Following heat-related deaths, Southern Utah national park officials urge visitors: Be prepared, be smart

ST. GEORGE — August is known for its searing temperatures. And Southern Utah national park officials are reminding visitors to be smart about the heat.

The National Park Service is reminding visitors to take the necessary safety precautions before venturing out onto park trails, unspecified date | Photo courtesy of National Park Service, St. George News

Their concern comes as more people nationwide are suspected to have suffered from heat-related illnesses and death in the national parks than usual this year. According to a National Park Service news release, preliminary data showed five heat-related deaths have occurred this summer, higher than average rates. While the deaths are still under investigation, all five died in temperatures of at least 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Extreme heat has killed more people at this point in the summer than any other year since 2007,” Cynthia Hernandez, a public affairs specialist for the National Park Service, said in the news release. 

Despite record heat, visitors continue to flock to national parks. Zion National Park Spokesman Jonathan Shafer said the key to safety is knowing the conditions before you visit. 

“Park rangers at Zion work to provide information about conditions to hikers before they arrive at the park, at visitor centers and person-to-person at trailheads and on trails,” Shafer told St. George News in an email. 

Before arrival, Shafer suggests visitors check the park’s website to understand weather forecasts. He also advises travelers to stop at the visitor centers to check conditions. He noted there are signs and bulletin boards that park employees update daily. 

“At trailheads and on trails, park rangers patrol to remind visitors about conditions and encourage everyone to fill up water bottles, drink plenty of water and eat snacks that replenish electrolytes lost in sweat,” Shafer said.

Overall, Shafter said the most important factors to remember are:

  • Know the forecast before you start any activity in Zion. In addition to heat, remember that summer monsoons can rapidly change conditions on canyoneering routes and in areas like The Narrows.
  • Hike smart. Mornings are almost always cooler than afternoons. No matter when you start a hike, carefully consider the conditions and remember that your safety is your responsibility.
  • The second-best place to bring water is in a water bottle. The best place to carry water is in you. Start hydrating before you arrive at the park, bring plenty of water on your hike, and drink water frequently.

Although Bryce Canyon National Park is nearly 4,000 feet higher than Zion National Park, it, too, can be dangerous during the summer heat. Bryce Canyon spokesman Peter Densmore told St. George News that Bryce Canyon is usually 10 to 15 degrees cooler than Zion and Arches National Parks. 

“While Bryce Canyon’s high elevation makes it a great summer destination, it does bring some other risks such as altitude-related illness, dehydration and lightning strikes,” Densmore said. “Planning like a park ranger starts with knowing what to expect and packing appropriately.”

Densmore advises travelers to check the park’s website for weather forecasts, alerts and trip-planning resources.  

Densmore said items to bring to the park include:

  • Good footwear.
  • Sun protection.
  • Plenty of water. Bring at least one liter of water per hour spent hiking.
  • Salty snacks to help replace electrolytes.
  • Assurance from one’s doctor whether it is safe to exert oneself at higher elevations.

Densmore also advised visitors to reach out to park rangers at the Visitor Center and when out on the trail for advice on planning their day.

Bryce Canyon National Park, Bryce, Utah, unspecified date | Photo by Stephanie DeGraw, St. George News

“We often say that the only bad hike in the park is the one that’s beyond your abilities. Eight-thousand feet isn’t the place to push your comfort zone,” Densmore said. “And even though it can be cooler at Bryce Canyon, temperatures can still rise into the 90s. Avoid the heat of the middle of the day and start your hike in the morning or late afternoon.”

If visiting the national parks, Densmore also cautions avoiding lightning strikes.

“If thunder roars, go indoors,” Densmore said. “If you can hear thunder, a lightning strike is possible. Summer heat can build strong afternoon thunderstorms and high-elevation areas are more prone to lightning strikes. Heading indoors is always the safest choice.”

Three locations the park service highlighted for temperatures in the triple digits during the summer months include Grand Canyon National Park, with more than 4.7 million visitors; Death Valley National Park, with about 1.1 million visitors, and Big Bend National Park, which saw about half a million visitors in 2022.

The news release also identified the people who were affected by the heat this summer so far:

  • A 14-year-old boy died on a trail in southwest Texas’ Big Bend National Park in 119-degree heat and his 31-year-old father died seeking help to save him.
  • A 65-year-or-older man died hiking on June 1 in Big Bend.
  • A 57-year-old woman died hiking a trail in Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park.
  • A 71-year-old man collapsed and died outside a restroom in California’s Death Valley National Park after park rangers believe he hiked a nearby trail.
  • A 65-year-old man was found dead in his disabled vehicle on the side of the road in Death Valley National Park, with park rangers suspecting he succumbed to heat illness while driving and then baked in temperatures as high as 126 degrees.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.

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