top of page
  • ADAM ROY

Here’s What Really Kills People in the National Parks


Each year, more than 300 million people visit one of the 428 sites managed by the National Park Service. Some plan to spend a weekend backpacking in the woods, others to scale a technical peak, and many more just to take in the sights from an overlook or scenic drive. But for a small handful of unfortunate visitors, the trip ends in tragedy.


Approximately 243 people die annually on NPS lands. Considering the crowds the parks receive, that’s not many: With nearly 312 million visits in 2022, it works out to a death rate of less than one in a million. Still, those few fatalities have a way of capturing our attention. In 2021, travel website Outforia released an analysis claiming to show the most dangerous national parks in America, and news outlets ranging from ABC to the Washington Post covered it. The problem: While reports like that are great at generating headlines, they are often wildly inaccurate, or promote misleading conclusions.


One example: Outforia’s study and the stories that followed labeled Grand Canyon the most dangerous national park in America based on the number of deaths that occurred there, without taking into consideration that Grand Canyon is among the most-visited national parks in America. (After weighting deaths by number of visitors and accounting for rarely-visited outliers, we awarded that dubious distinction to Denali).


Not understanding the dangers inherent in a trip to a national park can be dangerous in its own way. Brad Bennett, a physiologist, retired Navy officer, and former president of the Wilderness Medical Society, says that visitors in the park system often overestimate their own abilities, fail to pack or prepare correctly, and underestimate how much a hard hike can exacerbate underlying health conditions like heart disease and COPD.


Recently, the NPS released 17 years worth of mortality records in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. We dug into the data—which documents 3,985 deaths between 2007 and 2023—to learn about how and why people die at the parklands that we love. The records include mortalities that occurred at the 63 U.S. national parks, as well as at national seashores, monuments, recreation areas, and other sites under the NPS’s jurisdiction. Most entries included information like the victim’s gender, age range, and cause of death; using published news reports, we were able to match some entries up to the victim’s name and find out additional details about what happened to them. This is what we learned.


This article contains discussion of suicide. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline toll-free from anywhere in the U.S. at 1-800-273-8255.


What Are the Top Causes of Death in the National Parks?


 

The NPS categorizes 14.4% of the deaths that occurred in national parks during the timeframe we looked at as “Undetermined,” meaning that authorities didn’t have enough information on the deceased to be able to declare a cause of death. Eighty-five percent of the remaining deaths that the NPS tracked fell into one of just five other categories.


Drowning: 20.9% of total

Whether in flatwater, rivers, or the ocean, drowning was the most common cause of death among park visitors, accounting for 829 fatalities. Lake Mead National Recreation Area in Nevada and Arizona saw more drownings than any other site, with 108. In an interview with Las Vegas’s KTNV news last year, NPS public information officer John Haynes said that many of those drownings occurred when boaters failed to wear life jackets or unexpectedly found themselves caught in high winds.


Motor Vehicle Crashes: 17.3%

Driving is the most dangerous activity that most people regularly engage in, and that’s as true within national parks as it is outside of them as well. Traffic collisions killed 687 people during the period covered by the data, with scenic parkways and other road-centered NPS units accounting for the bulk of the deaths. With 93 fatalities, the 444-mile Natchez Trace Parkway—best known to hikers as the road that parallels the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail across the Southeastern U.S.—was the site of the most fatal crashes.


Suicide: 12.4%

According to the NPS, 493 people took their own lives in national parks from 2007 to 2023, with easily-accessible scenic sites like the Blue Ridge Parkway, Natchez Trace Parkway and Golden Gate National Recreation recording most of those deaths. Over the past two decades, parks around the country have implemented and refined practices aimed at preventing suicides. Bridges in Golden Gate and on the Natchez Trace have installed barriers, while rangers at Grand Canyon receive training to recognize visitors contemplating suicide and intervene before they can act.


Medical: 12%

Heart disease is the most common cause of death in the United States, and it and other medical issues kill people in the national parks as well, with 477 people dying from natural causes since 2007. The Grand Canyon saw more deaths from medical issues than any other unit, with 53 during the period covered by the data. While that number doesn’t include deaths from external factors like excessive heat, it does include people who suffered heart attacks or strokes and died while hiking the park’s strenuous terrain.


Falls: 10.8%

Every year, a handful of visitors die from accidental falls in the national parks, with 428 passing away this way during the period recorded by the NPS. Nowhere do more incidents occur than in Yosemite, where 56 people died in falls, many from popular overlooks like Taft Point, Nevada Fall, and Half Dome. There are some indications that the rise of social media and smartphones has made the issue worse: A number of visitors have fallen to their deaths while taking photos in Yosemite, including an Indian couple and an Israeli man in 2018, and three visitors from California who were swept over Vernal Falls in 2011.


