Did Utah’s Lake Powell really see more tourists than ever before?

Despite national reports on Lake Powell’s record-low water levels, and projections that the mega-reservoir will probably never completely fill again, the National Park Service reported record-high visitation to the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area last year.

The reservoir and its surrounding park boundary saw a whopping 5.2 million recreation visits in 2023 compared to 2.8 million in 2022, when Lake Powell was on its way to sinking to a modern historical low. It’s not clear what caused the tourism tsunami. A post-pandemic itch to travel? Morbid curiosity after international headlines shared news of the reservoir’s demise? Exuberance from boaters after a record-breaking snowpack helped raise its water by dozens of feet? Or is the National Park Service just getting better at counting?

Representatives with NPS did not respond to questions or requests for comment. But they did issue a news release late last month celebrating their deluge in visitation.

“While Lake Powell continues to provide significant recreational opportunities, more people are also recognizing the unparalleled land-based and river-based recreation options and cultural and historic resources within our 1.25 million acres,” said Michelle Kerns, superintendent of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Rainbow Bridge National Monument, in the release. “Glen Canyon continues to be an economic engine for the region in Utah and Arizona and is especially important to our gateway communities.”

[Read more: Lake Powell bounces back — but for how long?]

The way NPS collects its visitation data is unique to each park unit, developed by the superintendent and the NPS Social Science Program. Kerns became Glen Canyon NRA’s superintendent in late 2022, but she has served in leadership roles at the recreation area since 2017, according to NPS information.

One thing is clear — it wasn’t the autumn eclipse that lured tourists to Glen Canyon. NPS reports about 478,000 visitors in October. That’s a 41% increase from visits in October 2022, which is impressive, but doesn’t exactly account for all the millions of additional visitors seen last year.

Drill into Glen Canyon’s data a little further, and other pieces of the 2023 visitation report don’t seem to add up. Mike DeHoff regularly floats Cataract Canyon to document changes from the receding Lake Powell reservoir as part of the Returning Rapids Project, which involves taking rafts out at the high and dry ramp in Hite. NPS reports 218,144 recreation visits in the Hite District last year, which DeHoff finds dubious.

“From what we’re seeing,” he said, “with the continued decline in good river access at Hite, we know from 2021 to 2023 Cataract Canyon use has gone down by a third.”

But the NPS reports the Hite District saw just 46,103 visits in 2021. That means there has been a 375% increase in visitors to an area that has not had a functional marina in years. NPS even had to close all services in the district since no concessionaires wanted to run them due to a lack of traffic.

Ray Golden is general manager of North Lake Powell. He operates a hotel, grill, RV park and boat services in Ticaboo, on the Utah side of the lake near Bullfrog. He said 2023 certainly didn’t feel exceptional.

“We were never fully booked in the summer,” Golden said. “At most, we had 60% occupancy.”

If any year felt noteworthy, it was 2021 when COVID-19 was still surging and people were desperate for things to do outdoors that would not spread the virus.

“We’ll probably never see that again,” Golden said, “unless there’s another outbreak or something.”

When he saw NPS’s reports on recreational visits last year, Golden said he was skeptical.

“When I looked at those numbers I was like, ‘Wow, it had to all have been in Page,’” Golden said.

Down in Page, on the Arizona side of the lake near Wahweap, Chamber of Commerce executive director Judy Franz said 2023 was certainly buzzing.

“Usually at the grocery store or Walmart,” she said, “you can always tell when the tourists are here because you can’t get anywhere.”

The chamber’s own visitor center, which helps tourists book tours and study maps, counted about 17,000 passing through.

“We get internationals and domestics,” Franz said. “The top countries are France, Germany and Canada.”

But Max Lapekas, owner of Lake Powell Paddleboards and Kayaks, agreed that 2023 didn’t appear to break any records in Page.

“It didn’t seem like it was in ’21,” Lapekas said. “That year I saw people with boat trailers lined up almost outside the park. Trying to launch and retrieve a boat was next to impossible. Last year, you had to wait five minutes at the most.”

NPS reported total recreation visits to the Glen Canyon NRA were 3.1 million in 2021. The years 2017, 2018 and 2019, meanwhile, all saw more than 4 million visits. That’s quite a contrast to the more than 5 million visitors reported for 2023.

“My theory was almost that the park service got better at reporting and recording the amount of visitors last year,” Lapekas said.

He said he has seen more NPS staff at the marinas, partly because they are trying to track boats and prevent invasive quagga mussels from spreading. He has seen more NPS personnel at Lone Rock and Horseshoe Bend, too.

“They’ve staffed much more in the past two years,” Lapekas said.

Regardless, Franz at the Page Chamber of Commerce said despite negative headlines about the fate of Lake Powell, the reservoir and its surrounding canyons, trails, restaurants and shops are very much open for business.

“I can’t tell you how many phone calls I had from people back east who were going to come out and said, ‘I heard Lake Powell is closed, there’s no water,’” Franz said. “That is a lie.”

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