Visiting the “Mighty 5” national parks in Utah took a slight dip in 2022.
Just over 10.5 million people visited the five national parks last year, down about 7% from record 2021 numbers, according to KSL.com’s analysis of visits by the National Park Service. While numbers are well above 2020 levels affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, 2022 2019 numbers were 2% below pre-pandemic levels.
Vicki Varela, executive director of the Utah Office of Tourism, said last year’s numbers were closer to 2017’s numbers.
“There’s been a lot of roller coaster stuff over the last few years,” she told KSL.com on Monday. “It’s interesting because you get the impression that all national parks are overcrowded. In fact, it really varies from park to park.”
The same four parks that broke visitor records in 2021 — Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion — all saw visitor declines over the past year, ranging from -7% in Zion National Park to -19% in Arches National Park. Zion nonetheless ended its second-biggest year on record with nearly 4.7 million visitors.
Bryce Canyon, the only national park in Utah not to set a record in 2021, saw the only climb among the five. Visitor numbers increased by about 12% but are still 9% below 2019 levels.
What is behind the general decline?
In fact, there are several factors that have likely contributed in one way or another to the slight drop in visitor numbers in 2021. But the state’s ongoing effort to expand visiting to other parks in the state is probably not one of them.
Visitation to Glen Powell National Recreation Area, which includes ailing Lake Powell, has declined nearly 10% since 2021, though it still attracted 2.8 million visitors last year. Cedar Breaks, Dinosaur, Golden Spike, and Natural Bridges National Monuments and Historic Parks have all seen a decline in visitors each year, including from the National Park Service.
Hovenweep and Timpanogos Cave National Monuments have seen increases, although neither draw large crowds. The latter attracted just under 156,000 people, a 27% increase from 2021.
Even visits to Utah’s state parks have declined. Just over 9.6 million people visited state parks last year, according to Utah Division of State Parks data updated through November. It would take about 2 million visits in December to reach the final 2021 total, which is a tall order. Just over 325,000 people visited state parks in December 2021.
State tourism officials don’t think people are tired of going to the parks. Instead, they believe a range of economic factors have worked together over the past year to reduce travel, led by global inflation. Inflation pushed gas prices to record highs and impacted other travel expenses during the summer, which is the busiest time for all Utah parks.
While increased gas prices impacted both driving to nearby parks and other Americans traveling to Utah, international travel suffered the most. Utah normally sees an influx of RV drivers from Canada, but high gas prices across the country made that much less feasible, Varela explained.
Meanwhile, the value of the European currency has fallen over the past year, making it less affordable for people from European countries to travel to the US. For example, the euro fell from $1.22 in May 2021 to as low as $0.97 in October 2022, since then the US dollar has bounced back up. China also banned its residents from traveling out of its country because of COVID-19.
These different parts of the world are all major drivers of tourism in Utah.
“International travelers have still not returned on a large scale,” Varela said. “We’ve seen a lot of research saying people are staying closer to home and consolidating their travel plans. Everyone just tightened their belts – and our industry is really feeling that in the end.”
I’m trying to predict 2023
The past two years have also shown that the “Mighty 5”, no matter how powerful they were in terms of advertising, need a makeover. Visitation trends are no longer consistent; They’ve been everywhere since the pandemic.
“We have five ‘Mighty 5’ national parks, but we have five very different visiting patterns,” Varela said. “As such, we’re trying to really tailor our marketing strategies and community engagement to the circumstances of each of these parks.”
As a result, marketing to the five parks may look different in the future.
Garfield County has already begun this work for Bryce Canyon. Local tourism officials last month completed a market capacity study aimed at finding ways to get people to visit national parks year-round, as tourism accounts for nearly 80% of the county’s economy.
“It was interesting that many residents felt that having year-round tourism would be beneficial for the entire county,” said Falyn Owens, director of the Garfield County Office of Tourism, of the study.
This means Mighty 5 campaigns for Bryce Canyon could focus on visiting the park during the quieter winter months, Varela explained.
It’s too early to know if Arches’ timed pilot program accounted for the drop in visitors due to the many other factors occurring at the same time. The program has been extended to 2023. Future campaigns for Arches could encourage people to visit the park at sunrise or sunset, rather than during the busier lunchtimes, to spread the visit throughout the day.
However, what will happen in 2023 is unclear, state tourism officials claim. If inflation and gas prices continue to fall, it could push people back into national parks. But if the global economy slows, it may mean people will refrain from traveling again this summer.
“There’s still all this uncertainty,” Varela admitted. “It makes it difficult to predict exactly what year we have ahead of us.”