Playing Safe & Smart in Utah’s National Parks

Travel Tips, What's New — By julietrevelyan on March 18, 2011 at 12:48 am

It’s another dramatic, tragic headline: two brothers go camping and climbing in Canyonlands National Park for about a week. Two days in, there’s an accident and one brother falls while rappelling from a high cliff ledge. He dies at some point while the other brother, trapped on the ledge, survives for six (or so, depending on news reports) days and cold nights before rescue.

The Utah canyons and deserts and mountains have maimed, killed, or simply swallowed up many people before now, and likely will do so to many people after now. From high-profile adventurers Everett Ruess and Aron Ralston to the unnamed millions who visit annually without untoward event, these lands beckon. Heart-pounding adrenaline trips, serene spiritual retreats, photographic dream journeys, family summer vacation—all these and more draw people here.


Arches National Park

image: Trodel/Flickr

Whether you’re fleeing civilization by wandering the backcountry for a month or opt to stay at the nicest hotels at each park, you are in a landscape that is awesome, grand, soul-lifting—and, frankly, utterly uncaring whether or not you make it out in one piece. It’s up to you to take care of yourself, whether you’re strolling the Pa’rus Trail in Zion National Park or heading off on a week-long trip into the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park.

For the vast majority, a visit to Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, Zion, or any of the other public lands in southern Utah should result in great memories. Yet human nature being what it is, the sensational and tragic events always grab us, and sometimes serve to scare us. Perhaps rightfully so, in some cases. I don’t know enough details about this most recent story of wilderness survival to comment on what exactly happened, other than what I’ve read about it, and I make absolutely no judgments. What I can do is remind you how to safely visit, play in, and depart these unendingly beautiful yet always potentially dangerous national parks in what is the most rugged area left in the lower 48.


immense Bryce Canyon views

image: Mot the barber/Flickr

That said, here are my eight top tips for getting in, having fun, and getting out safely.

1. Realize you are indeed in the wilderness. Maybe you’ll never step out of your car as you drive from park to park. (But let me unabashedly plug for stepping out of your vehicle and experiencing first-hand the air, the earth, the vast gorgeousness of Utah’s national parks.) Even so, you’re not in a city or a suburb, so don’t act like it. Prepare for anything.

2. Plan your trip in advance. Think weather, time of year, gear needed, number of miles between gas stations if you’re driving between parks, how much water should you bring (always more than you think), the weakest member of your party, your goals, etc. Always be ready to call things off if weather or other events thwart your plans.

3. Bring water. Drink water. Really, I can’t say enough about it. Water is precious, it is your friend, and it is beyond scarce in Utah’s desert lands. You need it in the winter as well as the summer. Utah’s environment is quite arid, which means you need even more water than you probably do at home. Bring it, drink it, then drink it some more. Carry extra. It won’t seem as heavy if you actually run into a situation and start to run out of the liquid that keeps you alive.


Zion's Subway slot canyon

image: sufw/Flickr

4. Be humble. It will be hotter, colder, drier, wetter, longer, shorter, steeper, higher, deeper, more intense than you ever imagined. This is the wilderness. It has not been paved over and smoothed out for your use. If you spend your life in cities or suburbs, you may not be accustomed to such conditions. Respect the land and know when to call it a day.

5. Know your limits. Most people travel from lower elevations, less arid climates, and more sedentary lives than you will experience in a Utah national park. Maybe you run five miles every other day at home. (Awesome if you do! I sure don’t.) If home is Florida, I can almost guarantee you will not be able to keep to your usual workout schedule in the vastly different climate of Utah. (However, that’s a great way to get in shape for hiking out here.) If at home you’re generally a desk jockey or otherwise not super active, be prepared to meet your limits quickly and decisively while here.


Canyonlands Maze road sign

image: indigoprime/Flickr

6. If you’re really heading into the backcountry, tell someone your planned route. Then, don’t deviate from it. Buy a cool little tracking device like the SPOT if so inclined. Just tell someone where you want to go, and have a backup emergency plan if you don’t show up or call on the appointed day.

7. Listen to the rangers and the weather report. If they say don’t go into the canyons, flash floods are possible…well, don’t go into the canyons. If they look at you and your gear, your weight, your apparent fitness level or wilderness smarts, whatever, while you’re asking about a hiking route and then they try to dissuade you from that route…well, listen to them. They are there to give you information, and also to keep you out of trouble as best they can. (But remember, they’re not your babysitters or your personal rescue service.)

8. Hire a guide if you want to do or see something really cool, but aren’t sure you have the know-how to do it on your own. Guides are great sources of knowledge, experience, and captains o’ the fun patrol. All of Utah’s national parks allow commercial guides in, with varying degrees of allowances.


Canyonlands guided raft trip

image: jking89/Flickr

Anyone else have tips? I’d love to hear. Share them in the comments.

Now, get out there, be safe, and have a lot of fun. Utah’s national parks are waiting.


Capitol Reef cliffs

image: hemant.sood/Flickr

Tags: Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, hike, hiking, national parks, safety, wilderness survival, Zion


  • Russ Bishop says:

    And carry a SPOT messenger – the best insurance you ever bought for heading into the wilds.

  • julietrevelyan says:

    Yeah, SPOTs are great. I suggest considering a purchase of one (plus the service), as mentioned above. 🙂


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