How to Stay Safe When Visiting National Parks (General Guide)

A visit to any national park poses its own safety concerns, from unpredictable weather to the dangers of wildlife. Be prepared before you go by checking out these general safety tips and guidelines for visiting national parks.

Be mindful of signs regarding safety when visiting national parks

Wildlife

It should come as no surprise that every national park is filled with wildlife specific to its region! Be prepared to encounter your share of wild animals during your trip. It’s important to know what to do you if you have a run-in with a potentially dangerous creature. 

Some basic tips for wildlife safety are as follows:

  • Avoid bears and other animals attacking your tent or campsite by
    • either storing any food, cooking materials, or scented items (including deodorant, lotions, toothpaste, food wrappers, trash, etc.) in a certified bear bag or storage container.
    • or if you’re traveling with a car, locking your food and anything aromatic inside, especially at night.
  • Know what to do if you see a bear, mountain lion, or other potentially threatening animal. Some of these things include:
    • making yourself look as large as possible by spreading your arms wide and yelling
    • throwing objects to scare it away
    • backing away slowly
    • avoiding making eye contact
  • Make plenty of noise while hiking. This will alert animals to your presence so you don’t sneak up and scare them. Keep a safe distance from any and all wildlife when you do encounter it. 
  • Do your research before heading to a national park to know what types of wildlife you may encounter there so you can prepare accordingly.

Weather

It’s important to be prepared for ever-changing weather when visiting any national park. The nature of high altitude or rugged destinations is often characterized by frequent and unpredictable changes in weather. If it’s sunny one minute, don’t be surprised if it becomes windy and rainy the next! Come prepared by wearing plenty of layers and be ready for rain and snow as well as heat and humidity.

Depending on which national park you’re visiting, your region could be prone to wildfires, landslides, earthquakes, or avalanches. Pay attention to notices of hiking trails that are closed for the season or have been impacted by flooding, snow, or any other natural hazard. Make note of any guidelines in place before you arrive and be sure to follow them to keep out of harm’s way.

On the Trails

It is essential that hikers remain on the designated trails in all national parks. This is both for your safety and for the preservation of the natural lands you’re visiting. Be sure to heed park guidelines regarding trail closures as they relate to the time of year and weather conditions during your visit.

If there are restrictions in place regarding swimming in rapids or waterfalls, avoid swimming at all costs! These precautions are put in place for the safety of park visitors and are best observed to avoid any accidents.

Don’t forget to live by the principle “Leave No Trace” when visiting any national park or natural area. This means avoiding littering, disposing of waste properly, and not causing any harm to the fragile ecosystem you are visiting.

Finally, remember to “pack it in, pack it out”, meaning that if you brought it with you to the park, be sure to take it with you when you leave! This includes all trash, food remnants, wrappers, empty containers, etc.

Law Enforcement

US national parks follow US Federal Law, and you’ll need to check ahead for each park’s rules on fishing, camping, etc. It’s also useful to note that every national park has its own rules and regulations when it comes to drugs and alcohol in the park and on campgrounds, so look into that before you go to avoid hefty fines!

Being Prepared

The best thing you can do for yourself before visiting a national park is to do your research ahead of time and be as prepared as possible before you go.

Here are some useful things to bring and look into to prepare for your trip:

  • Bring these items to help your trip run smoothly:
    • Flashlight and extra batteries
    • First aid kit
    • Bug spray
    • Sunscreen and sun hat
    • Proper hiking shoes or boots
    • Emergency whistle
  • Bring plenty of water and sufficient food to last the duration of your trip and a bit longer, just to be safe.
  • Research your route before you leave and have a physical map of the area with you in case your technology gets lost, broken, or isn’t working
  • If you plan to go camping, make sure to reserve your campsite ahead of time and familiarize yourself with your route. Plan to arrive at your campsite during daylight hours so you’ll have time to set up safely.
  • If you’re not planning to stay the night in the park, be sure to set a turn-around time for your hike so you don’t get stuck after dark without proper lodging and provisions.

Other Concerns

If you plan to visit the more popular US national parks during peak season, you’re likely to encounter tons of other visitors which can pose significant safety risks. Watch out for petty theft and remember to secure your belongings and always lock your car doors. 

Be cognizant of the altitude at your national park and take proper precautions against altitude sickness. Take time to acclimate to rising altitudes and don’t push yourself too hard too fast. Hydration is key for avoiding and treating altitude sickness, so remember to bring plenty of water, electrolytes, and altitude sickness medication. Do not rely on water you find along your way for drinking water; always boil or purify even fresh-looking water from streams, rivers, and lakes to avoid waterborne illnesses.

Lastly, avoid hiking solo whenever possible. If it can’t be prevented, make sure to tell someone of your plans and share your itinerary with them before you leave. If you do plan to head out alone, be sure to keep an emergency whistle on you and consider bringing a satellite phone for communication, just in case.

Read More

Wildlife Safety Tips

The 7 Principles

Basic Facts about Glacier National Park

History

Glacier National Park borders Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada — the two parks are known as the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, and were designated as the world’s first International Peace Park in 1932. The parks were designated by the United Nations as Biosphere Reserves in 1976, and in 1995 as World Heritage sites.

