Death in the National Parks

Posted on September 12, 2018

by Katie M

I come from a family that doesn’t look on the bright side, and I do a lot of traveling. While these thoughts don’t necessarily seem related, I’ll tell you the one way they connect beautifully. Every time I head off on a travel adventure, as my dad drives me to the airport he can’t resist warning me of all the potential problems I could run into on my vacation. I have spent the last few years visiting National Parks (a goal of mine is to see all 58) and my dad has plenty of opinions. “Oh, you’re heading to Grand Canyon? You shouldn’t get too close to the edge, you know.” “Sequoia National Park, eh? I hear they’re having a ton of flash floods this year!” The best yet was when I was heading to Big Bend National Park and expressed my excitement for soaking in the hot springs and he was quick to remind me, “Hot springs? Don’t ever go underwater in those. You know about brain parasites, right?”

After enduring a lifetime of cautionary tales, I’ve developed my own version of vacation pessimism. I have a habit of reading books that outline all the ways people have died in the various parks I’m visiting. Here’s the thing: a LOT of people die in National Parks. Falling into boiling hot springs, getting mauled by bears, being bitten by rattlesnakes, freezing to death in sudden snow storms, becoming lost in the woods with no food or cell phone reception, dehydration, getting murdered; trust me when I say the options are limitless. Considering I don’t want to become one of the statistics, I take it upon myself to fully investigate where death has gone down with visitors before me.

National Parks – Cautionary Tales

“Night of the Grizzlies” by Jack Olsen

Night of the Grizzlies by Jack Olsen

If you ever want to sleep again while camping in bear country, do NOT read this book. It’s the tragic story of a gruesome night in August 1969 when two campers (unrelated and miles apart) were brutally attacked and killed by grizzlies in Glacier National Park. This was back when parks made a spectacle of feeding bears garbage to attract tourists (can you imagine?) I made the mistake of reading this book prior to a weeklong camping trip in Glacier, and I ended up spending my first night (okay, most nights) sleeping in the car with my hands permanently clenched around my can of bear spray.

Borrow it from the Library: Book

“Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park” by Lee H. Whittlesey

Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park by Lee H. Whittlesey

This book is a must-read for anyone who has ever visited America’s first national park, or anyone aspiring to do to. There is a seemingly endless list of ways to die in Yellowstone. The first chapter called, ‘Death in Hot Water,’ tells of park visitors being boiled alive in hot springs, starting with a man who did a “flying, swimming pool type dive” into a 202 degree hot spring to try and save his dog. Apparently, bystanders tried to warn the man not to jump in, to which he replied, “like hell I won’t!” He experienced third degree burns over 100 percent of his body, including his head, and died the next morning. The book also has chapters on death from poisonous plants, lightning strikes, falling rocks, drowning, hypothermia, forest fires, and even the story of a man who slept with BACON UNDER HIS PILLOW and was, of course, attacked by a bear.

Borrow it from the Library: Book or eAudiobook

“Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon” by Michael P. Ghiglieri and Thomas M. Myers

Over the edge : death in Grand Canyon : gripping accounts of all known fatal mishaps in the most famous of the world's seven natural wonders / Michael P. Ghiglieri and Thomas M. Myers

My mom always tells the story of when she visited the Grand Canyon and was unnerved watching so many children hike around the cliffs in flip flops while their parents ignored them that she finally asked a ranger, “I shouldn’t be nervous, people don’t die here that often, right?” to which the ranger replied, “They definitely do. See how the flag is half mast right now? It’s because a ranger fell to his death last week.” When I visited several years later, I couldn’t help but notice all the ‘Missing Person’ signs posted for people who have disappeared into the canyon. Some visitors don’t pack enough water, don’t anticipate the heat, get too close to the edge, drown in the Colorado river, or visit the park specifically to commit suicide, and in this book you’ll read detailed accounts of all of those events and more.

Borrow it from the Library: Book

“Ranger Confidential: Living Working and Dying in the National Parks” by Andrea Lankford

Ranger Confidential by Andrea Lankford

Compared to the others, this is an easygoing and lighthearted read. It’s a memoir by a park ranger who spent many years working in various National Parks. She dealt with everything from the mundane (catching people trying to smuggle plants or animals from the park) to the extreme (going on search and rescue missions in helicopters in the middle of the night to save climbers or hikers who never made it back.) This book is great for anyone considering becoming a park ranger because her wide variety of experiences just touch the surface of what park rangers go through, in her words, “To protect the park from the people, and the people from themselves.”

Borrow it from the Library: Book or eBook

By now I know you’re just dying to visit the National Parks, too. Below I’ve recommended some of my favorite books to use when planning outdoor adventures. Have fun, but always remember: watch your step, carry bear spray, stay at least 100 yards from all wildlife, drink plenty of water (but definitely not stream or lake water), watch out for snakes, don’t try to take a selfie with a bison, beware of ingesting plants, and for the love of god DO NOT swan dive into any hot springs. Bon voyage!

Guidebooks to the National Parks

Your guide to the national parks : the complete guide to all 59 National Parks / by Michael Joseph Oswald
Secrets of the national parks : the experts' guide to the best experiences beyond the tourist trail
National parks of America : experience America's 59 national parks / written by Amy Balfour, Becky Ohlsen, Carolyn McCarthy, [and 6 others]

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