When you think of America’s National Parks, a few iconic images come to mind: gushing geysers in Yellowstone, fall leaves in the Great Smoky Mountains and the stunning red rock vistas of Utah.

This year, America’s National Park Service celebrates its centennial birthday. Though all the parks have something to brag about, Utah’s distinct natural wonders attract visitors from around the world. The otherworldly geological features of Utah’s 13 national parks and monuments drew a record-breaking 12.02 million people in 2015.

“Mother Nature played favorites with Utah,” says Vicki Varela, executive director of the Utah Office of Tourism. “The National Parks are such an important part of Utah’s identity. There’s only one place in the world where you can have this red rock experience.”

Bryce Canyon National Park

Delicate Arch at Arches National Park

Island in the Sky at Canyonlands National Park

Celebrating Recreation, Preservation and Conservation

The 100th birthday of the National Parks commemorates decades of recreation and conservation in the parks. The official celebration takes place on Aug. 25, the day President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service Organic Act.

 “The centennial is all about making connections with outdoor places and celebrating the unique bond communities have with the special places preserved within our national parks,” says Maria Twitchell, executive director of the Cedar City/Brian Head Tourism Bureau. In 2015, Twitchell helped established Parks100, a committee of more than 25 organizations in the southwest Grand Circle region of Utah, Arizona and Nevada. By sharing travel information through the Parks100 website, it is hoped that visitors extend their vacations beyond the main parks. Twitchell — chairwoman of the committee — hopes to inspire people to explore the hidden gems of America’s wild.

 

Find Your Park Campaign

The National Parks launched a Find Your Park campaign with the same goal of encouraging the public to connect with the country’s wilderness. The Utah Office of Tourism proudly aired its own campaign — The Mighty 5 — to show off the hidden gems in Utah’s five most popular national parks: Zion, Arches, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef and Canyonlands. The tourism office credits that campaign (which plays on cable channels all over the U.S. and Canada) for the parks’ recent widespread popularity.

 “Utah’s natural landscape is so much different to anything else that we have experienced before,” says Chris Boothman, a native of England who visited the parks last year with his wife, Heather. “We loved experiencing the eclectic blend of landscapes throughout the state of Utah, and how each of the Mighty 5 offers something unique and very different from other national parks.”

Boothman wrote on their blog, A Brit and A Southerner, that their trip to Utah left him “awe-inspired and almost speechless as to the beauty that we experienced.”

 

Not Just Summer Vacation

 Tourism is one of Utah’s fastest growing industries; last year tourists spent $7.98 billion in Utah and generated $1.09 billion of that in state and local tax revenues.

 Those numbers, Varela hopes, will influence Congress to invest in the National Parks. There’s a backlog of $11.5 billion in projects and repairs in the National Parks system; $278 million of those are in Utah. Utah parks need more staffing and infrastructure investments.

 The Utah Office of Tourism has started advertising the parks as year-round, all-hours destinations to break up the crowds. Visit the website and you’ll see a picture of red rock capped with snow, and another of arches framed by the night sky. The hope is for visitors to have special, off-the-beaten-path experiences outside of the crowded summer days.

 “There’s no formula for the way these parks have to be experienced,” Varela adds. “Until you’ve had that red rock experience in all seasons, from the heat of the summer to the snow in winter, you really cannot fathom the art of Mother Nature.”

 

Celebrating Year-round

 Not surprising to Utah residents, the Beehive State was featured prominently in the new “National Parks Adventure” IMAX movie narrated by Robert Redford. He said the state’s national parks were “precisely why I chose to live here.”

 The centennial, which will be honored yearlong in parks across the nation, will be celebrated at events around the state. Highlights in Utah will be the reopening and dedication of the Bryce Canyon Visitor Center Aug. 25, and National Park Free Days (fees waived Aug. 25-28, Sept. 24 and Nov. 11). For more information on Utah’s National Parks, go to visitutah.com.

The Narrows at Zion National Park

By Amelia Nielson-Stowell

Photos by Kevin Kiernan