There’s no doubt that Arches National Park is by far the most popular of the federally managed parks and national monuments in southeast Utah. This year alone, between January and October, visitation at Arches has reached almost 1.25 million people — an increase of almost 19 percent over the same time period the previous year, according to Kate Cannon, superintendent of the National Park Service’s Southeast Utah Group.
Park officials say the influx of visitors has also created mounting problems in terms of traffic congestion and parking, especially during the busiest months from May through September. At peak times — 10 a.m. until about 2 p.m. daily — parked vehicles typically line the more than mile-long stretch of road leading to the park’s most iconic feature, Delicate Arch. And visitors entering the park during those times are sometimes faced with a wait of up to 90 minutes just to pass through the fee booth, Cannon told The Times-Independent on Nov. 17.
“Once those visitors finally get through the gate, they proceed on into the park, and wherever they want to stop or get out and look, there’s nowhere to park,” Cannon said. “It doesn’t create the best possible visitor experience.”
Cannon’s office is currently exploring possible solutions to help deal with the congestion at Arches. One potential option under consideration is implementing a reservation-based entry system at the park. Cannon has been discussing the idea with area business owners and residents and presented information about it to the Moab Area Travel Council board on Wednesday, Nov. 12.
Cannon stressed that the idea is only in the very preliminary stage and she is asking the community to weigh in on the proposal and with other possible solutions.
“This is informal, advance checking, gathering information to make a decision about whether to move towards a full-scale reservation system or not,” Cannon said Nov. 17. “What we’re hoping for is that sometime in mid-winter or in spring we’ll decide whether to look at it more seriously or not. If we decide to look at it seriously, then it will have a full public process.”
Cannon said a contractor has been hired to conduct a data analysis based on visitation at Arches and the possible impacts a reservation-entry system might have at the park. That information will be used to help determine whether the idea will be pursued further, she said.
“One of the things we could look at is to try to get people to come during the less busy times,” Cannon said, adding that attracting visitors who have a more flexible vacation schedule to Arches when the crowds are gone could help shorten Moab’s November to February shoulder season, which could, in turn, benefit local businesses.
Moab Area Travel Council Director Marian DeLay said this week that the feedback she has been receiving from local businesses regarding the idea of a reservation system at the park is generally negative.
“The general feeling I’m getting from my staff, from the public is that they would like to see this go to a full public discussion and try some other approach rather than go to a reservation system at a national park,” DeLay said. “When it gets right down to brass tacks, I think we’re going to have to have some detailed public discussions.”
DeLay also said she believes it is unlikely that requiring visitors to Arches to reserve a time will encourage people to come to Moab in the off-season.
“No matter what we do, we are not going to change the millions and millions and millions of people whose children are out of school in the summer. That’s when those people take vacations,” DeLay said. “And international visitors — they vacation in the summer so that’s when they come here.”
“We haven’t had one complaint in this office this year about someone having a bad experience at Arches National Park,” DeLay added.
Denise Oblak, owner of Canyon Voyages rafting company, said she has discussed the reservation system proposal with Cannon, and has concerns about how well it would work.
“It caught me off guard at first,” Oblak said. “I do know we’re having a capacity issue at the park, and something has to be done. But I’m concerned about how visitors will react.”
One suggestion Oblak offered Cannon was for the park to create an incentive program that would give visitors who go to the park in off-peak times a discount on their park entry fee.
Oblak suggested that another possibility would be for the travel council, local businesses and outfitters to post information on their websites, or at their shops about peak park visitation times, and when visitors could miss the crowds.
“If we could get all these groups saying the same thing, I think it might have an impact,” she said. “But it’s got to be a coordinated campaign to make it work.”
Oblak said she hopes the park service and the community will come together to look for other solutions.
“I’m just having a hard time wrapping my brain around the idea of a reservation system for a national park,” she said. “There are other avenues I would prefer to see implemented first to see if they could have an impact on the problem.”
ByBy Lisa J. Church