ST. GEORGE – Zion National Park isn’t the only place that’s been dealing with an increase in visitors in recent years. While more people are enjoying the sights of Snow Canyon State Park these days, the increasing visitation has also come with a notable challenge – hikers making their own paths.
“One of the biggest impacts we’re seeing here is people hiking off-trail,” Snow Canyon State Park Manager Kristen Comella said.
Snow Canyon State Park saw nearly 300,000 visitors in 2017 compared to 272,000 in 2016, according to Utah State Parks visitation data. As of June, 236,000 people have visited the park.
The park has experienced an annual visitor increase of around 12 percent over the last decade, Comella said.
This had brought an increasing of hikers going off designated trails within Snow Canyon State Park and Red Cliffs National Conservation Area.
The concern of more hikers going off the trails was brought up in a recent meeting of the Washington County Habitat Conservation Plan advisory committee, which helps oversee management of the Mohave desert tortoise reserve found within the national conservation area.
Chief among those concerns are people potentially damaging desert tortoise habitat.
“People could be stepping on tortoise burrows,” said Susan Cooke, lands program manager for Conserve Southwest Utah.
As well, people who bring their dogs unleashed can also cause havoc on area wildlife. If a dog happens to get a hold of a younger desert tortoise, the dog’s teeth can puncture the tortoise’s shell due to it not being completely hardened yet, Cooke said.
In addition to potential habitat destruction, going off-trail, also called “bushwhacking” in some outdoor enthusiast circles, can also present bodily risk to the hikers involved.
There’s the possibility of running into a rattlesnake or some other critter who might not be happy to see you. Going off-trail may also lead to getting lost or any number of potential injuries.
Such cases typically result in search and rescue teams being deployed, Cooke said, adding that its easier for those teams to find someone on the known trail.
“We see this all the time,” she said, referring in particular to people who visit from urban areas who tend to forget they aren’t talking a stroll in their local park.
““You’re in a wild place now. The hazards have not been mitigated.”
Unfortunately, some people may not even know they’re on an illegal trail. Used often enough, an illegally-cut trail can look as legitimate as real thing.
“We’re getting a greater number of people with less awareness,” Cooke said.
Snow Canyon State Park has nearly 40 miles of legitimate trails that take “a small army” to manage, Comella said.
Helping in this regard are the trail stewards, a group of volunteers who serve as goodwill ambassadors for the park while also maintaining trails and monitoring trail activity.
“That program is very helpful,” Comella said.
In addition to the illegal trails, vandalism at the park has also been on the rise.
The most significant and recent example was in October when a cluster of white rock was the site of spray paint graffiti. The graffiti has since been washed away and the individuals involved apprehended.
“Sometimes we’re able to find and prosecute these people.” Comella said.
She also credited regular park goers “who aren’t afraid to step up” and stop potential acts of vandalism like someone carving their name into sandstone.
Sometimes people are caught after the fact due to making their exploits known on social media.
As for any advice Comella can give to visitors, it’s nothing earth-shattering, she said.
When visiting Snow Canyon State Park, or any other park, just remember “you’re visiting some place special. It’s our hope that people can keep it special now and 50 years from now.”
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.