The Deadliest National Parks in America & Tips on Staying Safe

More than 2,000 visitors died in national parks across the US from 2014 to 2021

Millions of people visit America’s national parks each year exploring the stunning terrain and breathtaking wildlife and some don’t make it back home.

Unfortunately, some of those parks can be more dangerous than others.

Based on available mortality and visitor data from the National Park Service (NPS), five parks were found to be the deadliest.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Washington State’s North Cascades National Park has the highest mortality rate at 0.004 percent with nine deaths between 2014 and 2021. Alaska’s Lake Clark National Park & Preserve came in second, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Reserve was third, Fort Bowie National Historic Site was fourth and Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site rounded out the top five.

According to the most recent data released by NPS over 2,000 visitors died in national parks between 2014 and 2021.

Despite the proximity to wildlife and overall freedom to traverse sometimes dangerous terrains the leading cause of death with the exception of fatalities deemed “undetermined” was motor vehicle crashes which accounted for 415 deaths over eight years. Following crashes were drownings (402) and medical-related deaths (385).

Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Alternatively, deaths caused by wildlife or animals were among the rarest—only five were reported between 2014 and 2021.

Two of those deaths occurred at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park & Reserve in 2020. While details about individual deaths in the NPS report are limited records show a 22-year-old Ohio hunter was killed by a grizzly bear in September of that year while he was field-dressing a moose he had harvested a day earlier.

Another animal-related death happened at Yellowstone National Park in 2015 when a 63-year-old Montana man was killed by a female grizzly bear. NPS didn’t release details as to why the attack happened but said the bear was euthanized and her two cubs were taken to a facility.

 As expected, some of the most visited parks have reported among the highest deaths.

Hiking Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Topping out the list is Lake Mead National Recreation Area at 145 where the single most common cause of death was drowning. Of the 385 drownings reported in national parks between 2014 and 2021, 47 happened at Lake Mead, the most of any park.

The second most deadly national park was Grand Canyon National Park which reported nearly 100 deaths over the eight-year period. Though it’s known for its panoramic cliff edges overlooking steep canyon walls, falls were not the leading cause of death in the frequently visited park. Instead, nearly half of the deaths at the Grand Canyon were listed as medically related.

Some of those deaths are likely caused by the heat hikers experience in the park. Officials often warn hikers to stay hydrated, rest in the shade, and hike during the cooler parts of the day.

Arches National Park, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These five national parks reported the most fatalities between 2014 and 2021:

  • Lake Mead National Recreation Area: 145 deaths with drowning the leading cause (47)
  • Grand Canyon National Park: 97 deaths with medical issues the leading cause (48)
  • Yosemite National Park: 94 deaths with medical issues the leading cause (33)
  • Great Smoky Mountains National Park: 80 with a motor vehicle crash the leading cause (29)
  • Natchez Trace Parkway: 74 with a motor vehicle crash the leading cause (62)

Proportionally, based on the available mortality data and visitor data from NPS (not every park is listed in the mortality report and not every park tracks visitors), far less than 1 percent—technically, less than 0.0002 percent—of visitors died within national parks.

North Cascades National Park has the highest mortality rate at 0.004 percent reporting nine deaths and over 220,500 visitors during the same time period. Those deaths include three falls, two motor vehicle crashes, two environmentally-related deaths, a medical death, and an undetermined cause of death.

Hiking trail at Padre Island National Seashore, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Based on death-to-visitor rate, these are the five deadliest parks:

  • North Cascades National Park: 9 deaths; 220,547 visitors with a 0.0040808 percent death rate
  • Lake Clark National Park: 4 deaths; 132,637 visitors with a 0.0030157 percent death rate
  • Wrangle-St. Elias National Park: 11 deaths; 523,239 visitors with a 0.0021023 percent death rate
  • Fort Bowie National Historic Site: 1 death; 69,942 visitors with a 0.0021023 percent death rate
  • Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site: 1 death; 85,621 with a 0.0011679 percent death rate

The five parks with the most fatalities all have death rates below 0.0003 percent.

