Why have tourists skipped a small Arizona town?

Horseshoe bend
A newly expanded visitor parking area will open at the Horseshoe Bend Overlook on April 13 (Image credit: Getty)

Usually spring break means the small adventure-oriented town of Page, Arizona, is bustling with people and excitement.

Although it’s a remote outpost more than 2 hours from Flagstaff, Arizona, and St George, Utah, there are plenty of hiking, camping, canyoneering and boating adventures to be had in Page, Lake Powell and the surrounding areas known for stunning red rock canyons and buttes.

But lingering Covid-19 precautions have kept Page from getting its regular flow of spring tourism the past two years.

In other words, local businesses and tour companies have laid out a welcome mat and are eager to serve you. If you’re looking for a good place to camp, explore canyons or go hiking without congestion, head to Page. The small northern Arizona town is known as a gateway to amazing hiking trails in and around spectacular Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Rainbow Bridge National Monument and Horseshoe Bend Overlook above the Colorado River.

“Some of the best hiking trails and canyoneering routes in the Southwest are within 30 minutes in any direction,” says Liz Wright, a professional photographer who spends part of the year living in Page and shooting for tourism companies. “Even when it’s crowded, you can get off the beaten path and not see people on the trails for hours. It’s really a great, unsung adventure destination.”

But this year, Antelope Canyon in the Lake Powell Navajo Tribal Park remains closed because of Covid-19 precautions, which is one of the reasons many of the 145 campsites at the Page-Lake Powell Campground near Page have remaining empty and unreserved. Those are sure signs that tourism is way down for the second straight year because of the lingering effects of the pandemic.

“Starting from spring break in March, for the last five or six years, our campground has been sold out every single weekend all the way into Thanksgiving,” Ron Colby, who manages the campground and a nearby fishing bait shop, told the Arizona Daily Sun.

Colby said business has been down 78 percent compared to 2019, partially due to the Covid-19-related slow-down of 2020. There were a few weeks over the summer that approached normal occupancy levels, he said, but that eventually dropped off.

Colby believes there is another key reason for the lack of visitors: the closure of Highway 64. The road that runs from the small town of Cameron about 75 miles (120 km) south of Page to the east entrance of the South Rim of Grand Canyon National Park was closed by the park service a year ago as cases of Covid-19 spiked across the neighboring Navajo Nation and began impacting communities across northern Arizona. But a year later, the highway remains closed as Covid concerns are beginning to ease up.

That’s a frustrating fact for municipal leaders in Page, which relies on seasonal tourism as the primary component of its economy.

Page mayor Bill Diak and city manager Darren Coldwell have both been lobbying Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent Edward Keable, as well as local and state elected officials, to reopen the highway. There are tentative plans to reopen the highway in the spring, said Grand Canyon National Park spokesperson Joelle Baird.

Baird told the Arizona Daily Sun that Keable, who is responsible for making the decision on when to reopen the route, is looking at a tentative plan for reopening prior to the May 29-31 Memorial Day weekend.

“On April 1 there was an agreement between the Navajo Nation and the park to try to limit visitation across the Navajo Nation,” Baird said. “So since that time, we have had the east entrance closed out of respect to the Navajo Nation and their concerns with Covid spreading across the nation. That has improved remarkably within the last few months. So we're looking forward to planning the reopening of the centers in the near future."

The Navajo Nation was hit hard by the pandemic, which killed hundreds of tribal members as the virus spiked with higher local county and state incidence levels. Baird said the decision to reopen the highway will be made only after careful consideration and with the consultation of tribal partners.

“We're looking right now at a tentative reopening May 21,” Baird said. “However, we're having regular communication with the various tribal governments in Window Rock to collaborate with them on a re-opening date. Specifically, we're working with the Cameron chapter pretty closely.”

But Baird said there are several other considerations when making the decision to reopen the route that could keep it closed longer. The park’s east entrance has been closed for nearly a year and Baird said the park still needs to ensure they have the staffing needed to reopen the entrance. And if the situation around Covid-19 changes, the highway’s closure could continue.

For years, Page has marketed itself as part of the Grand Circle, a loop that covers numerous national parks, monuments and small towns in northern Arizona and southern Utah. That loop incorporates Las Vegas, Lake Mead, Flagstaff, Arizona, Lake Powell and Zion National Park along Interstate 40, Highway 64, Highway 89 and Interstate 15.

“People come out of Vegas, and they come in one way through I-40, and do the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, continue on up to do Page, Lake Powell, or they go on over to Monument Valley, come back in the other way,” Diak said. “Both Utah and Arizona have marketed that for years, and then finally it has taken hold over the last three years. Now we're going to lose all that.”

With Highway 64 closed, Diak said, that Grand Circle has been disrupted and Page has been cut off with it. Now, if visitors of the South Rim want to head up to Page, they first have to drive south to Flagstaff, extending their drive by hundreds of miles.

For the time being, there are a lot of good available campsites and stunning attractions in and around Page without the usual congestion. And there are signs that the tourism slowdown is about to pick up later this spring.

“It won’t remain this quiet for very long,” Wright says. “When other places get crowded again, people will come back here to get away from the crowds.”

Brian Metzler

Brian is an award-winning journalist, photographer and podcaster who has written for Runner’s World, The Times, Outside, Men’s Journal, Trail Runner, Triathlete and Red Bulletin. He's also the author of several books, including Kicksology: The Hype, Science, Culture and Cool of Running Shoes. He lives in Boulder, Colorado, and loves to run, bike, hike, camp, ski and climb mountains. He has wear-tested more than 1,500 pairs of running shoes, completed four Ironman triathlons, as well as numerous marathons and ultra-distance running races.