12 Most Extreme and Dangerous National Parks in the USA

Yosemite National Park

One of my favorite things about America is the multitude of national parks. These wonderful wilderness spaces are a natural gift to all. They inspire you to be active, though you don’t have to be an avid hiker to appreciate the terrain.

But beauty aside, these landscapes can also be testing, full of hazardous corners and dangerous trails. Read on for 12 of the most deadly national parks in America. Are there any that you would still explore?

1. Grand Canyon National Park

Grand Canyon National Park

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Based on the statistics, Grand Canyon National Park ranks first. Between 2007 and 2023 alone, there were 134 fatalities. Interestingly, most of these deaths occurred due to natural causes. The summer season is especially tough, with high temperatures, dehydration, and sun exposure aggravating existing health conditions.

Though they are not the leading cause of casualty, falls can also occur within this mile-deep canyon. The paths are steep with vast drops, meaning one wrong move could lead to a deadly tumble.

2. Yosemite National Park

Mist Trail to Half Dome

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Yosemite National Park comes in second as far as the number of deaths is concerned. Renowned for its large granite walls that are popular among climbers, it isn’t surprising that falls are the leading cause of fatality here. There have been 45 fall-related deaths since 2010, including those of visitors at viewpoints like Taft Point and Half Dome after the perfect photo.

Another serious risk is water, with several deaths being caused by drowning. Park staff advise taking precautions during water crossings and leaving an adequate distance between yourself and any cliff edge.

3. Denali National Park & Preserve

Early morning view of Mount Denali, the tallest peak in continental North America. One of those rare moments when the peak is not covered in clouds.

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Denali National Park’s death rate is 9.8 per million visitors. The park saw 51 deaths between 2010 and 2020. Denali National Park’s harsh subarctic conditions are the leading cause of death year-round. Falls are a significant cause of death in the park.

Denali’s 105-year history has only recorded one fatal bear attack, which occurred in 2012, where a bear killed a solo backpacker. The park boasts vast, undeveloped terrain, including the challenging peak that shares its name. Sadly, 127 lives have been lost on this mountain since 1932.

4. Virgin Islands National Park

A scenic overview of Saba Rock from Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands on July 24, 2017.

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The park has a mortality rate of 6 deaths per million visitors and saw 22 deaths between 2010 and 2020. Drowning is the top cause of death in Virgin Islands National Park, responsible for 9 out of 22 fatalities in the past decade. Not shocking, as the park covers about 75% of St. John’s shoreline. The islands’ appeal to older cruisers may factor in the five deaths recorded due to heart attack or other medical causes.

5. Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park, USA. A view of distant mountains in the morning

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Big Bend National Park boasts challenging and diverse desert terrain, featuring river canyons, rugged peaks, and cacti-filled valleys. This Texan destination lures 377,154 visitors annually but has a death rate of 5.8 per million.

The park saw 22 deaths between 2010 and 2020. Extreme heat is the leading cause of death, especially in summer when temperatures surpass 100°F at lower elevations. Heat-related illnesses have caused six deaths in recent years, including incidents in 2017 and 2019. Medical issues caused five deaths, and falls resulted in three fatalities in the park.

6. Redwood National Park

Magical Redwoods National Park, California

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With 4.7 deaths per million visitors, this park ranks fourth in death rates. Vehicle accidents are Redwood National Park’s leading cause of mortality, accounting for six of the 21 fatalities between 2010 and 2020. U.S. Highway 101 runs through the park, increasing the risk of accidents. Drowning was also a leading cause of mortality, accounting for four fatalities during the same time.

7. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, an American national park in the southern Sierra Nevada east of Visalia, California

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Here, there are 4.4 fatalities for every million visitors. There were 75 fatalities total in the parks from 2010 to 2020. With 25 fatal cases due to falls in these parks throughout that period, falls are the leading cause of death.

The parks’ lofty hills and colossal rock faces draw hikers and rock climbers but also present dangers. In one recent instance in 2021, a hiker plunged 500 feet from Mount Russell’s top. Deadly falls are a substantial factor in the total mortality rate.

8. Mt. Rainier National Park

Paradise Ridge, Mt. Rainier, Washington State

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This park receives an average of 1,272,210 visitors per year and has a death rate of 4 deaths per million visitors. There were 51 deaths in the park between 2010 and 2020. Falls were the leading cause of mortality in Mt. Rainier National Park in Washington during that period, accounting for 19 fatalities.

In one major occurrence in 2014, a rockfall or potential avalanche swept a group’s camp off the Liberty Ridge path, killing five people. Environmental causes were another prominent cause of mortality, accounting for 12 deaths.

9. Death Valley National Park

Landscape of Death Valley National Park at Zabriskie Point in the morning. Picturesque of a desert. Erosional landscape in California, USA. Beautiful image of Death Valley National Park.

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While extreme weather conditions represent a risk in Death Valley, motor vehicle accidents are the greatest issue for visitor safety. It has a 3.4 death rate per million visitors. There were 41 deaths in the park between 2010 and 2020.

Heatstroke is not the primary cause of mortality in “Mortality Valley.” Instead, motor vehicle crashes were the leading cause of death, accounting for 14 deaths throughout the ten years. Many of these collisions occurred on CA 190, a route that runs through the park. Other causes of death were environmental exposure (seven fatalities), falls (four deaths), and drowning (one death).

10. Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Guadalupe Mountains National Park landscape near El Captain Viewpoint on Route 62 in Salt Flat, Dell City, Texas, USA

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Guadalupe Mountains National Park, located in the rough West Texas desert, is the state’s largest wilderness area famous for its towering Guadalupe Peak. With an annual visitor total of 175,477, Guadalupe has a fatality rate of 2.8 deaths per million visitors.

The park documented five deaths between 2010 and 2020. Surprisingly, no one died due to a fall during this period. Motor vehicle accidents were the park’s most common cause of mortality, accounting for three fatalities.

11. Channel Islands National Park

Pelicans Fly Over Sea Stacks On Anacapa Island in Channel Islands National Park

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The death rate in the Channel Islands is 3.2 deaths per million visitors. From 2010 until 2020, ten people died at the park. Drowning was the leading cause of mortality in this marine preserve, accounting for six deaths during that period.

Falls have also killed at least one person, such as a 22-year-old hiker in 2010. It’s worth noting that the park service’s estimates exclude the 2014 fire on the diving boat MV Conception, which occurred near Albert’s Anchorage and killed 34 people. Visitors must remain cautious of the dangers linked with water-related activities and falls.

12. Crater Lake

missing people in national parks

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Crater Lakes doesn’t seem like a dangerous place, but it has many missing persons and people who have gotten hurt. The park is also steeped in local myths and folklore surrounding the mysterious disappearances.

Please be safe, use common sense, and Leave No Trace while exploring America’s incredible national parks.

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Where indicated, some images courtesy of Depositphotos.com.

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Amaka Chukwuma

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