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Blistering temps and heat-related deaths aren't enough to keep tourists out of Zion

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Extreme temperatures in Phoenix and elsewhere in the Southwest are not keeping people from visiting the region's national parks. That is despite the National Park Service saying six people have died in Southwestern parks from heat-related causes since the beginning of June. David Kondos with member station KUER talked to staff and visitors at Zion National Park in Utah on a 107-degree day.

DAVID CONDOS, BYLINE: On a hot sidewalk outside the Zion Visitor Center, tourists Bram and Elke Vanderelst stop for a water break. Elke lifts their 4-year-old son to reach a drinking fountain.

ELKE VANDERELST: Drink. Drink. Drink. Drink. Drink.

CONDOS: The family from Belgium is visiting the U.S. for the first time. And they didn't expect this kind of heat.

E VANDERELST: No, no, it's worse. No, it's really, really hot for us.

BRAM VANDERELST: We knew it was going to be hot, but we kind of underestimated it.

E VANDERELST: Yeah.

B VANDERELST: Yeah.

CONDOS: July is peak season for Zion. The majority of the park's nearly 5 million annual visitors come between May and September. Shuttle buses and parking lots are packed, and you'd hardly know there's an excessive heat warning, but you can certainly feel it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: You only have one hour.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yeah.

CONDOS: Inside the visitor center, park spokesperson Jonathan Schaffer points to a big whiteboard with weather conditions.

JONATHAN SHAFER: So the forecast today is hot. Our high this forecast is 107 degrees.

CONDOS: He says visitors from cooler parts of the world often aren't prepared for how dangerous the extreme heat can be here. So especially on a day like this, rangers at the front desk like Jenn Cook make sure everyone gets the message.

JENN COOK: Hydrate and salty snacks. Do your hardest hike earlier in the day, and then hang out in the river afterwards.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah.

COOK: Don't hike, like, after 11 or noon. It's going to be way too hot.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Oh. Anything else you can do?

CONDOS: German tourists Thomas and Bianca Kaas had planned to hike a ridgetop but, after talking with a ranger, opted for a shady slot canyon instead. They plan to get up early and drink lots and lots of water.

THOMAS KAAS: Yeah, definitely, in insane amounts. Like, I've never experienced so much heat in my life. And, like, we're drinking so much water. I cannot remember such a time. It's crazy.

CONDOS: Back outside, the park's Jonathan Shafer leads me down the steps onto a hiking trail. We quickly come to one of the park's signs that list heat illness symptoms and give a phone number to call in case of emergency.

SHAFER: No, it definitely doesn't take long to start feeling the effects of being out in the heat. And that's why it's so important that you start hydrating before you get here.

CONDOS: The heat has made it a dangerous summer at parks across the Southwest. Just this past weekend, two women died hiking at a Nevada state park southwest of Zion, apparently due to heat. For now, Shafer says Zion National Park's focus is on educating hikers about safety rather than closing trails for heat concerns. But doing that in the future is not out of the question.

DAVID: Oh, yeah.

CONDOS: As we end our hike, we reached the banks of the Virgin River. That's where the Escobar family have found a prime spot.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Mom, look at this one.

CRISTINA: Oh, that's pretty.

CONDOS: David, Cristina and their three kids from California sit with their feet in the water, cooling off after a hot hike.

DAVID: This place is absolutely beautiful. I mean, I've never been, and I would just highly recommend it for your spirit - everything. I mean, I'm pretty amazed right now.

CONDOS: Like many visitors here, they didn't expect the heat to feel quite this intense, but it hasn't dampened their spirits.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Inaudible).

CONDOS: With a little extra planning and a lot of extra water, they say getting to enjoy this special piece of nature makes it all worth it.

DAVID: Want me to put you more in the water?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Inaudible).

CONDOS: For NPR News, I'm David Condos in Zion National Park.

(SOUNDBITE OF TANK AND THE BANGAS SONG, "TSA FT. PJ MORTON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Condos

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