The Grand Canyon is a breathtaking natural wonder that attracts millions of visitors each year. With its awe-inspiring views and challenging terrain, it’s no wonder that the Grand Canyon is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. However, with its wonder comes a tragic reality – the Grand Canyon is also one of the most deadly national parks in the United States. In this article, Hastings & Hastings explores the dangers of the Grand Canyon, what causes deaths in the park, how many people have died there, and how visitors can stay safe.
The Grand Canyon is a massive natural wonder that spans over 270 miles and is up to 18 miles wide in some areas. It’s a place of stunning beauty, with its towering red rock formations, deep canyons, and crystal-clear streams. However, with its size and rugged terrain, it’s no surprise that the park has its fair share of dangers. Every year, people die in the park due to a variety of reasons, including falls, dehydration, and other accidents.
Most of the data below, particularly the data up until 2018, comes from authors Tom Myers and Michael Ghiglieri in their book Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon.
Around 900 people have died at the Grand Canyon since the 1800’s. The Grand Canyon was officially established as a National Park on February 26, 1919.
An average of 12 deaths happen at the Grand Canyon every year. The odds of dying from falling off the rim in the Grand Canyon are 1 in 1.8 million visitors.
There are roughly 5 million visitors at the Grand Canyon every year, and on average two to three deaths per year are from accidental falls over the rim, according to park spokeswoman Kirby-Lynn Shedlowski.
The deadliest time at the Grand Canyon was during the 1980’s. In the 2000’s, however, deaths from environmental factors like the heat have increased.
The book mentioned above, Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon, contains all of the Grand Canyon fatality data through 2017. Based on that information, here are the causes of death starting with the most common.
Even if you disregard the major airplane crash from 1956 that killed 128 people, dying in the air over the Grand Canyon is still the most common cause of death.
In 1956, two commercial airplanes collided in mid-air over the canyon. Everyone on both planes died, which was 128 people total. Both planes were carrying passengers from California to the midwest, but at the time there was no Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), so the pilots were managing their own flight path. Both got permission to fly over the Grand Canyon, presumably for the scenery, but failed to communicate with each other. This horrific event is what led to the creation of the FAA.
Then, somehow, another major crash happened in 1986. This time an airplane and a helicopter collided while on sight-seeing tours, and all 25 people aboard died. It was not determined why they pilots did not “see and avoid” each other, but investigations determined that too many tours were flying over the same scenic parts of the canyon at once. To date, this is the deadliest helicopter accident in the United States.
Hundreds of thousands of people take helicopter or airplane tours over the Grand Canyon every year. There are actually two flights per minute at the Grand Canyon on average. Turbulence is frequent on these flights, because the hot air in the canyon mixes with the cooler air from the plateaus above and creates a lot of wind. Additionally, a lot of these crashes occur with tour companies, and those pilots can be inexperienced. The National Park Service hasn’t had an aerial accident in over 40 years.
This is probably the most commonly asked question: How many people have died while taking a selfie at the Grand Canyon? While that exact answer is hard to know, we do know the breakdown of where people have fallen from:
If we ignore the suicides, only 123 people have accidentally fallen to their death at the Grand Canyon, making it almost a tie with environmental deaths.
Environmental factors are a common cause of fatalities at the Grand Canyon.
Temperatures in the Grand Canyon can reach extreme highs, especially in the summer. Many hikers are not prepared for just how hot it can get – up to 120 degrees Fahrenheit at the bottom of the canyon. Most environmental deaths happen from dehydration which can lead to cardiac arrest. Around 100 people have died this way.
Additionally, some people have died from drinking too much water. People get worried about staying hydrated and consume lots of water without eating enough food, making sodium in the blood drop to dangerously low levels.
Others have died from starvation after getting lost in the canyon. These numbers are hard to pin down, especially because there are still bodies in the canyon that have yet to be discovered. Evidence of these types of deaths have been confirmed by skeletons found, and by notes left behind such as, “4 days without food or water. Lost.”
Another environmental cause of death is freezing. At high elevations there can be snow in the winter, and many hikers are not prepared for a snowstorm.
Flash floods are another environmental event that have been known to cause fatalities. Because the Grand Canyon is in the desert, there is not much vegetation to soak up water. This means that when it does rain, water flows quickly across the soil, causing flash floods in the side canyons.
In 1997, two people drowned in a flash flood, and one hour later, another two visitors were struck by lightning. They survived, but lightning does strike an average of 25,000 times per year at the Grand Canyon.
There are many water activities enjoyed in the Colorado River including boating, river rafting, swimming, and waterfall excursions. However, many people underestimate just how rapid the river is. Some people died trying to cross the river, back before bridges were built for that purpose. Others have taken a soak to cool off in the summer heat, only to be swept away.
The most famous drowning was in 1928. Newlyweds Bessie and Glen Hyde were rafting down the river, attempting to establish the fastest time through the canyon. Bessie also would have become the first woman to raft through the canyon. However, they never made it, and their bodies were never found. Rumors have spread that Bessie actually survived and had purposely staged the incident to kill her husband, but to this day it remains an unsolved mystery.
