New Sounds of Silence

Lifelong hiker Bob Terkanian says the silence is what keeps bringing him back.

He might also have added the lack of pollution, the return of wildlife, the absence of crowding and frayed nerves.

Two summers ago, Zion National Park in southern Utah became the first national park in the continental United States to completely ban automobiles during the peak visitor season from March 28 through Oct. 27.

The change is dramatic. Where once 2,000 cars and a two dozen tour buses competed daily for only 400 parking spaces, now there are empty parking lots, fresh air and the sounds of nature.

With more than 2 ½ million visitors a year, that's quite a change.

"It was becoming gridlock here," said Zion superintendent Marty Ott. Now a fleet of three dozen environmentally friendly propane powered shuttle buses drop off visitors at eight trailheads in the narrow canyon.

"I think that it adds considerable value to the park experience," said Ott. "Instead of hearing horns honking and vehicle alarms being set off and doors slamming and loud exhaust, we instead hear things like the wind through the trees and the water running down the Virgin River."

Benefits Outweigh Costs

The system, which includes a visitor center and parking facility, was expensive. More than $29 million was spent getting rid of cars. But the payback seems to have been universally accepted. On a recent shuttle ride through the canyon, visitors praised the shuttle system.

"I'm not here to see cars being parked," said a man from the Netherlands. "I'm here to see the nature."

Another visitor said she enjoyed the ride because "it gives you the opportunity to see the park instead of watching the road." Still another woman chimed in, "It's a lot less hassle."

It also allows more access to the park. In the past, visitors would spend most of their time looking for a parking space and then hike only one trail. Now, with the shuttle arriving every five to 10 minutes, multiple trailheads can be accessed in a day giving hikers more bang for their buck.

The $20 entrance fee this summer is used to pay for the upkeep of the system and the salaries of the drivers. "I think they should charge more," said Terkanian. "I mean, this is a bargain. It beats Disneyland any day."

Shuttle System Successful For Park, Local Businesses

When the idea was first proposed, not everyone was so enthusiastic. Merchants in the adjacent town of Springdale worried that the shuttle would drive away business. So, the park service decided to extend the shuttle service into town. Now, the little buses stop at six commercial locations.

"Our business has been up ever since," said Dick Doty, a local shop owner.

The shuttle also provides free transportation to local residents. "[It's] helpful for going to the post office," said Dean Cook, the head of the local visitors bureau. "And great for late nights at the local pubs," he added. The first bus departs the visitor center at 5:45 a.m., the last departure of the day is at 11:15 p.m.

Noted landscape painter Jimmy Jones says the ban on cars has created a whole new experience at Zion. "It's so quiet, I can go up there and set-up my easel just about anywhere on a lot of days and there's just no one around."

But it only looks that way. In reality, the park service reports visitation this summer is actually up more than 20 percent. And this summer, you can hear the wild turkeys, observe the deer, and take in some of the most spectacular canyon scenery in the West.

Finally, Zion National Park is living up to the meaning of its name, "sanctuary" or "refuge."