Following pandemic surge, visitor numbers leveling off at Utah’s Mighty 5 parks

ST. GEORGE, Utah (ABC4) — After seeing a surge in tourism amid the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, visitation numbers for Utah’s Mighty Five national parks have leveled off in recent years.

In 2021, the Mighty Five national parks — Zion, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Arches — saw a combined 11.2 million visitors, according to data from the National Parks Service. Fast forward two years and that figure has dropped to 10.6 million, still strong but off the pandemic peak.

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Denise Jordan, director of research and marketing analytics at the Utah Office of Tourism, said this drop is an adjustment back toward pre-pandemic levels.

“We don’t see it as a cause of concern,” she said. “In fact, visitation has kind of been tapering off. We did see record numbers right after the pandemic in 2021, and in 2022 and 2023, the numbers were just sort of a leveling off to what we’ve seen in 2018 and 2019.”

Zion National Park entrance in Utah. (credit: Getty Images)
Zion National Park entrance in Utah. (credit: Getty Images)

The tapering off is perhaps most notable for Zion National Park, the most popular national park in Utah. While the world was under lockdown in 2021, that sanctuary of desert sandstone in southwestern Utah saw more than 5 million visitors go through its gates.

But during the last two years, visitation at Zion was around 4.6 million, which is actually still higher than pre-pandemic levels.

“Looking at the numbers we’ve seen over the last few years, for us, what we’re mostly concerned about is making sure we deliver high quality visitor experience,” said Jonathan Shafer, spokesperson for Zion. “Looking at numbers is important, but we want to accomplish our overall mission, we want to conserve the park unimpaired and make sure we can accommodate people who visit.”

The only Utah national park to see continued growth in visitation since the pandemic surge was Bryce Canyon. Last year, the relatively small, hoodoo-filled park in Garfield County saw 2.4 million visitors.

As Utah’s national parks have seen visitation return to pre-pandemic levels, more people have been visiting Utah’s state parks and urban areas, Jordan said.

“We did see some rebound to urban communities more recently, and that might have something to do with some of the leveling off,” she said.

The Rainbow Bridge in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. (credit: Getty Images)
The Rainbow Bridge in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. (credit: Getty Images)

One recreational area that saw huge growth last year was Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which saw a record 5.2 million visitors. That’s up from 2.8 million visitors the year before.

The record visitation happened after Utah’s tremendous snowmelt led to the reopening of several boat ramps along the Colorado River and Lake Powell.

Michelle Kerns, the superintendent of Glen Canyon, noted that the biggest increase to visitation in the park happened in the Lees Ferry District, which is a natural corridor between Utah and Arizona.

“While Lake Powell continues to provide significant recreational opportunities, more people are also recognizing the unparalleled land-based and river-based recreation options and cultural and historic resources within our 1.25 million acres,” Kerns said.

According to the Parks Service, visitors to Utah’s national parks spent $1.7 billion in 2022, a slight increase over 2021. The lion’s share of that visitor spending was done in Zion, which saw an influx of $672 million. Glenn Canyon saw $301 million.

Other national parks in the American West, such as Joshua Tree and Yosemite, have seen continued growth since the outbreak of COVID-19. However, they didn’t experience a Zion-level influx of visitors.

Across the U.S., more than 325 million people visited the country’s 400 national parks last year, marking a 4% increase over 2022. The most popular park was Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which saw more than 13 million visitors. The next most popular parks were the Grand Canyon and Zion.

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