Visitation climbing at most parks in the West

Delicate Arch in Arches National Park.


Eastern Utah’s Arches National Park, unlike many of the nation’s other parks, is on pace to eclipse last year’s record attendance of nearly a million people.

“Last year was the all-time record for visitation at Arches,” said Paul Henderson, a spokesman for the park. “We could well be heading into another record year.”

Travel to Arches is up 8 percent this June compared to June 2008, but other parks in western Colorado and eastern Utah are seeing fewer tourists or posting only modest gains.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, visitation to the nation’s 391 national parks fell sharply. Since then, the number of visitors has been increasing slightly each year, but the nation’s parks still languish below the record 286 million visits in 2000. In 2008 the nation’s parks had 275 million visitors, according to the National Park Service.

“There is a big debate out there on what the cause of this is,” said David Barna, chief of public affairs for the National Park Service.

There are signs that some parks are being rediscovered. Perhaps the best known park in the system, Yellowstone National Park, is experiencing an 11 percent increase in visitors to date this year. Closer to home, Arches National Park is thriving, and to a lesser degree, so is Colorado National Monument, which is up 1 percent so far this year over last. The monument has been a popular destination on holiday weekends such as the Fourth of July and Memorial Day.

Joan Anzelmo, director of Colorado National Monument, estimated there were 6,000 visitors over the Fourth of July.

“We are so fortunate that our local community is regularly enjoying the Colorado National Monument,” Anzelmo said. “We are very, very affordable.”

The park has had 4,555 more visitors than it did by June of last year, according to the latest National Park Service statistics. If the pace keeps up, the monument may surpass its high-water mark of 395,000 visits in 2007.

The monument and Arches have one big advantage over less-visited parks: their proximity to large population centers. Arches is four hours and the monument five hours from Salt Lake City. Denver-area residents can get to the monument in four hours and Arches in five and a half.

The weather also helps.

“Our shoulder seasons keep getting broader,” Henderson said of eastern Utah’s tourist season. “We have seen steady increases beginning in 2006, and it has gone up every year since then.”

While Arches and Colorado National Monument are getting busier, attendance is slumping at other parks.

Dinosaur National Monument, in northwest Colorado, is down almost 8 percent year to date from June last year. Some of the drop-off in visitors can be blamed on the park’s main visitor center being closed.

“I wish I had a crystal ball on visitation, because I can’t figure it out,” Henderson said.

“I think people are tending to take shorter (trips), instead of the two-, three-week vacation.”

Gas prices have been high in recent years, but there is a combination of other factors that Park Service officials say might be the cause for the downturn in the popularity of national parks.

“International visitors were not coming over here (after Sept. 11, 2001),” Barna said.

“And the parks that suffer from this are traditionally in the West.”

Anzelmo said international tourists, mainly from Asia and Europe, are finding the monument attractive. She anticipates that when the weather cools this fall, even more out-of-the-country tourists will visit.

Those tourists feed local economies across the nation $12 billion annually and support more than a quarter-million jobs, Barna said.


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