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How national parks prepare for a record season (and how campers should prepare)

Cars fill a parking lot near Yosemite Falls (background), June 18, 2000 in Yosemite National Park, California.
Cars fill a parking lot near Yosemite Falls (background), June 18, 2000 in Yosemite National Park, California.
David McNew/Getty Images

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It's going to be a busy summer at Yosemite National Park. It's the centennial anniversary of the National Park Service, and visitor numbers are up all over the country. 2015 was a record breaking year with more than 305 million visitors to parks and sites nationwide.

President Obama and the first family visited the park over the weekend to do some hiking and the president made some remarks before meeting rangers and other campers.

"It went incredibly well. It was a historic, wonderful, monumental weekend," said Scott Gediman, public affairs officer for Yosemite National Park. Obama was the first sitting president to visit the park since John F. Kennedy paid a visit back in 1962.

Visitation to Yosemite peaked in 1996 to about 4 million people, then dipped for a few years. It's been coming back in the past few years, breaking records in 2015. 2016 is shaping up to be an even bigger year.

"This year so far has been incredibly busy, and right now we're trending about 20 percent over our visitation from last year and so depending on how the rest of the summer and fall goes, we are on track for a record year for visitation here in Yosemite," said Gediman, who has been a ranger in the park for more than 20 years.

With all those visitors, vehicle traffic is one of the biggest challenges for the park, so rangers there are getting creative to get people out of their cars and on the trails faster. Yosemite recently introduced a new reserved parking program and has experimented with changing traffic patterns.

More visitors means more of a strain on the rangers and staff at the parks, which are already tight on budgets, said Casey Schreiner, founder of the site Modern Hiker. Some data from the National Park Service estimates as much as half of visitors to Yosemite are there for the first time.

"Numbers are huge, which is great, but a lot of times, these parks are not equipped to deal with the amount of visitors that they're getting, and a lot of times, these visitors are not necessarily well educated as to how to act in the park," Schreiner said.

Recent high-profile incidents have involved visitors attempting selfies with wildlife, and walking off designated paths into the wilderness. The consequences can be grave, such as the visitor to Yellowstone who walked off the boardwalk path into the hot springs and died. With rangers extra busy, some incidents have been reported to authorities by other park visitors. If you see someone doing something wrong, Schreiner recommends confronting them in a friendly and non-condescending way, and "the best thing that people can do who experience these parks and love them and visit them often is to set a good example," Schreiner said. 

"A lot of times, I think people visit these parks and expect a sort of theme park environment, and they don't realize that there are wild animals here, there is nature here that doesn't care whether you live or die or have a great selfie to take home with you," Schreiner said. "These are, in many case, very harsh and very testing environments that can and will kill you if you don't pay attention."

Schreiner's best advice for new visitors to the national parks? Be prepared for anything when you're out for more than a five-minute walk: bring navigation, sun protection, first aid supplies, illumination, hydration, nutrition. And no flip-flops.

To hear the full interviews with Scott Gediman and Casey Schreiner, click the blue audio player.