"It's a real mess and people are really disappointed," said Bryce Superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh.
Park staff are now studying how to alleviate the congestion, whether to add parking, expand the free shuttle service or even mandate riding the park shuttle. They expect to release a draft environmental assessment in the next two months and will host an open house 5 p.m. Tuesday in the visitor center to brief the public on the various alternatives and take feedback.
Shuttle systems, like the ones implemented by Bryce Canyon and Zion national parks more than a decade ago, have more beneficial than negative impacts, but they do pose challenges, according to David Nimkin, Southwest regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association.
"We want to get more people into the parks, to care about them and take care of them. But at the same time it's said we can love them to death," Nimkin said. "Getting people out of their cars and into the natural setting, and the opportunity to meet people from other cultures, as opposed to being in your self-contained unit, has benefits."
Since the days of Stephen Mather, the National Park Service's visionary inaugural leader, private automobiles have been both a blessing and a curse to park officials, allowing the masses in, on the one hand, and cluttering beautiful landscapes with pavement and moving metal, on the other. Shuttle systems can reclaim some of the parks' intrinsic values, like natural soundscapes, that have been lost to traffic, Nimkin observed.
"You could be at the top of [Zion's] Angel's Landing 15 years ago and hear the sound of motorcycles below. Now you hear the wind," Nimkin said.
But Zion's shuttle, which most peak-season visitors are required to ride, had unintended consequences. No longer do parking lots limit the number of people on popular trails, Nimkin said.
Midweek in early April at Zion, for example, the trails to the Emerald Pools and along the River Walk carried uninterrupted streams of hikers, all of whom arrived by shuttle.
Still, shuttles have helped several of the West's busiest parks reduce traffic and have been well received by visitors who haven't minded sacrificing a little freedom. Yet at Bryce, many still choose to drive despite the headaches of getting a car to Sunset and Bryce points.
Now in its 13th year, the shuttle has hardly eliminated traffic jams, which are a thing of the past at Zion despite its nearly 3 million in annual visitation.
Utah's smallest national park, at 35,000 acres, Bryce is also its second-busiest. Even through the economic downturn, visitation has grown steadily, reaching 1.4 million last year. Planners estimate annual growth of 2 percent for the next 20 years, hitting 2.1 million by 2035. Like Zion Canyon, Bryce is served by a single road, but one that is much longer and features spurs to busy destinations. It contours the canyon rim rather than the floor, so there is space available to add pavement, an option that was not available to Zion planners. But Bryce planners are not eager to "pave paradise."
"Obviously we don't want to have huge parking lots all over. We want to retain the aesthetic values and wildlife habitat. Our forest and meadow wildlife are a concern when we build a lot of facilities," said Bradybaugh, who helped design the Zion system, considered the gold standard of park shuttles.
The park's ongoing environmental assessment is analyzing four alternatives. At one end of the spectrum, Bryce would nearly double its 700-stall parking capacity. At the other end is a plan to require most visitors to ride the shuttle.
Park staff's "preferred" option lies in the middle, using adaptive management to guide incremental increases in parking at key places, like the visitor center and Sunset Point, and growing the shuttle service.
The park relies on an outsourced shuttle that serves an increasing number of riders on the 7-mile route between Bryce Canyon City and the ever-popular Bryce Point. Additionally, twice a day the shuttle runs tours to the end of the 17-mile park road at Rainbow Point. Service this year is available from May 10 to Oct. 13, according to Dan Cloud, the park's facilities chief.
He said that last year, the shuttle system handled about 395,000 boardings, with peak ridership in July.
Expanding the Bryce shuttle service can balance the competing needs of visitation growth and protecting the landscape, but Bradybaugh does not believe the park needs to require visitors to board the bus, as Zion does.
The preferred alternative will likely feature a combination of increased parking and shuttle service in an "adaptive management" format that gives park officials the greatest flexibility. Other key aspects would include improvements to the park's way-finding features and outreach to visitors, half of which are foreigners.
"We want to take advantage of technology to inform people before they get to the park how to plan their day," Bradybaugh said.
Five things not to miss in Bryce Canyon National Park
Visit the Dark Rangers • Clear nights provide visitors at Bryce a chance to see as many as 7,500 stars. Star gazing programs hosted by the park's famous Dark Rangers are frequent, educational and fun. The annual Astronomy Festival at Bryce this year's is June 5-8 is for people ready for a little deeper understanding and exploration of the night skies.
Hiking in the park • Most people visiting Bryce go on the numerous day hikes in the park. Overnight hikes are also possible on the Under-the-Rim trail, which runs for 23 miles from Bryce Point to Rainbow Point and includes eight backcountry campsites. Permits are required for overnight stays. The Navajo Loop hike is one of the most popular hikes providing a glimpse of iconic Bryce formations like Wall Street, Two Bridges and Thor's Hammer. The park lists the 1.3-mile Navajo Loop hike as moderate with a 550-foot elevation gain.
Camping in the park • Bryce is the highest in elevation of Utah's national parks and that makes it a great summer camping destination. When other parks become too hot for a comfortable night's sleep Bryce is at its peak. The North and Sunset campgrounds have tent and recreational vehicle sites (with no hookups) and are located near the visitor center and the Bryce Canyon Lodge.
Winter in the park •There are limitations, but visitors to Bryce in the winter are allowed to snowshoe, cross-country ski and hike, of course. Alpine skiing and snowboarding is not allowed in Bryce and hiking or riding anything off the canyon rim is prohibited. Free snowshoe hikes, including full moon adventures, with Bryce rangers are held throughout the winter. Check in at the visitors center for details on winter trails for snowshoes and cross-country skis and current conditions.
Bryce Canyon Winter Festival • The annual festival is held outside of the park at Ruby's Inn, but the park provides extra programs and winter hikes to accommodate visitors. The festival is held annually on the Presidents Day holiday weekend and is popular with families.