National parks are some of the wildest, most rugged, and breathtaking places in America. It’s no wonder that the National Park Service recorded 297 million visits in 2021. But these vacation hotspots can also spell danger for avid outdoors people and ill-prepared travelers alike. Many parks feature cliff-top views and deep canyons, where a single misstep could lead to a fatal fall. Others contain remote and expansive tracts of wilderness with no cell service, where getting lost could lead to dehydration, starvation, or severe exposure. (Here are the national parks with the best and worst mobile service.)
To determine the most dangerous national parks, 24/7 Tempo reviewed data on fatalities in U.S. national parks from 2010 to 2020 from the National Park Service. National parks were ranked based on the number of reported fatalities from 2010 to 2020 per million annual visitors. Fatality data came from Freedom of Information requests made by outdoor resource site Outforia. Fatalities were adjusted for visitation levels using annual visitor data from the National Park Service. Only parks with at least 10 fatalities from 2010 to 2020 were considered.
The most common causes of death in national parks include drowning, falls, environmental exposure, and motor vehicle accidents. Deaths from natural or medical causes are also common, and while they may have more to do with a person’s pre-existing conditions, extreme heat or fatigue can often factor into these deaths. On the other hand, deaths due to attacks by mountain lions or grizzly bears are extremely rare. (These are the world’s deadliest animals.)
Falls are the number one cause of death in national parks, with 245 falling deaths occurring between 2010 and 2020. Yosemite had the most falling deaths – 45 – in the ten-year period, while Grand Canyon had 27 and Sequoia had 25. Medical or natural causes were the second leading cause of death.
The parks with the most deaths overall between 2010 and 2020 were Grand Canyon (134 deaths), Yosemite (126 deaths), and Great Smoky Mountains (92 deaths), but those numbers reflect the high number of visitors these parks see annually. When adjusted for the number of visitors, these parks move out of the top three spots.
Environmental exposure is a risk at many parks, whether they involve desert settings or snowy mountains. The most dangerous national park is Denali in Alaska, a mountaineering destination that is home to the highest mountain in North America. Between 2010 and 2020, the park had 9.7 deaths per million visitors, with 18 deaths due to environmental exposure and 14 due to falls.
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