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Introduction

The United States National Parks (NPs) are truly iconic: historically, naturally, culturally, and offer many outdoor activities. In 2016, the National Park Service (NPS) celebrated its 100th anniversary with a record 331 million visitors. During and following the COVID-19 pandemic, visitation initially dropped but, restless and confined Americans are returning to the NPs in droves, with 297 million visits in 2021, up 60 million from 2020. Indeed, forty-four NPs broke visitation records in 2021. This raises a frequent question. Should visitors be limited to prevent or minimize the many of the vast crowding challenges?

Another unforeseen outcome of high volume visitations is more search and rescue incidences. Grand Canyon NP had the highest SAR callouts (n=828) between a 3-year period of 2018-2020. This closely matches a ten-year period (2010-2020) with an average of 300 SAR incidences per year. The second and third highest SAR callouts were at Yosemite (n=732) and Sequoia and Kings Canyon (n=503) NPs. Many SAR callouts are for lost and injured, including deaths caused by either accident, natural causes (medical), suicides, and homicides.

Recently, intrigue about deaths in the NPs has been high, triggering a flurry of several articles. For example, Treehugger published an article in 2021 listing 10 of the most dangerous NPs. This topic begs the question: how dangerous are these NP locations for the non-risk taker tourist? Two more articles, one by Outforia, and the other by Panish, Shea & Boyle LLP, used different methods to rank order of the most dangerous NP. Consequently, their rankings had dissimilar outcomes that cause the reader to question what to believe. Our intent is to help the reader understand the risk of death in these studies.

In early 2021, Outforia published an online article called, Danger Parks: Which U.S. National Parks Are The Most Dangerous?, which received a lot of attention by news media for their 2010 to 2020 study. Their intent was to determine: 1) which NPs are the most dangerous; 2) where are visitors most likely to die; and 3) what are the most common causes of death. Their methods to acquire these mortality data were gathered by submitting a Freedom of Information Act request to the NPS. Based on their findings they ranked total deaths during this period. In general, they reported the top three causes of death: 1) falls (n=245 deaths); 2) medical or natural deaths (n=192 deaths); and 3) unexplained/undetermined (n=166 deaths). Table 1 lists the top five NPs for total deaths.

Table 1. Top 5 National Park locations for deaths and top 3 causes during 2010 to 2020 based on total deaths as reported by Outforia.

In 2020, a study called An Analysis of Deaths in U.S. National Parks was conducted by Panish, Shea & Boyle LLP. Based on several unintentional deaths, their study attempted to answer two questions: 1) how and how often do people die in the NPs? and 2) which NPs have the most deaths? Data was requested through Freedom of Information Act to the NPS for a twelve-year period (2007 to 2018), and they reported a total of 2,727 deaths. They estimated 3.5 billion recreation visits to NPs, which equates to ~8 deaths per 10 billion visits combined for all NPs. The top 5 ways people died were drowning, motor vehicle crash, undetermined, falls, and natural causes (medical). There were 260 (intentional) suicide deaths during this period. See Table 2 for a full list for how NP visitors died.

Table 2. How people died in the NP during 2007 to 2018 as reported by Panish, Shea & Boyle LLP.

Furthermore, and as one might suspect, their study revealed that popular NPs, those with the highest visitations, had the highest numbers of death. While this may not be surprising, what is surprising is that despite the millions of visitors, only these four NP reported more than 100 deaths during the study period:

  1. Lake Mead National Recreation Area – 201 deaths
  2. Yosemite National Park – 133 deaths
  3. Grand Canyon National Park – 131 deaths
  4. Natchez Trace Parkway – 131 deaths

Clearly, just because more people have died at the top 5 parks doesn’t mean you are you are at a greater risk to die when compared to visiting other NPs. For instance, there were more than 85 million recreational visits to Lake Mead during the 12-year study period. To best compare risk of death between all other NPs, they collected the estimated total recreational visits for each park, then adjusted the total deaths per 10 million visitors. In this example, Lake Mead with the highest total deaths, ranked 19th out of the top 25 NPs, and this was due to a large number (885,878,810) of park visitors. This resulted in a risk of 23 (deaths) per 10 million recreation visitors. When compared to the number 1 ranked park (out of 59 parks) for the greatest risk of death, it turned out to be the North Cascades NP that had only 19 total deaths. Due to much lower park visits (291,255) in 12 years, the risk of dying was estimated to be 652 (deaths) per 10 million visitors.

