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ZION NATIONAL PARK - Driver liberation, improved air quality, a quieter canyon, relaxed visitors, an end to illegal parking.

Those are just some of the benefits to Zion National Park since it implemented its shuttle system seven years ago.

"It [shuttle] allows visitors to go up the canyon and hike or do whatever - without having to worry," said Kirk Scott, general manager of Texas-based Parks Transportation Inc. The firm contracts with the National Park Service to operate the free shuttle system in the park and neighboring Springdale.

While his company manages the system, all the buses and associated facilities are Park Service-owned.

Before the shuttle system was introduced, up to 3,000 vehicles a day would compete for about 450 parking spaces in the park. That scramble led to air pollution, environmental damage, delays and frustration.

Now, except for bicyclists and guests of Zion Lodge, taking the free shuttle is mandatory for anyone going up scenic Zion Canyon.

Between the park's Visitor Center, just inside the south entrance, and the Temple of Sinawava at the head of the canyon, the shuttles - they resemble a double-trailer bus - come and go every six to seven minutes, stopping at eight locations along the 8.2 mile trip to let passengers on or off.

Single buses are also used to shuttle people every 10 minutes from Springdale to the park's Visitor Center. There, they can catch a park shuttle fueled by high-grade propane and equipped with lifts that make them wheelchair-accessible.

"The system works well at Zion because of how the scenic drive is set in a narrow canyon," said Scott. "It solves a lot of problems, like pollution, while providing more access to more people than you'd have otherwise."

Scott is responsible for maintaining, cleaning and fueling the 10 single buses and 21 double-trailer shuttles that in 2006 carried 2.8 million visitors through Zion, the nation's fifth-busiest national park.

Jack Burns, chief of concessions, likes the shuttle.

"It's a win-win situation," said Burns, adding the system is paid for out of park entrance fees.

He said not only has it reduced traffic congestion and environmental damage, it makes for a more relaxed visit.

"Before [the shuttles] someone traveling cross-country might stop at the park for a visit and, and already stressed from driving, would have to find a place to park, and if they couldn't, would sometimes just park on the side of the road illegally and get a ticket," said Burns. "That doesn't make for a good park experience."

The biggest complaint of the shuttles: Lack of view.

That may change in 2009, when new vehicles will be needed to replace the current vehicles, which cost $350,000 apiece and have a 10-year life.

Park visitor Andrew Johns likes the freedom of his vehicle and wishes he could drive up the canyon.

"But I understand why they implemented the shuttles," he said, while waiting at the Zion Lodge stop.

Helen Foster, riding the shuttle to hike the Emerald Pools trail, appreciated not having to drive.

"I was here years ago, and this is quite an improvement," she said from her window seat.

Russell Wrankle, one of 49 part- and full-time drivers who must complete a three-week course, said most folks appreciate the service.

"Most are on vacation so are happy anyway," he said.

Driver Joy Stein said dealing with the public on the scale she does, oddballs are sure to surface, like the woman who needed help finding her partner named Wild Boar, or couple who got on after dark wearing night-vision goggles.

Occasionally a passenger will try to take an illegal natural souvenir home.

"Usually they will take rocks, lizards and flowers," she said.

Sometimes she gets to help passengers in special ways.

She said several years ago, during a string of killings by a sniper in the Washington, D.C., area, a woman from the region wanted to get out and look at the stars in Zion, but was so traumatized by the shootings 2,000 miles away that she was afraid to go outside.

"She held onto her husband and clung to me, too," said Stein. "We finally got her off the [shuttle] and it was a beautiful night to see the stars. When she got back on, she was crying, and said, '' 'Thank you, now I can go outside again.' "

Zion National Park Shuttle


* OPERATION: April through October

* HOURS: Spring, from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Summer, 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.

* NUMBER OF SHUTTLES: Ten single buses, 21 double trailers

* CAPACITY: Single buses, 31 passengers; double trailers, 68 passengers

* PASSENGER NUMBERS: 12,000 to 18,000 a day, or, about 2.8 million in 2006

* FUEL: In 2006, system used 165,000 gallons of high-quality propane