When the morning dawns sunny and warm across the sandstone hoodoos at Bryce Canyon National Park, managers brace for a crowd. Visitors to national parks in Utah, as well as many other tourism destinations, make decisions based on weather conditions. But will climate change affect the way tourists experience Utah’s national parks?
Jordan Smith from Utah State University’s Quinney College of Natural Resources and his colleagues in the Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism at USU looked at how historical weather conditions have affected the number of visits to five national parks in Utah between 1979 and 2014. The findings were recently published in the journal Tourism Geographies.
At three of the national parks, Arches, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef, visits increased with rising temperatures.
“The warmer the day, the more people accessed the parks,” Smith said. “That is, until it got too hot. Around 80 degrees Fahrenheit, the number of visits leveled off. And, if the day progressed to a good shirt-sticking swelter at around 90 degrees Fahrenheit, the number of visitors dropped.”
However, this was not the case at Bryce Canyon and Zion. Visits to these parks increased with the temperature…and kept climbing, despite the heat.
“People were determined to hike the sandy trails at Bryce Canyon and the canyons of Zion come hell or high temperatures,” Smith said.
The unique geography of these particular parks may allow for visitors to more-or-less comfortably pursue their recreational activities even with maximum daily temperatures well above 90 degree Fahrenheit, Smith continued. This trend could create challenges for destinations already struggling to maintain their recreational infrastructure under extremely large visitation pressures. Zion, for example, receives more than 400,000 visitors a month in the peak summer months of July and August.
“Destinations where shady canyons, cool rivers and higher elevation allow visitors to feel comfortable even as temperatures rise are not likely to see a plateauing of visits in the near future,” Smith said.
Bryce Canyon and Zion will continue to face the daunting management challenge of accommodating more and more visitors, even as temperatures rise with climate change.