Deadly Destinations: America’s 12 Most Dangerous Parks

August 24, 2018

If you’re looking to head out and see America’s spacious skies and purple mountain majesties, make sure you do some planning. Unpreparedness can easily lead to death, even at the country’s most popular destinations. Here are the 12 deadliest places in our national parks system.

12. Death Valley National Park

California/Nevada

The dry, cracked of Racetrack Playa in Death Valley, probably the last place on Earth you’d want to get lost without water.

As if the name isn’t enough of a warning, there are still some tourists that come to Death Valley completely unprepared for the heat. The 3 million acre wilderness is a place of extremes with mountains dropping over 11,000 ft down to valley floors, nearly 300 ft below sea level, home to the world’s hottest golf course and rarest fish.

The high mountains prevent clouds from bringing moisture and the low valleys trap heat, making Death Valley one of the hottest places in the world with temperatures up to 134℉. Definitely not somewhere you want to get lost, like a German family of four did in 1996, never to be seen again, or the two unfortunate souls whose dried up bones were discovered in the sand in 2009.

11. Glacier National Park

Montana

The Highline Trail in Glacier National Park has no shortage of cliffs, so watch your footing.

Glacier National Park is full of picturesque meadows opening up to dramatic mountain vistas. With hundreds of trails crisscrossing the park for hiking, mountain biking, and skiing, there are plenty of opportunities for adventure, but also for accidents.

Eric Gabriel, branch chief for ranger activities, said that of the 2-3 people that die annually in Glacier, “if you bore down in the statistics, you find out many of those victims were alone and got themselves in trouble.” However, one cause of death is slightly more grisly: at least 10 people have been killed in the park after being attacked by grizzly bears.

10. Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Tennessee/North Carolina

The winding mountain roads of Great Smokey Mountains National Park, where accidents can be fatal.

America’s most visited national park is also one of the most dangerous. The rolling mountain ridges that stretch as far as the eye can see mean that roads here are far from straight. These winding curves cause an average of 50 people to be seriously injured every year in motor vehicle accidents.

Several people have died after losing their footing at the tops of waterfalls, and in 2016 fourteen people were killed by a forest fire. If you plan on tackling any of the 800+ miles of trails in Great Smoky, drive safe and bring a friend.

9. The Wave, Vermillion Cliffs National Monument

Arizona/Utah

Hiking to the Wave requires winning one of twenty daily permits and a six-mile hike with no shade or water.

Arguably one of the trippiest rock formations on the planet, the Wave draws 20 lucky tourists chosen by lottery a day. Unfortunately, being lucky enough to get a permit does not equal being prepared enough to hike through this scorched, sandy landscape.

Temperatures here can easily soar over 100℉ and there is no access to water on the six-mile unmarked trail. Earlier this summer, a Belgian tourist never made it back from his trip to the Wave, and in just one month of 2013, three hikers died of heat exhaustion and cardiac arrest.

8. Yellowstone National Park

Wyoming/Montana/Idaho

The multicolored pools at Yellowstone National Park might seem inviting, but the water often reaches temperatures over 200°F.

The brightly colored thermal pools in Yellowstone National Park might seem like an inviting spa, but the waters in these springs can reach well over 200℉. Of the nearly 6 million visitors that flock to Yellowstone a year, at least 22 people have died after falling into the park’s geysers and hot springs.

Should seem like common sense, but boiling water heated by lava is not any place you ever want to go swimming. When you’re in Yellowstone, stick to the paths and don’t even think about taking a dip, no matter how inviting the waters may look.

7. Grand Teton National Park

Wyoming

The Teton’s jagged peaks should only be attempted by experienced climbers.

The rugged peaks of the Tetons have inspired wilderness lovers for generations. Climbing and backpacking through these mountains require serious preparation and even the most experienced adventurers can fall prey to the unforgiving terrain.

At least 60 people have met their untimely death here in the past decade, including a 27-year-old nurse who fell 300 feet this summer while reaching for his rappelling equipment.

6. Mount Rainier National Park

Washington

Even though it’s just a short drive away from nearby Tacoma or Seattle, Mount Rainier requires serious climbing experience if you want to make it to the top.

