I’ve been to quite a few national parks on this current socially-distanced road trip. For some of them, business was as usual. A few signs were thrown up with social distancing guidelines and masks were required in indoor spaces. Besides that, the pandemic felt like it was an afterthought. Other national parks, on the other hand, have cracked down much harder to slow the coronavirus pandemic. Zion National Park, one of the most-visited parks in the country, falls in the latter category.
I visited every other national park in Utah on this trip before finishing up at Zion. I’d been to Zion before and was a bit reluctant about visiting this time around. From what I remembered, it was overwhelmed with tourists. Hikes like Angel’s Landing and The Narrows would have simply been wildly irresponsible to go on in the middle of a pandemic.
But I’ll admit, I was surprised at how much more seriously Zion was taking the pandemic. At popular parks like Arches National Park and Bryce Canyon, there were hardly any changes. My sunset hike to Delicate Arch was a big wake-up call that being outdoors is not an excuse to ignore social distancing guidelines. Parks like Canyonlands and Capitol Reef are lesser-visited, so social distancing had never really been a problem before. Zion National Park is one of the more popular ones, if not the most popular in all of Utah. It boasts not one, but two bucket list hikes.
Due to the Coronavirus Pandemic, you can’t even do one of them anymore. And honestly, it’s probably for the best. The hike up to Angel’s Landing is a challenging one, but with a reward unlike any other. I was lucky enough to do it four years ago, so I wasn’t too hurt this time around when finding out I wouldn’t be able to do it again. You can’t really fault the park for closing it down, though.
While you can still hike up to Scout’s Lookout, the section with chains leading up to Angel’s Landing has been shut. I mean, think about it. Hundreds of people per hour gripping their dirty hands along the same grimy chains? I’ve overheard hikers on some trails before saying stuff like, “if I had coronavirus, I wouldn’t be able to do this hike.” All it takes is one asymptomatic person to spread it to hundreds of others. There’s only one way up and down from Angel’s Landing, and parts are so narrow that social distancing would be simply impossible to maintain. In some parts of the hike, keeping six feet apart would mean falling to your death 2,000 feet to the valley below.
Angel’s Landing is closed, and I doubt it will open anytime soon. Hate to break it to you folks.
How else is Zion National Park dealing with the coronavirus pandemic?
There are quite a few other changes from the norm over at Zion. Normally, the Zion shuttle bus has nine stops. It’s down to only five stops now. The stops in between the Visitor Center and Zion Lodge are no longer in service. The stop at Weeping Rock, between Angel’s Landing and The Narrows is closed, as well, although that is due to rock fall damaging the trail and not COVID-related.
The shuttle bus which ferries in thousands of visitors in and out of Zion Canyon is also experiencing some changes. It’s running at limited capacity, with each bus being able to hold either 19 or 14 passengers. There’s also now a timed-entry system, akin to what I experienced at Rocky Mountain National Park. While you don’t need to reserve a time slot just to enter, you do need to reserve a time for the Zion shuttle bus. It only costs $1 but you’ll need to do it on recreation.gov. They fill up quite fast on the day of, so make sure to book at least a day or two before.
Other things I’ve noticed have to do with restrooms and other facilities. At Watchman Campsite, where I’m currently staying, the bathrooms alternate each day. One gets shut for cleaning for one day and the other reopens. It’s a slight inconvenience, but a good precautionary move. It allows the park to do a proper deep cleaning and let the virus die if it manages to cling on to surfaces.
The rest is up to you and the other visitors.
The parks are severely underfunded, so even if they did want to send rangers out to enforce masks and social distancing guidelines, there would be no budget to do so. As far as masks go, visitors to Zion National Park have been surprisingly compliant. They’re required indoors and on buses, although I’ve seen plenty of people wearing them on trails, as well. Of all the national parks in Utah, Zion seemed to have the most mask-wearers.
Social distancing is also a must at Zion. While there are plenty of trails at Zion, about five or six stand out above the rest in popularity. The Narrows, Emerald Pools, Scout’s Lookout, Canyon Overlook, Riverside Walk and Watchman Trail are the most heavily-trafficked. Many of the trails have narrow stretches, so make sure to wear a mask if you can’t stand off to the side to let other people pass.
Although it being towards the end of summer may play a factor, I definitely noticed that Zion is a bit quieter than the last time I was here. As far as I know, there are no attempts to limit visitors to the park, so maybe the fact that Angel’s Landing is closed may play a factor into travelers looking elsewhere to get outdoors.
I’ve visited nine national parks on this road trip so far, and Rocky Mountain National Park and Zion National Park are the only ones where it feels like the COVID-19 pandemic is actually being taken seriously. Places like Yellowstone, Arches, and Grand Teton were overflowing with tourists and it seemed like not an attempt was made to counter the pandemic. It feels weird at first, adjusting to everything, but that’s kind of the point. Times aren’t normal, and we all should be doing our best to adapt and play our role in fighting the pandemic. I don’t think there’s an issue with responsible travel, and I respect Zion for taking this pandemic seriously.
Regardless of the changes, Zion National Park is always worth the visit.