SALT LAKE CITY — To Carl Downing, the overflowing campgrounds, beaches littered with thousands of people, and the mile-long line of cars waiting to enter Sand Hollow State Park near his Hurricane home Saturday afternoon were signs that a gradual return to normal life may be impossible.
“Primitive camping was packed tighter than I’ve ever seen it, even more than a three-day holiday weekend,” said Downing, who has lived in Washington County for five years. “It’s triple that, easy. People were parking on the southern parkway, both sides of the road, where you’re not supposed to park, and just abandoning their cars, so they could hop the fence and go to the beach. ... We’ve got a complete collapse of coronavirus social distancing protocols. ... I’m blown away.”
Just a week after Gov. Gary Herbert announced Utah’s State Parks would be open to all visitors, most of them saw unusually large crowds. In Washington County, at least three — Sand Hollow, Gunlock State Park and Quail Creek state parks — closed midday because they were full.
“Quail Creek, which is about 10 miles away, had to close before us,” said Jonathan Hunt, park manager for Sand Hollow. “We were just overwhelmed with the amount of people trying to get out.”
Hunt said Sand Hollow has had plenty of visitors, even with restrictions that only allowed residents to recreate at state parks in the county where they lived.
“Now bring in all the people who can visit their second homes, pull new toys down here, that brings in all of that crowd as well, and it was just more than we could handle.”
Hunt attributes the massive crowds to several things. There is no school, so people can travel as far as they want for as long as they want, and it’s been a wet, cool spring.
“All of a sudden we hit the upper 80s, and everybody is heading to the lake,” he said. “It’s about a month early for us to have crowds like this.”
Utah State Parks public information officer Eugene Swalberg said it was “crowded but not chaotic” at most state parks. “The difference is that it’s early.”
East Canyon and Deer Creek state parks were also busy, but they didn’t have to close.
“We knew it would be busy, especially at southern Utah state parks because they didn’t have an Easter,” Swalberg said. “It was certainly much busier today for northern Utah parks than it normally is for the last weekend of April.”
Hunt said one of the issues was that people had traveled, sometimes several hours, and they weren’t sure where they could go or what they could do.
“They pulled over, and in some cases, they caused parking hazards,” he said. “Inside the park, it wasn’t that bad.”
Hunt said he plans to consult with parks like Jordanelle Reservoir that normally close on the weekends, and try to communicate with people before they arrive.
Downing said he and his wife have been enjoying the park while visitors have been restricted, and “you had hundreds of feet between you and anybody else when you were there.”
He said they were kayaking on the reservoir Friday when they noticed how crowded the beach was, and that keeping six feet between other visitors was a bit of a challenge.
“That was kind of concerning,” he said. “Today, the weather is perfect, and we thought, ‘This is going to be crazy.’”
He said the long lines were concerning, as were the illegally parked cars, and then he saw the tents. He said if people are just going to pack state parks, why should anyone sacrifice in other ways?
“These people are coming down here, and they’re packed in, and now they’re going back to their communities,” he said. “I just watched a thing saying high school graduation can’t go forward. Why? After what just happened here? 25,000 people parked on top of each other? How do you tell a high school kid, ‘No, you can’t have a graduation’ when we’re down here spring breaking it?”
Swalberg and Hunt said state park managers have a conference call every Monday where they discuss visitation numbers and any issues that arise as locals and tourists take advantage of Utah’s 43 state parks.
“I think we’ll continue to be busy through June,” said Hunt, noting that when the temperatures reach triple digits, they see fewer visitors. “But right now, Lake Powell is closed, and people don’t want to drive to Vegas. We were the easier local choice.”
When Herbert lifted restrictions April 17, state parks officials asked visitors to prepay online and to continue practicing social distancing and other COVID-19 preventative measures. He and parks officials asked people to continue to keep six feet between themselves and others and to “recreate responsibly.”