Climate Change Is Here. Are National Parks Ready?

Parks enthusiasts should be prepared for unpredictable weather—but that’s no reason not to enjoy these iconic destinations.

A river in Yosemite National Park, flanked by evergreen trees, with El Capitan in the distance

Given the reality of the climate crisis, visiting national parks such as Yosemite requires advance preparation.

Courtesy of Jeremy Bishop/Unsplash

On a hazy day in June, Jessie Haffener, a guide for Wildland Trekking, was leading a backpacking trip in Yosemite National Park when she saw smoke along the canyon rim near Glacier Point. As she arrived at the scene, flames ignited from the smoldering remains of a campfire. She worked quickly, calling over her fellow guide and guests, but the fire grew to the size of a single-car garage. The team of 12 hikers—including two teenagers on their first backpacking trip—ran back and forth to the nearest creek, half a mile and 200 vertical feet away, carrying sloshing bear canisters of water to douse the fire.

Decades of dwindling snow pack and hotter temperatures have increased the duration, frequency, and intensity of wildfires in Yosemite. If Haffener had missed the smoke, this perfect cocktail of conditions (wind, dry earth, and a few left-behind embers) could have turned into another one. While climate change has hit the American West especially hard, Yosemite is not the only national park affected: According a recent report by the National Park Conservation Association (NPCA), climate change is a significant concern for 80 percent of U.S. parks.

This shouldn’t deter you from your national park vacation, says Ulla Reeves, director of the Clean Air Program at the NPCA, but adequate preparation is more important than ever. “There are a lot of tools on the internet to help us be mindful before we go,” she says. The most comprehensive, according to Reeves, is the National Park Service’s website, which updates trail and road closures, major shifts in weather, and other hazards by park. During your trip, you can reference apps like AllTrails, where hikers can publish recent trail reports, and Goes Health, a wilderness medicine app that also provides the UV index and air quality of your area. Additionally, you can call a park’s ranger station, either before or during a trip, to ask specific questions.

Each park requires a tailored strategy due to unique climates and terrain, but in general, planning is key. If you’re hiking in wildfire-sensitive areas, study the map to figure out evacuation routes in case of an emergency. David Quinlan, the Pacific Northwest operations manager for Wildland Trekking, recommends considering two questions before a hiking trip: First, is the air quality safe for strenuous activity? Second, are there any active fires that could impact your route? At other parks, including the Grand Canyon, excessive heat is an increasing risk. (There, heat-related illnesses are already common and expected to rise by up to 137 percent by 2100.) Once-permanent springs are drying up because of the ongoing drought in the West, so water sources are less reliable. Know the forecast, wear sun-protective clothing, and carry more water than you think you’ll need.

Each park requires a tailored strategy due to unique climates and terrain, but in general, planning is key.

It’s also crucial to stay aware of your surroundings. Iconic destinations like El Capitan in Yosemite and Chaos Canyon in Rocky Mountain National Park are experiencing frequent rockfall, as drastic shifts in temperatures cause the water between rocks to melt and refreeze quickly, reducing stability. Other parks are seeing higher rates of falling trees because trees are dying and soil structures are weakening due to drought. Always look above you before you set up a tent, says Quinlan, to make sure you’re not camping under dead trees or branches.

Even over the past three years, Quinlan has seen an increase in incidents such as rockfall, flooding, and landslides that wipe out roads. “It affects our trips in a huge way,” he says. Last year, they stopped running a trip—a remote traverse over Whatcom Pass in North Cascades National Park in Washington—because of a massive wildfire that charred the land, resulting in dozens of downed trees across the trail. Every season, his team adjusts its strategy to ensure guest safety. Wildland Trekking has established evacuation routes for all hiking routes and set air quality limitations. Staff is available 24/7 to communicate with guides in the field about current conditions.

As the climate threats to our national parks grow, the National Park Service is working to understand, adapt, and mitigate risks through its climate change response program. The 2022 Inflation Reduction Act provided much-needed funds to the NPS for climate resiliency projects, while organizations such as the NPCA are focusing on climate-related research and advocacy. “We have the right tools in the toolbox,” Reeves says. “When people channel their concern and love, when they pay attention to these issues, when they ask their decision makers to advocate for our national parks—that’s what makes me hopeful.”

Hannah Singleton is a freelance journalist and content writer who writes about the outdoors, the environment, and travel.
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