ST. GEORGE, Utah — Zion National Park has already set a new visitation record with a month left to go in 2017, a milestone that highlights concerns about overcrowding at the iconic red-rock landscape.
Nearly 4.4 million people visited the park through the end of November, an increase of about 5 percent over last year, The Spectrum in St. George reported Thursday.
Attendance at Zion has risen steadily over the past decade and is up some 70 percent since 2010, when there were 2.7 million visitors for the year. Though some thought the park may have hit its visitation peak during the National Park Service centennial celebration last year, the new numbers indicate its popularity is still growing.
The new numbers come as park officials weigh a first-of-its kind reservation system and the National Park Service considers hiking fees to $70 per car during the peak summer season at several popular parks, including Zion.
The plan announced in October would more than double the entry fees at 17 national parks that now charge $25 or $30 per vehicle. Prices for national park passes and senior passes would be unchanged.
Officials say the higher fees are needed to address an $11 billion maintenance backlog that’s built up as park funding stayed flat. Zion officials say their shuttle system is overcrowded, the line of cars waiting to enter regularly backs up into neighboring Springdale, and visitors have cut more than 30 miles of their own trails.
Still, the proposal has drawn sharp criticism from tourism groups, conservation organizations and elected officials like Republican Congresswoman Mia Love, who worries it would make national parks inaccessible to average Utah families.
Utah’s five national parks and other national monuments are estimated to have attracted more than $1 billion in direct visitor spending, including nearly $500 million spent in southwestern Utah at Zion and Bryce Canyon, according to a Park Service analysis.
Other Utah parks, including Bryce Canyon and Capitol Reef are also setting records. Bryce Canyon’s 2.5 million through November also beat’s last year’s total, as does the 1.1 million reported at Capitol Reef. Visitation at both parks has more than doubled over the last 10 years.
Arches and Canyonlands are also on pace to set new records.