It’s a tale as old as Texas summer: A hiker heads out on the trail with too little water, or with too few salty snacks, or without a good map, or when the sun is already beating down from the middle of the sky. Then he takes a wrong turn, or maybe chooses to push ahead, instead of turning back when he begins to feel tired and dizzy. Before long, heat illness starts to set in.
Each summer, rangers and other first responders in Texas’s state and national parks help rescue hundreds of these hikers, who find themselves in heat distress on the side of a mountain or in the middle of the desert. And each summer, a handful of those hikers will die.
Heat deaths appear to be on the rise in national parks. According to recently released data from the National Park Service, at least five people have died from the heat in national parks this year. Texas state parks are seeing more hikers in danger, too, said Justin Rhodes, deputy director of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD).
While the state agency hasn’t finished running the numbers, “Anecdotally, we say yes, it’s been an exceptional year for heat,” Rhodes said.
He confirmed that four heat-related fatalities occurred among visitors to Texas state parks this summer: a seventeen-year-old who was evacuated from Palo Duro Canyon State Park, in mid-June; a solo hiker who got lost at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, near Fredericksburg; another at Franklin Mountains State Park, in El Paso; and another at Lost Maples State Natural Area, northwest of San Antonio.
The extreme heat of Texas’s parks doesn’t just fell older or out-of-shape hikers. In addition to the teen who died at Palo Duro, a 14-year-old boy and his 31-year-old stepfather died at Big Bend National Park this summer. Texas park staff also describe rescuing fit or experienced hikers who either got turned around on the trail or weren’t prepared for the triple-digit temperatures.
To the uninitiated, the solution may seem simple: just close the trails when it’s dangerously hot. But due to conflicting perspectives on how much park management should intervene to ensure visitor safety, it’s not so simple.
While Palo Duro has begun conducting targeted closures of its most-problematic trails, other parks, including Big Bend, have not. The National Park Service says it has no plans to instate across-the-board rules on how to manage the heat, focusing instead on educating visitors about safety. Ultimately, it’s a philosophical question: How far should park staff go to keep visitors safe? After all, the wilderness is wild, and taking on some inherent risk is part of the thrill of trekking in a remote canyon or mountain. “That experience is part of the wilderness; we’re not going to try to limit or restrict that,” said Jennifer Proctor, the branch chief for the NPS’s public risk management program. “And that’s what people are looking for. They want that challenge.”
When Palo Duro changed its policy in July 2022, it was a matter of practicality. That summer, recalls state park police officer Laramy Estel, he and his team were stretched beyond their limit. Estel describes summers in the Panhandle as “like going hiking in a rotisserie oven.” On their busiest days last summer, he and other rescuers would respond to dozens of heat calls and spend four to five hours out in the heat.
Because park rescues also call on local responders such as EMTs and firemen, the high volume of heat rescues meant the entire county was overtaxed, Estel said, potentially limiting local police and firemen’s ability to respond to emergencies outside the park. “Our community doesn’t have the resources for everyone to be here when there’s other things that are going on, and there’s other emergencies that are happening in the county,” he said.
After a particularly brutal 48-hour stretch saw 47 heat-related rescue calls, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, the park began shutting down certain trails from 11 a.m. to late afternoon during heat advisories. Estel said that, for the heavily trafficked Lighthouse Trail, park staff simply close off the parking lot using cones and signs. The clearly marked closure keeps most visitors off the trail during the hottest hours, though there are some who ignore the signs. Estel said that he and other officers have each written up a handful of trespassing citations this summer, and they plan to install gates before next spring. It’s not a perfect system: hikers who set out before 11 a.m. and continue after the heat sets in are still at risk. That’s what happened with the seventeen-year-old who died on the Lighthouse Trail in mid-June.
Still, the trail closures have made a significant impact. The park’s interim superintendent, Thomas Milone, said there were 91 heat-related rescues in summer 2022, compared to 36 in 2023. “I think the numbers here really don’t lie,” Estel said. “When it comes to the heat-related stuff, it’s so avoidable.”
Four hundred miles to the southwest, in Big Bend National Park, the staff talks about the idea of trail closures every year, said acting deputy superintendent Rick Gupman. The doubly tragic deaths of a fourteen-year-old boy and his stepfather on a trail in June pushed that conversation to the forefront yet again. “I would say, unequivocally, that heat-related injuries and illnesses are the single most important thing that we deal with here,” Gupman said. “We have absolutely considered seasonal closures.”
