How and How Often Do People Die in America’s National Parks?

Traveling to a national park this summer? What are the odds of dying during a visit?

For travelers heading to national parks this summer, fun and sun are on most visitors’ minds. While some danger lurks at these natural treasures, new data shows that park-goers, by and large, survive the great outdoors.

An October 2020 analysis from Panish Shea & Boyle LLP which reportedly used data provided by National Park Service (NPS) for the years 2007 through 2018 showed there had been a total of 2,727 deaths spread over hundreds of sites across that 12-year period while approximately 3.5 billion visited during that same period. This equates to less than eight deaths per 10 million visits to park sites during that time frame. It is important to say that based on this data visiting national parks is very safe overall.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Additionally, the NPS Public Risk Management Program (PRMP) analyzes mortality data to identify trends, leading causes of death, and high-risk populations. While injury rates in national parks are very low compared to injury rates in the U.S., injuries can and do happen when visitors are unprepared, exceed their experience or fitness level, or do not understand or heed hazard warnings. Being aware of the common causes of injuries in parks can help visitors understand the hazards associated with their activities and be better prepared before they go.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

PRMP reported that between the calendar year 2014 and 2016, 143 of 419 park units reported one or more deaths for a total of 990 deaths or six deaths per week. The mortality rate was 0.1 deaths per 100,000 recreation visits with 53 percent of deaths in that time frame due to unintentional causes like drowning and vehicle crashes. Around half of the medical deaths occurred as an individual was engaged in physical activity—like hiking, biking, or swimming—and 79 percent of deaths occurred among males.

Banish Shea & Boyle LLP data showed that drowning, motor vehicle crashes, “undetermined” causes, and falls were the top four killers highlighting the rural and scenic nature of most sites.

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

Washington’s North Cascades National Park was the most dangerous, statistics-wise, with 652 deaths per 10 million visits. Lake Mead National Recreation Area saw the most deaths during the period of the study at over 200 though there were more than 85 million recreational visits to the site during the years measured.

Data on fatalities in the parks from 2010 to 2020 released by Outforia in May—obtained using a Freedom of Information Act request to the NPS—showed the most common causes of death were falls, medical or natural deaths, or “undetermined” or “unexplained” deaths.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Unsurprisingly, the most visited parks tend to have the most visitor fatalities. Over the last ten years, Grand Canyon had the most visitor deaths, 134, followed closely by often densely-packed Yosemite, 126. Deaths and disappearances continue at Yosemite into 2021.

Great Smoky Mountains was the most visited park in 2019 with over 12 million visitors. It experienced 92 visitor deaths since 2010 while Yellowstone had 52. Interestingly, the park with the sixth-highest number of death, Alaska’s rugged Denali, had far fewer visitors than the other five. Yellowstone had 4,020,288 annual visitors and 52 deaths. Denali had 51 deaths and just 601,152 annual visitors.

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

Of course, while every death is tragic, the National Parks had nearly 3 billion visitors from 2010 to 2020 including 327.52 million people in 2019 alone. Due to the pandemic 2020 visitation numbers fell to 318.21 million people. If you’re careful, the parks can be quite safe.

Falls are by far the biggest killer of park visitors responsible for 245 deaths over the ten-year period studied. Medical or natural death was responsible for 192 mortalities followed by “undetermined” (166), motor vehicle crashes (140), and drowning responsible for 139 deaths.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Suicides were uncommon; just two parks, Grand Canyon (15) and Rocky Mountain (11) had more than ten deaths in ten years. More people were killed by wild animal attacks (6) than homicide (5.) Deaths from environmental factors were most common at Denali (18) and Grand Canyon (14) with one known for extreme cold and the other for extreme heat.

It can reach 120 degrees in the shade in the lower portions of Grand Canyon and tragedies do occur. A 49-year-old woman, her husband, and a friend hiked about four miles down the South Kaibab Trail when the woman became dizzy, disoriented, and then stopped breathing. The cause of death was believed to be heat-related. The high at Phantom Ranch that day was approximately 114 degrees. But even first-time campers, like those flocking to the parks in 2021 as the pandemic wanes can survive by using common sense like drinking plenty of water, avoiding the hottest parts of the day, and wearing a wide-brimmed hat (I prefer a Tilley).

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But these statistics do not take into account the numerous near-death experiences in the national parks such as the 21-year-old woman who recently fell into the icy waters of Maligne River in Alberta’s Jasper National Park. She slipped from a rock near the bank of the river while taking a photo. Fortunately, a 48-year-old man and his wife were in the right place at the right time and were able to rescue her from the fast-moving water.

