Angling for Visitors: How a business-minded approach is evolving Utah’s state parks

Utah has 43 state parks, and the State Legislature wants each of them to be financially self-sufficient. But for the Utah Division of Parks and Recreation, this doesn’t mean simply raising fees—individual parks have implemented creative ways to draw in new and return visitors.

Utah Lake State Park, for example, has undergone a significant transformation over the past three years in a quest to boost annual revenues. During that three-year period, the state park has expanded its parking lot to include approximately 250 trailer parking spots and 250 single vehicle parking spots. It now features 55 camp sites. Four different concession stands and a BB Grill food truck operate inside the park. Park visitors also have access to public Wi-Fi and Google Fiber.

Paddle board rentals and sales are available to visitors who enjoy that sport. The Bonneville School of Sailing also operates inside the park—offering sailing lessons and sunset cruises on Utah Lake. Plans are also in place to open the state’s second wakeboard cable park by the summer of 2017. The lake is undergoing dredging this summer in preparation.

For Utah Lake State Park Manager Jason Allen, casting as wide a net as possible to draw in visitors is crucial when they have so many other recreation options and marinas around the state’s largest freshwater lake.

“There’s plenty of other access points around the lake,” Allen says. “We don’t have a monopoly like some of the other state parks, where if you want access you’ve got to go through the state park. We’re trying to be as customer friendly as possible down here to draw folks in, and we’re making as many improvements in the park to our amenities as possible.”

Getting the word out

Utah Lake isn’t the only state park looking for creative ways to draw in first-time and repeat visitors. Installing new amenities has become a way of life for state parks as they recognize the need to expand beyond traditional offerings like boat launch ramps and hiking trails.

Green River State Park added a championship-level 18-hole disc golf course to its existing nine-hole golf course and held a Pro-Am disc golf tournament for the first time in the fall of 2015. More than 60 players from Denver, Salt Lake City and surrounding regions participated in the two-day tournament. It proved to be a big money maker for the entire town of Green River. Two disc golf tournaments—one this month and one in November—are scheduled for 2016.

The state park also added water and electricity hookups to its campgrounds within the past couple of years. It has always been a popular embarkation point for rafting trips through Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons on the Green River. These days, however, more visitors are sticking around in the park instead of simply parking and setting out on the river.

Green River State Park has experienced an annual increase in the number of visitors and revenue each year over the last five years.

“The word is getting out,” says Aaron Farmer, who manages Green River State Park, Green River Golf Course and Goblin Valley State Park. “Like any other business, word of mouth is usually the most valuable advertising you can have. We’ve been able to give people a good experience in our parks, offering amenities that they want and giving them recreational opportunities they can’t find anywhere else.”

Some state parks have benefitted from hosting part of major sporting events within park boundaries. These include everything from triathlons to cycling races.

The Tour of Utah used Antelope Island State Park as a starting point for its third stage in 2015 and plans to start a stage at Antelope Island again in 2016. The swimming portion of the annual St. George Ironman Triathlon is staged at Sand Hollow Reservoir inside Sand Hollow State Park, a popular destination for ATV riders because of its sand dunes.

These races draw in athletes and spectators from a host of nations, giving the state parks a dose of positive publicity worth its weight in gold.

“When we do Ironman, that brings people in from all over the world,” says Laura Melling, Sand Hollow State Park manager. “I’ve had many people that came for Ironman, come back to the area when they’re not competing and bring their families because they’re so impressed with the area.”

Local participation

Outdoor recreation and athletic events are not the only tools available in the toolbox for state parks. Some parks take advantage of history and location to appeal to visitors not interested in water sports or hiking.

Antelope Island State Park, for example, offers guided tours of the historic ranch located on the island. The park holds stargazing parties and hosts free concerts during the summer months. These sorts of activities are put together in the name of enticing Wasatch Front residents to come out and regularly visit the island.

It is easy for state parks to focus too much on tourists and neglect local residents, says Jeremy Shaw, the Antelope Island State Park manager. That’s why he and his staff focus on creating offerings at the park that will appeal to local residents.

“We get lots of visitors from outside this local area, but our big push is to get people from the local area to come out and use the park,” Shaw says. “Those are the people who are going to use it multiple times in a year. So that’s been our focus. The way we’ve done that is try and create programs that are tailored for the locals. We try and do (activities) throughout the year that locals will come take advantage of.”

Visitors to state parks can participate in many activities simply by paying a per-vehicle day usage fee or purchasing a season state park pass. Passes can be bought at any state park or online at the Utah State Parks website.