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SALT LAKE CITY — Visitation to Utah's state parks dropped a little in 2022, much like the state's national parks.
But that doesn't mean parks weren't busy.
A tick under 10 million people visited Utah's 46 state parks last year, according to a KSL.com analysis of monthly data released by the Utah Division of State Parks. It's a 14% decrease from the record-setting 11.6 million visitors in 2021.
It may be impossible to pinpoint an exact reason why visitation dipped last year; however, it's likely related to why visitation was down in outdoor areas across Utah. Vicki Varela, managing director at the Utah Office of Tourism, said in January that inflation, high gas prices and other economic factors made domestic and international travel a little more difficult in 2022.
The visitation is still holding strong.
– Devan Chavez, Utah Division of State Parks spokesman
Devan Chavez, the division's spokesman, said state parks may have suffered because the national parks were available in 2022. That is, it's possible more people visited state parks in 2021 because the "Mighty 5" crown jewels were closed or overcrowded.
Whatever the case may be, he points out that Utah state parks visitation is still on an upward trajectory, overall. The tentative 2022 calendar year figures are nearly a 35% increase from the 2019 fiscal year.
He doesn't want people to think, however, that they don't need to plan ahead before their next state park trip. Park rangers still had moments where visitation reached capacity, causing issues for travelers coming into some parks last year.
"The visitation is still holding strong," Chavez told KSL.com. "We didn't plummet back down to those pre-pandemic numbers."
Utah's 10 most- and least-visited state parks
There was a common theme among the parks at the top and bottom of the 2022 visitation figures: water. Sand Hollow State Park in Washington County bested Dead Horse Point State Park in Moab for the top spot on the list, yet again, last year, drawing more than 1 million visitors for the third-straight year.
Four other water-based parks also landed in the top 10 again in 2022, which isn't that surprising. Bear Lake, Deer Creek, Jordanelle and Willard Bay are frequently among the top state park attractions every year.
Utah's most popular state parks in 2022
- Sand Hollow State Park (Washington County): 1,089,086
- Dead Horse Point State Park (Grand County): 1,069,572
- Antelope Island State Park (Davis County): 885,078
- Snow Canyon State Park (Washington County): 735,328
- Jordanelle State Park (Wasatch County): 712,632
- Deer Creek State Park (Wasatch County): 587,053
- Wasatch Mountain State Park (Wasatch County): 574,185
- Willard Bay State Park (Box Elder County): 540,910
- Bear Lake State Park (Rich County): 539,173
- Goblin Valley State Park (Emery County): 408,342
Source: Utah Division of State Parks
It was a different story at water-based state parks that struggled through the drought. Piute Reservoir was virtually empty by July last year and, unsurprisingly, visitation to Piute State Park struggled. While it's not usually a major draw, bringing in a little more than 7,000 people a decade ago, only 534 people visited the park last year, according to the data.
Scofield State Park also struggled to attract visitors last year with low levels, while Echo State Park is still getting off the ground since being established five years ago. Utah State Parks is set to unveil major day-use expansions at Echo later this year.
Given how popular water recreation parks are in Utah, Chavez said it's one more reason to be thankful for the state's strong snowpack this winter.
"Ensuring those (reservoirs) are full (with) boat ramp accessibility are big markers in getting an idea of what visitation in those parks is going to look like," he said. "These boating parks, especially in the summertime, are big drivers of visitation."
State parks relatively close to the national parks, such as Dead Horse Point, Snow Canyon and Goblin Valley state parks also remain very popular, offering additional scenic views to tourists who come to Utah for the "Mighty 5" national parks. Then there's Antelope Island State Park, which offers incredible wildlife viewing near the Great Salt Lake — a short drive from the state's urban core.
Aside from drought-stricken reservoirs, several state museums also ended near the bottom of the 2022 state park visitation data. That includes Territorial Statehouse State Park in Fillmore, Frontier State Park in Cedar City, Anasazi State Park Museum in Garfield County and Camp Floyd State Park Museum in Utah County.
Utah's least popular state parks in 2022
- Piute State Park (Piute County): 534
- Flight Park State Recreation Area (Utah County): 5,233
- Territorial Statehouse State Park Museum (Millard County): 6,615
- Edge Of The Cedars State ParkMuseum (San Juan County): 13,777
- Frontier Homestead State Park Museum (Iron County): 15,039
- Anasazi State Park Museum (Garfield County): 17,301
- Camp Floyd State Park Museum (Utah County): 18,302
- Millsite State Park (Emery County): 18,557
- Echo State Park (Summit County): 25,254
- Scofield State Park (Carbon County): 35,481
Note: This list does not include Lost Creek or Utahraptor state parks, which officially formed in the middle of 2022.
Source: Utah Division of State Parks.
They struggle for a few reasons, including that people tend to visit a museum once and never come back. Yet these state parks still have incredible stories to tell — from the Indigenous peoples who have lived on the land for thousands of years, to the early pioneer settlers.
Managers at museum parks have worked in recent years to find ways that make learning as fun and memorable as recreation-based state parks. Camp Floyd State Park in Fairfield and Frontier Homestead State Park Museum in Cedar City, for example, offer adventure camps, concerts and other events that get visitors involved, Chavez said.
This increases the odds that someone is willing to return to a museum multiple times, too.
"All of this is to try and get people to find something new and exciting about the history of that area," he said. "(They) engage with them to get involved in the museum in a new and different way."
State park newbies get a hand
Utah's two newest state parks, Lost Creek in Morgan and Utahraptor in Grand County, went online for the first time in July 2022 and, technically, both ended up near the bottom of last year's visitation list. That has more to do with having only six months of data; not to mention state park officials are just getting to work on grand plans for both places.
While there have been a few events already, it will likely take a few years before either park really shines. Utah State Parks officials believe most people will wait for amenities to be established before visiting.
That's still a work in progress.
- Lost Creek State Park received $7 million from the Utah Legislature last year. Chris Haramoto, park manager at Lost Creek and East Canyon state parks, said last year that the money will be used for new modern campgrounds with power and water and space for motorhomes, restrooms, entrances and trailheads.
- Utahraptor State Park is set to receive about $14.3 million from the Utah Legislature in the upcoming fiscal year. The funds are aimed to help the park complete its first phase of construction.
However, it's unclear when either will be complete. Design and construction at both parks have hit snags because of inflation, high gas prices, labor shortages and supply issues since both were designated.
"We're a little bit behind where we would have originally liked to be," Chavez said, noting that park managers are "charging forward" with ways for people to enjoy either park with what's available now.
"The excitement levels for us is extremely high," he adds, "and I know the managers of these parks are really excited to get them online."