Arches National Park to weigh future of timed entry program as park closures return

Security camera footage of a long line of vehicles outside Arches National Park after 7.30am on March 25. Park officials have temporarily closed the entrance to the park every day since October 4 because parking lots have filled up. (Arches National Park)

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MOAB – Long car lines and entrance closures are back at Arches National Park.

Park rangers temporarily closed the entrance to the park shortly after 9 a.m. Wednesday, marking the ninth day in a row they have done so because the Arches parking lot was full. It typically takes three to five hours for traffic issues to resolve and allow more visitors to enter the park over the past week, said Kaitlyn Thomas, spokesperson for Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.

These closures date back to the end of the park’s six-month timed-entry pilot program, which was first used earlier this year in an effort to avoid the parking chaos that has existed in recent years – and is returned on October 1. 4.

“We definitely had a busy first week after the timed registration program ended,” Thomas said. “In many cases, we had many closings quite early in the morning – anytime from 7:30 (am) until 9:30, 10 a.m. – where we had so many vehicles that arrived at the same time as our major parking lots filled up or overflowed, so we have to temporarily delay entries for a few hours.”

She adds that these types of closures are expected to continue through October, with the fall holidays and tourists from around the world fueling visits. Park officials currently believe that high-level visits are seasonal and will decrease in November.

Meanwhile, park officials are still considering the pros and cons of the timed entry pilot test before deciding whether or not to bring back timed entry.

The future of timed entry

The timed entry program ran from April 3 to October 3 with the aim of “redistributing visits” throughout the day, to avoid parking problems. It was announced last year, when the park attracted more than 1.8 million visitors, its busiest year on record.

Thomas said the program helped spread the input evenly throughout the day, so it was a success in that area.

“We really think we can maximize access and get more vehicles into the park using the timed entry system that we can do without,” she said. “We saw a big reduction in congestion, wait times and crowds at the trailheads. We think we really achieved a lot with timed entry, but we also faced some challenges .”

These challenges included wait times that were up to an hour and 15 minutes, in some cases during the summer, and pressure from the travel industry regarding access to the park related to timed entry or other types of reservation programs. Hundreds of travel and leisure companies and travel associations signed a letter in July deploring the practice, saying it hindered international travel to the United States.

Visitation to Arches National Park also dropped significantly this summer. Just over 950,000 people visited the park between April and September, according to National Park Service visitation counts, down 22.5% from the same six-month period last year. It is unclear whether this decline is related to the Timed Entry program or other factors, such as record inflation that has impacted the cost of travel, ongoing COVID-19 concerns or even the end of the wave of “revenge trips” of the national park.

Given the complaints that have emerged, Thomas said park officials are “certainly open” to schedule adjustments, but it’s still unclear if the timed-entry schedule will return. Park administrators plan to meet with community members, state leaders and travel experts this month and November to review the program’s successes and failures.

A decision on whether or not the program will return is expected in December.

“(We want) to make sure that if we move forward, it’s something that (has) community support,” Thomas said. “So it’s still undecided.”

What to expect in the coming weeks

In the meantime, park officials say, get to the park early or expect long lines and/or closures for the next few weeks, at least.

Visitors are encouraged use a bathroom and refuel before lining up for the park. They add that it’s not a bad idea to bring snacks and water due to the long waits at the park.

Another option is to consider “alternate options for places to visit” if the park is closed for hours. Arches National Park is close to other outdoor gems, like Canyonlands National Park, Dead Horse Point State Park, or many other hiking trails in and around the Moab area.

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Carter Williams is an award-winning journalist who covers general news, the outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com. He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a transplant from Utah via Rochester, New York.

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Ryan H. Bowman