GUNLOCK, Washington County — The waterfalls at Gunlock State Park are a unique feature that occurs when the park’s reservoir spills over. Thanks to abundant snowpacks the past two years, the waterfalls have returned after a lengthy absence.
That is, until now.
Utah State Parks leaders coordinated with the Washington County Water Conservancy District to lower the reservoir just enough to cut off the waterfalls. The decision, announced Wednesday, came days after videos and photos posted online showed scores of people congregating at the waterfalls and creating concerns that park visitors weren’t following required social distancing protocols.
"Our division leadership made a formal request, and then that’s what happened," Utah State Parks spokesperson Eugene Swalberg said. "The only reason this took place was because of the situation we’re in now with the novel coronavirus and COVID-19. We wouldn’t be having this conversation if COVID-19 wasn’t here."
There was a point where the park was only open to Washington County residents due to COVID-19 concerns; however, Gov. Gary Herbert lifted that restriction on April 17. Since then, Gunlock and other southern Utah state parks have experienced overwhelming crowds. It was bad enough over the past two weekends that Gunlock, Sand Hollow and Quail Creek state parks had to turn away visitors because they were full.
The waterfalls at Gunlock, which flow through picturesque red rock landscapes, are one of the draws to the park — even more so as temperatures warm up — and they are not always there. Swalberg pointed out they only exist when there is an overflow at Gunlock Reservoir.
The waterfalls have existed the past two springs after nearly a decade of not having enough water for them to flow. But overcrowding seen in pictures and videos highlight one problem park officials say they have. It’s an area of the park where they struggle to control visitor numbers, so they will continue to cut the waterfalls off until the reservoir reaches a point where it won't spill over. It effectively means there will be no more recreational waterfalls at the park this year, Swalberg said.
Gunlock State Park remains open despite Wednesday’s decision.
"COVID-19 was the reason that this was made, and the park’s inability to manage the level of visitor capacity at the falls," Swalberg said. "There are other areas of the park where the park is able to manage visitor capacity that’s going very well. But because of the layout of the falls, we do not have the ability to properly manage (visitors)."
The decision was met with mostly positive reactions online.
"Good move. It had to be done," one person wrote in response on Facebook.
Some opposed the decision. One person responded on Twitter by writing: "This is lame ... Turn the water back on and let (people) choose how they want to social distance."
Either way, Swalberg said it’s important that visitors at Gunlock and all other state parks follow guidelines set up by the state to slow the spread of the coronavirus. That includes maintaining at least 6 feet distance between others you didn’t come to a park with, not going to a park if you have any COVID-19 symptoms, and making sure you leave with every item you came with.
"Responsible recreation is the new buzzword for all recreation,” he said, "and certainly a big portion of responsible recreation is social distancing."