Last week we did what we used to do every fall, and spent a week in the Colorado Plateau. In this we’re fortunate; the number of things we did differently, because of Coronavirus, amounted to almost nothing beyond wearing masks into gas stations and always getting restaurant food to go. Camping, biking, climbing, backpacking on the Colorado Plateau: in many respects they’ve changed a lot in the decade since we lived either in or near it and were out there on a weekly basis. But in many ways they have not, and while the pandemic has likely contributed to the changes, perhaps significantly, those impacts were easy to not see while camped in the sand looking up at the milky way, and after the last 9 months, that constancy and nostalgia was restorative.
Things were undeniably busy, and while generalizing from one experience is always problematic, it is a useful leading indicator. Parking lots at Bryce were entirely full, even the more obscure ones. Thunder Mountain was as dusty and blown out as any trail I’ve seen. Every pullout on the spur road to the White trailhead on Gooseberry was taken. We started the walk down to Fence Canyon in the Escalante at 430 in the afternoon, and passed at least 30 people, 3/4 of them dayhikers, on their way back up from Neon. On the other hand, we saw almost no one on every one of our adventures, save the on the trail to fence and while in the national parks. Places like God’s Skateboard Park and the Golden Cathedral look much as they did a decade ago, in spite of more footprints in the sand.
Zion, and specifically its shuttles, did look quite different. Since reopening this summer the park has been significantly limiting traffic on the shuttle buses, which have for decades been mandatory for going into the heart of the canyon, and on who restrictions are mandatory, given that at busy times they’re routinely standing room only and packed beyond capacity. I logged on mid-Zoom meeting to snag reservations for two days in October, and out of distraction stuffed up the numbers of seats reserved. After 3 minutes, when I went back to get more for one date, they were already booked solid.
The perhaps intended result of this restriction on traffic, and on those without the willingness or ability to plan ahead, was a stream of folks walking and riding bikes up the road into the park. LB and I rode in on the day we were short seats, and that 40 minute pedal up a cool and mostly empty road was far preferable to the next day, where we spent almost the same time waiting in line to get on the bus, me using first proximity and then silent farts to keep the loud folks from Tennessee a full six feet behind us. Zion has long been the standard bearer in the park service for shuttle use, with Bryce close behind. Grand Canyon muffed their implementation long ago by failing to build a parking/orientation/shuttle complex in Tusayan, and the list of parks for whom shuttles, or obligatory shuttles, are sorely needed has been growing by the year. Even Capitol Reef, which even recently was sleepy even by national monument status, is this year running into parking lots which are vastly exceeded by visitors, even in non-prime times.
After our trip abroad I believe COVID has injected significant momentum into the growth in the outdoors which was already underway. (By 1000am on a Saturday Great Basin, the definition of far from anything in the lower 48, had parking lots filling up.) The extent to which remote work will in the next years become widespread is likely being overstated, but it ought to be the hope of many smaller western cities and towns that the movement in nonetheless significant. This is the answer for sustainable growth, the third way which is neither extractive industry nor pure tourism. These people will want to be local to some parks, and within a day or a simple weekend from many others, and along with the greater group of now-enlightened tourists they will want a quality national park experience.
In the very near future having a quality park experience will become the educated and crafty exception, rather than the rule, and the resultant cynicism about rocky, tree-y disneyland is as of today a vastly underestimated liability for the parks, longer term. Zions shuttle experiment, essentially a quota, showed definitively that such an approach can both provide a better (though still very busy) experience and motivate plenty of people to get in under their own power. It reminded me just how more congruous biking up a paved road is for the park experience. And hopefully, it will provide impetus for more parks to take similar action, wholeheartedly, and very soon.