How to open a national park for the summer season

The majestic peaks, desert blossoms, and geological wonders of United States national parks have attracted billions of people since Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872. Almost 312 million people visited it last year, marking a return to pre-pandemic levels.

The spring and summer months are particularly busy at the hundreds of sites managed by the National Park Service.

To prepare for high season in Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park — essentially an island of crimson rock towers about 8,000 feet — rangers are beginning to restore trails and train staff before the snow even melts.

This summer could be the busiest yet for Bryce Canyon, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year.

Conservation is an important part of the National Park Service’s mission, and Bryce has played an important role with one species in particular: the Utah prairie dog.

The park celebrated the Prairie Dog Festival on May 11, with rangers donning costumes, leading sightseeing tours, and judging an appeals contest. Participants attempt to mimic the animal’s signature sounds (some resembling a staccato squeak), which form a complex vocabulary that can alert the colony to a predator’s size, shape, color, and speed.

Families met Petey the prairie dog, the park’s mascot, and observed the prairie dogs in their natural habitat.

Petey’s costume can get stuffy, and the rangers prefer to wear the suit, which features a small fan at the back of the head.

The Utah prairie dog was once endemic to the state and was considered vital to its ecosystem. It was once common, but habitat loss, deliberate poisoning, and disease meant it was critically endangered by the year 2000.

Establishing colonies in the grasslands of Bryce Canyon helped sustain the population, and today more than 600 prairie dogs reside in the park.

The day provided an opportunity for biologists and rangers to educate young wildlife enthusiasts about the species’ conservation history – and inspire some to become junior rangers.

The park’s 78 miles of hiking trails offer up-close views of the rock towers. After months of snow and rain, rangers are focused on clearing the way for visitors.

Each fall and winter, rain and snow drench the soft limestone formations at Bryce, causing rockfalls and disrupting hiking trails. Each spring, crew members clear debris from hiking trails on the Navajo Loop Trail — a legendary 1.4-mile hike among the park’s colorful hoodoos, the name for the eroded rock towers that are tens of millions of years old.

Unusually strong storms and a wet winter last year caused severe damage and delayed the opening of the loop. One side of the trail will remain closed while teams continue with repair work, excavating the trail’s surface and placing wire baskets filled with large rocks along the edge to divert water and facilitate drainage.

On a sunny day, crew members used their hands to pick up fallen bricks from a retaining wall, then dug up sections of trail, removing debris with pickaxes, rock sticks and shovels, and smoothing it out with rakes. This crew consisted of five people – four worked by hand and one drove a small bulldozer.

The extent of the damage also suggests that climate change will continue to impact conservation efforts and infrastructure at Bryce and other national parks across the country. More severe weather events such as monsoon rains or long droughts followed by wildfires can have devastating effects on the fragile ecosystems and geological formations of these parks.

Rangers anticipate the entire Navajo Loop Trail will be ready for visitors in June.

Rangers keep people safe and learn to navigate the park’s sheer cliffs and towering pillars if visitors get into trouble.

Bryce conducts an average of about 40 search and rescue operations per year, with many emergencies due to the high altitude.

Park staff are taught to perform basic first aid measures such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Additionally, some staff are specially trained as emergency medical technicians and focus on prevention by monitoring hikers to ensure they are wearing appropriate footwear and staying hydrated.

Rangers and local volunteers complete basic technical training and learn how to use ropes, harnesses and other high-altitude equipment needed for more complicated rescue operations.

To join the firefighting team, contestants must complete a fitness test in which they must carry 45 pounds three miles in under 45 minutes.

During a rescue training session, some participants gathered at the rim of the canyon, a more remote area with no visitors. Equipped with helmets and safety gear, they attached lines to the trees to practice rescues and rappelling down the gorge to help victims.

Some situations require individual action, while others require teams and the use of a stretcher.

Last summer, a visitor failed to complete the Fairyland Loop Trail, a grueling eight-mile hike. She tried to take a shortcut to get back to the starting point and got separated from her grandchildren. Hours later, rangers found her immobilized on a steep slope. They attached ropes, descended, and lifted her to safety.

Rangers hope to prevent such incidents by encouraging potential visitors to be aware of trail conditions and the risks of altitude sickness.

Horseback riding is a popular attraction for tourists and a family has been guiding people through the gorge for years.

Like all national parks, Bryce Canyon hires private companies to operate concession stands, lodges and guided tours.

One such company, family-owned Canyon Trail Rides, has been offering horse and mule rides into the canyon for half a century.

From April through October, cowboys come into the stables at 5:45 a.m. to feed and groom the horses. Crystal Mortensen, whose parents founded the company in 1973, loves summer days at the park, especially “when you can smell the scent of the pines and hear the locusts chirping in the manzanita bushes at the edge.”

In the winter, the horses are taken out to pasture while some staff oil and repair stirrups and other implements, and make their own saddles. Heavy snowfall delayed the trips by two weeks this year. Because the company has to maintain its own trails, workers manually cleared two miles of snow that was up to seven feet in some sections.

The corral is not far from the Park Lodge. Horses are tied and travel in groups.

Visitors are assigned a horse based on experience (many have never ridden) before descending into the gorge. Early morning sunbeams peek over the hoodoos.

The horses are taught to walk near the edge to give a better view of the towers, inspiring the “don’t lean and don’t shout” rule. Intimacy can be exciting or terrifying.

Looking up gives a whole new dimension to the views of the park.

At night, less than 1% of Bryce Canyon is illuminated by artificial light, resulting in some of the darkest paved road skies in North America. In 2019, Bryce was designated a “Dark Sky Park” to preserve the quality of the night sky.

Astronomy has always featured prominently in Bryce, where, rangers say, the darkness is celebrated almost as much as geology. Nighttime vistas draw far more visitors in peak season, so the park hires staff to meet demand.

Kevin Poe, a ranger and astronomer at Bryce, teaches employees how to operate the telescopes and identify constellations, planets, and stars as part of a long-standing astronomy program.

The park’s 100th anniversary also coincides with an October morning solar eclipse, when a ring of fire surrounds the moon against a backdrop of brilliant red and gold rock spiers.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Justin Scaccy

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