Arches National Park officials and tourism representatives are busy preparing for park-wide road improvements that will significantly impact the 2017 season. Construction is slated to begin mid-March and continue through November. During construction, the road through Arches National Park will be closed daily from 7 p.m. until 7 a.m., park officials said.
Although tourism industry representatives said they are facing “a few headaches” from the construction project already — mostly fielding concerns from visitors — many agree that these infrastructure improvements are long overdue.
“Everybody understands the need to bring the roads back to a good state of repair, but no one relishes the experience,” said Kate Cannon, superintendent for the Southeast Utah Group of the National Park Service, which includes Arches.
John Lewis, chief of maintenance at Arches and Canyonlands national parks, said the project, which will focus on “resurfacing, restoring, and rehabilitating” all paved roads and pullouts in the park, has been roughly 10 years in the making.
“I’ve been working on it since ,” Lewis said, adding that it takes a long time to receive federal money for projects like these. “... The roads are wholly insufficient now to carry the volume of traffic that we have.”
Park officials said the road system was last updated in 1962 and was, at that time, designed to handle approximately 75,000 visitors per year.
Arches National Park has actually exceeded those visitation numbers each year since 1961, setting records almost every year. In 2016, the park saw a record 1.58 million visitors, exceeding the current road’s official capacity by 21 times, and straining the aging infrastructure.
“The infrastructure in Arches is certainly outdated, and can’t handle the amount of visitation, which is evident when you drive through,” said Myke Hughes, owner of Adrift Adventures. “Parking lots are full; there are people parking off the side of the road, which creates impacts. The impacts to plants and soil are just huge ... So it’s certainly something that’s needed.”
The $16 million project, which will be paid for by the Federal Highways Administration program, includes removing undesignated pullouts and “formalizing” other pullout areas, as well as widening the road from a current 9 to 10 feet to 11 feet with a 1-foot shoulder.
Work will be completed in phases, Cannon said, beginning with construction on an inbound lane from U.S. 191 to the entrance booths, as well as construction of a roundabout at the entrance to the visitor center.
Most of the work will be completed at night, Cannon said, in order to minimize impacts to visitors who most often frequent the park during the day.
That means visitors must exit the park by 7 p.m. each night during construction, and cannot enter the park before 7 a.m. the next morning.
“The prospect of having major construction going on all season long in Arches was daunting to us. But the one way we thought we could relieve that on visitors is to do the work at night,” Cannon said. “By doing it at night, they can move through the park more freely rather than be greeted by pilot cars and heavy truck traffic.”
Cannon said park officials hope the project will be completed at the end of the 2017 season. Construction must be done during the warmer months in order to pour weather-sensitive asphalt, she said.
Park officials said to expect closures to areas like Fiery Furnace and the Windows section of the park throughout the season, and Devils Garden Campground — the only overnight facility available in the park — will be closed to all camping from March 1 to Nov. 30.
Lewis said park officials and project contractor LeGrand Johnson will meet next week to discuss the proposed work schedule.
As soon as that information is confirmed, Cannon said, the park service will release the details to the public using local partners, the park website, and social media.
“We will do our level best,” Cannon said. “We have enlisted all our local partners to get the word out.”
Canyonlands Natural History Association (CHNA) Executive Director Roxanne Bierman said the Park Service has already been making a concentrated effort to make the public aware.
“[The construction] will probably have some impact, but the park is doing everything they can to get the word out ahead of time,” Bierman said. “That may mean some people make other arrangements for their summer or just prepare themselves before they get here.”
Bierman said staff at the CNHA-run Moab Information Center is ready with “alternative suggestions” when and if visitors raise concerns about construction in the park.
“We’re making sure all of our associates at the MIC have the correct information to pass on, especially for ideas about other places where [visitors] might want to go,” Bierman said.
The Moab Area Travel Council is also part of that effort, currently spearheading a training program called “Moab and Beyond” to give tourism industry professionals other recreational ideas to pass on to visitors. A “Moab and Beyond” brochure lists ideas like taking scenic drives or visiting other regional public lands such as the La Sal Mountains or Navajo National Monument.
“The goal is to not have people come from far and wide and be upset when they get here,” said Moab Area Travel Council Executive Director Elaine Gizler. “So we have alternative suggestions.”
The Travel Council will also regularly update its website, discovermoab.com, with current information about the construction in Arches as well as information about alternative areas to visit.
“Our goal is to make sure that anyone coming into this area, whether locals or tourists, are informed and updated on what’s happening so they don’t have a terrible situation or get upset,” Gizler said. “ ... I think if people understand exactly when they can get in and when they need to be out and plan for that, then it won’t be a problem.”
Although there might be some pain associated with this year’s season at Arches, many tourism professionals said they understand the work needs to be done.
“We’re kind of bummed, but we understand. In the end, we totally get that it’s for the greater good,” said Moab Adventure Center Manager Jamie Pearce. “We’ll sacrifice a little this season and hopefully we’ll have better ones in the years to come.”
Updated information about Arches National Park construction, as well as a list of frequently asked questions, can be found online at: nps.gov/arch/planyourvisit/construction.htm. The park will also be regularly updating its Facebook page with information related to construction. Questions can also be fielded by the park visitor center at 435-259-2299.