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National park crowds across the West are braving intense heat and hazy skies

Undaunted visitors have hit the road, eager to make up for last year’s pandemic shutdowns

Isaiah Sullivan, the rental manager for the Glacier Park Boat Co., helps kayakers get into the water at Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park, Mont., on July 16. The Livingston Range in the distance is obscured by smoke from wildfires around the Pacific Northwest. (Justin Franz for The Washington Post)

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, Mont. — Isaiah Sullivan can measure the intensity of this year’s hot summer by the lines of visitors outside the boat rental business he manages on the shores of Lake McDonald. Once the afternoon heat intensifies, the line to paddle on cool water fed by melting snowpack doesn’t dissipate until he puts out the closed sign at 7 p.m.

Many visitors would rather just cool off or wait for smoky haze from forest fires to lift, rather than brave slopes of the surrounding peaks in unusually high heat and limited visibility. The temperature Sunday at Lake McDonald was forecast to reach 94 degrees, as yet another searing heat wave settled over the northern Rocky Mountains.

Glacier National Park is among the West’s public landmarks experiencing extreme heat as huge volumes of campers and hikers flock to their gates, eager to make up for last year’s lost pandemic summer with outdoor adventures from the scorching sands of California to the mountains of Montana.

Travelers rolling up to storied mountain ranges in their campers are finding peaks shrouded in haze from fires and record-setting temperatures. In places that are not yet suffering from fire emergencies, charred vistas from last year’s fires have led to restrictions on where it is safe to hike.

In interviews at several Rocky Mountain parks, visitors said they were still happy to hit the road after the coronavirus pandemic shutdowns of 2020 and escape their home states. But the large crowds and extreme temperatures can combine for disappointing, challenging and even life-threatening conditions.

At Grand Canyon National Park, where temperatures are routinely exceeding 110 degrees on sun-baked paths, rangers issue strong warnings and advise people to take precautions, such as avoiding hiking during the middle of the day, staying hydrated and eating salty foods, and carrying a spray bottle of water to cool off. Visitors still succumb to the heat on the trails. Last week, a 44-year-old man from Louisiana died while hiking up arduous switchbacks out of the canyon during the hot afternoon. A 53-year-old woman from Ohio died June 20 on a different Grand Canyon trail after experiencing heat-related symptoms, the Park Service said.

Crowds are so big at Arches National Park in Utah that parking lots at trailheads are often filled by 7:30 a.m. and closed to anyone coming later. Closures leave visitors with waits of three to five hours as temperatures soar toward 100 degrees. At Zion National Park, local emergency crews have seen a sharp increase in emergency calls for heat-related illness.

Pacific Northwest heat wave was ‘virtually impossible’ without climate change, scientists find

The successive heat domes that have locked furnace-like conditions over the northern Rockies and the Pacific Northwest — which scientists say are the result of climate change — are creating a range of extremes.

Early summer is traditionally a wet and chilly time in northwest Montana, especially June, but between June 15 and July 15 this year, the average daily temperature in West Glacier was 71.6 degrees, a full 10 degrees higher than the 30-year average. Corby Dickerson, a meteorologist and observation program manager for the National Weather Service in Missoula, said that although daily high temperatures in the 90s are not unusual for Glacier Park, they are unusual early in the summer. He also said the extremely hot days result in fewer cool nights, which is skewing the daily average.

Shanay Kapadia of Houston and Linda Wang from California’s Bay Area were visiting Glacier in hopes of hiking this weekend, but when the smoke obscured the mountain vistas, they opted to go paddleboarding instead, crossing their fingers that the haze would clear by the next morning.

“It’s been a little bit of a bummer, but every once in a while it clears,” Kapadia said.

“And it could be worse,” Wang said, adding that last summer, she drove to the Sierra Nevada Mountains to go hiking only to have to turn around because of all the smoke.

Brandy Burke, public affairs assistant for Glacier National Park, said rangers have been encouraging visitors to stay hydrated and have a backup plan if it’s too smoky to hike safely. (On Saturday morning, the local air quality was listed as “unhealthy for sensitive groups.”)

Dylan Boyle, executive director of the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau, just west of the park, said local businesses that cater to tourists have had a lot of practice the past few years offering suggestions for alternative activities when wildfires both near and far derail vacations.

“It’s all about having backup plans,” Boyle said.

The National Interagency Fire Center reported 70 large blazes burning across a dozen states, with lightning risks on the rise.

