Grand Canyon Hiker Recalls Rescuing Other Sick Hikers Amid Spike in GI Illness Cases

by TK Sanders

Grand Canyon officials think contaminated water may have led to a spike in gastrointestinal illnesses for park visitors recently. The National Park Service acknowledged well over 100 cases in the past few months alone, and they think parts of the Colorado River are to blame.

Grand Canyon National Park put out a notice earlier this month specifically warning patrons against drinking the water, even if it looks normal. The symptoms reported by guests are consistent with the norovirus, which is highly contagious.

The alert said in part, “There may have been a time when it was safe to use such sources, but no longer. Any untreated water has the potential to cause illness if it is not properly and carefully disinfected.”

Joelle Baird, public affairs specialist with the Grand Canyon National Park Service, told Fox News that her team is hoping to identify water pathways that could be affected.

“We have a cooperative with NPS Office of Public Healthy, Coconino County Health and Human Services, and the CDC. We are all working together to try to understand the disease pathway. And we want to look in particular at river and backcountry trips along the Colorado River,” Baird said earlier this week. “That’s been the primary focus.”

The first public notice went out in early May, but cases did not significantly decline as a result. Baird stressed that guests wanting to drink the natural water need to boil or treat it first.

“Norovirus is highly contagious. And once present, it spreads quickly among participants,” she said. “Water can also transmit norovirus. So we are advising all backpackers to not just filter their water but to use a chemical treatment or boil the water.”

If you’re hiking the Grand Canyon, or any other National Park, always be sure to bring plenty of your own water

Expert hiker Kristi Key of Arizona said she has stepped up to help other guests who were sick or even “violently vomiting.”

“I was on a solo hike on Boucher Trail, which is a pretty rugged trail,” she recalled. “I ran into a sick hiker and he was asking how the trail was on the way out, and I told him it’s not easy. He said he had a couple of people that were pretty sick and he wanted to know how rough it would be for them.” 

Key said she kept hiking for about an hour, “then started making my way back. I saw the guys again and that’s when they asked if I could summon that rescue.  They didn’t have much water left, and it was still quite a ways back out of the canyon.  One of the guys kept violently throwing up.”

Luckily for the hikers, Key wore a Garmin smartwatch with SOS technology that could summon a rescue chopper. A few hours later, the chopper arrived to save the dehydrated, sick hikers. Key said the pilot came up afterward to shake her hand.

“He said, ‘Thank you for doing this and staying with them.’ The ranger mentioned that norovirus was going around the village — they think that’s what it is.”