Arches National Park to weigh future of timed entry program as park closures return

Security camera footage of a long vehicle line outside of Arches National Park after 7:30 a.m. on March 25. Park officials have temporarily closed off entry to the park every day since Oct. 4 because parking lots have filled up.

Security camera footage of a long vehicle line outside of Arches National Park after 7:30 a.m. on March 25. Park officials have temporarily closed off entry to the park every day since Oct. 4 because parking lots have filled up. (Arches National Park)



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MOAB — The long car lines and entry closures are back at Arches National Park.

Park rangers temporarily closed off entry into the park shortly after 9 a.m. Wednesday, marking the ninth consecutive day they've done this because Arches' parking lot was full. It's typically taken three to five hours for traffic issues to clear up to allow more visitors into the park over the past week, said Kaitlyn Thomas, spokeswoman at Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

These closures date back to the end of the park's six-month-long timed entry pilot program, which was used for the first time earlier this year in an effort to avoid the parking chaos that has existed in recent years — and returned on Oct. 4.

"We've definitely had a busy first week after the timed entry program ended," Thomas said. "In many cases, we've had many closures quite early in the morning — anytime from 7:30 (a.m.) up to 9:30, 10 a.m. — where we've had so many vehicles come up all at once that our major parking lots have filled out or overflowed, so we have to temporarily delay entrances for a few hours."

She adds that these types of closures are expected to continue through October with fall break vacations and tourists coming in from all over the globe fueling visitation. Park officials currently believe the high-level visitation is seasonal and will taper off sometime in November.

Meanwhile, park officials are still sifting through the pros and cons of the timed entry pilot test before they decide whether to bring back timed entry.

The future of timed entry

The timed entry program ran from April 3 to Oct. 3 with a goal to "redistribute visitation" throughout the day, so parking issues could be avoided. It was announced last year, when the park attracted more than 1.8 million visitors, its busiest year on record.

Thomas said the program did help evenly distribute entry throughout the day, so it was a success in that realm.

"We definitely feel we can maximize access and get more vehicles in the park using the timed entry system that we can without," she said. "We saw a lot of reduction in congestion and wait times and crowding at trailheads. We do think we really achieved a lot of the goals with timed entry but we certainly faced some challenges, too."

Those challenges included wait times still ending up as long as an hour and 15 minutes, in some cases during the summer, and pressure from the travel industry regarding park access related to timed entry or other types of reservation programs. Hundreds of travel and leisure businesses and travel associations signed a letter in July bemoaning the practice, arguing that it's hindered international travel in the U.S.

Arches National Park visitation also fell significantly this summer. A little more than 950,000 visited the park between April and September, according to National Park Service visitation numbers, which represents a 22.5% drop from the same six-month period last year. It's unclear if this decline is related to the timed entry program or other factors, like record-high inflation that impacted the cost of travel, lingering COVID-19 concerns or even the end of the national park "revenge travel" surge.

Given the complaints that emerged, Thomas said park officials are "certainly open" to program adjustments, but it's still unclear if the timed entry program will return. Park administrators plan to meet with community members, state leaders and travel experts this month and in November to review the program's successes and failures.

A decision on whether to bring back the program is expected in December.

"(We want) to make sure that if we do move forward, it's something that (has) the support of the community," Thomas said. "So it's still undecided."

What to expect in the coming weeks

In the meantime, park officials say, get to the park early or expect long lines and/or closures for the next few weeks, at least.

Visitors are encouraged to use a bathroom and top off gas tanks before getting in line for the park. They add that it's not a bad idea to bring snacks and water because of long waits at the park.

Another option is to consider "alternative options for places to visit" if the park is closed for hours. Arches National Park is close to some other outdoor gems, like Canyonlands National Park, Dead Horse Point State Park or many other hiking trails in and around the Moab area.

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Utah National ParksOutdoorsUtahEastern Utah
Carter Williams is an award-winning reporter who covers general news, outdoors, history and sports for KSL.com. He previously worked for the Deseret News. He is a Utah transplant by the way of Rochester, New York.

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