Dennis Romboy, Deseret News
SPRINGDALE, Washington County — Eight 40-something friends from Wisconsin arrived in Springdale last Thursday on their second annual couples trip not expecting to see the pinnacle of their long-planned adventure.
But Saturday morning, wearing rented waterproof pants and gripping wooden walking sticks, they splish-splashed into the Narrows in Zion National Park as the sun peeked over the Temple of Sinawava's red-rock walls.
"We were shocked at the news that we would be able to do it today," said Kurt Chapman, who organized the excursion six months in advance. "This may be the best day to do this hike, ever. There's no one here."
Others would join them later in the day, though, as Zion and its gateway community began to come out of their government-induced coma.
An agreement between Utah and the Department of the Interior late Thursday reopened eight national recreation sites in the state that were idle for 10 days because of the ongoing federal government shutdown.
"The timing couldn't have been better for us," said Todd Zorn before he set off in with his Wisconsin pals in the chilly Virgin River.
Utah was the first state to make a deal with the Department of the Interior to cover the costs for national park operations, contracting to pay $167,000 a day through Oct. 20.
Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef national Parks, Cedar Breaks and Natural Bridges national monuments, and Lake Powell were all getting into full swing after the untimely layoff.
Springdale, too, began to show signs of life Saturday with cars streaming down state Route 9 and bunching up at the entrance to the main attraction. Zion's parking lots were full by early afternoon, and the shuttle buses were standing-room only.
Business all over town went from dead to nearly normal for October, which traditionally draws older couples and fewer families.
On Saturday, people of all ages and nationalities sidestepped each other on some of the more popular hiking trails in the park. A National Park Service worker and a shuttle driver said the crowds were typical of a late autumn day, this one under blue skies and temperatures in the 70s.
At the Zion Adventure Co., more than a dozen people were pulling on dry suits and rubber shoes to walk the Narrows or seeking recommendations for one of Zion's many hiking trails.
"It's definitely picked up," said outfitter Rich McIver. "We’re happy to have a busy shop here again."
He described the feeling as "uplifting."
The prospect of the lid being lifted on any of Utah's national parks or recreation areas seemed implausible a week ago given the stalemate in Washington, D.C. It left officials in some tourist-starved southern Utah towns ready to take matters into their own hands.
Nine counties declared local emergencies due to "economic disruption" and wanted Gov. Gary Herbert to declare a state emergency. San Juan County was poised to remove barriers on boat ramps at Lake Powell and take over Natural Bridges and Hovenweep national monuments.
Meantime, Herbert sent a letter to President Barack Obama basically demanding he reopen the parks. The governor followed with calls to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, leading to the state putting up $1.67 million to run the eight recreation sites for up to 10 days.
The agreement drew praise from business owners and out-of-state tourists in and around Zion on Saturday.
"Gov. Herbert put some money on the line, which I appreciated and think was justified," said Lamar Gubler, manager of Canyon Market. "It would be all right with me if the state ran the parks all the time."
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