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Death in National Parks: A closer look at the numbers

Posted at 11:14 AM, Jan 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-29 13:14:49-05

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK — You may notice on your newsfeed or social media some reports about the danger of dying at National Parks in the United States.

Yellowstone National Park ranks high on the list but maybe it doesn’t belong there at all. In fact, a lot of the parks on that list probably shouldn’t be there.

A quick look at the newly released statistics might have you thinking that the Famous Yellowstone Arch is actually a gateway to death. After all, Yellowstone ranks fifth on the list of parks where the most people have died in the last ten years.

It’s right up there with other popular parks, including Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Great Smoky Mountains, and Sequoia and Kings Canyon.

While the data, released by the National Park Service is accurate, there is a good reason why you shouldn’t take it at face value.

Here’s the key to understanding how to interpret this information; the list includes some of the most popular parks in the country. So, of course, the number of deaths is higher because more people visited those parks.

But what’s the real chance that you’ll meet your end in Yellowstone or any of these other popular parks?

A personal injury law firm, Panish, Shea and Boyle, looked at the data in a different way. It calculated the number of deaths per 10-million park visits over the ten-year period. Here’s the link to that study.

The law firm’s analysis yields a dramatically different list. None of the parks on the top five list of parks with the most deaths even appear on a top ten list when you ask, not whether people died, but the likelihood of dying.

If you click here, you’ll see a map that shows the difference. The bigger the bubble, the higher the likelihood of death at a park. Notice the small bubble for Yellowstone? It works out to about 12 deaths per 10 million park visits. It’s about the same at Glacier, which has 13. Grand Teton is more at 15.

But our nearby parks are hardly a blip compared to the most dangerous park. That’s the rugged, cliff filled North Cascades in Washington at 652 deaths per 10 million visits. Even Mount Rainier is higher than Montana parks at 38 deaths.

So what is killing people at our National Parks? You might think falling because a lot of the parks have some pretty spectacular, and steep, scenery.

But it works out that the top two killers are among the top causes of deaths anywhere in the country. Those would be drowning and vehicle crashes. Undetermined causes, and here it finally appears, falls, come next followed by natural death. That’s usually medically related.

But what about the dangerous thermal features here in Yellowstone? After all, we hear about accidents around those nearly every year. That’s true. But the numbers are so low that it doesn’t even show up on the lists. The same for bear attacks. It happens but it’s very rare.

Rangers tell me this doesn’t mean you should throw caution to the wind in the park, but you don’t have to flee in terror.