Over Memorial Day weekend, Moab saw a surge of visitors to its national parks, surrounding areas, and the town itself. As tourism to the area continues to grow, various entities are making changes to accommodate the rising number of visitors, but agreeing on how to do so is easier said than done.
“We don’t have a problem of too many people,” Arches Superintendent Kate Cannon said. “We have a problem of too many people at one time.” Last year on Memorial Day weekend, 3,000 cars drove into Arches National Park, and though numbers for this month have yet to be compiled, Cannon believes the same amount or more visited this year. The park was so crowded that the entrance was closed for a few hours on both Saturday and Sunday, May 26 and 27, during peak visitation hours to alleviate crowding as cars backed up on State Route 191. Similar crowds lined up outside the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park as the entrance allowed in ten cars every ten minutes in order to moderate the influx.
In town, businesses were full of tourists as people lined up on Main Street to grab a bite to eat. “We saw our busiest two-hour time period since opening,” said Erin Bird, owner of the Moab Garage Company. Tourism is good for business but bad for traffic. To alleviate this concern, the city is proposing a parking garage to encourage visitors to leave their cars behind and walk when downtown.
In order to alleviate overcrowding in Arches, the NPS is proposing a reservation system that would limit the number of visitors allowed into the park at a given time. “We would get more visitors in and they would have a better experience where they didn‘t have to fight to drive in and fight to find a place to park,” Cannon said of the plan. However, Michael Liss, chair of the Moab Transit Authority Study Committee and Arches for the People Initiative, does not think this will be a viable solution.
“The advanced reservations requirement is just a bad idea, it’s a band-aid solution for a complex transportation challenge,” Liss said. He hopes to encourage the park system to adopt a shuttle transportation system in which visitors park beyond park limits and walk, bike, and ride shuttles inside the park. “Arches National Park is described by the National Park Service as a ‘Driving National Park,’” Liss explained. “That’s only because Arches was designed that way. Let’s make Arches National Park a ‘Walking National Park’ and a ‘Biking National Park.’”
Zion National Park recently received a $15 million UDOT grant to implement a system that Liss says is similar to his plan. Grand County received $10 million from UDOT for a parking garage in downtown Moab. Liss said the allocation to Washington County was a missed opportunity. “We need to be prepared with a complete plan so that we don’t again miss an opportunity to get this kind of funding,” Liss remarked on the allocations.
But Cannon said, “The neighboring parks decided against adding shuttles because it was far too costly for us to undertake.” She also believes that creating a shuttle solution would be a temporary solution. “We’d be right back to where we are now,” she said.
Under the strain of increased visitation, visitors and residents are being advised to take it easy on the area. “With millions of visitors, it is imperative for everyone to be good stewards of this beautiful and fragile desert, recreating responsibly, staying on designated roads and trails, and treating these areas with care and respect,” said Lisa Bryant, BLM-Moab spokesperson. The Moab BLM office estimated 2.8 million people visited public lands in this area during 2017. Spring and fall months, April, May, and October are especially popular and can have twice the number of visitors as other months. Visitation trends to southeastern Utah have steadily increased over the last ten years, and in the Moab area, the BLM estimates increases of about eight percent each year since 2012.