A highway passes through a rocky canyon
State Road 9 passes through Utah's Zion National Park. Charles Platiau/Reuters

Visitors are flocking to the vistas and valleys. That’s not always great news for the tiny cities near the entrance.

Imagine you’re about to take a road trip that you’ve been planning for months, to one of the most iconic places in the West: Utah’s Zion National Park, home to towering sandstone cliffs and lush, hanging gardens suspended between the canyon’s fortress walls.

As you drive toward the destination, you’re greeted by Zion’s looming formations in the distance. The cliffs keep getting bigger and bigger until you round a bend in the highway, and your view is absolute splendor. Zion Canyon stretches before you in all its glory, and sitting at the gateway is the cutest little town you’ve ever seen—Springdale, population 570.

There is only one major throughway, which is the road you’re on. Situated alongside it, the town features an array of eateries, guide shops and galleries, with whirling kinetic sculptures and fluttering lawn ornaments out front.

This is where you end up stuck in traffic, and the line of cars waiting to get into the park is barely moving. When you finally reach the entrance, the visitor center parking lot is full. So you turn around and find parking along the roadside in Springdale and take a town shuttle to the gate, where you pay your fee. Once inside the park, you wait in line for another shuttle for close to 45 minutes, along with hundreds of other visitors.

Who knew your vacation would feel a lot like rush hour traffic back home? “It’s not the experience you want,” said Zion’s Public Information Officer John Marciano. “People are frustrated, and we can’t have that. It’s the people’s park.”

Americans from every socio-economic background are now visiting their national parks in record numbers; international visitors are up, too. Zion alone has seen a 60 percent increase in visitation over the last seven years, while at the same time experiencing dwindling federal support. The result is that there isn’t enough parking or restrooms to accommodate the influx, or enough money or space to build additional facilities, putting enormous pressure on the tiny town that sits at the entrance.

The continuing spike in visitors has motivated the park to draft a use plan that may include a capacity limit, making it possible for only a specified number of people to enter the park per day. The plan is still in development, with talks of a reservation system to access Zion’s main canyon.

In order to come up with something that works for everyone, the town and the park are working together. “It’s so much more complicated than it used to be. The more successful, healthy communities and parks are those where you see a collaborative commitment,” said Mark Priess, director of the Zion Forever Project, a nonprofit that creates interpretive materials and programs for visitors and raises money for the park.

Springdale and Zion have already enjoyed a well-developed history of cooperation: The almost seamless town-to-park shuttle system is just one example of working together to solve problems. And there are a lot of stakeholders weighing in. “It’s a real public policy experiment, to try and find a balanced result for everyone: Springdale home owners, Springdale business owners, and the park,” said Marciano.

So what would a capacity limit in the park mean for the town, whose economy is now dependent on tourism? “People are concerned that a reservation system will mean a loss of spontaneity to visiting the park,” said Springdale’s town manager, Rick Wixom. But at the same time, a capacity limit could give the area some reprieve on busy holiday weekends. “Memorial Day weekend this year was extraordinarily bad,” Wixom added.

A typical summer holiday weekend in Springdale means more than just increased vehicle traffic. According to local residents, visitors become increasingly short tempered as a result of waiting in lines for everything, including restaurants, shops and bathrooms. The scene is generally chaotic, with overflowing garbage cans and cars blocking driveways and neighborhoods. Local businesses wind up becoming the preferred alternative for bathroom visits, where tourists have been found on more than one occasion washing the desert’s red dirt off their feet in the bathroom sink.

For locals, visiting the park on any given day is why they moved to the area in the first place. While business is booming, and the town’s off-season gets smaller every year, the overwhelming number of people crammed into Zion’s seven-mile canyon is a major drawback. “When friends come to visit, you don’t take them to iconic spots, because there are 5,000 people there. You feel like you’re in a shopping mall,” said Eva Pelton, a local business owner and artist.

In Springdale, affordable housing is harder to come by, as homes have disappeared to make way for more motels and retail shops, making it more difficult for workers to find places to live. This has made it a challenge for local businesses to find employees. “They either have to pay higher rent, or drive from further away,” said Pelton.

This fall, Springdale is widening its road to provide a bike lane and broader sidewalks to help alleviate congestion, eliminating some of the on-street parking that now exists and making the issue of where to put your car a complicated one. The town hopes to implement a transit system to connect the area to nearby towns and cities, bringing fewer cars into Springdale altogether. “If you drive through town and you have two lanes full of cars, it doesn’t look very good. And it’s a safety issue. Ambulances can’t get through, and it’s unsafe for pedestrians and cyclists,” said Wixom.

Despite the congestion that increased tourism has created, Springdale residents also understand that their town is an integral part of the overall visitor experience. “Zion feels like you’re being embraced by the earth,” said Pelton. “[As opposed to this] intimidating feeling you get looking at the vastness of Grand Canyon, in Zion, you feel like you’re part of it. It’s a beautiful feeling.”

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