Glen Canyon National Recreation Area  - Glen Canyon National Recreation Area overview

Utah's Most Visited Park in 2023 Wasn't One of the 'Mighty 5'

By Carter Williams,
February 02, 2024

SALT LAKE CITY — Visitation to Utah's "Mighty 5" appears to be stabilizing after a rapid decline in 2020 and an uptick in 2021 tied to the pandemic. But one other park in the state bucked all the trends last year.

A little more than 10.6 million people visited Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion national parks in 2023, representing an increase of nearly 1% from the previous year, per recently updated National Park Service visitation data. Last year's total also finished slightly below the 10.7 million visitors recorded in 2019.

A car moves by the steep grade and switchbacks of Shafer Trail in Canyonlands National Park on Sept. 17, 2023. (Photo: Gary M. McKellar, for the Deseret News)

Three of the five national parks did experience year-over-year growth, though none of the parks broke any visitation records like what happened at four of the five parks in 2021. A record 11.3 million visited the park during a "revenge travel" surge as pandemic-era restrictions were lifted, a 45% increase from figures posted in 2020.

Ultimately, Glen Canyon Recreational Area, located along the Utah-Arizona border, led in visitation among all National Park Service entities in Utah last year, bringing in a record 5.2 million visitors. Its visitation surged by a whopping 83% over 2022 visitation figures, and it bested Zion National Park's total by close to 600,000 visitors.

A hiker looks at Reflection Canyon in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Where Is Glen Canyon National Recreation Area?

Behind the 2023 Trends

Glen Canyon, which includes Lake Powell, previously hit a record high of 4.5 million in 2017, but it failed to reach 4 million after 2019 between a mix of the COVID-19 pandemic and Lake Powell's record-low water levels amid an ongoing drought.

Its popularity surge is likely a byproduct of record snowpack levels that helped the reservoir gain dozens of feet in elevation over the spring and summer last year. Its rise allowed more boat ramps to reopen.

2023's "Mighty 5" figures, on the other hand, align well with trends that — aside from 2020 and 2021 — date back to 2017, said Denise Jordan, director of marketing, analytics and research for the Utah Office of Tourism and Film.

A boat is seen in Lake Powell near Bullfrog on Oct. 6, 2022. The reservoir, a part of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, experienced record visitation in 2023 as its waters rose, National Park service data shows. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

However, she notes that international travel into Utah hasn't fully rebounded yet from the pandemic, which is one key difference in the figures before and after the pandemic whiplash.

"That would be the caveat with saying that national park visitation has leveled out because I think once we see some of those international visitation numbers continue to grow, we might still see some growth and increases in national park visitation," she said.

Similar visitation trends were reported about all the other Utah parks within the National Park Service system aside from Glen Canyon.

In general, there has been more growth at state parks in recent years. In 2020, likely because of the pandemic, visitation at state parks exceeded the "Mighty 5" for the first time. There were also more visitors to state parks during the 2023 fiscal year — July 2022 through June 2023 — than the "Mighty 5" 2023 calendar year.

That tracks with the efforts to spread out visitation to other parks that started around 2017, but was amplified after the park surges in 2021.

2024 Trends

What's new in 2024 is that there's now a strategic plan in place to guide outdoor recreation goals, such as efforts to increase outdoor opportunities possibly through new parks and trails. It also seeks to increase outdoor recreation education to avoid increases in land vandalism or search and improve recreation safety.

State tourism officials say they are aware of the plan that the Utah Division of Outdoor Recreation released, but they're not sure yet how it will factor into tourism trends.

It's also unclear when international travel may rebound, but Jordan says she anticipates that the "Mighty 5" and other parks will continue to be a major tourism driver in 2024.

Their goal in recent years has been to make outdoor recreation a bit more year-round by promoting more places and activities that draw people to parks in different months. They've also promoted activities like stargazing that can bring more people to parks during the night.

The idea here is that it can spread out visitation, so it's not clustered during one part of the day or one season overall.

"We've noticed that some of the shoulder season growth has accelerated more rapidly than what we consider the 'busy season' growth," Jordan said. "That's something we'd like to continue to see."

The National Parks site for Glen Canyon Recreation Area

National Parks site link.