While Yellowstone had been enjoying the celebrity of national park designation since 1872, the full National Park Service (NPS) was not established until August 1916, under the Presidency of Woodrow Wilson. Happy birthday and hallelujah, NPS!
Along with the assurance of preservation from development, there’s another certainty for lands that earn official recognition as a national park: people. For better and for worse, when you put up the telltale arrowhead signage of the NPS, the visitors will come.
Short of major ecological change or petty political arguments, it seems that human disasters tend to make the most news. Lest we perpetuate the trend, it is true that a lot could go wrong while enjoying a national park. They bring together novice outdoorspeople with accomplished backcountry travelers. Plus, national parks are enclaves for animals who live a few rungs higher on the food chain than us. There are plenty of ledges to fall off and sand dunes upon which to dehydrate. The wilderness adds another layer of complexity to even the most simple accident.
So, what’s the deadliest national park?
Obviously, this morbid statistic changes from year to year – in number and location. The NPS is in the business of protecting and preserving our parks, so they’re not too keen on listing fatality rates alongside other stats, like acreage, annual visitor numbers, and popular day hikes.
Thanks to the handiwork of the intrepid souls who have combed through hundreds of daily reports from the NPS over the years, we can determine a few parks that make a consistent showing on this undesirable list: Grand Canyon, Lake Mead Recreation Area, and Mount Rainier. Though, it’s truly not an accurate portrayal to say these are objectively the deadliest parks. At the risk of insensitivity, one group tragedy can skew a decade’s worth of statistics.
In late summer 2015, the NPS didn’t break history and release fatality numbers per park, but it did release a slew of info on how people tend to die in national parks (based on a six-year time period from 2007-2013).
Drowning was the number one cause of death by a long shot. And you know that hazard that tops many a list of being in the wild, an animal attack? Animals are the least likely things to kill people in parks. Between 2007 and 2013, animal attacks accounted for only six of 1,025 human deaths. Of those, four were bear encounters, one was a snakebite, and one was a mountain goat.
Just like in the urban wilds, the animal for whom you should reserve the most fear is your fellow human. Car accidents, frequently caused by distracted driving, are the number two cause of death in national parks.
On average, 120 to 140 people die in national parks each year. Out of the 280 million annual visitors, the numbers are in your favor. The national park mortality rate is dwarfed by the overall U.S. mortality rate, which lingers just over 800 deaths per year per 100,000 people. This is relevant because one would think – given the broad spectrum of people who visit the parks – the rates would more closely mimic one another. But nope, your odds of dying in a national park are only one (or two) in a million.