FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The trains are rolling in, tour buses are pulling up and vehicles are moving steadily through the entrance gates of Grand Canyon National Park after Arizona struck a deal with the federal government to reopen the landmark tourist area.
“Y’all come back to the Grand Canyon, it’s open,” Gov. Jan Brewer said Saturday from the South Rim.
Park employees who had been furloughed because of the federal budget battle awoke early Saturday to remove closure signs from trails, unlock restrooms and restock shelves before allowing vehicle traffic. Arizona is paying the National Park Service $651,000 to keep the Grand Canyon open for seven days.
Utah has done the same with five of its national parks – Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce, Zion and Capitol Reef.
Colorado’s Mesa Verde remains closed although Rocky Mountain has been reopened.
Joe Del Monte and his wife planned a trip to the Grand Canyon for their children’s mid-winter break. He kept their hotel reservations in Tusayan, just outside the South Rim entrance, while they visited Sedona, holding out hope that his son’s wish to throw a stick into the Grand Canyon would be fulfilled.
“It was a bit of disbelief that they could close a place like the Grand Canyon,” said Del Monte, of Chandler. “We’re grateful politics got pushed to the side.”
The family planned to do some hiking and “soak in as much as possible and enjoy the nice weather.”
The Grand Canyon typically gets 18,000 visitors a day in October at a time when temperatures are cooler and the leaves begin to change colors.
The partial government shutdown ruined vacations and threatened businesses that depend on Grand Canyon tourism. Federal and private employees were furloughed, river rafting trips canceled, and campgrounds, hotels and hiking trails closed. Officials estimate losses in the millions.
Will Anderson was headed to Lees Ferry on Saturday to begin a 19-day rafting trip on the Colorado River on Sunday – two days shorter than originally planned. The Sacramento, Calif., resident said it was hard to keep up morale within his group but that he had faith they’d eventually be able to launch the trip he considers the “premier wilderness experience you can get in the lower 48 states.”
Not all of the group members, including some from North Carolina and Alaska, made it and incurred financial losses, he said. The rest were willing to wait until Tuesday for the canyon to reopen.
“It’s appalling that Congress can’t work things out, but a huge relief that the states are able to step in,” he said.
Services at the Grand Canyon were expected to be limited during the first 48 hours as vendors restock. The first meal at El Tovar Hotel on the South Rim was planned for Saturday night.
Park concessionaire Xanterra Parks & Resorts said overnight mule rides and motorcoach tours within the park will resume Sunday.
The funding to reopen the park came from the state Office of Tourism, the town of Tusayan and private businesses. Tusayan Mayor Greg Bryan presented a check for $426,500 to Brewer during a Saturday news conference.
Grand Canyon Superintendent Dave Uberuaga said the long weekend was a major driver in talks to resume park operations.
He said the agreement with Arizona includes an option to extend the opening of Grand Canyon past seven days if needed.
“It’s going to be a significant economic boost to everybody,” he said. “Hopefully, we can have a continuing resolution by the time we run through the state of Arizona agreement and their funding.”
Other national parks and monuments in Arizona remain closed. The exception is Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which stretches into Utah. Utah governor Gov. Gary Herbert sent $1.67 million to the U.S. government to open the recreation area that includes Lake Powell, and other sites in Utah.
Brewer said she would push Congress to reimburse Arizona for funding the Grand Canyon.
“Arizona should not have to pay the federal government’s tab here,” she said. “It’s their responsibility. The president and Congress should get up and do their jobs and negotiate an end to this shutdown as soon as possible.”