Landscape

Glacier National Park is a stunning display of the geological processes that changed North America over the last billion years. The rock formations in the park are almost entirely sedimentary, laid down between 1600 to 800 million years ago when this area was an inland sea. They were uplifted during the formation of the Rockies beginning around 170 million years ago, and today contain some of the best Proterozoic fossils in the world. The mountains were carved into their present form by the advance and retreat of glaciers during the last ice age, and the park, as its name suggests, contains an abundance of glacial features, including lakes, valleys, and remnant glaciers (although these have diminished significantly in the last century).

Basic Facts about Rocky Mountain National Park

History

Evidence of Native American peoples visiting the park date back almost 10,000 years, mainly from the Ute and Arapaho communities. Several expeditions visited the area in the early to mid-19th century, including one by Joel Estes in 1859 after which he and his family established a homestead that would soon become Estes Park, the resort town on the east side of the park. After a small mining rush on the western side of the park in the early 1880s, a 14-year-old boy by the name of Enos Mills moved to the area and began to extensively document the region’s geography and ecology through essays and books. He began to lobby Congress to establish a national park in the area surrounding Longs Peak, a mountain he had climbed over 40 times by himself. On January 26, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed a bill that established the creation of Rocky Mountain National Park. The 1930s brought a building boom to the park during the Great Depression, during which time the Trail Ridge Road was constructed through the park, which remains today the highest continuous stretch of highway in the United States.

Landscape

Rocky Mountain National Park sits on the Continental Divide, separating the park into two distinct regions. The eastern and more developed side of the park is dominated by striking valleys and cirques that were formed through heavy glaciation and is a good starting point for first-time visitors. The western side of the park is wetter, is heavily forested and is less developed, but still contains excellent trekking and backcountry opportunities. Most areas of the park sit well above 9,000 ft (2,700 m) with mountains along the Continental Divide topping off at above 12,000 feet. The 13,000-foot Mummy Range rests on the northern side of Rocky Mountain National Park with two roads skirting long it’s southern edges; a one-way, dirt road that winds up the Fall River called the Old Fall River Road; and a section of Highway 34 known as the Trail Ridge Road. The Never Summer Mountains sit on the western side of the park and consist of 10 distinct peaks, all rising well over 12,000 feet, and contain the headwaters for the Colorado River. One of the most dominating features in the southeast area of the park is Longs Peak at 14,259 feet, which is surrounded on all sides by several peaks well about 13,000 feet, including Mt. Meeker, Mount Lady Washington, and Storm Peak.

Basic Facts about Yellowstone National Park

History

On March 1, 1872, Yellowstone became the first National Park reserve declared anywhere in the world, by President Ulysses S. Grant. In 1978 it was designated a World Heritage Site. Although it is commonly assumed that the park was named for the yellow rocks seen in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the park’s name comes from the Yellowstone River that flows through it, which is in turn named after sandstone bluffs found farther down its course in eastern Montana.

Long before any recorded human history in Yellowstone, a massive volcanic eruption spewed an immense volume of ash that covered all of the western U.S., much of the Midwest, parts of the US east coast, northern Mexico, and some areas in Canada. The eruption left a caldera approximately 34 by 45 miles (55 by 72 km). See volcanoes for background; Yellowstone is classed as a supervolcano and its last eruption is thought to have been a VEI-8 event with over 1000 km3 of ejecta, a thousand times more powerful than the 1980 eruption of Mt. St. Helens. The Yellowstone super volcano is believed to erupt every 600,000 to 900,000 years with the last event occurring 640,000 years ago. Its eruptions are among the largest known to have ever occurred on Earth, producing drastic climate change in the aftermath.

Landscape

With half of the earth’s geothermal features, Yellowstone holds the planet’s most diverse and intact collection of geysers, hot springs, mudpots, and fumaroles. Its more than 300 geysers make up two thirds of all those found on earth. Combine this with more than 10,000 thermal features comprised of brilliantly colored hot springs, bubbling mudpots, and steaming fumaroles, and you have a place like no other.

Yellowstone’s hydrothermal features would not exist without the underlying magma body that releases tremendous heat. They also depend on sources of water, such as from the mountains surrounding the Yellowstone Plateau. There, snow and rain slowly percolate through layers of permeable rock riddled with cracks. Some of this cold water meets hot brine directly heated by the shallow magma body. The water’s temperature rises well above the boiling point but the water remains in a liquid state due to the great pressure and weight of the overlying water. The result is superheated water with temperatures exceeding 400 °F (200 °C).

The superheated water is less dense than the colder, heavier water sinking around it. This creates convection currents that allow the lighter, more buoyant, superheated water to begin its journey back to the surface following the cracks and weak areas through rhyolitic lava flows. This upward path is the natural “plumbing” system of the park’s hydrothermal features. Once it reaches the surface, the various colors of the pools are due to different types of bacteria growing in different temperatures.