A Cruel Summer: Staying Safe in Yosemite National Park

Half Dome is one of Yosemite's most iconic images.
Half Dome is one of Yosemite's most iconic images. Mikhail Kalugin
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It’s been a rough summer for Yosemite National Park as far as accidents, injuries, and mishaps go. Last week, two teens from southern California were killed when a tree limb fell on their tent in an on-park campsite. This week, the second suspected case of the plague—a medieval-sounding disease that’s rare but still exists in parts of the West—was reported. And, on Tuesday, a woman fell 25 feet from a trail at Upper Yosemite Falls, breaking her pelvis and requiring an airlift rescue.

If that weren’t enough, world-renowned wingsuit flier Dean Potter and his climbing partner, Graham Hunt, died earlier this summer after a jump in the park went terribly wrong.

It’s important to keep in mind that the number of mishaps as compared to the number of visitors in national parks is a relatively small number. In fact, the park service estimates about 150 people die annually in national parks across the nation, out of 300 million visitors.

In Yosemite, the average 12 to 15 fatalities a year is roughly divided in half by accidents and other deaths such as heart attacks. And when some of those accidents happen, it serves as a stark reminder that sometimes the excitement of being in the wilderness—especially in a place as magical as Yosemite—can trump all common sense.

Deaths and accidents aren't uncommon in Yosemite, but many are preventable.
Deaths and accidents aren't uncommon in Yosemite, but many are preventable. Vincent Lock

“It’s fair to stay that most people are pretty aware about the dangers of the wilderness and are savvy about traveling in general,” Colby Brokvist, general manager of South Yosemite Mountain Guides , told us. “But that’s balanced a little bit with the standout folks and these incidents. Just because you’re on vacation it doesn’t mean that common sense doesn’t apply, and people sometimes need to be reminded of that.”

On that note, here’s a refresher on staying safe in Yosemite National Park. Read on for tips—or pass along to someone you think could really use them (i.e., that friend who thinks wildlife selfies are kinda cool).

Two critical words to remember: situational awareness.

While most seasoned outdoor folks have a deep understanding of the dangers of the wilderness—which is part of the appeal, actually—it’s critical to have situational awareness no matter where you are in the park, Brokvist says.

For example, he was in Yosemite Valley recently and witnessed a motorist with one hand on the wheel and the other on his GoPro, taking video out the window while he was driving, despite the fact that “people were walking everywhere and cars were trying to park,” Brokvist says.

Check out the trees before setting up camp.

Look up to see if there are any dead or dying branches above your campsite.
Look up to see if there are any dead or dying branches above your campsite. Antti T. Nissinen

The deaths of the two teenagers crushed by a tree branch while in their tent, tragic as they were, serve as a literal heads-up that many campers have probably never considered before: Check out the trees above. Do the branches look healthy? Are there any that appear to be dead or dying? If so, you might want to consider an alternate spot.

Climb carefully.

The NPS doesn’t keep statistics on how many climbers use the park, but according to Yosemite’s website, “25,000 to 50,000 climber-days annually is a fair estimate.” The 100 climbing accidents and 2.5 deaths that occur seem like a pretty low rate, but about 80 percent of them are preventable , according to park officials. The main culprits, they say? Inexperience and distraction.

Keep your distance from all wildlife, especially squirrels and rodents.

Following the second suspected human case of the plague, which can be spread through small rodents and fleas, park officials at Yosemite continued taking precautions , including closing the Tuolumne Meadows campgrounds (through Aug. 21), dusting the campgrounds with powdered insecticide to kill the fleas that transmit the plague-causing bacteria, and posting warning signs at park entrances.

It should go without saying to never feed wildlife and other small rodents, but this latest plague news serves as another strong incentive. Campers should also keep an eye out for rodent burrows, and hikers should wear long pants—tucked into their socks or boots, as dorky as it may look—and use bug repellent to repel fleas.

Snap the camera safely.

Guardrails are at Vernal Falls for a reason.
Guardrails are at Vernal Falls for a reason. Ray Bouknight

In this era of selfies and GoPros, getting that great shot seems to trump safety sometimes. Take the 2011 disaster in Yosemite, when, in front of hundreds of horrified onlookers, three people were swept over 317-foot Vernal Fall, one of whom was apparently posing for a photo , after they climbed over the guardrail at the top of the raging waterfall.

And if you’re taking more selfies than Kim Kardashian? You could be the punch line for onlookers. “It’s kind of funny to watch them, looking at themselves at the camera, with their back to whatever is worth looking at,” Brokvist says.

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