the past when the Zion NP South Campground was full.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Crowds at Zion

I've been visiting Zion National Park regularly (3 to 6 times a year) since 2003.  It's obvious from this blog that I like Zion.  Over the past decade, I've noticed something.  Zion is getting very crowded.

Years ago I could arrive before 2 pm on a Friday and still find an open camp site at the South Campground.  Currently, you need to arrive before 8 am on a Friday.  Sometimes, before 7 am.

Years ago they'd post a sign saying the parking lots were full on the major holiday weekends, instructing visitors to park in Springdale.  Currently, this happens every weekend during the summer.  And this is after they built a large new parking lot (which used to be spillover and now is mainly for RVs and campers).  

Years ago I would see visitors' parked cars along the main road when I got within a half mile of the park entrance on the busiest weekends.  Now I see those parked cars along the entire length of Springdale at the height of the season.  One local resident was telling me last week that she was recently trapped at her house by the visitors' parked cars and couldn't leave her home after work until the tourists left at the end of the day.  This happened for over a week.

Years ago I could hike Angels Landing at 7am and find maybe 5 to 10 people on the summit when I arrived.  When I hiked it last month, I arrived at the top to find over 50 (yes, I counted).

The Independent, a local independent newspaper in St. George, reports that "Zion National Park visitation levels possibly heading for crisis."  They reported that the YTD visitation through July was up 17 percent.  And last year they had record attendance.

I decided to check the park attendance data.  It wasn't too hard to find.  This NPS website provides monthly attendance figures for each park over the past many years.  Here's the table for Zion (grabbed on Aug 25, 2015).

Sure enough, Zion is seeing a big increase in attendance.  For example, July 2014 had 407,153 visitors and July 2015 had 479,538.  That's an increase of 72,385 YOY during 1 month.  Since July has 31 days, this means an average of 2335 more people went to Zion each day this July over last July.  

The number of visitors isn't always increasing.  The numbers show a decrease in attendance for many months from 2012 to 2013 and for some months from 2008 to 2009 as well as others.  Summer attendance from June through August was relatively steady (330k to 370k) for many years from 1991 to 2010.  After 2010 the park became increasingly popular.

The increase in the number of hotels in Springdale has surely contributed to the rise in attendance.  In the past decade they've built several new hotels: La Quinta Inn, Best Western, Hampton Inn, Holiday Inn Express, and Cable Mountain Lodge.  All those beds likely accommodate thousands of visitors.

It doesn't bother me too much, except for the challenges to get an open camp site.  Almost all of my hiking is on the east side of the park.  It's cooler there (due to the higher elevation) and has fewer people.  But I wonder if the crowds might spur some reaction by the NPS.  I hope they don't overreact and impose some draconian measures to throttle the flow of people.  It really is a beautiful place.  (But you wouldn't like it.  Go to Bryce instead.)