Where Do People Die in the National Parks?


Reports like the ones published by Outforia usually rank the “most dangerous” parks by how many deaths occur there, but parks that see heavy traffic, like Yellowstone, see far more deaths than remote, rugged locations like Gates of the Arctic. The parks that suffer the most deaths usually have both a high number of visitors and the kind of hazardous terrain or conditions that can get them into trouble.


Of all the units in the national park system, none saw as many deaths as Lake Mead National Recreation Area on the Nevada/Arizona border, where 304 people died from 2007 to 2023; just over a third of those drowned. Other regional hotspots for deaths included Yosemite on the west coast (173 deaths during the period measured), Grand Canyon in the mountain west (185), Indiana Dunes in the midwest (28), Great Smoky Mountains in the east (134), and Buffalo National River in the south (49).


How Has the Death Rate in the National Parks Changed Over the Years?



As visitation to the national parks has risen over the past two decades, both the number of deaths and the death rate have risen as well. During the period the NPS collected data, deaths in national parks rose from 142 deaths in 2007, a rate of 0.51 death per million visits, to a high of 392 deaths and 1.2 per million visits in 2019. Both those numbers dropped during the pandemic due to closures, though they’ve since begun to rise again.  As Bennett notes, “more visitors mean more risky behavior and bad judgment” as people with little experience venture into wild spaces.


“They’re not aware of the natural hazards of being outdoors, whether it’s weather change, wildlife, bugs and insects, and reptiles that bite and sting, for example, because they’re really housebound, urban-bound, occupation-bound people and they’re not outdoors,” he says. “So they’re not aware of all those hazards that are waiting to take a beautiful day and make it a worst-case scenario.” (Having some outdoor experience isn’t a cure-all, either: Bennett notes that experienced hikers often wait too long to take action after realizing they’ve become lost or gotten into trouble.)



National Park Visitors Are More Likely to Die from…


Heat than cold

Excessive heat claimed more lives than cold in the national parks, with 76 deaths from hyperthermia and 46 from hypothermia. The vast majority of heat deaths occurred in desert parks in the southwest, such as Big Bend, White Sands, Joshua Tree, Death Valley, Grand Canyon, Saguaro, and Zion. Deaths from hypothermia, meanwhile, were more geographically spread out, with northern and mountainous parks like Denali, Rainier, and Rocky Mountain seeing the most fatalities.


As the climate continues to warm, it’s all but certain that deaths from heat will as well. As Jay Lemery and Paul Auerbach write in the book Enviromedics: The Impact of Climate Change on Human Health, “more people already succumb to hot air temperatures than to flooding, lightning strikes, tornados, and hurricanes combined.” Heat illness isn’t the only danger in hot weather, either: Bennett says that there’s a “huge, ongoing education need” to teach national park visitors about the dangers of hyponatremia, a potentially fatal condition that occurs when hikers and other people spending time outdoors consume so much water that it dilutes their blood sodium.


Human attack versus animal attack (though both are rare)

Your chances of being fatally attacked by a person in a national park are vanishingly low: Just 48 people died by homicide in a national park between 2007 and July 2023, during which time the park service recorded nearly 5 billion visits. Many of those deaths occurred in urban and urban-adjacent sites managed by the park service, such as Washington D.C.’s Anacostia Park and Suitland Parkway.


Even more uncommon, though, is someone being killed by an animal, a fact that may surprise anyone who’s seen one of the many viral videos of careless Yellowstone tourists being tossed or gored by bison. Only 9 people died from wildlife encounters, with grizzlies causing 6 of those deaths. (The remaining three include one death by mountain goat, one by copperhead, and one by great white shark.)


Falling off something versus something falling on them

While falling from height is one of the most common causes of death in national parks, a smaller but not insignificant number of visitors die when vegetation or loose rocks fall and crush them. A total of 19 visitors died from falling trees or branches. Another 18 died from rockfall; Yosemite (5 deaths), North Cascades (3 deaths) and Haleakala (2 deaths) jointly accounted for more than half of those.


The Average Victim in the National Parks…


Is more likely to be male than female: While men and women make up approximately equal portions of national park visitors, men accounted for 80 percent of deaths in national parks where authorities recorded the victim’s gender.


Can be almost any age: Members of all age groups were represented similarly among fatalities. (The exception? Children under 14, who made up a smaller share of deaths than other groups.)


Drowns or dies of natural causes: Drowning was the most common cause of death for visitors up to age 55, after which medical issues surpassed it.

Comments


29.09.2023_08.55.32_REC.png
6000x 2_edited.png
readywise 60 serving food kit.png
survival knives from viper
bottom of page