National parks attract millions of visitors each year, but with adventure comes risk. The beauty these national parks offer often overshadows the fact that Mother Nature can be as dangerous and deadly as she is breathtaking.
Over the years there have been many incidents in our national parks that have resulted in fatalities. From falls and drownings to animal attacks and other accidents, these tragedies have left their mark on the families and friends of the victims.
It is important to remember that while these deaths are certainly tragic, they are also extremely rare. Millions of people visit national parks each year without incident, and the parks are generally safe and pleasant places to explore. However, visitors should always be aware of the risks associated with outdoor activities and take appropriate precautions to ensure their own safety. Basically, read the warning signs and listen to the rules.
Let’s explore ten terrifying and unfortunate deaths in national parks in recent history, the circumstances surrounding each tragedy, and the lessons that can be learned from them. You can use this information on your next trip to one of the country’s amazing national parks.
Related: 10 Unsolved Cases of Missing Persons in National Parks
10 Fall from Half Dome, Yosemite National Park
Half Dome in Yosemite National Park is one of the most iconic places in the park. Danielle Burnett, a 29-year-old woman, was walking when she slipped and fell more than 500 feet (152 meters) to her death. She was climbing the upper section of Half Dome, an extremely steep and strenuous ascent that requires hikers to use metal cables to climb up the granite dome.
His tragic death is a reminder of the importance of security measures in national parks. The Half Dome cables have been a notorious danger zone for hikers. Danielle is at least the twelfth person to die while climbing to the top.
Over time, more security measures were added or replaced to try to keep hikers as safe as possible. Half Dome has cables along the trail so they suggest you wear a safety harness. But using one is optional. Wooden beams have also been added to allow hikers to stabilize and rest when needed. Additionally, daily permits have been capped to limit the number of people on the trail at any given time.
9 Grizzly bear attack, Glacier National Park
Glacier National Park is a beautiful national park in Montana that offers miles of scenic trails, breathtaking views, and some of the most majestic wildlife in the United States. Nearly three million people visit each year to enjoy the natural beauty. This particular death really highlights just how dangerous wild animals can be.
Brad Treat was a 38-year-old US Forest Service officer who was riding a mountain bike with a friend when he surprised and collided with a grizzly bear. After the collision, he was thrown from his bike and mauled by the bear when his friend went out to get help.
While rare, accidents like this serve as a reminder that visitors to national parks should always respect wildlife and be prepared for unexpected encounters. If you meet a bear, the forest service it says you should do the following:
- Stay as calm as possible while talking to the bear and slowly waving your arms.
- pick up little kids
- make yourself look as big as possible
- Do not run or climb trees.
- Don’t act or sound like prey
- Give the bear a way out and walk away slowly.
8 Fall from Angel’s Landing, Zion National Park
Angel’s Landing is known for its stunning views, but it’s also one of the most dangerous hikes in the park. The trail features steep drops, narrow paths, and steep inclines, requiring hikers to use chains for support.
Despite the danger, Angel’s Landing remains a popular hiking trail in Utah’s Zion National Park. Several fatal accidents have occurred on this trail, prompting officials to encourage visitors to exercise caution or avoid the hike altogether if they are inexperienced.
One such tragic accident occurred in 2017 when Tate Volino, a 45-year-old man, was walking when he lost his balance on the steep and narrow trail and fell 1,000 feet (305 meters) to his death. Incidents like these highlight the importance of understanding one’s boundaries and following safety guidelines in national parks.
7 Flash flood, Zion National Park
Flash flooding is a common hazard in slot canyons and other low-lying areas of national parks, especially in the narrows of Zion National Park. When planning a visit, you should always check the weather forecast before beginning any hike and pay special attention to the park’s current flash flood rating. Educating yourself and being prepared could save your life, as flash floods can strike in minutes with little warning.
A group of seven hikers was swept away by a flash flood while hiking in Keyhole Canyon during a 2015 storm that dumped more than half an inch of rain in an hour. Park officials say that everyone who hikes through the canyons receives a safety briefing when they pick up their permit. Still, once in the canyon, there is no way to communicate with people if conditions suddenly change.
If you are in an area prone to flooding, you should look for these signs to be as safe as possible.
- puddles begin to form
- Change in the color of the water of an existing stream.
- The existing water source has a debris buildup.
- You can hear running water.