The Pacific Northwest’s tallest peak draws thousands of hikers every year, but only about 2% attempt to make it to the top. That’s because this 14,000 ft volcano is capped by massive glaciers (with otherworldly ice caves) and requires serious mountaineering experience to even make a go for the top.

Harsh winds and freezing temperatures near the summit can cause avalanches and hypothermia, even in the middle of summer. In Rainier’s deadliest accident since the 80’s when eleven people were killed by an avalanche, six climbers fell 3,000 feet to their deaths in 2014.

5. Denali National Park

Alaska

Climbing Denali will literally leave you breathless as the summit only receives a fraction of the oxygen you’d be provided at sea level.

Denali National Park is home to North America’s tallest mountain which gives the park its namesake. One of the seven summits, this peak draws professional and amateur mountaineers alike from all over the world.

The high elevation and even higher latitude make climbing here particularly dangerous. A 1967 snowstorm ravaged the mountain and left 7 of 12 students attempting the summit dead. Just last month a tourist plane crashed into a ridge below the summit, all four passengers and the pilot are presumed dead and their bodies will never be recovered.

4. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area

Arizona/Utah

Lake Powell stretches for over 100 miles from Glen Canyon Dam, providing ample opportunities for adventure, but also for accidents.

The stunning cliffs of Glen Canyon have created one of the most beautiful settings in the world for watersports. With over 3 million visitors making the trek to this remote desert paradise a year, not everyone is going to be prepared.

Temperatures here can fluctuate wildly between 110℉ down to 0℉. Hikers stuck out in the elements need to be prepared for the weather to change quickly and dramatically. But the real danger here is the water itself. Over 150 people have drowned here from not wearing life jackets.

3. Grand Canyon National Park

Arizona

The Grand Canyon drops over 5,000 feet to the Colorado River below, so if you’re going to check out the edge, make sure your footing is solid.

Almost seems like common sense that the world’s largest and most famous canyon would be notorious for curious cats getting too close to the edge, but that doesn’t stop people from doing it anyway. The five-mile-wide one-mile-deep chasm has claimed at least 120 lives in the past ten years.

Many tourists who visit don’t realize that temperatures at the top can be a good 20-30° cooler than at the bottom, and the extreme heat in the summer can cause heat exhaustion or heart attacks. Clueless visitors are such a problem that the park stationed a ranger at the top of the Bright Angel trail to warn hikers against attempting the climb in heels, seriously…

2. Yosemite National Park

California

Yosemite is home to some of the world’s most famous climbing routes, but also some of the most dangerous.

The dramatic glacier-carved valleys of Yosemite National Park draw in 5 million visitors a year. Unfortunately, not all of them make it home. In addition to the expected unprepared visitors getting in over their head, at least 20 experienced rock climbers have died climbing Half Dome, either from falling, heart attacks, or lightning strikes.

In June of this year, two friends fell from 1,000 feet above the valley floor from a relatively “easy” section of El Capitan, arguably the most challenging rock climbing location in the world. The thought of death didn’t stop Alex Honnold from making it to the top of the 3,000-foot cliff without the use of any ropes or safety equipment, though. The park has seen at least 150 deaths in the past decade, bringing it in at #2 on our list.

1. Lake Mead National Recreation Area

Nevada/Arizona

Most visitors who perish at Lake Powell fall victim to the sheer power of the United States’ largest reservoir.

Capped by the Hoover Dam and straddling the border between Arizona and Nevada, Lake Mead provides drinking water to millions of people. Only 30 minutes from Las Vegas, the largest reservoir in the U.S. is a popular tourist destination which drew almost 8 million visitors in 2017. In the ten years prior, 275 people died in the park, mostly from drowning (87), but the extreme heat and rough terrain also claim their fair share of victims.

Seems strange to drown in the middle of the desert, and you’d think it’s proximity to Sin City would mean alcohol was involved. But, according to Lake Mead spokeswoman Christie Vanover, “It’s really not the party crowd, It’s people who don’t understand the power of the lake. Some people think it’s like a swimming pool.” If you’re planning a trip to Lake Mead, don’t be that guy; wear a life jacket.