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While 2021 mortality data is not currently available recently reported deaths offers further insight into the issue:

  • New Mexico State Police reported on July 6 that a 63-year-old man had been found dead in the shadeless White Sands National Park
  • In April, a grizzly bear attacked and killed a backcountry guide while fishing along the Yellowstone National Park border in southwestern Montana
  • In June, a 26-year-old woman fell to her death at Zion National Park while canyoneering
  • A 56-year-old man fell to his death from Sequoia National Park on Memorial Day
  • A 53-year-old woman on a backpacking trip at the Grand Canyon died of a heat-related illness in June
  • A 64-year-old professor of Biology died last month while solo hiking in Yosemite National Park

Worth Pondering…

It is what we think we know already that often prevents us from learning.

—Claude Bernard

Stay Safe this Summer by Using These Outdoor Heat Hacks

Heat Safety

High temperatures can be dangerous for humans and their pets. Make your visit to a national park, state park, or other recreation areas memorable for the right reasons!

Last year, as temperatures soared into the triple digits in Texas, staff at 39 Texas State Parks handled 132 heat-related illnesses in humans and pets. Now that summer has begun and temperatures are steadily climbing, consider these six heat hacks for staying safe in the outdoors. Then read about heat illness and care of your four-legged friend while on the trail.

Golfing in Hurricane Valley near St. George, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heat Hacks

Plan your trip with these heat hacks in mind.

Here are the top six heat hacks recommended for park visitors:

Hydrate

Drink at least 16 ounces of water every hour in the heat to replenish your body and prevent dehydration. Don’t forget to bring enough for your four-legged family members too.

Horse back riding in Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Block the Rays

Apply a generous amount of sunscreen before heading outdoors. Apply liberally and frequently and reapply every couple of hours and after swimming or sweating.

There goes my Tilley! © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dress Smart

Wear light, loose-fitting, breathable clothing; a wide-brimmed hat (I prefer a Tilley), good walking shoes, sunscreen, and wet bandanas to keep you cool while in the sun. For pets, protect paws against blistering by hitting the trails during cooler times of the day when the ground isn’t hot or by putting booties on pets to help shield paws from the hot ground. Touch the pavement or ground with the back of your hand. If you cannot hold it there for five seconds, the surface is too hot for your dog’s paws.

Stay Salty

Food helps keep up energy and replace salt lost from sweating. Eating snacks such as jerky, granola, trail mix, pretzels, tuna, and dried fruit is a fantastic way to nourish your body while on the trails.

Hiking Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Buddy System

Two brains are better than one. It’s beneficial to have someone with you in hot conditions so you can look after each other on the trail. With high temperatures hitting the US and Canada, heat-related illnesses are common, and having a friend around to help recognize the early symptoms can save you from getting sick.

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

Plan Ahead

Study a trail map and take it with you. Average hikers move at 2 miles per hour, so allow yourself sufficient time to avoid hiking in the heat of the day. Be sure to rest in a cool or shaded area to recover from the heat if necessary. It is also a good idea to let someone know your hiking route before you hit the trails and what time you should be back. That way, if you become lost, people know where to look.

Hiking Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heat Illness

Look for these symptoms of heat illness.

Heat Strokes

  • Throbbing headache
  • No sweating
  • Red, hot, dry skin
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Rapid, strong pulse
Hiking Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heat Exhaustion

  • Faint or dizzy
  • Excessive sweating
  • Cool, pale, clammy skin
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Rapid, weak pulse
  • Muscle cramps

If someone shows signs of heat illness, take these steps:

  • Move person to a half-sitting position in the shade
  • Call 911 immediately
  • Treat based on humidity: If below 75 percent, spray the victim with water and vigorously fan; or above 75 percent, apply ice packs on neck, armpits, or groin
It’s a dog’s life! © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heat and Dogs

Every year, dogs die after hiking with their owners in parks. Your dog will follow wherever you lead. But remember, your pet is wearing a fur coat and isn’t wearing shoes. Remember the five-second rule. Place the back of your hand on the pavement or ground. If you cannot hold it there for five seconds, the surface is too hot for your dog’s paws.

Photography in Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dog’s Hiking List

  • Leash (no more than 6 feet)
  • Collar with tags
  • Water
  • Food/treats
  • Dog booties
  • Plastic bags (for poop pickup)
  • Foot care
Staying cool in the shade along the Lower Colorado River, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For practical steps on staying cool in your RV this summer, click here.

