12 million people visited Utah state parks in 2023. These were the most and least popular ones

Megan Nielsen, Deseret News
Megan Nielsen, Deseret News

2023 wasn't just another banner year for Utah's state parks, it was a record-breaking one.

Visitation to Utah's 46 state parks last year reached a little over 12 million people for the first time on record, according to a KSL.com analysis of Utah Division of State Parks visitation data. It's a 21% increase from the previous year's visitation total and a 4% increase from the previous record of 11.6 million set in 2021.

It's also the third time ever that all of Utah's state parks surpassed the state's "Mighty 5" national parks in total visitation. A little more than 10.6 million visited Utah's five national parks in 2023.

"It's not necessarily a surprise, but it's a good thing to hear that people are still out and about and enjoying the outdoors," said Devan Chavez, the division's spokesman.

What's driving visitation?

The data doesn't explain what's behind the increase or why some parks fared better than others, but Chavez has a few theories. It's possible that people wandered out to new areas during the COVID-19 pandemic and found new gems they've decided to come back to, including visitors from out of state.

Another possibility is that Utah's drought switch essentially flipped in 2023, reopening more ramps and other water recreation amenities last summer. Utah reservoirs, including several that are state parks, jumped from a maximum peak capacity of 58% in 2022 to 86% in 2023.

"Last year's good water numbers, water reservoir level numbers, were a big part of that," Chavez said. "People were looking to play in water a lot last year, and they had a lot to play on."

This tracks with the data. Utah's most-visited parks didn't change at all between 2022 and 2023; however, the order of the top 10 did as some parks experienced sharper visitation spikes than others. Some of the largest spikes happened at parks offering water recreation activities.

For instance, Sand Hollow State Park, with a reservoir in Washington County, and Dead Horse Point State Park, without a reservoir in Grand County, placed first and second respectively in visitation again last year. Yet Sand Hollow outpaced Dead Horse Point in year-over-year growth by a staggering 30% to 1% differential.

Four of the remaining top 10 most-visited parks in 2023 primarily feature water recreation. These all experienced increases, ranging from 6% at Bear Lake to 63% at Willard Bay. Utah Lake, Quail Creek, Gunlock, Palisade and East Canyon state parks, all of which offer water recreation as a key feature, were among the parks that landed just outside of the top 10.

It follows a trend that emerged in the National Park Service data. The federal agency reported that Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, including Lake Powell, topped all five of Utah's national parks in visitation last year.

But state parks that offer scenic alternatives to national parks and natural wonders just outside of urban clusters also drew in a heavy number of visitors last year, led by Dead Horse Point near Arches National Park. Snow Canyon, Antelope Island and Wasatch Mountains state parks — all near large populations — experienced strong visitation increases between 2022 and 2023, too.

A bison wanders around near a road at Antelope Island State Park on Aug. 12, 2023. The park was one of Utah's most-visited parks again in 2023.
A bison wanders around near a road at Antelope Island State Park on Aug. 12, 2023. The park was one of Utah's most-visited parks again in 2023. | Carter Williams, KSL.com

The overall growth isn't at all surprising, either. Denise Jordan, director of marketing, analytics and research for the Utah Office of Tourism and Film, explained the state has focused on what's called the Red Emerald Strategic Plan in recent years. It highlights more than just the "Mighty 5" national parks, spreading out visitation to different parts of the state to prevent overcrowding.

She points out that state park visitation began "rapidly accelerating" after it went into effect.

"I'm curious to watch that state park visitation number to see if that's a pattern that we continue to see in the future," she said.

The good news, Chavez says, is that there weren't any significant increases in land vandalism or littering last year despite record visitation, aside from some isolated incidents here and there. The agency also didn't experience many challenges handling the crowds this time around.

He believes that the experiences in 2020 and 2021, when the agency faced record crowding for the first time, helped park managers know how to deal with busy days. In addition, he says it appears people are beginning to understand what actions are acceptable on public lands either through state initiatives or from other visitors.

"They're seeing other people treating these areas with respect and ... I think that plays a huge role in it," he said. "They're going to mimic behavior that they see because that's what people do. Fortunately, they're mimicking good behavior."

Gems still to be discovered

But not every state park is generating the same levels of visitation as the top ones. Utah's least-visited state parks also didn't change much from 2022.

In general, Utah's state park museums and historical centers don't fare as well as parks with reservoirs or trails. State history-themed parks still have plenty to offer, but people may only go to one maybe once a year or once in their lifetime, Chavez explained. People are far more likely to visit natural spaces multiple times in a year, driving up the final tally.

That's not the only reason some parks don't get as much attention. Piute State Park features a reservoir that was virtually empty through most of the summer in 2022. It still ended up at the bottom despite better water conditions in 2023, potentially because of the aftereffects of the long-term drought.

There were some newcomers to the bottom 10 in 2023, but those all come with caveats. Red Fleet State Park entered the 2023 list because most of it remains closed for a construction project that began last year. It's expected to reopen later this year with new improvements.

Construction projects also hampered visitation at Lost Creek and Utahraptor state parks, Utah's newest state parks. Chavez says all three of these will likely rise up the visitation charts once enhancement projects are over.

He also believes state park visitation will only continue to rise in the future, especially as tourism initiatives promote "Mighty 5" alternatives and the park system grows. That, in turn, builds up the economy because outdoor recreation plays a large role in Utah's $12 billion tourism industry.

"We all want the same thing and that's to continue to have Utah be one of the top outdoor recreation areas in the world," he said. "(We want) to ensure all of Utah is looked at, not just (places) near metropolitan areas."