Although much of the smoke that has been blanketing Glacier Park is from neighboring states, officials in northwest Montana were on edge, fearing this weekend’s heat would fuel fires locally. Lincoln Chute, the fire service area manager in Flathead County, which includes the western half of Glacier Park, said Glacier and the nearby Flathead Valley had been the greenest spots on the map in the western United States because of a rainstorm a few weeks ago that kept vegetation green. But now grass, brush and other forest fuels are drying out quickly.

“That rain a few weeks ago bought us some time, but now we’re quickly running out of it,” he said.

Although smoke was blanketing much of the Lake McDonald Valley on Friday afternoon, some of it cleared out just before sunset, revealing the towering peaks of the Livingston Range. The temperature was still in the low 80s just after 8 p.m. and Lillian Phalanger was sitting in the water with her family. Earlier this year, Phalanger had seen a photo of Glacier Park on Facebook and decided that she had to see it in person. The family drove from their home in Covington, La., and hit Yellowstone on the way. Although they were disappointed about the smoke that obscured the mountains for most of their visit, they were still glad they had made the trek.

“Glacier has been the highlight,” she said.

At Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, a light breeze at the Longs Peak trailhead kept the worst of the heat at bay Saturday. But the sun was still strong at 9,400 feet, where many hikers begin the arduous trek up Rocky Mountain National Park’s highest mountain.

“This feels like wintertime in Houston,” said Chase Almaguer, who is originally from Texas and currently based in New York. Almaguer spent the weekend hiking in the Rockies with his longtime friend Jakob Humphrey of Greeley, Colo. It may have been cooler and far less humid than their childhood hometown, but it was practically tropical for the high alpine.

With the pandemic’s end on the horizon, Almaguer was looking for a vacation where he could travel responsibly, get outside and keep his distance from travelers who may not be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

“Hiking and camping has been on my mind for a long time. I know everyone’s taking out RVs and getting outside right now,” Almaguer said. “It feels good to do something you know is safe but also fun.”

Madison Hurmence came to Rocky Mountain National Park with her family to get away from the wildfires near her home in Logan, Utah. The Colorado air has been a relief for Hurmence, who said the smoke in Utah was unbearable. “People can’t breathe as well, and then the heat doesn’t make that any better.”

Even though Colorado isn’t in an apocalyptic blaze, the long-lasting effects of last year’s wildfires have kept large sections of Rocky Mountain National Park off limits. Almost 30,000 acres burned within the park’s boundary in fall 2020, according to the National Park Service. Many trails require repair before hikers can use them again.

The park has volunteers and rangers at popular trailheads on busy days to advise hikers who want to get into the mountains. They emphasize what’s called preventive search and rescue (PSAR) to educate visitors about backcountry safety with guidance on gear and conditions before they hit the trail.

Burn scars left behind by the fires are particularly dangerous for those exploring the backcountry — including swaths of charred forest and blackened stumps strewn across steep hillsides. The Park Service is warning visitors to steer clear of those areas where falling trees and unstable ground pose serious hazards. Flooding and mudslides are also of concern as these burn scars are vulnerable to fast-flowing water with few trees to anchor the earth down. Not to mention, less tree cover means less shade to protect hikers on hot days.

Last year’s wildfires came within a few miles of downtown Estes Park — the gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park — before they were curbed.

In Gardiner, Mont., near the northern entrance to Yellowstone National Park, business owners reported zero slowdown in business as a result of the smoke. In June, Yellowstone had more than 900,000 visitors, another record among many for 2021. In addition to persistent smoke for several weeks, the area is experiencing unseasonably high temperatures, with several days at or around 90 degrees.

At noon Saturday in Gardiner, it was 91 degrees and there were long lines at every restaurant and the gas station. Cars were still waiting to get into the park, many full of families eager to observe a pack of wolves with nine pups in a den that can be viewed with binoculars and telescopes. The National Weather Service forecast temperatures in Gardiner near 100 on Sunday.

Megan Pringle, a budget analyst from Baltimore, and Sam Johnson, a ninth-grade math teacher from Rochester, N.Y., had flown into Salt Lake City, where they picked up a rental camper van before heading to Grand Teton National Park.

“We were driving through the Tetons but all of the mountains were pretty hazy, so you can’t see them that well,” Pringle said. “We were thinking, ‘Wow, if it is this beautiful now, how incredible is it when the skies are clear?’”

“The rangers there said it doesn’t usually get that hazy until August,” Johnson said.

They spent several days at Yellowstone and were planning to head to Utah’s national parks next. With breakfast eaten and the dishes cleaned up, the two women grabbed a couple of chairs and prepared to walk up the hill to a group of people with scopes. They had no intention of leaving before seeing wolves.