Zion National Park's Angels Landing transitions to lottery amid safety, overtourism concerns
Hoping to hike one of Zion National Park's most popular trails, Angels Landing, next season? You will soon have to try your luck for a permit, officials announced Friday.
Zion, the nation's third most popular national park, has had its busiest year so far in 2021 with more than 4.5 million visitors. Angels Landing alone received over 300,000 visits in 2019, and officials call it one of the busiest sites in the park.
And with over a dozen people dying on the trail since 2000 as crowding has reached all-time highs, park officials reached out to the public in August to ask for their opinions on solutions as they battle the effects of overtourism.
In an exclusive interview with The Spectrum, park officials discussed what they learned from the public comment and how the new lottery system will not only increase safety but the visitor experience as well.
"It's really sort of a constrained place that doesn't have really high capacity for people, especially in big pulses and peaks," Cassity Bromley, program lead for resources and research at Zion, said.
Park officials aren't yet sure how many permits will be available yet, though they'll decide that based on how many people they can allow on the chains section and through the exit.
"Because this is a pilot, and because we've never done it before, we don't even know how many people are going to apply," Zion spokesperson Jonathan Shafer told The Spectrum. "Some of that we are just going to have to try in the field. We have people out there monitoring, improving and tweaking the number of permits that are available."
But park officials say that at the very least, visitors will have much better chances at getting a permit for Angels Landing than getting a permit for The Wave, a popular hike in Arizona.
"You will have better odds of winning this than winning The Wave," Bromley said. "There will be a higher availability of permits, and we'll need a much bigger percentage of them."
Officials are hoping this will not only help distribute visitation but help people better prepare for the steep and strenuous hike and explore other areas of the park.
“Angels Landing is one of the most iconic destinations in Zion National Park and issuing permits will make going there fair for everyone.” Superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh said in a press release. “The system we’ve put in place will reduce crowding on the trail, address safety concerns and make it easy for visitors to plan ahead.”
Visitor safety is something the public and officials have been concerned about they said, and even though the permit system will make the trail safer, it doesn't take the risk away.
"People still need to make their own judgments about what they're comfortable with up there," Bromley said. "This permit system is not an attempt to make this hike that doesn't have risk associated with it. It's still a hike that people need to take seriously and be prepared for."
Zion completed a trail use study in 2017 and performed "informal" pilots of this program on busy holiday weekends in recent years, though officials have been studying visitor use of Angels Landing for a decade, they said.
"One of the reasons that we chose to go with a lottery rather than a first come first serve system had to do with some of the lessons we learned during the COVID shuttle ticket system, that a lot of people were really frustrated with having to plan and be at exactly the right place at the time," Bromley said. "We wanted to do something that was a little bit more fair, and gave people a little bit more time to plan."
Nearly 1,000 people gave input during the public comment period this fall, and the majority were in favor of the lottery system, though some did still prefer first come first serve, and were most concerned about enforcement, fairness and the fee, Bromley said.
"A lot of people wondered why we hadn't done this before," she said.
Permit lottery details
There will be three windows during the day for permits: morning, accessible before 9 a.m., mid-morning, accessible between 9 a.m. and noon, and late-morning, accessible after noon, Zion's Visitor Use Manager Susan McPartland told The Spectrum.
"That is going to help us distribute that use over the course of the day rather than having what we see now which is intensity in kind of one big bell curve of when folks arrive and leave," she said.
Advance permits, covering April 1 to May 31, 2022, will be available starting on Jan. 3 to Jan. 20, 2022.
Hikers can select seven different time slots and dates and will be notified if they've won on Jan. 25.
A select amount of permits will be available for the day before. Applications will be available from midnight to 3 p.m. the day before the permit date, and hikers will be notified if they've won a permit by 4 p.m.
Of a total $9 fee, $6 will be an application fee to cover Recreation.gov costs and the $3 fee will be charged to successful lottery applicants.
Officials said the fee goes to putting more rangers in the park to check IDs and permits, monitor the permit system and give interpretation services.
And this might be just the beginning of permits and timed entry in Zion, officials said.
"It also gives us lessons learned for that wider question of what type of systems have worked for here more long term," McPartland said.
As park visitation continues to rise, decreasing the amount of time people wait in line and in crowds are central goals in a larger visitor management plan, officials said.
"The Angels Landing Pilot Permit Program will inform that planning process," a Friday press release said. "We plan to share an update on the plan and ask for your feedback about it in 2022."
Visitors would still be able to hike the West Rim Trail "up to and beyond" Scout Lookout without a permit, an August press release said.
All permits will only be hosted and issued online at Recreation.gov and will not be available in the park. More information about the permit system and the Angels Landing hike is available on the park's website.
K. Sophie Will is the National Parks Reporter for The Spectrum & Daily News through the Report for America initiative by The GroundTruth Project. Follow her on Twitter at @ksophiewill or email her at email@example.com. Donate to Report for America to support her work here.