Investigator and Author Says People Are Mysteriously Missing in National Parks

missing people in national parks

People are going missing in national parks and North American wilderness areas. A 2019 documentary, Missing 411: The Hunted, reports as many as 1,200 individuals have disappeared, but also admits that number may be under-reported.

David Paulides, a former police detective turned private investigator, is the author of the popular Missing 411 series and documentaries of the same name, as well as the CanAm Missing Project. He said, “We don’t know how many people go missing from these locations because the USFS [United States Forest Service] and NPS [National Park Service] refuse to release a list of these missing people.”

Several Hundred Cases a Year

Paulides is dedicated to investigating missing persons in national parks and forests. When asked how many cases he typically researches in a year, he responded, “We probably research several hundred people per year.”

One thing is certain: people who hike and camp in national parks or hunt in national forests and wilderness areas have vanished. These sobering stories are documented in Paulides’ latest documentary, Missing 411: The UFO Connection (2022).

Chantile Ferriera, TCA Content Manager at Wealth of Geeks, is a fan of the Missing 411 series. “I hold a healthy respect for the mountains and wilderness. I spent my childhood out with a telescope, watching the sky and looking for comets. Many times, as I tracked charts, I saw things that I couldn’t explain.

“After moving to Utah, I had many events where I knew I wasn’t alone in the woods. When you’re in the forest and mountains enough, you can feel the wildlife around you and can notice a difference when something has entered the area that belongs and one that doesn’t.”

Mysterious Disappearances in National Parks

Exploring the great outdoors is a rewarding activity — especially when visiting America’s prized national parks. But one thing that can derail plans while planning an outdoor adventure is safety. 

Those visiting national parks and forests can get lost, and, according to Paulides, there are reports of some tourists vanishing without a trace. 

Public data available from Statista indicates that hundreds of thousands of people go missing every year in the U.S., with over 500,000 in 2021. How many of these missing persons have disappeared from national parks, forests, and wilderness areas? 

Paulides’ books and documentaries assert a number of hikers and hunters have vanished from these areas, leaving nothing behind. His passion for the work was initially triggered by two park rangers who shared “strange circumstances” of hikers going missing, as discussed in Missing 411: The Hunted.

When asked if she was a skeptic or not, Ferriera shares, “I’ve seen lights, UFOs, had items vanish in front of us, and had things show up on camera that weren’t there when I was taking pictures. It’s easy to dismiss something when you aren’t there to experience it firsthand. In my opinion, nearly everyone has had an event or encounter, they are just too ashamed, scared, or skeptical to admit it.”

Cluster Zones

Paulides’ Missing 411 series and CanAm Missing Project present facts and eerie similarities investigators have found across missing person cases of people who have disappeared from federal lands in “cluster zones” around North America. California’s Yosemite National Park is high on the list, as is Oregon’s Crater Lake.

Profile Points

What’s unique about the cases Paulides takes on are the unusual, mysteriously similar details in each missing person’s case that suggests something strange happened. Paulides calls these similarities “profile points.” 

Profile points include people getting separated from their party, inclement weather occurring right after someone goes missing, and Search and Rescue (SAR) canines being unable to pick up a scent. No tracks or belongings are left behind or found when these people go missing.

Record Visitation Continues

In 2022, the National Park Service reported an estimated 312 million recreational visits to the parks it manages, with over 13 million people staying overnight. Visitation increased by 5% more than in 2021, so the trend of outdoor enthusiasts visiting America’s cherished and protected landscapes continues to rise.

Most Visited National Parks in The U.S.

According to public data from nps.gov, the top parks toured in 2022 included the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The Blue Ridge Parkway alone saw nearly 16 million visitors.

Popular national parks such as Zion, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Rocky Mountain National Park welcomed upwards of 3 to 5 million people last year.

Staying Safe

If the information from the Missing 411 series disturbs travelers, there are things travelers can do to stay safe while exploring the outdoors and planning that epic backcountry trip.

Be Prepared

Outdoor enthusiasts should always be mindful of the National Parks’ 10 Essentials, which include wearing adequate clothing, bringing enough food to fuel energy levels, and water to stay hydrated. In addition, travelers should bring a map, flashlight, first aid kit, repair kit and tools, fire starter, emergency shelter, and sun protection.

Brian Smith, director of the Oklahoma SAR Council, says, “Bring more than you think you will need. You don’t know what’s going to happen. Anyone can break an ankle and end up staying out longer than they anticipated.” Smith adds, “It might not be a quick hike. People don’t think it can happen to them, but things happen to people all the time.”

Avid outdoorsman Troy De Ville of Core Mountaineering agrees. He shares his take on the disappearances: “It’s always been intriguing how national parks and wilderness spots have had their share of mysterious disappearances. But we’ve got to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.” 

As a skeptic, De Ville says, “Think about it: Over 312 million people visited these parks in 2022, and the number of those who went missing is just a tiny fraction. In cities, we see thousands of people go missing every year, but we don’t go around saying cities are wrapped in some mystery, do we? Mother Nature is unpredictable.”

Stay On Designated Trails

According to one online study, the number one reason people get lost is because they go off the trail. 

Smith says, “Stay on the trail. If you are off the trail and are unprepared, dehydration and fatigue kick in. Then you run out of steam or trip and fall.”

If You’re Lost, Stay Put

“If you realize that you’re lost, stay where you are,” Smith explains. “If you don’t know how to read a map, use a compass, or have a GPS; you should not attempt to self-rescue. Chances are you’ll make yourself more lost. It is easier for SAR to find a stationary person than a moving [person] target.” 

Actor Julian Sands made national news this summer for going missing and never returning after starting a solo hike in California in January. His remains were recovered in June from a canyon on Mount Baldy in the San Gabriel Mountains. The unimaginable can happen to anyone exploring the outdoors.

Carry a Personal Locator Beacon; Never Hike Alone

Paulides’ number one piece of advice from years of experience working with SAR teams is, “Always, always carry a personal locator beacon and always hike with a partner.”

Brian Smith agrees. “Personal locator beacons are fantastic. For anybody who has health issues but still likes to go out, I highly recommend a personal locator beacon. We are seeing a big rise in personal locator beacons because the cost of technology has come down. It is inexpensive for people to have and use.” He also stresses, “Never go hiking alone.”

Tell Others Your Plan

Smith urges hikers to “Tell others about your plan. That is one of the best things you can do.” 

Travelers should tell someone where they are going and when they plan to return. This helps searchers know where and when to start looking if they don’t arrive home by the time they said they would.

Always Consider Safety

When someone goes missing outdoors and never comes home, it’s devastating. But there are also stories of people stepping away from their campsite, or who go hiking, or wander off in the woods alone, only to vanish without leaving clues that aid rescue efforts. While this may seem like the stuff of mysteries on the nightly news, it can happen to anyone. 

To enjoy America’s beautiful parks and public lands without worry, take all safety precautions and always be prepared.

This article was produced by The Happiness Function and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Featured Image Credit: kwiktor/Depositphotos.com.

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Ashlee Fechino

Ashlee Fechino is an outdoor recreation and travel writer sharing the best-kept secrets that aren’t in your typical guidebook. Her goal is to inspire people to travel with a sense of adventure by sharing hidden gems across the U.S. and beyond. She is married to an expat Argentine, Pablo. They camp in their Aliner often and love wandering the world. Follow their latest adventures on Instagram @thehappinessfxn.