Many of these injuries are easily avoidable by following basic park safety tips.

El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10 National Park Safety Tips

The following park safety tips can keep you safe on your trip.

1. Be careful in water

The first park safety tip applies to all parks with bodies of water. Follow signs or advisories regarding water safety in the area. Lifeguards are not present at all national park swimming areas. Being a strong swimmer does not guarantee that you will not drown; in many cases, this is a false sense of security that has placed visitors in dangerous circumstances. A properly fitted life jacket can help you float in water while you wait for help to arrive.

Cumberland Island National Seashore, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Bring emergency supplies

Safety does not only rely on your actions during an event but also the actions you take before the event occurs. Here is a list of some items you can bring to limit potential danger:

  • Map and/or compass: Navigation systems are used when planning your route before your trip and when you need help orienting yourself in your surroundings during your activity.
  • First-aid kit: Be prepared for emergencies by packing medical care supplies. Check the expiration date on all items and replace them as needed.
  • Tent, blanket, or tarp: Shelter is one of the most important elements during an emergency survival situation. It can protect you from severe weather conditions and exposure to the elements. These are all lightweight options for emergency shelter.
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Bring weather-appropriate supplies

Always keep in mind that the weather can change drastically at a moment’s notice. You should bring supplies not only based on the current temperature but also the potential change in the weather. Sunglasses and sunscreen are necessary to protect your skin and eyes against harsh UV rays that are responsible for sunburns and skin cancer. Gloves, and rain jackets are also good to have in the event of a cold or rainy change in weather.

4. Do not interact with wildlife

It is illegal to feed, touch, tease, frighten, or intentionally disturb wildlife. Interacting with wildlife can cause harm to both people and wildlife including injury and disease. Stay on trails to help keep human presence in predictable areas.

5. Do not take risks

It can be tempting to take risks for a good picture or even just for thrills. However, it is not worth the danger especially considering the potential difficulty in retrieving and transporting you to a medical facility. A lack of caution may result in serious injury. Check park alerts for information on closures and other hazards in the park. Also, you should always remain on the safe side of barriers and railings.

Bison at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Obey signs and flyers

One of the simplest park safety tips is to follow signs. By following any signs, flyers, or advisories provided by the park you will prevent damage to the surrounding vegetation and erosion. Some signs may display park rules or directions to ensure visitor safety.

7. Remain on marked trails

Trails are marked for a reason. Diverting from marked trails is irresponsible and harmful to the environment. As stated in a previously mentioned park safety tip, it is important to travel through marked trails to keep human presence in predictable areas.

Shenandoah National Park, Virginia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Stay hydrated

The average person drinks needs to drink one quart of water per hour while hiking on a hot day. Therefore, it is crucial to be prepared and bring plenty of water to avoid dehydration. Although the park may have natural sources of clean, potable water, most springs and water sources along the trails are unprotected and susceptible to contamination. For this reason, all water should be purified before drinking it except for developed water fountains and marked water spigots within the park.

9. Store food properly

Storing your food properly is a park safety tip that has life-saving effects for humans as well as animals. Depending on which national park you visit, regulations differ for how best to store your food. Not following park regulations for food storage can result in fines, confiscation of food, or other penalties to protect visitors, property, and bears. It is helpful to choose foods that are compact, compressible, and lacking in strong odors. Bear-resistant containers only work if they are closed and locked.

Lassen Volcanic National Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Tell someone where you are going

The last of the park safety tips is to let your emergency contacts know where you are heading.

Whether you are going on a day hike or exploring the wilderness, it is imperative to let someone know where you will be going and how long you expect to be gone. Some parks will also have check-in policies. Therefore, let park rangers in the visitor center know your plans before setting off. Anything can happen so it is helpful to have others know where you are at all times.

Worth Pondering…

By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.

—Benjamin Franklin