The Grand Canyon is unfortunately a convenient place to murder someone and stage it as an accident. In 1993, serial killer Robert Spangler took his third wife to the Grand Canyon and pushed her off a 160 foot cliff. The death was ruled an accident at the time, but Spangler later confessed.
Another example is newlyweds Michael and Charlotte Sherman, who were found shot dead in 1977. Their bodies were found in a heavily wooded area of the Grand Canyon National Park, and it appeared to be a robbery had gone wrong.
Other people have gone missing in the Grand Canyon, and in some of these cases murder is strongly suspected. Human remains have been found in the canyon, but they cannot always be identified and properly linked to a missing person.
People have committed suicide at the Grand Canyon in a number of ways. As mentioned above, 75 people have jumped to their death. Another 13 people have taken their own lives by driving off the edge of the canyon. Three of these happened in 1993, not long after the movie Thelma & Louise premiered. This movie depicts the protagonists driving off the edge of a cliff at the end of the movie, and as with anything, there were copycats. Others have jumped off a bridge, jumped out of a helicopter, or used a gun.
Although we don’t have as much data on them, serious car accidents happen at the Grand Canyon. Back in 2014 there was a fatal accident when two cars crashed on South Entrance Road, around 3 miles from the park’s South Entrance Station. Then in 2022, a woman suffered fatal injuries when she crashed into a tree, also near the South Entrance Station. And as recently as February 2023, two nurses visiting from the U.K. died in a car accident while on vacation at the Grand Canyon.
The following numbers are from the National Park Service. Data before 2001 was incomplete, so only complete data is included.
While the data above paints a strong picture of death at the Grand Canyon, it only provides data through 2017. There is no confirmed list of every fatality in recent years, but below is a list of incidents pulled from the National Park Service’s news releases. It is not a definitive list of every fatality in these years, but it paints a picture of the more recent causes of death.
As this analysis is being written in 2023, it’s too early to report on the number of fatalities in 2023. Here are the known deaths that have occurred so far:
There were 11 fatalities at the Grand Canyon National Park in 2022. Here are nine of the incidents:
In 2021 there were a total of 23 deaths. Here are some:
According to the National Park Service, there were 17 confirmed deaths at Grand Canyon National Park in 2020. Below are a select few incidents:
In 2019 there were a total of 22 confirmed deaths, including the following:
In 2018 there were a total of 17 deaths at the Grand Canyon. Here are a few of the incidents:
Below are the number of fatalities and the number of park visitors, by year.
|Year||Fatalities||Park Visitors (Millions)|
There are always going to be exceptions and odd incidents that go outside of the normal causes of death. For example, at least one person has died from eating poisonous plants they found in the Grand Canyon. Here are five more unusual fatalities that happened at the Grand Canyon.
The biggest demographic for dying at the grand canyon is being young and male.
Of the 55 people who have accidentally fallen from the rim of the canyon, 39 were male. Eight of those people were hopping from one rock to another or posing for pictures, including a 38-year-old father from Texas pretending to fall to scare his daughter, who then really did fall 400 feet to his death. This points to the idea that men might take bigger risks.
While the Grand Canyon can be a dangerous place, there are steps visitors can take to stay safe. Here are some tips for staying safe in the park:
One of the easiest ways to stay safe in the Grand Canyon is to stay on designated trails. Venturing off-trail can be dangerous and can increase the risk of falling off unstable rocks or getting lost.
As mentioned earlier, dehydration is a serious risk in the Grand Canyon. Visitors should bring plenty of water and drink regularly to stay hydrated. Be sure to eat some salty snacks with your water throughout the day; hikers perspire a lot which means they need electrolytes to replenish their sodium levels.
Visitors to the Grand Canyon should dress appropriately for the weather and terrain. This may include wearing sturdy hiking shoes, a hat or visor, and sunscreen.
Before venturing out into the park, visitors should always check the weather forecast. Flash floods, extreme heat, and other weather conditions can make hiking dangerous or even deadly.
Hiking in the Grand Canyon can be physically demanding, and visitors should avoid overexerting themselves. Taking regular breaks and listening to your body is crucial to staying safe in the park. If you feel dizzy or disoriented, it’s important to stop, drink water, and find a shady place to rest.
Visitors should always bring a map and compass with them when hiking in the Grand Canyon. GPS devices can be helpful, but they are not always reliable in the canyon’s rugged terrain.
Traveling in groups can help reduce the risk of accidents in the Grand Canyon. Hiking with a friend or joining a guided tour can be a great way to stay safe and learn more about the park.
The Grand Canyon is a natural wonder that offers visitors a chance to explore some of the most awe-inspiring landscapes in the world. However, with its beauty comes danger: the Grand Canyon is also one of the most deadly national parks in the United States. By taking the necessary precautions, visitors can stay safe and enjoy all that the park has to offer.
If you have lost a loved one or have questions about wrongful death lawsuits, contact our firm today.