But so far, Gupman said, those conversations have concluded that trail closures just aren’t the right move for the national park. Gupman said the park improves safety in other ways, such as through visitor education. He also pointed to the thousands of visitors who safely enjoy the park each year, and said park staff want to ensure those people have access to the park land. “Yes, we could prevent a fatality on a trail by closing a trail. We could also prevent all fatalities in Big Bend National Park if we just closed the park for the summer,” he said.
Another NPS-managed site with high heat risk, Nevada’s Lake Mead National Recreation Area has decided to instate seasonal closures of its most-dangerous trails, which are now closed for the full summer season. But Gupman said that Big Bend has chosen to focus instead on preventative search and rescue. Rangers and volunteers stand at trailheads from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and talk with potential hikers as they prepare to set out.
Colin McMechan, one of those volunteer rangers, said he and his coworkers ask people how much water they’re carrying and how far they plan to go. Heat distress is normally brought on by a confluence of factors, McMechan said, and he’s seen even very fit and young hikers be surprised by heat illness, because they didn’t carry enough water or didn’t balance out that water with electrolytes. He and his colleagues often discourage hikers away from dangerous trails and toward alternative hikes or scenic drives. Gupman said his team gets fewer rescue calls when rangers are posted at the trailheads, compared to when they’re not. That’s why McMechan isn’t in favor of trail closures. “There are other creative ways than completely cutting everybody off a trail,” he said.
Just like Palo Duro’s closures, though, in-person conversations aren’t 100 percent effective, McMechan said. There are always some hikers who won’t listen, including a handful who assure the rangers that they’re well-acquainted with heat because they’re from Houston. That can be a dangerous line of thinking, since the humidity tends to be much lower in the desert than in swampy southeast Texas (or Florida, where the father and son who died in Big Bend were from). That means your body can’t cool itself as effectively by sweating, even if the temperature is one you’re used to at home. While the dry heat might feel better at first, the desert “desiccates your body and zaps you all of your moisture,” says Nathanael Gold, superintendent at Big Bend Ranch State Park.
Gold said he sometimes hears the same Houston-based argument. Big Bend Ranch hasn’t tried heat-related trail closures, focusing instead on education—though, again, not everyone listens. “We do have folks sometimes that don’t believe us, or may think that we’re being overly dramatic,” Gold said. “And in some of these rescues, we had many of them eat humble pie and tell us that, ‘You know what, you were right, you told me.’ ”
The heat can overtake you quickly, said Adam Wisseman, an avid cyclist who was medevacked out of Moab, Utah, after suffering severe heat illness on the side of a mountain in 2021. On the third day of a mountain biking trip, which he and his friends had inadvertently scheduled during a June heat wave, Wisseman said he was feeling off, but didn’t immediately recognize how bad it really was. “I went from—in the space of probably five minutes—being able to ride my bike somewhat safely, to not being able to ride anymore because my vision was blowing out, to not being able to even walk,” Wisseman said. “My body just shut down.”
Some visitors just don’t seem to fully grasp how hot the parks can get, numerous park staff said. The National Weather Service calls Palo Duro Canyon a “microclimate” and says that the canyon floor can reach highs of 120 degrees. Enchanted Rock superintendent Doug Cochran said he’s clocked the park’s heat-absorbing granite at 140 degrees.
Since the pandemic, the parks have also seen an increase in first-time visitors. Rhodes, TPWD’s deputy parks director, said the state parks welcome these visitors—but they also are less likely to be armed with the knowledge and supplies they need to be safe. “We see state parks as a gateway to the outdoors,” Rhodes said. “We’re intentionally inviting out new users . . . so we feel obligated to educate and help folks with that orientation. And if that’s closing a trail in extreme heat for any park user, we do feel that helps.”
As temperatures rise year over year, both state and national parks will continue to talk about how to keep their visitors safe—and how far to go to ensure that safety. At Big Bend National Park, Gupman said the staff doesn’t have a specific metric in place for when heat risk would push them to impose a measure as extreme as trail closures. “We haven’t defined what that looks like,” he said. “I would say, we would probably know when we got to that point.”