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

Spotlight on Utah: Most Beautiful Places to Visit

Soaring peaks and deep red canyons around every bend

Every state thinks it’s fun. Every state claims to have “something for everyone.” But not every state has five national parks, 45 state parks, five national historic sites and trails, and a dozen national monuments and recreation areas. There isn’t a single amazing thing about Utah. There are about ten zillion. So start poking around and figure out what to put at the top of your list.

When visiting Utah, definitely take in the Mighty 5. But don’t let the splendor of it all blind you to the other spectacular experiences the state has to offer.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park

Discover a landscape of contrasting colors, land forms, and textures unlike any other in the world. The park has over 2,000 natural stone arches, in addition to hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins, and giant balanced rocks. This red-rock wonderland will amaze you with its formations, refresh you with its trails, and inspire you with its sunsets. Notable landmarks include Landscape Arch, the North and South Windows, Park Avenue, and Balanced Rock.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Zion National Park

In Utah’s southwest corner, the Virgin River carved through 2,000 feet of porous sandstone, forming a canyon so grand it needed a name equally majestic: In Hebrew, “Zion” means “promised land.” The seasons drastically change Zion’s landscape; cottonwood trees glow gold in the fall, the ridges shine with snow in winter, and waterfalls and pools spring to life in summer. There’s no bad time to visit Zion.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

Unusual, elaborate cliffs and canyons shape the landscape of Capitol Reef. The Waterpocket Fold, the second largest monocline in North America, extends for nearly 100 miles and appears as a bizarre “wrinkle” in the Earth’s crust. Red-rock canyons, ridges, buttes, and sandstone monoliths create a 387-mile outdoor retreat for hikers, campers, and photographers.

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bryce Canyon National Park

The past 60 million years have done a number on this section of southern Utah turning it into the world’s largest collection of hoodoos. The park’s 18-mile scenic drive takes you by a series of amphitheaters. But at 12 miles long, three miles wide, and 800 feet deep, Bryce Amphitheater steals the show. You’ll find the best views at the first four overlooks.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands has four separate districts and you can’t access one from another. Island in the Sky is the most popular and accessible. Here, head to Grand View Point for panoramas of the White Rim sandstone cliffs. With one paved road, the Needles district is rugged and difficult to navigate, so its many trails are consistently quiet. The Maze district is harder still to access. The Colorado and Green rivers make up the fourth district; parts of both are calm enough for kayaking.

Scenic Byway 12 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scenic Byway 12

Located in southwestern Utah, Scenic Byway 12 is nestled between two national parks—Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon. A 121-mile-long All-American  Road, Scenic Byway 12 winds and climbs and twists and turns and descends as it snakes its way through memorable landscapes ranging from the remains of ancient sea beds to one of the world’s highest alpine forests and from astonishing pink and russet stone turrets to open sagebrush flats.

Moki Dugway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moki Dugway

Moki Dugway is a staggering, graded dirt switchback road carved into the face of the cliff edge of Cedar Mesa. It consists of three miles of steep, unpaved, but well graded switchbacks (11 percent grade) which wind 1,200 feet from Cedar Mesa to the Valley of the Gods below. The term “moki” is derived from the Spanish word, moqui, a general term used by explorers in this region to describe Pueblo Indians they encountered as well as the vanished Ancestral Puebloan culture. Dugway is a term used to describe a roadway carved from a hillside.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument

Grand Staircase-Escalante contains three distinct units, Grand Staircase, Kaiparowits, and Escalante Canyon. The Monument was the last place in the U. S. to be mapped. From its spectacular Grand Staircase of cliffs and terraces, across the rugged Kaiparowits Plateau, to the wonders of the Escalante River Canyons, the Monument is a diverse geologic treasure speckled with monoliths, slot canyons, natural bridges, and arches. 

Monument Valley © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park

Monument Valley boasts sandstone masterpieces that tower to heights of 400 to 1,000 feet. The angle of the sun accents these graceful formations providing scenery that is simply spellbinding.

The landscape overwhelms, not just by its beauty but also by its size. The fragile pinnacles of rock are surrounded by miles of mesas and buttes, shrubs, trees, and windblown sand, all comprising the magnificent colors of the valley.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Natural Bridges National Monument

Three majestic natural bridges invite you to ponder the power of water in a landscape usually defined by its absence. View them from an overlook, or hit the trails and experience their grandeur from below. The bridges are named Kachina, Owachomo, and Sipapu in honor of the ancestral Puebloans who once made this place their home.

Utah Lake State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Utah Lake State Park

Utah Lake is unique in that it is one of the largest freshwater lakes in the West and yet it lies in an arid area that receives only about 15 inches of rainfall a year. Utah’s largest freshwater lake at roughly 148 sq. miles, Utah Lake provides a variety of recreation activities. With an average water temperature of 75 degrees, Utah Lake provides an excellent outlet for swimming, boating, paddleboarding, and fishing. The RV campground consists of 31 sites, complete with water and electric hookups.

