Visitor Survey: Bryce Canyon National Park

More visitors to Bryce Canyon admire its fluted amphitheaters than its spectacular night skies, according to a survey. Top photo by QT Luong, www.terragalleria.com/parks, used with permission, bottom photo NPS.

Visitors to Bryce Canyon National Park overwhelmingly love the views down into the park's colorful amphitheaters with their whimsically eroded hoodoos, but aren't quite as enamored with the spectacular night skies overhead.

Just 47 percent of the respondents thought it was "extremely" or "very" important that the night skies over Bryce Canyon were dark and starry. "Clean air" got such ratings from 85 percent of the visitors, while 98 percent thought the park's "scenic vistas" were either "extremely" or "very" important.

That night-sky response is a bit surprising in that Bryce Canyon has been offering stargazing programs since 1969. The park currently offers more than 100 astronomy programs a year, is home to one of the National Park Service's "Dark Rangers," and boasts some of the darkest, most star-filled skies in the National Park System.

The insights into the popularity, or lack of, Bryce Canyon's night skies were gleaned by the Park Studies Unit at the University of Idaho, which surveyed Bryce Canyon visitors during the summer of 2009.

Social scientists and statisticians likely will find many of the answers contained in this survey interesting. For instance, while 62 percent of the folks who stayed inside Bryce Canyon slept in a campground, and just 39 percent (rounding errors can lead to a combined percentage above 100 percent) stayed in the lodge facilities, those who stayed outside the park did almost exactly the opposite: 67 percent stayed in a hotel or motel, while 31 percent stayed in a campground. Does that speak to the quality of the park's campgrounds, the cost of lodging in the park, or the availability of lodging in the park?

Of those who stayed in the Bryce Canyon Lodge, 84 percent gave the facility a "very good" or "good" quality rating. The lodge restaurant was not as warmly received; the percentage of respondents who gave it a similar rating dropped to 67 percent.

Overall, the highest quality rating -- 97 percent who cited either "very good" or "good" -- was bestowed on the park's trails and its horseback trail rides.

Also interesting was that visitors learned something about staying safe in the park during their visit. For instance, while 58 percent of the respondents were "very aware" about the benefits of hiking with hiking boots when they arrived at the park, that percentage grew to 75 percent by the end of their stay. Only 43 percent of visitors were "very aware" of lightning safety when they reached Bryce Canyon, but that grew to 69 percent by the end of their visit.

How to cope with altitude sickness, which could be an issue for visitors coming from sea level as Bryce Canyon's rim ranges in elevation from 8,000 feet to 9,100 feet, is a lesson that needs more work, however. Just 24 percent of the park's visitors were "very aware" of how to deal with altitude sickness, and 39 percent were "somewhat aware" when they arrived in the park. That "very aware" number improved only slightly, to 31 percent, while the "somewhat aware" number dipped to 37 percent, and 32 percent left the park not knowing how to deal with the problem.

Fewer than half (48 percent) of the visitors surveyed said they used the park's shuttle bus. Those who didn't most often said they had their own transportation or preferred the convenience of using their own vehicle. Those who commented on ways to improve the shuttle system most often suggested that its route be extended, that the schedule of operations be expanded, or that the frequency of buses be improved.

Other data from the survey included:

* U.S. visitors comprised 60 percent of total visitation during the survey period, with 23 percent from California, 12 percent from Utah, and smaller proportions from 41 other states and Washington, D.C.

* International visitors were from 25 countries and comprised 40 percent of total visitation, with 25 percent from Netherlands, 21 percent from France, 13 percent from Germany, and smaller proportions from 22 other countries.

* Seventy-six percent of the visitors were seeing Bryce Canyon for the first time. Twenty-one percent had visited the park two or three times.

* Thirty-seven percent of visitors were between the ages of 41 and 60 years, 24 percent were 15 or younger, and 8 percent were 66 years or older.

* Of those visitors who stayed overnight in the park or in the area within 50 miles of the park (81 percent), 40 percent spent two nights in the park, and 40 percent spent one night in the area outside the park.

