Between 9 a.m. and noon on Friday and Saturday, May 29 and 30, administrators at Arches National Park prevented vehicle entries into the park after its three main parking lots inside began to fill up. The public’s rush into the park followed two months of closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The temporary closure incited Moab resident Michael Liss to send an email to Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, accusing the National Park Service of “dishonesty” and “lying” about the matter. Liss emailed Bernhardt on Monday, June 1, saying that he felt “very disillusioned with the dishonesty of the National Park Service,” and linked his correspondence to videos he recorded Saturday of parking lots inside the park, showing smaller lots mostly empty and larger lots roughly half full.
Liss has previously criticized the Park Service over a now-abandoned plan to establish a reservation system at Arches, an effort meant to address crowding issues during Moab’s peak tourism seasons. In its place, he has pushed his own plan to build a shuttle system into the park, similar to the one at Zion National Park.
Liss sent copies of his information to a collection of news media contacts and Department of the Interior officials on the message he sent to Bernhardt, in which he claimed that there was “no overcrowding” at Arches over the weekend.
“There are no crowds at all,” Liss said. “This ‘overcrowding’ narrative is a lie, and that is why I spent my Saturday morning investigating the situation and taking videos.”
The Times-Independent asked Arches officials about the matter; the Park Service’s local acting superintendent, Kayci Collins Cook, soon responded, looping in local elected officials to explain the park’s protocol for deciding to prevent ingress at the park’s main entrance.
Cook said park officials had been monitoring three main parking lots inside the park — the ones at the trailheads of Devils Garden, Delicate Arch and the Windows — and closed the main entrance after officials noticed parking lots beginning to hit capacity.
“This monitoring is key in our phased approach to reopening access and ensuring we are able to follow safety guidance from the White House, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as state and local public health authorities,” Cook said.
Cook added that the park is working closely with the Park Service’s office of public health “to ensure public areas and workspaces are safe and clean for visitors, employees, partners and volunteers.”
Main lots appear busy, others empty
In the first video Liss recorded on May 30, he first attempted to drive into Arches from the main entrance. A park ranger explained to him that ingress was not being allowed due to the parking lots having filled up earlier in the morning.
From there, Liss entered the park from Willow Springs Drive, a 4×4 road that enters Arches from Highway 191. Liss ended up in front of Balanced Rock, where Willow Springs meets the main park road, roughly two hours after the main park entrance originally closed and one hour before it reopened.
Liss filmed areas as he drove through the various parking lots inside the park, showing some smaller parking lots such as at Courthouse View and Salt Valley Overlook to be empty and others to be partially filled. The three larger lots that Arches officials had been monitoring appeared to be between 40% and 60% capacity in the video.
The Delicate Arch trailhead has approximately 163 parking spots, including handicap spaces. The total number of cars in the lot at the time Liss shot the video, an hour before the main entrance was reopened, is unclear due to some spots being obstructed. The Times-Independent counted 84 cars in the video of the parking area, putting it just over 50% full.
In two instances, cars are shown double-parked in RV spots — one in front of another — in the Wolf Ranch parking lot, suggesting the parking lot had been completely full or nearly so earlier in the day. Liss said in the video as he approached the parking area that the time was 11:20 a.m., two hours after the main entrance ingress was blocked to only allow egress from the park.
The Devils Garden parking lot can accommodate roughly 203 vehicles, including in handicap spots. Some spaces are unmarked parallel parking spots for RVs and other vehicles with trailers. Liss’ video shows the lot to be at least 55% full at the time he started recording, which he said was at 11:46 a.m., 30 minutes before the main park entrance reopened.
Finally, the Windows and Double Arch parking, including parallel parking for RVs and handicap spots, can accommodate roughly 105 vehicles. The lot was just over 40% full in the video, which Liss said he shot at 11:06 a.m.