After rollercoaster attendance driven by the pandemic, Utah’s beloved “Mighty 5” National Parks saw their visitation numbers stabilize in 2023, while the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area unexpectedly smashed its own records for visitors last year.
Around 10.6 million people explored Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion National Parks in 2023, representing a small uptick of nearly 1% over 2022, according to newly updated data from the National Park Service. The total remains slightly under the 10.7 million visitors the parks saw in 2019, prior to the turbulence of COVID-19.
While three of the “Mighty 5” did see year-over-year growth, none managed to break the stunning visitation records set in 2021 when travel-starved visitors flocked to the parks in droves. A remarkable 11.3 million guests came through in 2021, a 45% leap over the 2020 low point when the pandemic paralyzed travel.
“We’re seeing visitation settle into more predictable patterns, putting the whiplash of COVID behind us,” said Denise Jordan, director of marketing, analytics and research for the Utah Office of Tourism and Film. “But we likely haven’t hit the ceiling yet, especially with international travel still rebuilding.”
The unexpected headliner last year was Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, encompassing the stunning Lake Powell along southern Utah’s border with Arizona. The massive park attracted over 5.2 million visitors – not only a new high mark, but 83% more guests than just the year before. For perspective, Glen Canyon outdrew Zion by close to 600,000 visitors in 2023.
Glen Canyon previously set a personal best back in 2017 with 4.5 million visitors, but struggled to match that number in recent years, hobbled by receding water levels amid drought and the COVID shutdowns. The area’s resurgence comes thanks to this year’s bountiful snowpack, which helped elevate Lake Powell’s levels substantially over 2022. The rising waters allowed many more boat ramps and access points to reopen after years of closures.
While the “Mighty 5” have long stood atop Utah’s natural wonders, drawing visitors from around the world, state parks have seen rapidly rising popularity and outpaced them before. Back in 2020, state parks in Utah logged more visitors for the first time during the height of COVID closures. And in the 2023 fiscal year from July 2022 to June 2023, state parks again saw more visitors than the national parks.
That growing momentum aligns with strategic efforts in recent years to spread out guest traffic and highlight lesser-known sites, avoiding strain on the “Big 5” during peak times. But Jordan notes the “Mighty 5” aren’t down for the count yet, especially if international travel picks up pace again. Once globe-trotting foreign visitors return in full force, she expects park attendance could yet see another bump.
As Utah plots out goals around outdoor recreation, tourism officials are optimistic parks will remain the backbone drawing visitors in 2024 and beyond. And campaigns promoting nighttime stargazing or wintertime activities aim to make the state’s natural jewels less seasonal, enticing travelers year-round. The strategy seems to be working – Jordan reports faster growth in shoulder seasons so far, welcoming news as warmer months approach again.
Cover photo courtesy of: Jake Case