Gone Without a Trace: Mysterious Disappearances in National Parks

National Parks provide immense natural beauty as well as vast expanses where it’s easy to get lost

A 57-year-old woman died after hiking in 100-degree temperatures in Grand Canyon National Park on July 2, 2023. Park officials received a call about a distressed hiker in the Tuweep area at 6:30 p.m. but she was later found dead when rangers arrived.  

A 33-year-old man fell 4,000 feet to his death from the Skywalk at Grand Canyon West on June 5, 2023. A horseshoe-shaped glass bridge that extends 70 feet out over the canyon’s rim, the Skywalk is managed by the Hualapai Tribe. The Skywalk has seen more than 10 million visitors since 2007, according to the Grand Canyon West website.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since the National Park Service (NPS) oversees more than 84 million acres of preserved woods, deserts, mountains, and other wilderness areas, it’s no surprise that in the past 100 years, there have been a number of cases of hikers going missing. Many of those who vanished were young children and inexperienced hikers but some were healthy and seasoned outdoorspeople. But is there more to these disappearances than kids wandering off or hikers becoming disoriented?

What could cause someone to seemingly vanish into thin air? There are two approaches people take to explaining these mysterious disappearances: earthly and supernatural. Most hiking experts would say that these missing hikers made common mistakes like taking on more than they could handle, inadequate planning, or failing to turnback to beat the sunset.

However, some disappearances have become a focus for urban legend, online message boards, and nonfiction books. In fact, David Paulides, author and former police officer at Yosemite National Park thinks something more intriguing is afoot. In Missing 411, he examines more than 1,100 cases of people who mysteriously vanished in United States national parks.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Let’s be honest—although it might be fun to imagine monsters or aliens, no proof for any supernatural disappearance has ever been provided. But there have been some mysterious disappearances at NPS sites as well as in related spaces like national forests, recreation areas, state parks, and wilderness areas. Here are some of the most fascinating cases to date, starting in the early 20th century.

People have been disappearing inside US national parks at an alarming rate with at least 10 vanishing, never to be seen again, since 2016, reported The New York Post.

One was a hiker whose last message was to his son telling him he was on his way to Yosemite National Park.

Another got separated from his group during a nine-day excursion through the stifling Grand Canyon heat.

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

A young river tour guide with his whole life ahead of him also vanished during a group trip.

“No trace of man missing on Colorado River in Grand Canyon,” read a Williams-Grand Canyon News from the time.

At least 1,180 people were reported missing from NPS parks between 2018 and the first two months of 2023. Most were located safe and well, often with the help of search-and-rescue teams. Others were found injured or dead either from suicide or accidents but a small number of disappearances can’t be explained at all.

An examination of the data shows Grand Canyon National Park had more deaths, missing persons’ reports, and suicides compared to any other park. Most deaths result from falls over the canyon, helicopter crashes, or dehydration.

One disappearance with no easy explanation is Charles Lyon who has not been seen in just over two years. The 49-year-old from Tyler, Texas, was last seen at a Best Western motel in Tusayan, Arizona, on June 10, 2021. His car was found around the Grand Canyon’s South Rim the next day and police believed he was alone.

Padre Island National Seashore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Jonghyon Won saw a similar fate in September 2017 when his car was found parked at the South Rim of Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park. The 45-year-old did not tell anyone about his plans to be in the area and was never seen again, the NPS reported.

Florida teacher Floyd E. Roberts III disappeared from Grand Canyon National Park on June 17, 2016 while hiking with a group on a nine-day excursion. The area had been rocked by extreme heat when the 52-year-old was separated from his group. Roberts, a business technology and web design teacher for a Florida middle school, was last seen in a remote portion of the western Grand Canyon near Kelly Tank heading toward the Shanley Spring area.

With no body recovered, explaining their sudden disappearances isn’t easy. Some who fall into the canyon are not found for years as in the case of Scott Walsh who disappeared in 2015 but whose body wasn’t found until 2021.

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

Harder to explain is the disappearance of 22-year-old Morgan Heimer. In June 2015, he was guiding a tour group through an area of the Colorado River near Pumpkin Springs when he vanished. NPS records show Heimer was helping “clients to jump off a low cliff into the water” in the minutes before he was last seen around 4 p.m. June 2.

“The last client had completed the activity and Heimer and the Lead Guide had switched positions,” states a search and record report.

“The Lead Guide had just talked to Heimer about taking a bit of time off that afternoon. The Lead Guide walked away from the cliff to talk to a client. When the Lead Guide turned around Heimer was gone.”