* The average length of stay in the park was 24 hours.

* The most common site visited by visitor groups was Sunset Point (89 percent) followed by Sunrise Point (84 percent).

Comments

This park was a lovely surprise. My husband and I planned on visiting a cluster of parks in this area, but didn't include Bryce on our route. However, so many people suggested that we visit, that we detoured and arrived right after a light snowfall. The red colored rocks were iced in shining snow and, as it was out of season, we had the park almost to ourselves. It was my husband's first trip to the US (he's Venezuelan) and he was so bowled over by the incredible beauty of the park, that we returned twice more to hike and explore.

www.travelingbastards.blogspot.com

Bryce Canyon isn't a popular park for some reason, but to me, it's the most beautiful place on the face of the earth! The orangey-red hoodoos look even more beautiful in contrast to the most brilliant blue skies overhead. The blue sky is only rivaled by the sapphire blue of Crater Lake. Hiking there is usually not crowded, though I haven't been in a few years. I've never camped there (or anywhere else, for that matter!) but If I did, I am sure it would be magnificent at night!

Susan L.:
Bryce Canyon isn't a popular park for some reason, but to me, it's the most beautiful place on the face of the earth! The orangey-red hoodoos look even more beautiful in contrast to the most brilliant blue skies overhead. The blue sky is only rivaled by the sapphire blue of Crater Lake. Hiking there is usually not crowded, though I haven't been in a few years. I've never camped there (or anywhere else, for that matter!) but If I did, I am sure it would be magnificent at night!
Bryce Canyon is big with special astronomy events, as well as guided nighttime hikes. They encourage people to adjust to the dark and not use any lights, since they interfere with the adjustment to walking in the dark.

I'm not 100% sure why Bryce Canyon doesn't get more visitors. Zion NP gets more than 2-1/2 times the visit. Zion might be a little bit closer to Grand Canyon NP and Las Vegas, but it's not that much further.

The last time I visited Bryce, four years ago, I guided four friends to Sunset Point for the sunrise.
It was late April; there was still a good bit of snow.
A little before the sun rose, we were greeted by a hovering, VERY LOUD ! TOURIST HELICOPTER !,
whose presence impaled the experience for us, as well as for a busload of visitors from Japan.
I had difficulty believing this travesty of our experience was allowed.
I have not returned to Bryce since, although I have driven past Ruby's a number of times
on my many explorations of Southern Utah.

Are helicopters still allowed to hang in the airspace above translucent sandstone beauty?

I think the survey result that "only" 47% of Bryce Canyon visitors felt that the night sky was "extremely" or "very" important is actually a pretty encouraging number. Consider that many Bryce visitors only spend a couple of hours and roughly half of the visitors aren't aware that that there is even good stargazing there. Given that, the 47% number supports the importance of dark skies to visitors.

Another unpublished survey focusing more closely on the attitudes toward dark skies at Bryce Canyon and Cedar Breaks found that only 14% of respondents felt that the night sky was "unimportant" or "somewhat unimportant" to their visit. There is a lot of subtlety to social science- in this particular case, the later in the day you ask these questions (and thus the more likely the visitors are to spend the night), the greater the importance of night skies becomes.

Additionally, the rangers there have observed that the average length of stay is increasing. Visitor numbers aren't up that much, but there are far more overnight stays in the local hotels. The likely reason for this is visitor interest in the 100+ stargazing programs that are offered. The average stay of 24 hours quoted seems to support this, as compared to previous survey results.

By simply analyzing just the responses of those visitors who intended to stay the night, you would get a much higher percentage than 47%. We must remember that in parks we don't put quantity over quality, and we don't ignore resources just because they are not loved by the majority. Instead we err on the side of protecting the most sublime, evocative, and beautiful parts. I've met people in airports who by chance learn that I work for the NPS, only to have them wax poetically about the night sky in southern Utah. The night sky there a valuable heritage and is quite well renowned. It is also unequivocally considered valuable by the local population and economy.

Chad Moore