Finding out the number of accidents and fatalities in our beautiful national parks isn’t easy. The National Park Service doesn’t want to scare away visitors so they don’t offer a handy guide to the number of tourists who fall, drown, are trampled, or are eaten while visiting our wild places. However there’s enough data in news reports and studies to come up with a top ten list of our most dangerous national parks. Which do you think tops the list? Yellowstone? Yosemite? Denali? Take a look and see if you’re as surprised as I was. Let’s start with number 10.
10.) The Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, New Jersey and Pennsylvania
This lovely river valley encompasses 67,000 acres of land on both sides of the Delaware River in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Varied species of birds, mammals and fish call this area home and nearly two million visitors a year come to the area to enjoy boating and water recreation sports.
That’s what’ll kill ya in the Delaware Water Gap, which begins our Top 10 Most Dangerous National Parks. Failing to wear a lifejacket while on the river is the number one cause of death. Adding alcohol consumption ups the risk. The Delaware River looks tranquil but can have unexpected currents which can overwhelm a swimmer. Keep the life jackets on and enjoy this beautiful (and only occasionally deadly) recreation area.
9.) Cape Hatteras National Seashore, North Carolina
The gorgeous North Carolina beach of Cape Hatteras makes our list next, with almost fifty miles of unspoiled barrier island seashore set aside for preservation and recreation. Loggerhead sea turtles clamber ashore every spring to lay eggs, the beach sands light up at night with bioluminescent plankton, and endangered piping plovers stalk for food in the shallows.
You’ll be endangered too, if you hang out there when hurricanes come ashore. Oh, who am I kidding? You’re as likely to be harmed by a bad sunburn as anything else at beautiful Cape Hatteras, but enough fatalities accrue here during hurricanes to make this gem of a park come in at number 9.
8.) Olympic National Park, Washington
The Olympic National Park was established in 1938 to protect primeval old growth and rain forests in the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. Drive for a few hours in the towering green cedar forests that make up most of the 1,442 square miles of the park and you’ll begin to believe in the legend of Bigfoot.
Bigfoot probably won’t kill you in Olympic National Park, although one man was recently gored to death by a mountain goat. This fatality led to a request for hikers to stop urinating along the trails, which causes a “salt lick” effect that draws in mountain goats. Now that I’ve shared this story with you perhaps I can get it out of my own head. The biggest cause of fatalities in the park is from hikers and climbers attempting to scale the 9,570 foot Mount Olympus. Falling to your death isn’t as newsworthy as being gored by a mountain goat, but the result is the same, and the many trails and mountains to climb create enough accidents to put Olympic National Park at number 8.
7.) Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
Rocky Mountain National Park encompasses 412 miles of the rugged Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Herds of elk browse on the grasses of Moraine Park and black bear sightings are common. Myriad hiking trails lead up to sparkling alpine lakes. Trail Ridge Road, open during June and July, allows drivers to ascend to 12,183 feet and view the sweep of the Rockies. Longs Peak is considered one of the more dangerous fourteen-thousand foot peaks in Colorado because of the difficulty of the climb, but it’s one of the most beautiful too.
The park draws in over two million visitors a year. The Park Rangers are so adept at handling tourist encounters with wildlife that few camera-wielding people get trampled or mauled. Hikers are warned to summit mountains before one o’clock in the summer, when thunderstorms commonly move in and lightning occurs, so only a few hikers are killed in lightning strikes. The fatalities in the park are mostly climbing falls.
6.) Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
The spectacular Grand Tetons of Wyoming were set aside in 1929 as a park that includes the major peaks of the Teton Range. At 310,000 acres, this alpine area attracts nearly two million visitors a year. In the summer, tourists photograph the stunning views and hike and climb the trails in the area. In the winter alpine skiing and snowboarding attract visitors from around the world.
Year-round visitors mean more opportunities for deaths by falling, drowning, and hypothermia. Despite the high altitude, craggy peaks and swift-flowing rivers, the park averages only a few fatalities a year, again mostly from climbing falls.
