Park and Ride to the Park

Last May, Zion National Park in Utah initiated a mandatory shuttle bus transportation system for visitors to Zion Canyon, greatly reducing auto access to the most scenic portions of one of America’s most prized national parks.

A typical traffic backup at Zion National Park, which now has mandatory shuttles.

“Zion,” a Hebrew word meaning a place of safety or refuge, was the name given to the dramatic red rock canyon by Mormon pioneers in the 1860s. But in recent years, the park has seemed more like a traffic jam than a refuge. With some 2.5 million visitors annually, Zion’s beauty and tranquility have been marred by too many automobiles. On a busy holiday weekend, as many as 3,000 vehicles a day may enter the narrow six-mile canyon, competing for some 450 parking spaces. “Frayed tempers, people hollering at each other, people double- and triple-parked, destroying the vegetation—we just decided that we wanted to restore this place to peace and quiet,” says Zion spokesperson Denny Davies.

Zion is one of five parks chosen by the National Park Service to serve as demonstrations for various alternative transportation options. At Grand Canyon, a voluntary-use light rail train is planned for the South Rim area, connecting visitors to trailheads and shuttles. At Acadia, a voluntary shuttle system was initiated on Mount Desert Island last summer. An open-air tram will be used for special events and tours at Golden Gate Bridge. And Yosemite, considered by many to be the crown jewel of America’s park system, is experimenting with voluntary shuttles to move visitors into and around the scenic valley. Denali National Park in Alaska also limits auto access.

But Zion’s system, the first of its kind in the lower 48 states, is mandatory rather than voluntary: Except for guests and employees of Zion Lodge, all visitors to Zion Canyon must either walk, ride bicycles or take the new shuttles. Visitors park their cars in the nearby town of Springdale or at the new visitor center at the park’s south entrance, and ride the free shuttles into the canyon. The propane-powered shuttles will run every 15 minutes during the prime visitation season from April to October; other less-congested areas of the park will remain open to vehicular traffic.

Visitors’ comments have been running about four to one in favor of the new system, says Davies. “There’s been a lot of effort that has gone into the planning to do this right. One visitor remarked, ‘It’s absolutely fantastic to be up in Zion Canyon again—you can actually hear the birds singing.’”