Zion National Park could get a major makeover to ease overcrowding and increase safety

Roughly 70% of the people visiting Zion enter the park through the south entrance.

(National Park Service) Parkgoers cross a busy street near the south entrance at Zion National Park.

Overloaded and overwhelmed by vehicles and crowds much of the year, the area around the visitors center and south entrance to Zion National Park could get a major makeover to reduce congestion.

Roughly 70% of the people visiting Zion — the mightiest of Utah’s Mighty Five national parks in terms of visitation numbers — enter the park through the south entrance. Zion now draws nearly 5 million people a year, more than a twofold increase since 2000 when the Zion Canyon Visitor Center was constructed.

Given the increase in visitors, along with the limitations of the two-lane Watchman Campground Road and bridge that many entering the south entrance use to access the visitors center, the southern portion of the park is often overrun and unsafe. There were nine vehicle crashes in the area between 2018 and 2023, according to park officials.

Often the congestion delays shuttles ferrying passengers back and forth from the visitors center to Zion’s main canyon. Vehicles that don’t yield at crosswalks, park officials say, can hamper hikers’ and cyclists’ ability to cross Watchman Campground Road while high-pedestrian traffic on crosswalks, in turn, can delay vehicles en route to the visitors center.

Jaden Wood doesn’t need stats to know how congested the area can be. He has learned from hard experience to steer clear of the park, especially the south area during peak visitation times.

“My out-of-state friends always tell me how lucky I am to live so close to Zion,” the Hurricane resident said. “What they don’t know is that I never hike Zion anymore except, on rare occasions, in January or February when there are fewer cars and people.”

As outlined in the Environmental Assessment, there are currently two options for the Zion Canyon south entrance area — one is to maintain the status quo despite the increased traffic and congestion, the other is the “preferred option” that involves a major redesign.

(National Park Service) The current layout of the south entrance of Zion National Park.

(National Park Service) A proposed design of the south entrance of Zion National Park.

(National Park Service) The boundaries of Zion National Park with a star at the south entrance.

To ease overcrowding, improve visitors’ experience and better protect the Zion’s flora and fauna, the preferred option calls for realigning the Zion-Mt. Carmel Highway from the south entrance to the visitors center, building a new vehicle and pedestrian bridge, expanding parking and reconfiguring trails to reduce conflicts between foot and vehicle traffic.

The road realignment, among other things, would involve building two roundabouts — the first just north of the south entrance would include a short-term pullout and bypass lanes. A second roundabout would be constructed to improve traffic flows at the Watchman Campground and visitor center, large vehicle and shuttle-bus parking lots.

It would further entail replacing the existing Watchman Campground Road with a new reconfiguration further east. As part of that realignment, the current Watchman Campground Bridge that crosses the north fork of the Virgin River would be removed and replaced with a four-lane vehicular bridge with a longer span further upstream.

In addition, a new pedestrian trail underpass would be constructed at the new bridge to connect to the Pa’rus Trail. The large vehicle and employee parking lots adjacent to the visitors center would be expanded and the nearby shuttle bus parking area would be paved.

Park spokesperson Jonathan Shafer said the new bridge and reconfigured road and trails should ease congestion and increase public safety by separating pedestrian and vehicle traffic. This project will also help protect the landscape, plants and animals that define a national park.”

If approved, construction on the redesign would begin next fall and wrap up some time in 2026. The building activity would be restricted to avoid negative impacts to wildlife and visitors, according to the environmental assessment.

Zion officials first took public input on the proposal in 2022. The public will have another opportunity to weigh in on March 19 when park officials will host a virtual meeting to discuss the preferred option and answer questions. They are also accepting written public comments until April 10.

“We need your input as we consider how to improve Zion National Park,” Jeff Bradybaugh, Zion National Park Superintendent said in a recent statement. “We encourage everyone to read the proposal, attend our virtual public meeting, and share comments before April 10.”

The March 19 online meeting will take place at 6 p.m. The public is encouraged to tune in to learn more about the proposal and provide feedback by clicking on the following link: https://us06web.zoom.us/j/83184566576?pwd=arrBmepcGmva2eu6BsBQCmB9CXEpu9.1

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