Fish Lake Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Fish Lake Scenic Byway

Fish Lake Scenic Byway (SR-25) bookends Fishlake National Forest, an often-missed oasis featuring three mountain ranges broken up by desert canyons. Fishlake National Forest is known for its aspen forests, scenic drives, trails, elk hunting, and mackinaw and rainbow trout fishing. Fish Lake, Utah’s largest natural mountain lake lies in a down-faulted valley at an elevation of 8,843 feet. The 5.5-mile-long lake is one of the most popular fishing resorts in the state.

Matheson Wetlands, Moab © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Moab

This eastern Utah town serves as a gateway to the otherworldly rock formations found in Arches National Park and the numerous canyons and buttes in Canyonlands National Park. One of the top adventure towns in the world, Moab is surrounded by a sea of buckled, twisted and worn sandstone sculpted by millennia of sun, wind, and rain.

Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway

Cutting through the red rock gorge of the Colorado River, this 44-mile long byway (UT-128) offers a panoramic view of the LaSal Mountains whose snow-capped peaks rise in vivid contrast to the red rock sandstone typical of this canyon country. About four miles from Grandstaff Canyon, the byway passes the Big Bend Campground and picnic area with its white sand beach. The next section of the road closely parallels the Colorado River.

Dixie National Forest © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dixie National Forest

This massive 2-million-acre forest is known by most people as little more than a cool photo-op spot on the way to Bryce Canyon but those who linger will be rewarded with amazing sights. The crimson canyons of the forest’s aptly-named Red Canyon area are easy to access (with some sections of picturesque road carved right through the canyon) but also explore the aspen-packed Boulder Mountain area or peer out into three states from the top of Powell Point.

Quail Creek State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Quail Creek State Park

Boasting some of the warmest waters in the state and a mild winter climate, Quail Creek lures campers, hikers, boaters, and anglers year-round. The maximum depth of Quail Creek can reach 120 feet so it is cold enough to sustain the stocked rainbow trout, bullhead catfish, and crappie. Largemouth bass and bluegill thrive in the warmer, upper layers of the reservoir.

Cedar Breaks National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cedar Breaks National Monument

Situated at an elevation of 10,000 feet, Cedar Breaks is shaped like a giant coliseum dropping 2,000 feet to its floor. Deep inside the coliseum are stone spires, columns, arches, pinnacles, and intricate canyons in varying shades of red, yellow, and purple. The bristlecone pine, one of the world’s oldest trees, grows in the area.

La Sal Mountain Loop Road © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

La Sal Mountain Loop Road

A special place full of wonderful sights, smells, and sounds is the La Sal Mountains just east of Moab. The second-highest mountain range in Utah, the La Sals have six peaks that soar over 12,000 feet. One of the best ways to become acquainted with these mountains is to take a road trip along the La Sal Mountain Scenic Loop. The La Sal Mountains occupy a relatively small area running just 15 miles north to south and 6 miles across. They are most easily accessed from the west on the La Sal Mountain Loop Road that begins south of Moab.

Bears Ears National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bears Ears National Monument

The twin, towering buttes are so distinctive that in each of the native languages of the region their name is the same: Hoon’Naqvut, Shash Jáa, Kwiyagatu Nukavachi, Ansh An Lashokdiwe, or in English: Bears Ears. The land includes red rock, juniper forests, a high plateau, and an abundance of early human and Native American historical artifacts.

Valley of the Gods © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Valley of the Gods

Valley of the Gods is a scenic backcountry area is southeastern Utah, near Mexican Hat. It is a hidden gem with scenery similar to that of nearby Monument Valley. Valley of the Gods offers isolated buttes, towering pinnacles, and wide-open spaces that seem to go on forever. Located on BLM land, the area is open for hiking, backpacking, and camping. A 17-mile dirt and gravel road winds through the valley. It is sandy and bumpy, with steep sections. It provides a fun drive through an area that is usually deserted. It is a great place to get away from civilization

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

Dead Horse Point State Park

Dead Horse Point State Park is located at the end of a beautiful mesa where you can look for miles into Canyonlands National Park or 2,000 feet down to the Colorado River. The vista offers outstanding views of the river and surrounding canyon country. There are a few short hikes around the edge of the mesa with stunning views into the deep canyons. The Intrepid Trail System offers 16.6 miles of hiking and biking trails with varying degrees of difficulty.

Hovenweep National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hovenweep National Monument

The six abandoned Ancestral Puebloan ruins in Hovenweep National Monument are impressive not only for their excellent state of preservation but also for the diversity in the structures. The park preserves 700-year-old—and even older—archeological sites that visitors can access by paved and dirt roads. Hovenweep boasts incredible skies for night viewing and has been named a Dark Sky Park by the International Dark Sky Association.

