ORDERVILLE, Kane County — Those who oversee projects in and around Zion National Park have, for years, planned to make the eastern entrance to the park a destination of its own to help spread out park visitation.
A sudden spike in Zion's visitation that emerged at the tail end of last year and continued into 2021 only highlighted that need.
To that end, the Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation, an offshoot of the Governor's Office of Economic Development, last week authorized a $500,000 Utah Outdoor Recreation grant to the Zion National Park Forever Project for a plan to add nearly 25 miles of new mountain bike trail in Kane County, in an area northeast of the park's east entrance and near where a future visitors center could go. It's additional trail space to a bike trail project already underway near the park.
The office granted a little more than $7.5 million toward 99 projects in 23 counties across the state for 2021. The project near Zion's east entrance, but outside of the park boundaries, is the most the office doled out for any project this year.
"I think (the spike in visitation) certainly expedited the need for the process, but the process was underway and this grant ... just basically verifies that and confirms what we're doing," said Lyman Hafen, executive director of the Zion National Park Forever Project, in an interview with KSL.com Monday.
"It's a great shot in the arm for all of us to continue forward at a time when it really, really needs to happen," he added.
Mark Preiss, director of the philanthropy program for Zion National Park Forever Project, explained that the project is just one of the phases in the giant plan near Zion National Park's east entrance.
The master plan includes a visitors center, hiking and biking trails, a housing subdivision and new lodging options located outside of the park's east entrance. None of it is within the actual park boundaries, although there will National Park Service signage in the visitors center.
It's a massive plan that's possible through private land donations, Kane County trail easements and development approvals, state grants and approval from federal agencies.
Zion National Park's popularity skyrocketed toward the end of 2020 and has leveled off to an extent after a large start to the new year. About 1.32 million people visited the park over the first third of 2021, according to current preliminary National Park Service data. That includes the highest monthly totals for January, February and March since records were first made available in 1979.
April's early total of 469,775 visitors fell close to 14,000 visitors shy of the April record, set in 2018. It snapped a streak of seven consecutive months of new records that dated back to September 2020; however, 2021 is also nearly 140,000 visitations ahead of where 2018 was at through the first four months.
The project for the east entrance would help ensure park visitors aren't overcrowding one side of the park, which is mostly the case at the moment.
"The whole idea is to provide recreational access to the east Zion side of the park," Preiss said. "From the visitor's perspective, when they're in the east Zion corridor, they're basically in the park — and that's by design, to help extend and take pressure off of the park itself and to take pressure off Zion Canyon, in particular."
The master project will include nearly 40 miles of mountain bike trail for riders of all skill levels in the general area east of the Zion National Park boundaries and mostly north of state Route 9 in Kane County. Preiss said the first 10 miles of the trail are currently under construction and the Zion Forever Project staff hopes to have the first phase of the trail open to the public this summer.
The grant approved by the state late last week goes toward about 24.5 miles of new bike trails on top of that first phase of about 10 miles. The Utah Outdoor Recreation Center listed the project's total cost at $2.1 million with the remaining cost covered by other funding sources.
Construction on the second phase is expected once contracts on the project are signed, which is also expected this year. The "full network" of trails could be completed by next summer, according to Preiss.
"This is something that we've been working on for many years because of that need for dispersion of visitors, that need for additional activity, (and) that need for additional opportunities for visitors," Hafen added. "This is really a wonderful convergence of cooperations … to address a need for that expanded opportunity for visitors. There have never been more visitors at Zion National Park than there (have been) over the past few months. We're just elated that we can play a meaningful role in expanding that experience."
The entire plan also calls for 40 miles of hiking trails east of the park entrance and to the south of the highway in Kane County. That's something the Zion Forever Project and the many partners of the east entrance plan expect to focus on after the bike trails.
Preiss said experts with the Bureau of Land Management, Zion National Park and Kane County are currently working on an environmental analysis for that portion of the project as work on the bike trail system happens.
Progress on Cedar Breaks visitors center
Unlike Utah's national parks, Cedar Breaks National Monument, located east of Cedar City and north of Zion National Park, experienced an uptick in visitation in 2020 compared to the year before.
Its growing popularity led to the development of a visitors center to serve new visitors, which the Zion Forever Project also had a major hand in. Gov. Spencer Cox announced in January that there would be a new visitors center for the national monument.
Now there's a team picked to build that center.
The Layton-based contracting company E-Corp was awarded the project construction of that new visitors center, the National Park Service announced Friday.
Preiss and local leaders in southern Utah have shown their enthusiasm for the project in recent months and years. The Governor's Office of Economic Development also awarded a grant to the project last year.
The new visitors center is expected to help visitation in the region in a spot between Zion National Park to the south and Brian Head Resort to the north.
"This restores Cedar Breaks' role as the gateway to our national parks down in the southwest," Preiss said of the project. "It restores Cedar Breaks as a gateway for those coming from the south as the gateway to our high country and those high alpine experiences. And I think it also, for the first time, creates a sense of place for our visitors to this monument."
Park service officials added that construction is expected to begin later this year and take two years to complete.