The guide told searchers he thought Heimer had left to take a break but realized something was amiss when Heimer failed to turn up for dinner. Heimer, from Cody, Wyoming, was described as having advanced/superior skills. He was on day six of the eight-day excursion. Heimer’s family joined searchers in Arizona. Crews spent six days scouring the area before scaling back their efforts.

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The immediate response to disappearances in some of the most treacherous landscapes in the country falls into the hands of search-and-rescue workers who are battling the clock due to the extreme elements in an environment like the Grand Canyon. Rangers usually have only the smallest clues—a shoe impression on the ground, a credit card receipt—to find whom they’re looking for.

Bodies are not only difficult to find within an already treacherous landscape but also often exposed to the extreme weather conditions including drying heat known to expedite deterioration. In colder climates, bodies and any evidence left behind often grow harder to find as snow accumulates. Remains are also subject to scavenging by wildlife.

Such examples in expansive Grand Canyon National Park are only a handful of cases nationwide that have gone cold.

National parks elsewhere in the country have seen their own spates of mysterious disappearances.

Barry J. Tragen, 68, visited Glacier National Park at the end of July 2020. His whereabouts raised alarm bells five days later when rangers noticed his car was still parked near Kintla Lake, the NPS said. Rangers searched for any signs of the Columbia Falls, Montana, man for weeks and came across a pair of sunglasses they believed were his.

Saguaro National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

K9s were brought in and showed interest in an area of the lake’s outlet. They also used boats, ground search teams, and underwater equipment but no signs of Tragen were found, the agency said. The NPS scaled back its search efforts beginning August 10, 2020 and Tragen remains missing.

Beverly, Massachusetts man Matthew Silveira’s July 2020 disappearance also reached the NPS which was called in to assist the Wellfleet Police Department after local officers discovered his car abandoned just miles from the Cape Cod National Seashore, according to reports from the NPS and the Boston Globe. Camping gear and his cellphone were found inside according to the NPS report which also described the 32-year-old as having a history of making suicidal statements. Silveira’s car was found over 120 miles from his hometown but he was never located.

James Pruitt drove 1,400 miles to Rocky Mountain National Park from his hometown of Etowah, Tennessee on February 28, 2019. The 70-year-old parked his car in the lot of the Glacier Gorge trailhead, according to the NPS. Park rangers discovered his car March 3 and grew suspicious when the vehicle did not have an overnight parking permit.

Pruitt’s family told rangers they did not know where within the national park he had planned to hike and said they have not heard from him since 10 a.m. February 28. They also said Pruitt had not planned on staying in the park overnight.

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But Glacier Gorge had received two feet of snow by the time rangers caught wind of Pruitt’s disappearance which added to the already challenging search, police said. Rangers scoured 15 square miles until March 11 when their search “entered limited continuous operations” on March 11, 2019, the NPS said.

A team of 40 searchers briefly resumed their efforts in October after months of small, sporadic searches during the summer but by that time it’s possible his remains could have been almost entirely consumed by wild animals, leaving no trace.

In California, Peter Jackson texted his son on September 17, 2016 to say he was on his way to the high-traffic Yosemite National Park. He had been staying at the White Wolf Campground and had paid to park through September 21, 2016. The avid hiker’s backpack was discovered in the area of Ackerson Meadow and Aspen Valley on August 19 but neither he nor his remains have ever been found, officials said.

On the other side of the country, John Squires was rafting with friends on June 20, 2018, when their vessel overturned in the American Creek within Alaska’s Katmai National Park. He and the others were thrown into the fast-moving water when their raft collided with a submerged object, the NPS said. Squires was last seen swimming downriver and trying to get to the shore. His friends were ultimately able to swim to safety but were unable to get to Squires.

He remains missing five years later.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The disappearance of Gabby Petito made international headlines when her boyfriend Brian Laundrie returned from their road trip all by himself. They had posted heavily about their travels on social media, had an ambitious schedule of coast-to-coast national park visits although several fights between the pair were noticed by others (including the police) along the way.

Petito’s family says that their last contact with the 22-year-old was at the end of August 2021. Laundrie arrived back at home September 1 without Petito and refused to speak with police or her family. Her family reported her missing September 11 after a lengthy lack of contact. In fact, they don’t believe the last text they received from Petito was actually from her.

Sadly, on September 19, Petito’s remains were found in Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming. The cause of death was determined to be strangulation. Laundrie disappeared on September 17 and on October 20 his skeletal remains were found inside the Carlton Reserve in Sarasota, Florida.

Worth Pondering…

Stay safe wherever you are and find time to enjoy each day!