Sand Hollow State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sand Hollow State Park

With its warm, blue waters and red sandstone landscape, one of Utah’s newer state parks is also one of its most popular. Boat, fish, and dive at Sand Hollow Reservoir, explore and ride the dunes of Sand Mountain on an off-highway vehicle, RV or tent camp in a campground on the beach. Boating and fishing on its warm blue waters is the most popular activity in the warmer months but visitors can also go off-roading amidst wild red sandstone dunes in the park’s Sand Mountain area.

Escalante Petrified Forest State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Escalante Petrified Forest State Park

Camp along the shores of Wide Hollow Reservoir or rent a canoe, kayak, or paddle board. Hike along park nature trails through a petrified forest. Bordering the massive Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, this rarely visited jewel on Scenic Byway 12 allows you to peep fossilized dinosaur bones before trekking through an ancient petrified forest.

Potash-Lower Colorado River Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Potash-Lower Colorado River Scenic Byway

The Moab area is known for its abundance of Indian rock art. This byway (UT-279) features several petroglyph panels with many individual carvings depicting symbolic animals. Other ancient traces include a roadside display of dinosaur tracks and a number of delicate, naturally formed stone arches. There are also many opportunities for outdoor adventure and extreme sports. Climb Wall Street, a popular stretch of cliffs just after JayCee Campground.

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

Immense Cliffs and Stunning Overlooks: Dead Horse Point

Dead Horse Point State Park is perhaps Utah’s most spectacular state park

The park lies on the same broad mesa as The Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park. Featuring immense cliffs carved by the elements and stunning overlooks, Dead Horse Point State Park draws you in with its breathtaking landscapes, dark starlit skies, and rich history.

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

Dead Horse Point is a peninsula of rock atop sheer sandstone cliffs about 6,000 feet above sea level. Two thousand feet below, the Colorado River winds its way from the continental divide in Colorado to the Gulf of California, a distance of 1,400 miles. The peninsula is connected to the 8umesa by a narrow strip of land called the neck.

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

Millions of years of geologic activity created the spectacular views from Dead Horse Point State Park. Deposition of sediments by ancient oceans, freshwater lakes, streams, and windblown sand dunes created the rock layers of canyon country. Igneous activity formed the high mountains that rise like cool blue islands out of the hot, dry desert.

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

This desert gem sports a visitor center, a 21-site campground with flush toilets and shade ramadas, a group campsite, picnic area, and a nine-mile hiking trail loop.

Water is limited. Visitors should fill their recreation vehicle water tanks before coming to the park. This campground is not suitable for large RVs.

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

For those seeking an extra special overnight experience, the park also offers yurts that sleep six and feature a propane fireplace, kitchen area, outside grill, lighting, and electricity.

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

The plants and animals of Dead Horse Point have adapted to a land of scarce water and extreme temperatures. Plants grow very slowly here. Trees 15 feet tall may be hundreds of years old. Leaves of most plants are small, and some have a waxy coating to reduce evaporation.

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

Most desert animals are nocturnal, active only during cooler evenings and mornings. Some have large ears to dissipate heat while others metabolize water from food.

With Moab nearby, mountain bikers visiting the park can rest assured their bikes are permitted on the park’s paved roads.

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

For a more adventurous biking experience, bikers can also test their skills down the Intrepid Trail located near the park’s visitor center. With slickrock sections, looping singletrack, sandy washes, and incredible scenery, the Intrepid Trail System provides a great taste of what Moab mountain biking is all about. This is the perfect ride for families and offers spectacular views of the Colorado River and Canyonlands National Park.

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

The Intrepid Trail System has three hiking and biking loops ranging from one to nine miles with varying degrees of difficulty. The easiest and shortest loop is Intrepid, followed by Great Pyramid, with Big Chief as the most challenging. The nested loop trails will offer opportunities for visitors of all ages and abilities, and provide breathtaking views.

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

Dead Horse Point is a peninsula of rock atop sheer sandstone cliffs. The peninsula is connected to the mesa by a narrow strip of land called the neck. There are many stories about how this high promontory of land received its name.

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

According to one legend, the point was used as a corral for wild mustangs roaming the mesa top around the turn of the century. Cowboys rounded up these horses and herded them across the narrow neck of land and onto the point. The neck, which is only 30 yards wide, was then fenced off with branches and brush. This created a natural corral surrounded by precipitous cliffs straight down on all sides, affording no escape. Cowboys then chose the horses they wanted and let the culls or broomtails go free. One time, for some unknown reason, horses were left corralled on the waterless point where they died of thirst within view of the Colorado River, 2,000 feet below.

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

Dead Horse Point is best photographed at sunrise. For the warmest light, shoot between May 1 and mid-August, when the sun rises north of the La Sals, or from late October to mid-February, when it rises to the south.

Four view areas, ideal for photography stops, are located along the highway.

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

Dead Horse Point is reached by following the same route as the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park. It is 23 miles from U.S. Highway 191 to Dead Horse Point State Park via Utah Highway 313.

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

Worth Pondering…

Happiness is not a station you arrive at, but a manner of traveling.

—Margaret Lee Runbeck