US National Parks: What Are the Chances of Dying During a Visit?

by Jennifer Shea

We’ve all seen stories of hikers who disappear, never to be heard from again, and mountain climbers who tumble to their deaths. But visitors are flocking to national parks in record numbers after the pandemic gave everyone a case of cabin fever.

So what are your odds of dying during a visit to one of America’s national parks this summer? After all, the parks are not without their dangers. There are heat waves and rockslides to consider, as well as extreme weather events thanks to the warming climate.

Overall, your chances of survival pretty good, recent data shows.

Parks Are ‘Very Safe Overall’

A Las Vegas personal injury law firm, Panish Shea & Boyle, last autumn analyzed data from the National Park Service (NPS) dating from 2007 through 2018. They found that over that period, national parks saw a total of 2,727 deaths across hundreds of parks. About 3.5 billion people total visited the parks during that time.

The law firm figured that works out to just 8 deaths per 10 million visitors to parks.

“Based on our data, visiting U.S National Parks is very safe overall,” they concluded in their report.

The attorneys further found that men comprised the lion’s share of deaths at national parks, making up 81% of deaths. Women made up 19%. The 55 to 64 age bracket claimed the most deaths, 19%, but deaths were relatively evenly distributed among age groups.

Drowning Is the Leading Cause of Death

The law firm and the NPS seem to agree that drowning is the leading cause of death at U.S. national parks. It is followed by motor vehicle crashes, falls and slips, natural causes and suicide.

But human error is apparently responsible for more deaths than wildlife. In fact, only eight people during that time period died at the hands (or paws) of wild animals.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon and Natchez Trace Parkway appear to be the most lethal parks. But as some of the most-visited, they don’t necessarily have the highest deaths per capita. That title goes to Washington’s North Cascades National Park, by a long shot.

National Parks Expect to See Record Number of Visitors

Visitors to national parks actually decreased in 2020, despite the comparative safety of outdoor activities amid the pandemic, because of park closures and other coronavirus-related restrictions.

But experts are predicting a record-breaking year in 2021 as restrictions lift and people, cooped up from quarantine, return to the parks.

“We’re expecting one of the busiest years on record,” Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles, National Park Service assistant director of communications, told Yahoo Finance. “Plan like a park ranger… Make sure you have a reservation before you hop in the car so your only surprises are those happy ones.”

The shift to requiring reservations comes as park officials brace themselves for unprecedented crowds. Anzelmo-Sarles said both Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Park saw a jump in visitors over prior years, but they’re not alone. The surge is happening across the national parks system.

“We are reaching record numbers,” she said. “We’re seeing this trend across the country. The Great Smoky Mountains, Shenandoah, Acadia National Park — it’s not just the big parks out West. We’re seeing an increase everywhere.”