5.) The Blue Ridge National Parkway and All American Road, Virginia and North Carolina
Did you know we have national roads? The Blue Ridge Parkway runs along the Blue Ridge of the Appalachian Mountains through Virginia and North Carolina, and this road careens in at number 5 in the Top 10 Most Dangerous National Parks. This 469 mile road winds through the gorgeous Smoky Mountains and Shenandoah National Park, offering stunning views of rivers, waterfalls and mountain vistas. Though not a national park, this has been the most visited part of the entire National Park Service since 1946.
And if you guess that vehicle crashes are the number one reason for fatalities here, you’re correct. More than 10 million visitors a year, all of them in vehicles, are going to result in a few wrecks and fatalities. The number two reason might be a bit more surprising. It’s murder. The apparent isolation and vehicle access have led to enough homicide and body dumping to fill a book’s worth of stories.
4.) Denali National Park, Alaska
Denali National Park in Alaska consists of six million acres of wilderness with only one road. This jewel of Alaska is capped by North America’s tallest peak, 20,130 foot Mt. McKinley. This is where you can spot mankind, and this is where fatalities most often occur.
Mt. McKinley is a magnet for climbers all around the world, and this mountain is dangerous like her big cousin in Tibet, Mount Everest. Climbing falls can kill the most experienced professionals on Mt. McKinley when inclement weather blows in, and the tempting trophy of the tallest peak in North America brings enough climbers and enough fatalities to put Denali in at number 4.
3.) Natchez Trace Parkway, Tennessee
The Natchez Trace Parkway is a beautiful 444-mile route from the southern Appalachian foothills of Tennessee to the Mississippi River. Used continuously for thousands of years by Native Americans, then by trappers and by boatmen from the Mississippi River, the Natchez Trace route is now paved and is a designated National Scenic Byway and All American Road.
It is on our list due to automobile fatalities. The road is currently under improvement to make the route safer for bicyclists and drivers. Despite coming in at number 3 on our list, the route sees more than 3 million visitors a year and is steeped in history and natural beauty, making this roadway worth a visit. Just keep your eyes on the road and your speed reasonable, and enjoy the views.
2.) Yosemite National Park, California
The crown jewel of the California park system, Yosemite sees more than 4 million visitors a year. This 1,200 square mile park was set aside in 1864 to preserve spectacular waterfalls and stunning mountain vistas in the central California region of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Yosemite Valley features huge domes including El Capitan and Half Dome, and the famous Yosemite and Bridal Veil waterfalls.
Lots of visitors and cliff trails made slippery by waterfall spray bring Yosemite in at number 2 of the Top 10 Most Dangerous National Parks. Visitor fatalities are most often caused by drowning or falling, or a combination of both if a hiker is swept over a waterfall. The park is hugely popular and accessible, which makes this beautiful place more treacherous than usual for the careless or the unlucky. Take lots of photos, but watch your footing.
1.) Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Nevada and Arizona
Lake Mead is a manmade reservoir in the high deserts of Nevada and Arizona. The park includes Lake Apache which was formed from Davis Dam, and the two lakes cover 186,000 acres with water. The formation of Lake Mead began in 1935 with the construction of Hoover Dam, and was designated as a National Recreation Area in 1964. Lake Mead is a watersports playground, and water activities that are banned everywhere else are welcomed here. Hydrophone boat racing? Not a problem! Unrestricted jet-ski play? Have at it! Bass fishing, water skiing, boat-based bikini contests and lots of alcohol make Lake Mead the rowdiest, bawdiest, most unrestrained national park in the system. Also the most dangerous by far, and that brings Lake Mead in at Number 1 in the Top 10 Most Dangerous National Parks.
About one person a week dies at Lake Mead National Recreation Area, usually from what the Park Rangers call “recklessness and cluelessness.” Boating accidents, drownings, drug-overdoses, suicides, even the occasional murder give the Park Rangers a lot to handle. New guidelines are being considered that will preserve the free-for-all atmosphere of Lake Mead but increase safety, such as requiring boat safety training and banning alcohol in high-traffic areas after 10 p.m. Despite the new rules, Lake Mead will probably continue to keep the top spot as the most dangerous national park in the United States, but the gorgeous scenery and opportunities for play make this park worth the visit. Have a happy and safe vacation this summer, and enjoy (with just a bit of caution) the splendors of our national parks.