ZION NATIONAL PARK, Utah - In the 1990s, Zion National Park in Utah became one of America's top 10 most-visited parks. But with 2.4 million to 2.5 million visitors annually during the "90s, Zion has also become Zion National Parking Lot.
"We had 2,500 cars a day in competition for 250 parking spots," Denny Davies says, against the drone of construction equipment at the Zion Narrows trailhead. "We got at times where it was just a moving parking lot - very unsatisfying for everybody," Davies, Zion's chief of interpretation, reports.
But through Zion's quiet winter season, bulldozers and backhoes have been busy building "braking pads" on the road surface - hardened concrete areas for the buses to stop on - and covered bus stops for a new shuttle system.
Beginning May 23, Zion becomes the first Western park, and just the second in the national park system, to go carless.
Acadia National Park in Maine was the first. Traffic gridlock is only getting worse at the most popular national parks, and Yosemite and Grand Canyon are among those in the process of studying and implementing shuttle systems (see accompanying sidebar).
In Zion, your car will remain at the park entrance, where a fleet of 30 buses runs two continuous routes during the peak tourist period of April through October.
One route will pick up park visitors at motels in the gateway community of Springdale and drop them off at a new bridge across the Virgin River. Those travelers will do what most national park visitors have never done - they will walk into a national park and board shuttle buses, stopping outside a new riverside visitor's center. That is where the second bus loop begins and ends, taking visitors into the 6.5-mile dead-end inner canyon which is the heart of Zion.
"Service will be so frequent, I would feel comfortable getting off at a viewpoint and knowing another shuttle will come along in a few more minutes," shuttle manager Kirk Scott says. Scott works for private contractor Parks Transportation Inc., which has a $2.2 million annual contract to provide drivers and maintenance for the bus fleet.
In steep-walled Zion, windshield tourism has never worked very well. The six-mile road is narrow, without many pullouts or shoulder parking spaces. "When you're driving, it's hard to see anything," Scott says. And as Davies points out, when you try to park so you can see, you often can't. "The buses we selected are great for viewing the canyon," Davies says. The sides are nearly full-length glass, with additional window panels in the ceilings.
The buses will run on clean, odorless propane. The 10 motel shuttles and 20 Zion Canyon shuttles will carry up to 65 passengers, with service as frequently as every six minutes between the peak hours of 11 a.m. and 6 p.m., and every 15 minutes earlier and later in the day. Buses will start running at 6:30 a.m., with the last bus out of the canyon by 11 p.m.
Park rangers considered putting up an electronic gate to prevent private car access, but initially only extra patrols will be on the lookout for violators. Entrance fees of $20 per family will pay the bus bills.
No one's griping
Taking tourists out of their cars in a national park seems radical, but no one has put up much of a fight. "It really wasn't much of an issue at public hearings," Davies observes. The need to ditch private cars in Zion's confined spaces seems obvious to most everyone, including the hiking Cook family of Spokane, Wash. "It kind of ruins the park atmosphere to bring in all the cars," Charles Cook says at the busy Emerald Pools trailhead lot. "A lot more people will see it in a better way," his wife, Sheryl, agrees.
Zion will never be completely free of cars, however. Drivers with room reservations inside the canyon at Zion Lodge will initially be able to drive to the hotel parking lots - but no farther. And other roads in Zion will remain open. The Kolob Canyons section near Cedar City, Utah, is not connected to the main canyon and is never crowded. Cars remain welcome there, and cars will continue to be able to traverse the south end of the park on Utah State Highway 9, which intersects the southern boundary of the park. Private cars will also continue to be welcome in the park's quiet off-season, from November through March.
Zion, with its high, narrow canyons, is the opposite of horizon-busting Southwestern canyon parks, such as Canyonlands and the Grand Canyon. Its intimacy invites visitors to walk the trails and listen to the ripples of the Virgin River flow. Now, without idling motor coaches and honking horns, some of that intimacy will be back, even with 2.4 million humans.
Park City, Utah-based freelancer Larry Warren first reported on the proposed Zion Canyon shuttle system in the late 1980s; he remembers thinking at the time "this will never fly."
YOU CAN CONTACT...
- Denny Davies, Chief of Interpretation, Zion National Park, Springdale, UT 84767-1099 (435/772-3256).