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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Search and rescue missions are up at some of Utah’s national parks, but not everywhere

A photo of the Canyon Overlook trail in Zion National Park.
Lexi Peery
A view of Zion National Park from Canyon Overlook trail. Last week a hiker went missing at the park and his car was found at this trailhead. The man was rescued Saturday afternoon several miles away near Lodge Canyon.

Search and rescue operations are up this year compared to previous years in some of Utah’s National Parks, which are also seeing increased visitation.

Zion National Park officials say 2021 has “been one for the record books,” when it comes to search and rescue operations. So far, this year there have been 153 incidents, according to a park spokesperson, which is more than the previous two years combined — 87 in 2020 and 47 in 2019.

Daniel Fagergren, chief ranger at Zion, said they’re seeing more problems at the east side of the park. A 79-year-old hiker was rescued over the weekend in the park after going missing four days prior at an east-side trail.

“There's more and more apps out there, like AllTrails, that are producing sort of these wayfinding experiences or trails that are not necessarily trails that the park would even designate as such,” Fagergren said during a press conference Monday. “It's important for people to understand and recognize that leaving any sort of designated route puts them at risk.”

Arches and Canyonlands National Parks have also seen a rise in search and rescue operations this year. Kait Thomas, a public affairs specialist with the parks, said they’ve already exceeded the total from last year.

“We are seeing record visitation,” Thomas said. “We've had an incredibly busy summer both this year and last year, even with COVID, at Arches and Canyonlands, so it's possible that it's just related to the uptick in visitation.”

Search and rescue operations at Bryce Canyon National Park haven’t increased since reaching a peak a few years ago. They “seem to be tracking pretty steadily with overall park visitation, which was also at its highest in 2018 and 2019,” according to park spokesperson Peter Densmore.

Despite several drownings in early-summer at some Utah state parks and a recent “dramatic” increase in visitation, spokesperson Devan Chavez said search and rescues have been “relatively average.”

“[That’s] something that we're very, very thankful for because we know that a lot of the recreaters that we're seeing out there are new recreaters,” he said.

Chavez said he thinks increased messaging around lifejackets helped change the early-season trends.

Officials stressed the importance of planning ahead and being prepared for variable weather conditions.

Lexi is KUER's Southwest Bureau reporter
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