DEALING WITH CROWDS and MINIMIZING YOUR IMPACT:
A typical crowd at the Angels Landing summit.National and state ad campaigns (including the "Find Your Parks" campaign and Utah's own "Visit the Mighty 5" campaign) work hard to promote tourism and park visitation by highlighting all of the wonderful scenery and activities that you can experience during your vacation. And due to their overwhelming success, there is a big confounding factor that you will have to deal with during your trip: crowds, crowds, CROWDS! While most people come to national parks hoping to find a quiet outdoor wilderness experience, during the busy tourist months (especially weekends and holidays), you will find yourself fighting with traffic jams, long waits in lines, and packed shuttle buses. The experience can feel like an overwhelming mob scene at Disney World--exactly what you were looking to avoid...
Zion National Park is one of the most popular national parks in the United States with visitation increasing dramatically each year. In 2015, Zion saw over 3.6 million visitors; in 2016, it saw over 4.3 million visitors. (Many other national parks from Acadia to Yosemite are also experiencing unsustainable increases in visitation resulting in gridlock-like experiences.) While the National Park Service is working on several crowd-alleviation proposals and ideas over the next few years, due to their limited resources, don't expect the situation to get much better soon. When you visit the crowded and popular Zion Canyon (the "main canyon"), you have to bring a big bottle of patience with you. And while you might not be able to avoid all of the crowds, it may be useful to know what to expect.
- Driving into the park. The entrance stations have a limited number of booths and it's a slow process for individuals to pay the entrance fee and ask questions. By mid-morning, the traffic starts to back up into the town of Springdale. The shuttle bus queue at the Visitor Center.
- Parking at the Visitor Center. While the Visitor Center has a fairly large parking lot, all spots are typically filled by mid-morning. NPS recommends that people park in designated lots in Springdale and then take the free town shuttle to the pedestrian entrance of Zion National Park. Many visitors also try to find makeshift roadside parking along Route 9 near Canyon Junction, but this can be chaotic.
- Waiting to ride the shuttle bus at the Visitor Center--this is one of the newest bottlenecks. Even if you get to the park early in the morning, you could still be waiting 30 minutes to over an hour in a Disney World-like queue just to get on the bus that takes you to all of the popular trailheads.
- Crowds on the shuttles. People are often packed on the shuttle buses like sardines with many people standing in the isles. Traffic jam in the Upper East Canyon.
- Waiting at the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel. If you have a vehicle, it's fun to drive up Route 9 to see the wondrous sandstone formations of the Upper East Canyon, including Checkerboard Mesa. Due to the Zion-Mt. Carmel Tunnel not being tall enough to handle today's large RV's, traffic is often filtered single-file in either direction as the large vehicles are directed through by traffic rangers. Wait time is usually under 20 minutes.
- Waiting in line at the Wilderness Desk. There is typically a long early-morning line at the Wilderness Desk consisting of hikers picking up their walk-in canyoneering and backpacking permits.
- Crowds along the most popular trails, especially Angels Landing and the Zion Narrows. Sometimes it's very difficult to get away from crowds when you are doing a hike that is featured in every "Top 10 Hikes You Need to Do Before You Die" list.
- Summer tourist season (mid-May through mid-September) is the most crazy. Of course many families can only go on vacation when school is out, but if your life situation allows, consider visiting Zion during the shoulder months (March-April, October-November) or even the winter months. While Zion is becoming popular year-round, there is some crowd relief in the offseason.
- Consider avoiding Zion National Park on holidays like Memorial Day, the 4th of July, Labor Day, or any of the free entrance days unless you are emotionally prepared to deal with crowds and lines.
- If you are looking to do a short hike in the main canyon, late afternoon and early evening are good times of day as most people have started to leave the park for dinner in Springdale. (But pay attention to the time and don't miss the last shuttle or get caught out after dark!)
- Instead of visiting the crowded main canyon on weekends, pay a visit to the Kolob Canyons section; there are several great viewpoints and trails in this isolated northwestern section of the park with only a small fraction of the people.
Because so many people visit Zion National Park every day, it is quite easy for human activity to have a devastating effect on Zion's fragile desert and riparian ecosystems. It is important to be aware of what good behavior is and to practice "leave no trace" ethics wherever you explore.
- Stay on the trail and obey any "do not hike here" signs or fences. When accessing rivers or streams, try to avoid trampling vegetation and do not pick any flowers.
- Pack out all trash; do not leave anything behind on the trail. Mud graffiti in the Zion Narrows.
- Do not carve or scratch your name into any rock formations. This has become a big problem at the Angels Landing viewpoint and in the Zion Narrows, and the National Park Service considers this to be a form of vandalism. If you see somebody doing this, please be brave enough to tell them to stop and consider reporting them to rangers.
- Do not paint mud handprints on the canyon walls. People doing mud "artwork" in the Zion Narrows is a real problem. Even though some might not think this is a big deal, it ruins the experience for others and somebody else will have to clean it up. If you see somebody doing this, please tell them to stop.
- Leave the animals alone and do not feed them. Friendly squirrels and chipmunks will come up to you begging for food, but it is illegal to feed them. And while spotting mule deer or bighorn sheep can be an exciting experience, do not approach them or get close to them. They don't need your help and they don't need you to pet them. A plague of cairns on Angels Landing.
- Do not build decorative cairns anywhere in the park, especially at popular viewpoints and in the Zion Narrows. While this may seem like harmless entertainment, it ruins the nature experience for others. If you really can't resist building a cairn, build it, take a photo, and then disassemble it.
- Pack out all solid human waste when backpacking or dayhiking in wilderness areas. Why do I need to pack out my poo?
- When exploring the backcountry, stick to solid rock surfaces as much as possible and avoid stepping on delicate cryptobiotic soil.
The National Park Service has seen an increase in littering and vandalism in the past few years and they are under-equipped to deal with cleaning up after everyone. It is up to all of us to act as responsible caretakers of our special public lands and keep things looking nice for the people who visit after us.