Hiking Canyonlands, Utah during the Government Shutdown

It all started with a backcountry permit to hike into the Grand Canyon in mid-October, applied for by fax on the first day possible, June 1 (the first day of the fourth month before the trip start date – permits for popular hiking months can be difficult to obtain and it is therefore advisable to apply early.) The rest of the trip filled in slowly, most of it an impromptu plan thrown together at the last moment.

We would drive west from DC, stopping in Denver to visit family and then hike in the Moab area of south-eastern Utah before turning south to Arizona. Under normal circumstances we should have had reservations for Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. October is peak season. However, at the end of September with the status of our national parks uncertain due to a possible government shutdown, not having reservations turned out to be an advantage.

Note: Due to political dysfunction and the nature of our governmental system the federal government was threatening to “shutdown” non-essential operations, including the national parks, as of October 1st.

We made a strategic decision to hike into the backcountry of Canyonlands on the eve of the Oct 1st deadline, thus delaying our forced exit from the park by a day and half. We figured that they can’t evict us if they can’t find us.

We arrived at the Canyonlands’ Island of the Sky Visitor Center on Sept 29th to obtain a backcountry permit to enter the Needles area of the park on the following day, Sept 30 (at the time, walk in permits could only be issued for that day or the following day.)

The backcountry clerk at Island of the Sky could issue permits for any campsite in the park, but she was not very knowledgeable about the area we wanted to hike into and had to call the Needles backcountry office for advice. (It’s about a 2 and half hour drive between visitor centers.)

Getting a permit issued at the Island of the Sky office actually worked out in our favor as the Needles permit clerk on the other end of the phone seemed reluctant to issue a permit beyond Oct 1st, even though on this day, Sept 29th, the shutdown was probable but not inevitable.

The Island of the Sky clerk, however, was told guests would have 48 hours to exit the park if indeed the park were to close.  Upon that understanding we were issued a permit for the nights of Sept 30th and Oct 1st.

Our plan was to camp at the Arches National Park campground on September 29th where we had a confirmed reservation, hike the Devils Garden loop the morning of Sept 30th, then drive 2 hours south to Needles and enter the park hours before the shutdown.

The only minor hiccup occurred when we checked in with the backcountry permit desk at Needles to confirm water sources and trail conditions – the area had been hard hit by heavy rains a couple of weeks prior.

The woman manning the desk was not keen on us entering the backcountry with the park most likely shutting down the next morning. At first she told us we needed to come back out after only one night. We explained that we had been told that we would have 48 hours to leave the park. She said that that may be true for guests in the campground, but not the backcountry. In the end, however, she said it wasn’t her “deal” and to do what we wanted. “Just don’t get yourselves locked in the park.”

We hiked in as planned and had a glorious 2 days feeling like we had the park to ourselves. We saw only one pair of hikers who were day hiking from the campground. They confirmed that the park had indeed closed and were told that they could stay the nights that they had paid for, not to exceed three days.

The morning of Oct 2nd we hiked out. The campground was empty except for a couple of remaining campers packing up. There were two other vehicles in the otherwise empty parking lot. One had a backcountry tag with an exit day of Oct 8th. The tires on all 3 vehicles, including ours, were marked with the location and the date, Oct 1st. The visitor center parking lot was also empty except for 3 staff vehicles.

We exited the park, moving the pylons and noting the sign that said that Canyonlands National Park was closed due to the government shutdown. Such a pity on a spectacular fall day in the height of the tourist season.

Final Note: Canyonlands National Park as well as 7 other national sites in Utah were opened with state funds on October 12, 2013. The Federal shutdown was ended and all the national sites were reopened on October 17th.

October 2, 2013

For a list of all posts is this series see the Hiking in Southern Utah and Arizona page.