(CNN) — The urge to get a bit closer to Yosemite National Park’s waterfalls or Yellowstone National Park’s majestic bears is so tempting.
Yet so many of the US National Park Service sites are wild natural wonders, with dangers such as unpredictable weather, epic precipices and wild animals that may view you as a threat.
A visitor to Yosemite National Park fell to his death last week, a tragedy that park officials say may have been prevented if he had stayed on the marked trails.
Our national parks are not zoos, with animals caged to protect you from aggressive behavior, and it’s not safe to ignore the rules, National Park Service officials say. It’s important to read up on your national park destination and follow rules and guidelines posted in the parks.
Why do people get hurt?
A grizzly bear roams near Beaver Lake in Yellowstone National Park.
The rise of the selfie seems to have emboldened more people to step off trails to take the epic picture of that perfect (but dangerous) geyser or that adorable mama bear with her cubs (who may attack if she thinks you are threatening her cubs).
At the same time, people who are not used to spending time in nature may think they’re not in danger, despite rules and guidelines stating how far visitors should stay from mating elk at Yellowstone or how much water to bring to Death Valley National Park.
“National park trails and warning signs are there for very good reasons: to protect not only the parks from degradation but also our own physical safety.”
Kerry Gallivan, founder and CEO of Chimani, a national parks app, says that living in a relatively safe society with all sorts of crosswalks and other warnings may contribute to our ignorance.
“Our national parks are meant to be preserved in their natural state as much as possible, which minimizes the amount of safety precautions which can be installed,” says Gallivan. This environment “is not something most people are used to, especially visitors who are used to living in urban/suburban environments.”
Enjoy the view and respect the power of nature at Cook’s Meadow and Yosemite Falls at Yosemite National Park
David Calvert/Getty Images
Most National Park Service sites have plenty of safety information posted online to study in advance, and park rangers want to help you stay safe while enjoying the parks. Talk to a ranger, get your National Park Service passport stamped at a visitor center, and head out safely to explore these amazing national parks.
Stay on the trails. Sometimes, it’s that easy. The national parks spend a good chunk of their resources creating and maintaining trails for public use. Stepping off the trails, especially in parks with slippery slopes, crumbling cliffs and deep canyons, isn’t safe.
Do you see that adorable mama bear with her cubs or that elk sow with her calf? Stay even farther away. Animal moms are even more dangerous if they view you as a threat to their young.
Pack up your food. Make sure you don’t leave food around for animals to take at your camp site or on a hike. Park officials may have to remove or kill wildlife that become used to humans and their food, to protect human visitors to the parks.
Some tourists, stunned to see a bison or bear in real life, literally stop in the middle of the road or on blind spots on the side of the road and cause accidents. Head to designated pullouts where you can safely take pictures. And do stop if you see a bear crossing the road. They have the right of way.
Sunny summer weather can turn dangerous quickly in Colorado’s mountains.
Rocky Mountain National Park via KDVR/KWGN
Start your hikes early in the day, dressed in layers, to finish before summer storms come through the mountains. (Rolling clouds and distant thunder can be a sign to head down the mountain.)
You might see summer snow still slowly melting at high elevations, so make sure it’s on solid ground before stepping on it. And make sure to adjust to the high altitude (and talk to rangers about avalanche safety) before heading into Colorado’s beautiful mountains.
Wear the right clothes. Layers, layers, layers. If you’re hiking where the weather can get cold quickly, dress in layers. If the heat is deadly, hike before it gets too hot, protect yourself from the sun or schedule your trip during a cooler time of year.