This Utah Adventure Town Wants To Put The Brakes On Promoting Itself

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Arches National Park’s gate was closed on a weekday morning last month, as it is the morning after the parking lots and trails fill up quickly.

Claire Harrage / NPR


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Arches National Park’s gate was closed on a weekday morning last month, as it is the morning after the parking lots and trails fill up quickly.

Claire Harrage / NPR

On most days by about 8 a.m., the gates at Arches National Park in Utah close because all the parking lots are full and the trails are full.

Many tourists then move on to the surrounding federal public lands — those red rock canyons and river-cut valleys that first put one of the adventure tourism capitals of the West, Moab, on the map.


On a recent hot afternoon, the swimming holes along the Federal Bureau of Land Management trail east of town, usually a quiet escape from the hustle and bustle of the nearby Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, rumbled.

After all, this is the summer of 2021, people are flocking to the vast wildlands of the West in record numbers, eager to forget about the lockdowns in 2020.

“Everyone is stuck at home. They all want to go out and have a blast,” says Syed Trivedi of Indiana.

Tourists frequent the swimming holes along Federal Bureau of Land Management Road east of Moab.

Claire Harrage / NPR


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Tourists frequent the swimming holes along Federal Bureau of Land Management Road east of Moab.

Claire Harrage / NPR

Trivedi and his family heard about the swimming holes from the guide they rented the ATVs from. He had also researched the daily closures at the park and planned a day to do other things around Moab.

“The place is crowded, yeah, I came here six years ago, it wasn’t crowded,” he says. “In six years, it’s turned into a really big crowd now, but it’s fun.”

But locals are willing to remind that their favorite secret hideouts like this one have been bypassed. They complain about the blockage of the city due to the annoying off-road vehicles. Second homeowners and Airbnbs are pricing people out of an already tight housing market. Companies do not have enough workers. And then there’s camping, everywhere, even if it’s posted as forbidden.

In the 1950s, Moab was a quiet uranium mining town. But the tourism-driven economy has brought with it traffic.

Claire Harrage / NPR


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In the 1950s, Moab was a quiet uranium mining town. But the tourism-driven economy has brought with it traffic.

Claire Harrage / NPR

Tourism is booming across the country after the pandemic lockdown was lifted. But some in Moab are wondering aloud these days if you can have too much of a good thing.

“We have a lot of problems with fire rings, and human waste. We even got pictures of two campers dumping sewage there,” says Mary McGahn, chair of the Grand County Commission.

Moab was once considered a national model for how to reinvent an economy based on tourism and entertainment. When McGann first moved here as a little girl in the 1950s, it was a sleepy uranium mining town. It all collapsed by the late 1980s. Soon, some locals who had lost their jobs in the mines opened a mountain biking shop. Things quickly took off.

Moab, which can be seen from Arks National Park, has been considered a national model for how to reinvent an economy based on tourism and recreation.

Claire Harrage / NPR


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Moab, which can be seen from Arks National Park, has been considered a national model for how to reinvent an economy based on tourism and recreation.

Claire Harrage / NPR

“We moved toward tourism, and we were excited about it,” McGann says. “We thought tourism wouldn’t have the environmental impact of mining.” “In hindsight, I think tourism now has a more negative environmental impact on the areas around us.”

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