Visitors flock to reopened Utah national parks

Oct 14 2013 - 2:14pm

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Zion National Park
AP photo
Zion National Park
AP photo

Thousands of hikers, bikers and nature-lovers traveled to Utah's red rock national parks this weekend as they were reopened for the first time since the partial government shutdown began Oct. 1.

Nearly 18,000 people went to Zion National Park -- just slightly less than a normal weekend, said spokeswoman Alyssa Baltrus. The park's first-come, first-served campsites filled up both weekend days by the afternoon, she said.

"The mood was fabulous," Baltrus said. "Everyone was enjoying the hikes."

Utah's five national parks -- Zion, Bryce, Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef -- reopened their gates Friday afternoon and Saturday morning after the state sent $1.67 million to the U.S. government to pick up the tab for 10 days in hopes of saving its lucrative fall tourist season.

About 8,500 people visited Arches and 4,500 went to Canyonlands, said Paul Henderson, assistant superintendent of Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

The reopenings were an immediate boost to shops, restaurants and hotels in nearby towns that rely on tourism to the national parks.

People began calling Friday morning to the Red Stone Inn in Moab to ask if it was true that nearby Arches and Canyonlands were open, said general manager Monica Tibbetts. The line into the main gate at Arches stretched a mile long Friday night, she said, and her inn was full Friday and Saturday.

"It was awesome. It was really a good feeling," Tibbetts said Monday. "I can't tell you the number of people who changed their vacations and came back. It's so beautiful in Moab in October."

There was full occupancy as well at the Red Cliffs Lodge in Moab, with ecstatic guests filling the rooms and the restaurant, said general manager Sandy Bastian.

"Obviously, our guests are very happy that the parks are open," Bastian said Monday. "Especially the international traveler that plans a year out. It was a huge disappointment to come to America, and Utah, and find the national parks closed."

The Obama administration's OK to reopen parks closed by the government shutdown came on the condition states must foot the bill with money they likely won't see again. Utah is among only a handful of states that have agreed to reopen parks so far.

The state's money also has allowed Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Cedar Breaks, Rainbow Bridge and Natural Bridges national monument to reopen.

Uncertainty remains, however, for parks officials and business owners as the partial government shutdown continues. The parks could be closed again Oct. 21 if the government shutdown is ongoing.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert has scheduled a special legislative session this week to discuss the possibility of finding funds to keep them open beyond that date at a cost of $167,000 a day. No private donors have come forward to help with the cost, the governor's office said.

Baltrus, Zion spokeswoman, said it is still difficult for people to plan trips to Utah's national parks beyond Oct. 21 and hard on park employees who don't know if they'll be furloughed again.

"We are all worried about the clock," Baltrus said. "We would all like to get a regular budget passed so we can go back to business as usual."

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