Utah State Parks Set New Visitation Record in 2023

2023 wasn’t just another banner year for Utah’s state parks, it was a record-breaking one

Visitation to Utah’s 46 state parks last year reached a little over 12 million people for the first time on record, according to the Utah Division of State Parks visitation data. It’s a 21 percent increase from the previous year’s visitation total and a 4 percent increase from the previous record of 11.6 million set in 2021.

It’s also the third time that all of Utah’s state parks surpassed the state’s Mighty 5 national parks in total visitation. More than 10.6 million visited Utah’s five national parks in 2023.

Dead Horse Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What’s driving visitation?

The data doesn’t explain what’s behind the increase or why some parks fared better than others but a spokesperson for the Utah Division of State Park offered a few theories. It’s possible that people wandered out to new areas during the COVID-19 pandemic and found new gems they’ve decided to come back to including visitors from out of state.

Another possibility is that Utah’s drought switch essentially flipped in 2023 reopening more ramps and other water recreation amenities last summer. Utah reservoirs including several that are state parks jumped from a maximum peak capacity of 58 percent in 2022 to 86 percent in 2023.

Last year’s good water numbers, water reservoir level numbers, were a big part of that, explained the spokesperson. People were looking to play in water a lot last year and they had a lot more to play on.

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This tracks with the data. Utah’s most-visited parks didn’t change at all between 2022 and 2023; however, the order of the top 10 did as some parks experienced sharper visitation spikes than others. Some of the largest spikes happened at parks offering water recreation activities.

For instance, Sand Hollow State Park with a reservoir in Washington County, and Dead Horse Point State Park without a reservoir in Grand County placed first and second respectively in visitation again last year. Yet Sand Hollow outpaced Dead Horse Point in year-over-year growth by a staggering 30 percent to 1 percent differential.

Four of the remaining top 10 most-visited parks in 2023 primarily feature water recreation. These all experienced increases ranging from 6 percent at Bear Lake to 63 percent at Willard Bay. Utah Lake, Quail Creek, Gunlock, Palisade, and East Canyon state parks, all of which offer water recreation as a key feature were among the parks that landed just outside of the top 10.

Sand Hollow State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah’s most-visited state parks in 2023:

  • Sand Hollow (Washington County): 1,415,555
  • Dead Horse Point (Grand County): 1,080,536
  • Snow Canyon (Washington County): 954,572
  • Antelope Island (Davis County): 936,147
  • Willard Bay (Box Elder County): 880,332
  • Jordanelle (Wasatch County): 829,945
  • Deer Creek (Wasatch County): 702,504
  • Wasatch Mountain (Wasatch County): 678,082
  • Bear Lake (Rich County): 569,903
  • Goblin Valley (Emery County): 398,961

It follows a trend that emerged in the National Park Service data. The federal agency reported that Glen Canyon National Recreation Area which includes Lake Powell topped all five of Utah’s national parks in visitation last year.

But state parks that offer scenic alternatives to national parks and natural wonders just outside of urban clusters also drew in a heavy number of visitors last year led by Dead Horse Point near Arches National Park. Snow Canyon, Antelope Island, and Wasatch Mountains state parks—all near large populations—experienced strong visitation increases between 2022 and 2023, too.

The overall growth isn’t at all surprising, either, considering the state has focused on what’s called the Red Emerald Strategic Plan in recent years. It highlights more than just the Mighty 5 national parks spreading out visitation to different parts of the state to prevent overcrowding.

It’s worth noting the state park visitation began rapidly accelerating after it went into effect.

It will be interesting to see if that’s a pattern that we continue to see in the future.

Dead Horse Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gems still to be discovered

But not every state park is generating the same levels of visitation as the top ones. Utah’s least-visited state parks also didn’t change much from 2022.

In general, Utah’s state park museums and historical centers don’t fare as well as parks with reservoirs or trails. State history-themed parks still have plenty to offer but people may only go to one maybe once a year or once in their lifetime. People are far more likely to visit natural spaces multiple times in a year driving up the final tally.

Utah’s least visited state parks in 2023

  • Piute (Piute County): 1,321
  • Flight Park State Recreation Area (Utah County): 3,828
  • Territorial Statehouse (Millard County): 9,519
  • Camp Floyd – Stage Coach Inn (Utah County): 12,240
  • Lost Creek (Morgan County): 13,382
  • Edge Of The Cedars (San Juan County): 13,616
  • Red Fleet (Uintah County): 14,009
  • Frontier Homestead (Iron County): 15,289
  • UtahRaptor (Grand County): 17,570
  • Anasazi Indian Village (Garfield County): 19,950
Sand Hollow State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

That’s not the only reason some parks don’t get as much attention. Piute State Park features a reservoir that was virtually empty through most of the summer in 2022. It still ended up at the bottom despite better water conditions in 2023, potentially because of the aftereffects of the long-term drought.

There were some newcomers to the bottom 10 in 2023, but those all come with caveats. Red Fleet State Park entered the 2023 list because most of it remains closed for a construction project that began last year. It’s expected to reopen later this year with new improvements.

Construction projects also hampered visitation at Lost Creek and Utahraptor State Parks, Utah’s newest state parks. All three of these will likely increase visitation numbers once enhancement projects are over.

State park visitation will only continue to rise in the future especially as tourism initiatives promote Mighty 5 alternatives and the park system grows. That, in turn, builds up the economy because outdoor recreation plays a large role in Utah’s $12 billion tourism industry.

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most recent Utah travel stories

Worth Pondering…

As we crossed the Colorado-Utah border I saw God in the sky in the form of huge gold sunburning clouds above the desert that seemed to point a finger at me and say, “Pass here and go on, you’re on the road to heaven.”

—Jack Kerouac, On the Road