Rescues are up 68 percent in Utah’s national parks — and men in their 20s are the ones most likely to need help

If you find yourself hoisted in a helicopter, strapped to a stretcher or leaning on a ranger in a national park, there’s a good chance you are — or were — a hiker.

You’re probably also a man in his 20s. But whatever you are — woman or man, old or young — if you got lost, hurt or otherwise endangered in a national park or recreation area in the Beehive State, you aren’t alone.

National Park Service staffers at sites in or straddling Utah recorded 324 searches and rescues last year, according to recently released statistics.

That’s a 68 percent jump from 2014, the last time the park service released data about its searches and rescues. That year, Utah’s five national parks and its other park service units, including Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, had 193 searches and rescues.

Zion and Bryce Canyon — the granddaddies of Utah’s national parks — are where most visitors are getting into trouble. Rangers retrieved 114 people in Zion last year, a 42 percent leap from three years ago.

The smaller Bryce Canyon had fewer searches and rescues but experienced an even greater increase — more than tripling, from 19 in 2014 to 86 last year.

Those 86 operations added up. Staffers and volunteers spent 859 hours helping the distressed visitors at a cost of $32,000 to the park service, according to the data.

Swelling visitation is driving the search-and-rescue numbers. Bryce Canyon grew from 1.4 million visitors in 2014 to 2.5 million last year. In that same span, Zion shot up from 3.1 million visitors to 4.5 million.

The state’s national park units had 12 fatalities in 2017, up from eight in 2014.

Raindrops sit on the plastic cover of a park ranger's hat outside the Jaggar Museum overlooking Kilauea's summit crater in Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii, Thursday, May 10, 2018. The park is closing Friday due to the threat of an explosive volcanic eruption. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Jeffrey Olson, a spokesman for the National Park Service, said rangers have tried to educate guests on how to stay safe. They also patrol trailheads and trails to ensure visitors have enough water and sun protection, and know the physical challenges they may encounter on any hike.

Olson said he was working at Arizona’s Grand Canyon last year. There, rangers or volunteers position themselves 1.5 to 3 miles down the most popular trails to speak with hikers and give water or other aid to anyone in distress.

“At Grand Canyon, specifically,” Olson said, “it has always been a challenge for visitors to understand that the environment will become hotter as they descend from the canyon rim and that the hike up and out will be more difficult.”

The figures show that in Utah and elsewhere, hikers are the ones most likely to need help. The exception is in places such as Glen Canyon, which encompasses Lake Powell and the rivers that fill it. Of the 50 searches and rescues there, 36 were on the lake; three were on a river.

Nationwide, men make up about half of those needing rescue, and women account for 35 percent. (The park service did not record the gender for the remaining 15 percent.)

The biggest age segment needing help were men and women in their 20s. People 60 and older were the next largest group requiring aid.

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune | Mark and Shoshanna Hnat cross country ski at Bryce Canyon National Park in 2010.

At Bryce Canyon, most trailheads sit on the plateau at 8,000 to 9,000 feet. Similar to what they do in the Grand Canyon, hikers trek down and return by footing it back up.

Wesley Baker, the park’s deputy chief ranger, said staffers don’t often go on searches for lost hikers. The more common occurrence is visitors in distress.

“We get people who get to a point where they just physically can’t go on,” Baker said.

Bryce Canyon has launched preventive strategies like those at the Grand Canyon. On busy days, eight to 10 volunteers in orange shirts staff Bryce’s high-trafficked areas to provide trail information, water or other assistance.

“Without having any contact, these [unprepared visitors] panic a lot,” Baker said. “They’re down trail. And now we get a call from someone saying they need help.”