From the Field: Zion National Park Scoping Trip

I spent the past week in the stunning landscape of Zion National Park.  Zion National Park is located in southern Utah, about 6 hours south of Salt Lake City and 3 hours from Las Vegas.  Zion receives about 2.7 million visitors per year and is part of the Grand Circle tour which encompasses 11 National Park units from five states in the desert southwest.  My advisor describes Zion as “a red Yosemite” due to the amazing, crimson walls of Zion Canyon.

Zion Canyon from Scout Lookout

Zion Canyon has been inhabited for over 12,000 years. However, it was visited on a scientific expedition, and brought to the attention of the rest of the United States, in 1860 by John Wesley Powell. In 1909, President Taft protected the canyon by designating it Mukuntuweap National Monument. The areas was established, and renamed, Zion National Park in 1919.  The park has especially diverse and unique geography and ecology as the Colorado Plateau, Mojave Desert, and Great Basin all converge in the area.

As far as park management is concerned, Zion is unique in it’s approach to transportation. Although other parks – such as Acadia, Yosemite, and Rocky Mountain – have shuttle bus service in their park, Zion prohibits personal vehicle transportation in Zion Canyon during the busiest time of the year (from March to October).  The Zion shuttle is also very well connected to the entrance community of Springdale, Utah.  Alternative transportation in parks and protected areas are often installed as a way to reduce traffic, prevent parking problems, and protect vegetation from illegal parking. However, shuttle bus service can result in many unintended consequences.  For example, parking lots at trailheads provide automatic caps for the number of people that can access a trail during a time period. Once the parking lot fills, no more people can enter the trail system from that particular trailhead. However, shuttle buses have no such cap; buses can continue to deliver visitors to the trailheads indefinitely. Busy trails can lead to increased resource impacts and diminished visitor experiences due to crowding.

Shuttle Bus Stop in Zion National Park

An understanding of the transportation system, and specifically how deliveries by shuttle bus systems translates to use on trails, is useful for sound management.  The alternative transportation system can become a management tool to control and manage visitor movements in a park or protected area.  The point of the scoping trip in Zion National Park this week was to familiarize ourselves with the park management needs related to their transportation system. Additionally, we wanted to learn the trail system and shuttle bus system stops in order to begin a study examining the unintended consequences of a mandatory shuttle bus service to Zion Canyon. The goal of the project is to provide managers with the means to use their alternative transportation system to effective manage for resource protection and the visitor experience.


Zion National Park

Grand Circle Tour


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