Hopefully you will never be caught in this situation, but if you see the signs or find yourself caught in a flash flood, knowing what to do could save your life. Higher ground is your best chance. While the ideal is to get out of the canyon, remember that you can outrun a flash flood. Other things to increase your chances of survival are:
- Do not swim or try to cross a flood
- Try to avoid climbing on rocks or shelves if possible. You could end up stranded or forced to swim if the water gets too high.
- If you are stranded, stay still and let the water subside.
6 Lightning, Rocky Mountain National Park
Lightning is a fairly common hazard in national parks, particularly in high altitude areas. National park officials urge visitors to check the weather forecast and avoid hiking during thunderstorms or high winds. If caught in a thunderstorm, hikers should seek shelter in a low area or in a building, if available. It is also essential to avoid open spaces, tall trees and metal objects, which can attract lightning.
In 2014, a tragedy occurred in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado when a group was struck by lightning. The attack killed one person and injured seven others. While it is miraculous that so many in the group survived the lightning strike, backpackers and hikers should always pay attention to the weather and plan their excursions accordingly.
5 Fall of the Grand Canyon, Grand Canyon National Park
In April 2018, a 35-year-old man fell to his death while taking photos near the rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The man reportedly stepped back to take a photo as he lost his balance and fell 1,000 feet (305 meters) to his death. The incident is just one of many fatal falls that have occurred at the Grand Canyon over the years.
The Grand Canyon is one of the most popular national parks in the United States, attracting millions of visitors each year. However, the park’s steep cliffs and rugged terrain can be dangerous, especially for those who venture too close to the edge. Every year about a dozen people die in the park, and several of those deaths are caused by accidental falls.
Visitors should always stay on designated trails, avoid getting too close to the edge, and keep a close eye on children and pets.
4 Drowning, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
When hiking on a hot summer day, it can be tempting to go swimming to cool off and enjoy the natural beauty of the park. But the National Park Service says swimming and other water activities are not recommended as there are no designated swimming areas. If an injury occurs, help could be hours away.
In 2022, a man drowned while kayaking near Sinks in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Park officials were called after the 61-year-old man fell into the water and did not resurface.
This tragic incident highlights the dangers of natural bodies of water, particularly in areas with strong currents or deep pools. The moving rocks and seemingly slow currents are enough to quickly turn a fun outing into tragedy. Park officials remind visitors to never swim alone, to avoid diving or jumping off cliffs or high rocks, and to always wear proper safety gear.
3 Plane crash, Denali National Park
Denali National Park is known for its rugged nature and breathtaking beauty, but it can also be a dangerous place for those who aren’t careful. Visitors are advised to always follow park guidelines and be aware of the inherent risks associated with backcountry travel and other outdoor activities.
In 2018, a small tourist plane carrying a pilot and four passengers crashed in Denali National Park. All five people on board died in the accident. What makes this incident especially tragic is that although the accident was initially found, rescue and recovery was not possible. After an earthquake in the area, a part of the mountain collapsed and now the accident cannot be found.
2 Heatstroke, Joshua Tree National Park
In 2018, a hiker died of heat stroke while hiking in Joshua Tree National Park in the California desert. This is a big concern when visiting the park, as temperatures can exceed 100°F (37.8°C).
This tragic incident highlights the dangers of hiking in extreme heat, particularly in arid settings like Joshua Tree National Park. To avoid heat stroke while hiking, it’s important to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water and electrolyte-rich fluids, such as sports drinks. Wearing loose, breathable clothing and a wide-brimmed hat can also help protect against heat exhaustion.
If someone begins to show signs of heat stroke, such as dizziness, confusion, or a rapid heartbeat, move them to a shady area, provide cool water, and seek immediate medical attention. To prevent heat stroke from occurring, acclimate to the environment by gradually increasing activity levels and avoiding strenuous activity during the hottest part of the day.
1 Falling tree, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Admittedly, this is a rarity, but the fact that a seven-year-old girl was murdered makes it even more tragic.
In July 2022, park rangers for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park were called shortly after midnight. A father was camping with his three daughters when a 20-foot-wide red maple fell on his tent, killing his seven-year-old daughter. The rest of the family was physically unharmed.
Investigators weren’t sure why the tree fell, but said this is the first death caused by a falling tree on a tent in the park’s history.
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