Backcountry Moratorium in Arches National Park


Arches National Park in 2004.

Backpacking will no longer be allowed in Arches National Park from now until the foreseeable future (EDIT: Limited backpacking is now allowed)  [1]

Even camping will be restricted starting in March 2017 until October 2017.

Arches National Park will be the province of day use only for a large chunk of time.

Even when ( if?) backpacking is allowed back in the park at some point, I do find it troubling it has been stopped to asses environmental damage.

I understand protecting the resources and preserving the fragile environment.

So why do we persist in the antiquated, inefficient and environmentally damaging habit of allowing passenger vehicles in the highly visited national parks?

I went by Arches NP this past spring. After my birthday trip I toyed with the idea of stopping in for a quick day hike and see a place I have not visited in about five years.

The large line almost backed up to the road dissuaded me.

My thoughts when I read how the NPS is performing a study on backcountry use?  That there is a a better way for  long-term sustainability and to preserve the fragile environment of Arches and similar high use national park units:  Ban private passenger vehicles.

I take a more moderate view than simply closing the roads.

What I suggest are shuttle buses only.

Shuttle buses with regular stops will allow all users to enjoy the parks  Among them: Day hikers, backpackers, people who want to take it easy, those with small children or people with disability issues.  All those cars backed up? Put them in a large parking lot instead.  You can use the road to bike on if you’d rather be on your own schedule.

I skied on the main road at Black Canyon of the Gunnison a few years ago. What a wonderful way to see the park minus lots of traffic. Imagine biking the park in similar conditions? Or taking a leisurely bus ride along the road?

And when a person drives that person invariably loses out.  Hard to enjoy a national park road when you are dealing with traffic, congestion and aggressive driving.


Even in a national park!

Zion National Park. From St. George News.

Though meant for urban areas, this photo below applies to any busy road. And the popular tourist roads in our National Parks certainly qualify.

From Cycling Promotion Fund

I understand the NPS and other agencies are cash strapped. And the latest election cycle may accelerate that trend more.

But in the long run I suspect shuttle buses are less expensive. Less upkeep on the roads, lesser and smaller parking lots needed in the parks themselves, less animal deaths or traffic accidents and so on.

An argument could be made that people love their cars and won’t give them up.

But shuttles buses have proven to be very popular in Rocky Mountain National Park.  In fact, I wish the shuttle bus service was more extensive and backcountry user-friendly so as to get from one end of the park to the other!

I suspect we won’t have many shuttle buses in national parks for cultural reasons and too much money to be made off our current mode of Industrial Tourism.

But if the NPS really wants to preserve the environment, get people better connected with the national parks and make them accessible to all people …get rid of private passenger vehicles in the parks that are being loved to death !


[1] The phrase “backcountry moratorium” is from  from the Arches National Park website:  “Why are you placing a moratorium on overnight backcountry use (backpacking)?  Backcountry use is, of course, allowed. However not having overnight use restricts the amount of backcountry use that actually may be done overall, of course.  Backpacking may not be as popular in Arches, but car camping most definitely is…and has been for a while.  The implications of limiting overnights use and not looking at the root cause of environmental damage is disconcerting in my opinion. 


18 Replies to “Backcountry Moratorium in Arches National Park”

  1. I agree with your sentiment about passenger vehicles. I just visited Yosemite valley for the first time over the weekend and even though it wasn’t the height of tourist season it was crazy, cars everywhere. The valley is completely packed with cars and the parking at trail heads is extremely limited, we arrived early but when we got back from the hike people were parked everywhere including non-parking spots. Yosemite valley is quite compact and there is really no reason there should be cars, extensive shuttle buses and bike share/rental would be amazing. I really wanted to take the Amtrak + YARTS transit but it was impossible as in the “off” season (it was 65 and sunny all day) the schedule was so limited that I wouldn’t arrive at the trailhead until sometime in the afternoon. Once you get most of the cars off the road using bikes becomes much easier and much safer. Especially in a compact place like Yosemite valley.

    We had wanted to wander around another location in the valley after the hike but there was no parking so we just went back to town.

      1. Looks like annual visits have doubled since that 1989 article, too bad nothing is going to be done. Yosemite valley seems like the perfect place to make car free. I can understand the reluctance of overnight visitors, especially, car campers to give up their cars as they might have sizable amounts of stuff. I think a reasonable compromise would be to allow overnight guests at the lodges/cabins and campers to drive to their hotel/campsites then at least each of them have a parking spot. Everyone else can use the shuttles. Not only does the traffic take away from the beautiful wilderness, there simple isn’t enough parking available for people to drive in the valley.

  2. The shuttle system works great in Zion. Arches might be a little bigger, but I think a shuttle system would work well there. Surely that would lessen impact much more than banning backpacking.

