Yosemite National Park Safety: How To ‘HIKE SAFE’, Avoid Environmental Hazards, and More

by Jon D. B.
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In a place as wild and diverse as Yosemite National Park, knowing these safety tips and guidelines can make the difference between life and death.

As the National Park Service reminds us, “You are responsible for your own safety” in any national park. Around four million people visit Yosemite’s incredible geology, plants, animals, historic, and archeological sites, every single year. And each year, hundreds more search & rescue operations are needed.

The ultimate goal is, of course, to never become an NPS search & rescue statistic. And the best way to avoid this fate is to enter Yosemite National Park as well-versed on all safety guidelines and tips as possible.

Park Note: Speeding Kills Bears & Other Wildlife!

At the same time, visitors to national parks are also the ecosystem’s most impactful guardians. We must do all we can to preserve the entirety of our beloved parks.

As park staff notes, Yosemite’s roads are used by both visitors and park wildlife. Black bears are killed on a yearly basis by speeding drivers inside the park. Countless other animals are, too.

Please obey posted speed limits whenever traveling through the park. Remember: Speeding kills bears & other wildlife!

Conserving our national parks is also embodied by the NPS’ guiding principal: Leave No Trace. To learn more, see our ‘Leave No Trace’ in U.S. National Parks: Breaking Down the Seven Principles next.

Yosemite National Park Hiking Safety

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARKAPRIL 18, 2021. (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Unsurprisingly, the majority of Yosemite’s Search and Rescue (YOSAR) missions are spent assisting injured hikers or searching for lost persons in the wilderness. In fact, Yosemite rangers and search and rescue personnel respond to approximately 250 emergencies in the park every year.

The following tips will help significantly boost your safety while hiking in Yosemite National Park:

  • Carry a headlamp on every hike, even short day hikes
  • Carry and drink plenty of water (a minimum of 1 quart every 2 hours)
  • Sturdy footwear with good traction might save an ankle
  • Minor/moderate health or medical issues can be easily exacerbated by hiking up the steep Valley trails—know your limits and pay attention to how you’re feeling
  • Stay on the established trail
  • When hiking in a group, each member of the group should carry some water and food in case the party becomes separated, and the group should make a plan for where to meet up (at the vehicle, at the trailhead, etc.) if the members become separated.

Use Yosemite’s HIKE SAFE Method

In addition, Yosemite National Park’s HIKE SAFE system provides invaluable advice in an easy-to-remember acronym:

Have a plan
Inform someone of where you’re going and
when you plan to return
Keep a flashlight and whistle with you
Eat well, stay hydrated: carry plenty of water

Stay on the trail
Ask for HELP!
Familiarize yourself with the area, use a map
Expect changes in the weather

Climbing Guidelines for Yosemite National Park

If you plan on climbing, however, viewing the park’s climbing guidelines and regulations is a must.

Environmental Hazards: Rockfalls, Hazardous Trees, Lightning

MIST TRAIL, YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CALIFORNIA. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

While hiking or enjoying any other activity in Yosemite, remaining aware of your surroundings is paramount. Rockfalls from mountains and cliffs, for example, occur in the Valley each year and can cause serious injury or death.

The following guidelines from the park can help ensure your safe visit through the park:

  • Rockfalls are the most powerful geologic force shaping Yosemite Valley today. Although rockfalls are relatively uncommon, several rockfalls occur in Yosemite Valley each year; they are dangerous and can cause injury or death. In Yosemite, and in any natural area, it is up to you to be aware of your surroundings. Use caution when entering any area where rockfall activity may occur, such as on or immediately below cliffs.
  • Hazardous Trees are caused by diseases, insects, soil moisture, wind, fire, snow and human activities in Yosemite. These are any tree, which, due to visible defects, could fall down and strike a person or property within a developed area. Several catastrophic tree failures have left visitors seriously or fatally injured in Yosemite, in addition to property damage totaling nearly $1,000,000. Be aware of your surroundings, especially away from developed areas, and keep in mind that some trees may fail at any time.
  • Lightning is a common occurrence in Yosemite, particularly on summer afternoons. Be aware of changing conditions and have a plan in case a thunderstorm approaches.
  • Wood smoke and emissions from campfires can degrade air quality in and near campgrounds. This is especially true at night and in early morning, when inversions trap and concentrate fine particles from those campfires near the ground, creating local conditions that are potentially unhealthy for sensitive individuals. Conditions may be smoky anytime from spring through fall due to both planned and unplanned fires in or near Yosemite.

Water Safety in Yosemite National Park

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, CALIFORNIA – JUNE 19. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Through the eons, much of Yosemite was formed by water in one form or another. The element remains a powerful force in the park today, and is never to be taken lightly.

The following water guidelines from the park are crucial to a safe Yosemite visit:

  • Swimming
    • Always supervise children closely.
    • Choose swimming areas carefully and swim only during low water conditions.
    • Avoid areas of “whitewater” where streams flow over rocky obstructions.
    • Never swim or wade upstream from the brink of a waterfall, even if the water appears shallow and calm. Each year unsuspecting visitors are swept over waterfalls to their deaths when swimming in these areas.
  • River crossings
    • In summer, rivers and creeks swollen by runoff from snowmelt are dangerous. Powerful current, icy water, and river obstructions can trap or kill the unwary.
    • Stay away from river and creek banks during high water conditions and avoid rock hopping. Stream polished rocks along the water’s edge may be slippery when wet or dry.
    • If you choose to cross a stream without a bridge, avoid deep and/or swift water. If crossing on a natural bridge of rocks or logs, consider where you will land if you fall. Never cross above rapids or falls. To prevent being pulled under by its weight, unbuckle your pack’s waist strap so you can shed it if you fall in. Do not tie yourself into safety ropes–they can drown you.
  • Rafting
    • Rafting is allowed on lakes (except Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and Mirror Lake) and some stretches of river. More information is available on our water activities page.
  • Fishing
    • Special fishing regulations apply in Yosemite. More information is available on our fishing page.

Remember: Keep Wildlife Wild in Yosemite National Park!

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Photo credit: Getty Images, Outsider

When in Yosemite or any other national park, please remember to respect animals and view all wildlife from a safe distance. Never, ever feed or approach any animal. This can save your life, but it also saves the lives of wildlife. Habituating wildlife to humans and their food often results in the animal having to be euthanized (killed).

So remember:

  • Keep your distance from animals, even if they approach you
  • Dispose of trash in animal-proof trash cans or dumpsters
  • Keep your food and trash from wildlife by storing it properly, day and night. More information about proper food storage is available on the NPS site
  • Failure to obey regulations may result in a fine of up to $5,000 and/or impoundment of your property

Not only is approaching, feeding, or interfering with wildlife detrimental to the wild, but it is also illegal. As the park states, failure to obey wildlife regulations may result in a fine of up to $5,000 and other penalties, including jail time – as this woman in Yellowstone National Park found.

Domestic animals – our pets – are also subject to their own set of Yosemite National Park safety regulations. If you plan to visit the park with pets, make sure to view Yosemite’s Pet Rules first.

For more on what species you’ll encounter in Yosemite, alongside further wildlife safety, please see our Yosemite National Park Wildlife: From Black Bears to Mountain Lions, Which Animals You’ll See and ‘How-To’ Wildlife Safety next.

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