SALT LAKE CITY — The way people swarmed to Utah’s state parks over the weekend created the kind of problem officials once relished.
But as the world grapples with how to contain the spread of the new coronavirus, Saturday’s massive crowds at state parks became a potential disaster.
“It was the perfect storm,” said Eugene Swalberg, public affairs coordinator for Utah State Parks, referring to conditions that led officials to ban primitive camping on the beaches of Sand Hollow, and possibly Starvation.
“One of the problem areas was the primitive camping,” Swalberg said of the tents that campers erected on the beaches where some were just there to enjoy the water for the day. “It got rather crowded. It created two problems. It’s hard to maintain social distancing with so many people camping on the beach, and there were fewer places for day use people to come in and recreate.”
With national parks closed, most indoor entertainment severely restricted and children out of school for the year, the sunshine lured people from all over the state, and especially in Sand Hollow, created issues from overcrowded camping areas and beaches to parking problems once lots were full.
“The people backing up traffic on the road were there for day use,” Swalberg said. “So for the next few weeks, or the foreseeable future, we’re not going to have primitive or dispersed camping on beach areas at Sand Hollow specifically, but also other popular sites like Yuba and Fred Hayes State Park (Starvation Reservoir). We’re going to eliminate it at Sand Hollow and we could curtail it elsewhere.”
He said the new rules were effective immediately.
Additionally, state park officials met Monday to discuss the popularity of the state’s 43 parks, and he said they will employ a notification system for other parks that is used by Jordanelle and Deer Creek.
“They have a text alert system that you have to opt in to, and that should be in place by this weekend,” he said. The alerts tell users when the park is close to capacity and about other issues, like a lack of parking.
“Sand Hollow is working with Hurricane police on some other options,” he said of trying to notify residents about large crowds or traffic problems.
He recommended people check websites and prepay for day passes online. That would also give parks officials some idea of potential crowds and help them alleviate problems more efficiently.
“The big message for us is that the public is welcome to come and visit,” he said. “The second is responsible recreation. That can take a number of looks. You can keep distance between yourself and others, stay with the group you arrived in once inside the park, don’t congregate at trailheads, and just observe the recommendations. We’re going to have to change some of our behaviors to keep everyone safe.”
Parks officials see the value of recreation, especially to people who are trying to stay home as much as possible.
“We hope you’re part of the solution if you come,” he said. “We see recreation is essential. We need that as part of our lives, and that’s a good thing. But we also have to change our mindset.”
He said Utah’s park officials have been praised for the innovative ways they’ve lured visitors to their recreation areas, and the creative opportunities they’ve given millions of visitors to state parks. But for now, safety will trump creativity.
“In the past, we’ve kind of had a saying, ‘More people having more fun in more parks more often,’” he said. “That certainly has to be modified a little bit.”
State parks in Moab and Summit counties are still closed to visitors who do not live in those counties. Both are under public health orders, which Swalberg said take precedence over the governor’s decision to reopen state parks to all visitors.