  3. I’m surprised to see the photo of Zion with cars on the roadside. I was last there in the summer of 2005 and, unless you were staying at the hotel, you could only enter using the bus system. I thought using the bus was terrific. The bus stopped everywhere anyone would want to stop, and the buses ran about 15 minutes apart. The drivers were knowledgeable, and pointed out things I’d probably have missed in a car. Using a bus might be more problematic in a park like Yellowstone with its multiple campgrounds and lodges, but I loved the bus in Zion.

  4. While I’m not unsympathetic to reducing the vehicle traffic in national parks, I don’t see the connection to reducing backcountry damage. I was at Arches three years ago and, while the traffic wasn’t bumper to bumper, it was not easy to find a place to park near the popular spots. My experience in Canyonlands NP was quite different. We saw very few cars and had a much more enjoyable time. I’ve lost the opportunity to see things in GSMNP because of dense traffic in Cade’s Cove, where you are stuck in a loop. I haven’t been back to GSMNP for some years because of the tourist trap over development at the entrances. Switching to shuttle buses might help, but a Disney World size parking lot would have to be built at the entrances. The problem becomes more acute for me, because my wife has MS and can’t walk for any distance. Getting on and off the buses would be difficult and would reduce our visits to a bus tour. I looked at the possibilities of taking Amtrak to SLC and then going to the parks, but there is no good way to get around short of renting a car.

  5. This is why I refuse to pay to use the RMNP backcountry, they are more concerned with getting big car loads of folks in and out.

  6. Oh, oh… you been reading Edward Abbey or that other curmudgeon lately?

    Here’s the problem: the key metric for the NPS is visitor count. I spend at least 80 nights a year in Joshua Tree NP, Lake Mead NRA, and the Mojave Preserve. JT and Lake Mead now charge $20 per vehicle and the visitor count for both is 2 million and 7 million respectively. That’s a lot of do-re-me.

    Last year JT did a lot of new road work costing millions, but they don’t have money to protect the backcountry (

    They also have money to remodel visitor centers. Actually a few years ago the Lake Mead Alan Bibler Visitor Center remodel took longer to complete than it took to build Hoover Dam!

    The NPS also administers the Mojave Preserve. There are no entrance booths or fees, but that will probably change since they just repaved all the roads… however most traffic is people shortcutting through the MP to get to and from Las Vegas, so I expect fees will be put in place soon. There are very few trails in these 3 units, so that is a good thing as cross country travel is fairly unrestricted.

    Of course the solution is to blow up all roads leading to and going through any National Park, National Forest or designated Wilderness area. But that is a minority opinion.

    Good news is that I have a lifetime pass to all NPS units that cost a one-time fee of $10. This is the only benefit to being old and mean.

    Good write-up, as usual.

  7. Paul,

    The NPS is just reacting to what the majority visitors want; and they want technology and ease of access.

    Of course I think the NPS, USFS, and BLM have lost sight of their original charters.

    Perhaps it is time for you (or me) to again write about the Waterman’s Wilderness Ethics. We must be diligent and continually speak out for wilderness.

    1. You are, of course, right. I think about some Garrison Keiler once said: “Majestic doesn’t appeal to us. We [Americans] like the Grand Canyon better with Clarence and Arlene parked in front of it, smiling. ” In 2016 I would amend that to: “….smiling. With selfie sticks. And then posting the selfie on Instagram. ”

  8. Arches would be a great candidate for a shuttle service. There’s one road down the backbone that accesses what 99% of visitors come to look at/hike. I can’t imagine that overnight backcountry usage is that high there, and camping is pretty limited to select campsites. One of my favorite NPS experiences was in Denali and being able to just hop off the bus and hike. Agreed with other commenters that Yosemite would be another prime candidate for shuttle service. That place is also miserable, even during the week, during the summer months.

  9. Maybe, well no maybe about it, I am being selfish, but since my typical visit to a national park involves backpacking and multiple nights of camping, I would love to replace all of those cars with a few more buses. It would make trip logistics easier and take all of those cars off the road allowing to safely try biking in these parks. However, there are 2 potential problems, loss of revenue from entrance fees and where do we park all if those cars that the people use to get to the bus? The revenue part is easy, tickets for the buses entering the park can replace the entrance fees. You can even have single ticket prices and group prices. However, the parking issue only gets moved from inside the park to outside, and that isn’t necessarily a plus.

    1. Hmm..except at RMNP people still have to pay when using the shuttles outside the park. I’d rather see large mall-like parking lots in town than in a place to contemplate nature. YMMV.

      1. While I was being semi-sarcastic when I mentioned Disney World parking lots above, Disney World isn’t a bad example of how to move people around. A mammoth parking lot with small shuttles going to a central rail station and then a rail loop through the park and back isn’t a bad way to move people. Rail has an advantage over buses when moving lots of people from point A to point B. A rail system needs to be a loop or have two tracks to be really efficient. You just need to remember where you parked.

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