Interestingly the top five NPs for total deaths in the Outforia study: Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Great Smokey Mountains, Sequoia & Kings Canyon, and Yellowstone, ranked much lower: 32, 22, 45, 14, and 32 respectively in the study by Panish, Shea & Boyle LLP. See Table 3.

Table 3. Risk of death at the top 5 NP based on deaths per 10 million visits as reported by Panish, Shea & Boyle LLP.

Despite the discrepancy, both reports clearly supported their conclusion that the overall risk of death for NP visitors is low (~8 per 10 million visitors). This is likely because the majority of the park visitors avoid high-risk behaviors. Indeed, the findings by Panish, Shea & Boyle LLP also support the opinion of the NPS: “the risk is very low if visitors follow the simple rules and regulations, and use sound judgment. When looking at fatality rates during the 2007-2013 timeframe, the average rate is 0.57 deaths [per] 1 million visits,” said Jeremy Barnum, public affairs officer at National Park Service.

Yet how much practical value does a total deaths number provide future visitors to NPs with regards to prevention? Not much, according to articles recently published in Frommer’s, Backpacker magazines and USA TODAY, who all question the methods used in the Outforia study. Further, without using a common denominator, they note, such as the deaths per capita (i.e., annual total visitors) you have no risk probability of death to compare within a NP, or between other NPs. Also, without addressing specific mechanisms in the causes of death and/or contributing behavioral patterns, such as drinking alcohol, or not wearing a lifejacket while boating, no risk-reducing recommendations to decrease odds of dying in a NP can be made.

Another major omission in both the Outforia and the Panish, Shea & Boyle LLP studies is the probability of death related to specific hazards within specific NPs, for example, dying from getting mauled by a bear in Denali, or drowning while rafting the Colorado River’s whitewater in the Grand Canyon. Natural hazards, not car accidents in NPs, are generally the first thing that comes to mind when one considers death within our NPs. The Outforia article implies such by stating, “From accidental falls to drowning and even attacks by wild animals, over a thousand people have lost their lives in the USA’s national parks.” Yet, it and the Panish, Shea & Boyle LLP study both revealed that most deaths have nothing to do with natural hazards, and are the result of car accidents, natural causes, or suicide, which are directly proportional to NP visitation.

Again, how useful is this information to future visitors? While knowing which park is the most dangerous to drive in is helpful, it is of limited value to mitigate risk of dying for visitors to the backcountry and wilderness areas of the NPs. Far more helpful are recommendations for physical activities and/or behavior patterns with certain high-risk activity, such as whitewater rafting on the Colorado River with a reliable, well-secured PFD.

More specifically on this topic, from ongoing fatality data assessment at Grand Canyon NP, as documented in Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon (co-written by T. Myers), we know from the NPS that between 2010 to 2020, the years examined in the Outforia study, 22 people out of 330,000 river runners died while on Colorado River trips. This figure includes all causes of death on a river trip, e.g., drownings, medical, falls, and other causes on shore. This equates to 1 death (all-cause) out of 15,000 river trip runners. However, there were 13 drownings solely when on the water, seven of which occurred while on the river from boat flips while victims were wearing a life jacket. The other six drownings occurred on shore after victims fell or stepped into the fast-moving river without wearing a life jacket. Two cases involved heavy alcohol consumption. By using caution when walking along river edge, avoiding wading into the river without a life jacket, and avoidance of excessive alcohol intake, these categories are all modifiable risk factors for river runners. When you excluding these latter categories, the risk of on-river drownings in Grand Canyon was approximately one death out of 50,000 trips for all river runners.

Interestingly, the Outforia article, despite all its criticisms, is likely correct in listing Grand Canyon NP as the most dangerous when it comes to unintentional deaths from natural hazards. Between 2010-2020, 77 people died below the rims of Grand Canyon (heat stroke/ cardiac arrests during hiking, creek drownings, etc.), while an additional 28 accidentally fell to their deaths. Yet just as true as noted by Panish, Shea & Boyle LLP, “the risk is very low if visitors follow the simple rules and regulations, and use sound judgment.”

If you are a visitor, educator, or clinician counseling a cardiac patient about risks and hazards when visiting a NP, there are many excellent resources on the NPS website. These include NP trip planning, with a very thorough park guide handout, and how to stay healthy and safe while visiting the parks. They provide awareness of key park hazards that can potentially result in bad outcomes when rules and regulations are not followed. As the NPS states, learn to recreate responsibly.

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