SPRINGDALE, Washington County — Eight 40-something friends from Wisconsin arrived in Springdale last Thursday on their second annual couples trip not expecting to see the pinnacle of their long-planned adventure.
But Saturday morning, wearing rented waterproof pants and gripping wooden walking sticks, they splish-splashed into the Narrows in Zion National Park as the sun peeked over the Temple of Sinawava's red-rock walls.
"We were shocked at the news that we would be able to do it today," said Kurt Chapman, who organized the excursion six months in advance. "This may be the best day to do this hike, ever. There's no one here."
Others would join them later in the day, though, as Zion and its gateway community began to come out of their government-induced coma.
An agreement between Utah and the Department of the Interior late Thursday reopened eight national recreation sites in the state that were idle for 10 days because of the ongoing federal government shutdown.
"The timing couldn't have been better for us," said Todd Zorn before he set off in with his Wisconsin pals in the chilly Virgin River.
Utah was the first state to make a deal with the Department of the Interior to cover the costs for national park operations, contracting to pay $167,000 a day through Oct. 20.
Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef national Parks, Cedar Breaks and Natural Bridges national monuments, and Lake Powell were all getting into full swing after the untimely layoff.
Springdale, too, began to show signs of life Saturday with cars streaming down state Route 9 and bunching up at the entrance to the main attraction. Zion's parking lots were full by early afternoon, and the shuttle buses were standing-room only.
Business all over town went from dead to nearly normal for October, which traditionally draws older couples and fewer families.
On Saturday, people of all ages and nationalities sidestepped each other on some of the more popular hiking trails in the park. A National Park Service worker and a shuttle driver said the crowds were typical of a late autumn day, this one under blue skies and temperatures in the 70s.
At the Zion Adventure Co., more than a dozen people were pulling on dry suits and rubber shoes to walk the Narrows or seeking recommendations for one of Zion's many hiking trails.
"It's definitely picked up," said outfitter Rich McIver. "We’re happy to have a busy shop here again."
He described the feeling as "uplifting."
The prospect of the lid being lifted on any of Utah's national parks or recreation areas seemed implausible a week ago given the stalemate in Washington, D.C. It left officials in some tourist-starved southern Utah towns ready to take matters into their own hands.
Nine counties declared local emergencies due to "economic disruption" and pushed Gov. Gary Herbert to declare a state emergency. San Juan County was poised to remove barriers on boat ramps at Lake Powell and take over Natural Bridges and Hovenweep national monuments.
Meantime, Herbert sent a letter to President Barack Obama basically demanding he reopen the parks. The governor followed with calls to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, leading to the state putting up $1.67 million to run the eight recreation sites for up to 10 days.
The agreement drew praise from business owners and out-of-state tourists in and around Zion on Saturday.
"Gov. Herbert put some money on the line, which I appreciated and think was justified," said Lamar Gubler, manager of Canyon Market. "It would be all right with me if the state ran the parks all the time."
Kansas City residents Barry Kindsfather and Amy Nash said Utah should be commended for stepping up to reopen the parks as they rode the shuttle up Zion Canyon in the early morning darkness.
The couple arrived in Springdale last Wednesday and was planning to leave until they heard rumors about the gates opening at Zion. They walked through the park Friday afternoon and were delighted with the sights and sounds of elk along a trail. When they returned Saturday for more hiking, a flock of wild turkeys greeted them.
Kindsfather called closing the parks a "little overly dramatic. It seems like it was just mostly a political play to make it more obvious that the government's shutdown."
The politics of it all wasn't lost on John and Pat Collins, who traveled from England to visit several national parks in the West.
"It doesn't look good for your government, really, does it, whether you're Republican or Democrat," said Pat Collins while stopping for a photo on the Emerald Pools trail.
The cheerful seniors didn't dwell on that, though they were disappointed to find out a couple of days before leaving England that the national parks were closed. Like many travelers who couldn't change their itineraries at the last minute, they made the best of it by visiting state parks.
"They all have a wow factor," Pat Collins said.
Now that the tourists are back, Springdale's business community is trying to piece together its tattered economy.
Since the government shutdown Oct. 1, tourist-dependent shops and restaurants were just hanging on.
Gubler estimates sales at Canyon Market plummeted as much as 40 percent.
"We will not get back what we've lost because of this shutdown," he said. "It will be busier, but not as busy as it would have been because there are too many people who have canceled and were scared off."
Though a lot of those plans will stay canceled, some motels now can add "no" to their "vacancy" signs. Blondie's Diner had a decent night Friday for the first time all month.
"It was drastic here. It was a ghost town," said owner Shelley Cox.
Cox said her business was a tenth of what it usually is for this time of year, and she blames the 535 members of Congress who still draw a paycheck.
"We can't make that up," she said of her losses. "We can't send them a bill."
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