SALT LAKE CITY — Just 6 miles wide and occupying a spectacular section of a rocky spine called the Waterpocket Fold in south-central Utah, Capitol Reef National Park didn't have a paved road until 1962.
The fold is a warp in the crust of the earth that is 65 million years old, forming impassable reefs that gave the park its name and are part of a topography that is a bit off the beaten path.
"We have been a sleeper park, and we've enjoyed that just wonderful charm of not being bumper to bumper cars," said Cindy Micheli, the park's acting chief of interpretation.
But in 2015, nearly a million people visited Capitol Reef, filling the parking lots and ambling through orchards of more than 3,000 fruit trees planted as cash crops by Mormon settlers — orchards that are now the largest managed by the National Park Service and are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Visitation through March is up nearly 30 percent over last year, and Micheli is sure that the park will easily reach more than a million visitors in 2016.
"This is the new normal, and it is never going back again."
The Mighty Five
The National Park Service is celebrating its centennial this year, 100 years of preservation of pristine landscapes, landmarks, cultural resources and iconic national treasures that is a chunk of time being heralded throughout the country and around the world.
April 16 marked the beginning of National Park Week and for seven days, admission to any of the system's national parks is free so residents can celebrate the legacy of the National Park Service.
Once called America's "best kept secret," national parks are no longer that, often brimming with crowds and lines akin to amusement parks, shopping malls and concert venues. Sewer systems are overwhelmed and delicate ecosystems are being trampled as visitors make their own unofficial paths off crowded hiking trails.
"We are seeing huge increases," said Kathleen Gonder at Bryce Canyon National Park. "We are seeing June and August numbers at our visitor center now."
More than 3,000 people stop in at the park's visitor center, each day.
"It is a challenge because we want people to have a quality experience."
Zion National Park, which implemented a shuttle service in 2000 and banned cars in the park due to congestion, is now feeling the strain of crowds on its shuttles. The shuttles can seat 68 people, but Zion's spokeswoman Aly Baltrus said the park routinely sees 100 people crammed into them.
On Memorial Day weekend last year, the Utah Highway Patrol had Arches National Park "shut its doors," because traffic was backed up for more than a mile on U.S. 191, creating an extreme traffic hazard. Parking lots that could hold close to 200 cars were overflowing with 100 more. It was a far cry from 1929, when the park service logged 500 visitors at Arches.
Gonder said the onslaught of visitors at national parks isn't just a Utah thing, although the multimillion dollar campaign called the Mighty Five launched three years ago by the Utah Office of Tourism certainly has proved to be a marketing success story.
"Everybody has been looking at national parks, especially for spring break. We have had six weeks of spring break here," she said, adding that low gas prices and a desire to get outdoors and away from it all are fueling much of the interest at parks and national monuments around the West.
But how much interest is too much interest? At what point do the national resources ensconced within the park system buckle under the pressure of people, giving way and giving up what made them attractive in the first place?
Park officials in Utah are grappling with trying to balance being a welcoming public treasure extolled for the enjoyment of all, yet managing the park so the natural resources are protected, the experience remains great for people and public safety isn't at risk.
"We don't have a search and rescue team that is autonomous to the park, so we have to patch it together from other resources," Micheli said. "I love seeing this many people coming to enjoy their national parks. I would stress that they be careful and make sure they are safe. Everything stings, or bites or scratches, or you fall off a cliff. There are hazards that people are not used to in their everyday workaday lives."
At Zion, Baltrus said the park experienced a 39 percent increase in emergency medical service calls in 2015 over the year before, and search and rescue callouts were up 59 percent.
Park officials are doing what they can to implement the best people management strategies they can. Both Zion and Arches are in the midst of crafting long-term plans to address crowds and congestion.
In the interim, they stress that visitors should try to arrive at the park as early as they can, or delay their trip until later in the afternoon, when the crowds start to dissipate.
Arches has traffic cams at its entrance gate, its own radio station at 1610 AM, and park officials are working with the Utah Highway Patrol and Utah Department of Transportation to devise ways to counter backups on U.S. 191.
"This is a long-term issue that we have to get a handle on," said Daryl Friant, a Utah Department of Transportation engineer who works in the region covering Arches. The agency is in the midst of getting its own camera installed to show traffic patterns on the highway, and variable message signs have been installed to warn visitors of crowds.
Would-be visitors to Arches can also scan a QR code with their cellphone from pamphlets that have been distributed to hotels and other businesses to get a pictorial snapshot of conditions at the entrance gate. The park service wants to add another entrance gate, which will help draw traffic off the highway.
At Bryce, park officials have banned recreational vehicles from the amphitheater parking lot and instead instituted a shuttle service from Ruby's Inn. They encourage everyone to take advantage of the shuttle service, or visit less frequented areas of the park if the popular places are packed.
Cannon, echoed by other park officials, stressed that visitors should have a backup plan and work flexibility into their schedule.
State tourism officials have, in fact, started a campaign to promote "The Road to the Mighty," to highlight destinations along the way to "big five" national parks in Utah.
Hovenweep National Monument, which is 45 miles south from Blanding, experienced visitation that was up 49 percent in one year's time.
"Hovenweep is actually not on the road to anywhere," Cannon said. "That is pretty interesting."
Natural Bridges National Monument's visitation is up 21 percent over this time last year.
In some instances, the parks are paying overtime and extending programs that used to conclude with summer's end as the peak season grows longer and longer each year.
It is a trend that none of Utah park officials see will end.
"We pack them and smile at them and help them have a good time, which is hard to do in a crowded situation," Cannon said.
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