Worth Pondering…

“‘Heat, ma’am!’ I said; ‘it was so dreadful here, that I found there was nothing left for it but to take off my flesh and sit in my bones.”

—Sydney Smith

Take a Hike. Do it Right!

During the summer, staying hydrated and cool is vital!

More than 200 hikers annually are rescued from City of Phoenix desert and mountain parks and preserves.

Courtesy the City of Phoenix, the following checklist can help keep you from being a statistic.

Hiking Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Watch the weather

Yes, “it’s a dry heat”—but Arizona’s temperature can be deceiving and deadly. Hike when it’s cool outside, try early morning and evenings when there’s more shade.

Hiking Old Baldy Trail at Medera Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Dress appropriately

Wear proper shoes, clothing, wide-brimmed hat (we recommend a Tilley Hat), and sunscreen.

Horseback riding at Lost Dutchman State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bring Water

Hydrate before you go. Have plenty of water, more than you think you need. Turn around and head back before you drink half of your water.

Hiking Picacho Peak State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Keep in Contact

Carry a mobile phone.

Team up: Hike with others. If hiking solo, tell someone your start and end times and location.

Hiking Bell Rock Trail in Red Rock Country near Sedona, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be honest

Do you have a medical condition? Asthma, heart problems, diabetes, knee or back problems? Don’t push yourself?

Hiking the White Tank Mountains, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take Responsibility

Don’t be “that person”—the one who wasn’t prepared, shouldn’t have been there for health reasons or ignored safety guidelines. Be the responsible hiker who takes a hike and does it right!

Worth Pondering…

‘Heat, ma’am!’ I said; ‘it was so dreadful here, that I found there was nothing left for it but to take off my flesh and sit in my bones.

—Sydney Smith, in Lady Holland, Memoir

Six Heat Hacks to Stay Safe This Summer

High temperatures can be dangerous for humans and their pets

During the summer, staying hydrated and cool is vital! Heat kills by pushing the human body beyond its limits. Most heat illnesses occur because the victim has been overexposed to heat or has overexerted his or her body for his or her age and physical condition. Anyone can experience a heat illness or even death from heat exposure especially from June to September.

The Springs at Borrego RV Resort and Golf Course in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Last summer, Texas’ temperatures soared to record highs and staff at more than 40 Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWR) sites handled 134 incidents relating to heat-related illnesses in humans and pets.

The following six heat hacks are courtesy TPWD.

Hydrate: Drink 16 ounces of water for every hour in the heat

Canoeing at Myakka River State Park, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s important to drink at least 16 ounces of water every hour in the heat to replenish your body and prevent dehydration. Drink more water than usual. Avoid drinks with sugar, alcohol, and caffeine. Be sure to bring enough for your four-legged family members too.

Block the Rays: Apply liberally and frequently

Jungle Gardens on Avery Island, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Apply a generous amount of sunscreen or sunblock before heading outdoors. Be sure to reapply every couple of hours and after swimming or sweating.

Dress Smart: Wear light, loose-fitting, breathable clothing, a hat, good walking shoes, and a wet bandana

Okefenokke National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wear light, loose-fitting, breathable clothing; a wide-brimmed hat (we recommend a Tilley Hat), correct shoes, sunscreen, and wet bandanas to keep you cool while in the sun. For pets, protect paws against blistering by hitting the trails during cooler times of the day when the ground isn’t hot or by putting booties on pets to help shield paws from the hot ground. Touch the pavement or ground with the back of your hand. If you cannot hold it there for five seconds, the surface is too hot for your dog’s paws.

Stay Salty: Bring snacks like jerky, granola, trail mix, tuna, and dried fruit

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

Food helps keep up energy and replace salt lost from sweating. Eating snacks such as jerky, granola, trail mix, tuna, and dried fruit is a fantastic way to nourish your body while on the trails.

Buddy System: Hike with a friend

Buccaneer State Park, Mississippi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Two brains are better than one. It’s beneficial to have someone with you in hot conditions so you can look after each other on the trail. With high temperatures hitting Texas, heat-related illnesses are common and having a friend around to help recognize the early symptoms can save you from getting sick.

Plan Ahead: Take a map and tell someone your hiking route

Fountain Hills, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Study the map and have it with you. The average hiker moves at 2 miles per hour, so allow plenty of time to avoid hiking in the heat of the day. If necessary, rest in a cool or shaded area to recover from the heat. It’s a good idea to let someone know your plan before you hit the trails and what time you should be back. That way, if you become lost, people know where to look.

Amelia Island, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility.

—Yogi Berra