Ranking America's national parks for perils? Beware of fatal flaws with death statistics.

A couple share a kiss at Mather Point in Grand Canyon National Park.
A couple share a kiss at Mather Point in Grand Canyon National Park.

Anyone with even a mild case of acrophobia is familiar with the gut-flipping fear that arises while peering over the edge of the Grand Canyon.

Death is one false step away.

So, it may come as no shock that a European marketing company known as Outforia has identified Arizona’s abyss as the “most dangerous” venue in America's National Park system.

“From accidental falls to drowning and even attacks by wild animals, over a thousand people have lost their lives in the USA’s national parks,” Outforia warns, using data for 62 venues from 2010 to 2020.

Yet, for those who have rambled into the canyon or blundered with statistics, something about the numbers doesn't to add up: How could analysts decide places are more or less dangerous based only on total deaths, without considering the number of visitors?

Consider two hypothetical communities: The first, a village of 1,000, has 50 deaths. The second, a metropolis with 1 million residents, has 51 deaths that same year. By Outforia’s reckoning, the big city with 51 deaths would be “most dangerous.” Yet, the odds of dying in the small town are roughly 1,000 times greater.

Via email, Outforia spokeswoman Rachel Fernandes said researchers used only death counts because they "weren’t able to get visitor numbers for all the parks." The company data sheet includes annual visitor numbers for each location.

"Though Mother Nature is beautiful, she can also be deadly, with thousands of visitors, even the most experienced adventurers, getting into trouble every year," Fernandes noted. "…We create resources to educate adventurers about all the risks of the great outdoors, so they undertake every adventure as prepared as they can be."

Questionable use of data is not a new phenomenon. Mark Twain grumbled about “lies, damned lies and statistics” long before computers. But, in the information and Internet age, lists containing dubious superlatives have proliferated.

Often a marketing ploy, companies and advocacy groups churn out press releases enumerating the most vicious dog breeds, most dangerous cities, best beaches, most popular people, etcetera.

The news outlet, oneindia.com, even published an article under the headline, "FBI Lists Most Dangerous Zodiac Signs: What Type of Criminal Are You?" (That narrative, widely disseminated online, was false. The FBI created no such list.)

Which brings us back to the most dangerous parks, and the issue of discernment.

Sarah Cohen, journalism chair at Arizona State University, said it seems axiomatic that the Grand Canyon would have more deaths than most parks because it is “one of the most visited places in the world.”

She stressed that, when calculating danger, certain pitfalls — similar to cliffs — should be avoided. On one hand, popular parks likely will have more fatalities without being more dangerous. On the other hand, if a small park with few visitors has even a few fatalities, its danger ratio may be exceptionally high, yet not statistically significant.

Alex Honnold, a free soloist, climbs El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. (National Geographic/Jimmy Chin) [Via MerlinFTP Drop]
Alex Honnold, a free soloist, climbs El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. (National Geographic/Jimmy Chin) [Via MerlinFTP Drop]

Cohen added that parks which differ dramatically in size, purpose and other characteristics may not be comparable at all.

She lives near Rock Creek National Park, a metropolitan historical attraction of 1,754 acres in Washington, D.C., with about 2.4 million one-day visits. By contrast, Yosemite covers 759,620 acres of rugged mountains and sees roughly 4 million annual visits, many of them overnight adventurers.

Is the Grand Canyon perilous, or not?

Outforia describes itself as “the world’s new favorite place to discover everything you seek — plus much more you never knew about — regarding the beautiful wilderness of Planet Earth.”

Grand Canyon National Park dangers are evident, the company notes, “with drops of 100 feet into the base of the canyon itself.” (In fact, the chasm is roughly a mile deep with sheer plunges more than a thousand feet in some places.)

During the decade studied, 134 visitor deaths were recorded, 27 of them from falls.

Last year, 1Point21 Interactive — a California market branding company — was retained by the law firm Panish Shea and Boyle to figure out just how risky U.S. recreation sites really are.

Based on government data from 2007 to 2018, they identified 2,727 deaths at 59 attractions overseen by the Park Service, including recreation areas not included in the Outforia study. During that time, there were 3.5 billion visitors — or just under 8 fatalities per 10 million visits.

“If you look at the data, national parks are not dangerous at all,” said Brian Beltz, head of content at 1Point21.

Indeed, Beltz added, a hazard rating system that does not account for per capita deaths is “completely wrong.”

Based on deaths per visitor, Grand Canyon does not even make the top 20.

Instead, North Cascades National Park had by far the highest ratio of fatalities. The mountain-climbing destination in Washington state tallied just 19 deaths over a dozen years. But, with only 291,255 visitors during that time, it worked out to 652 fatalities per 10 million people — a mortality rate six times Alaska’s Denali National Park, which ranked second.

Outforia’s data sheet, which covers a time span overlapping the years studied by 1Point21, ranks North Cascades among the least dangerous national parks, showing no deaths from 2010 to 2020. (Asked about the discrepancy, a Fernandes said Outforia used data supplied by the Park Service in response to a public records request.)

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Snow-capped peaks mark the mountain-climbing attraction at North Cascades National Park. Karlie Roland, NPS.gov
Snow-capped peaks mark the mountain-climbing attraction at North Cascades National Park. Karlie Roland, NPS.gov

The chance of dying: less than 1 in a million

The federal Park Service oversees more than 400 outdoor recreation sites, including preserves, seashores, islands, recreation areas and 63 listed as national parks.

Some are remote destinations — from glacial Gates of the Arctic to baked desert in Death Valley and Virgin Islands tropical beaches.

The most popular location, Great Smoky Mountains in North Carolina and Tennessee, sees about 12.5 million visitors a year. It was listed by Outforia as the third most dangerous park with 92 deaths in a decade. In 1Point21's analysis based on fatalities per visitor, it is 45th.

The Park Service's website debunks frightening notions about safety, noting that from 2014 to 2016 the mortality rate nationwide at federal parks amounted to 0.1 deaths per 100,000 recreation visits “which is very low when compared to the mortality rate of the overall U.S. population (844 deaths/100,000 people.)”

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The chance of dying during a visit: less than one in a million.

In an email, Park Service spokeswoman Cynthia Hernandez noted, "While hundreds of millions of visitors to national parks across the country have safe and fulfilling experiences every year, it’s important that visitors understand that national parks are wild and natural places."

Hernandez said trip planning and preparation are crucial, including an understanding of possible hazards and how to avoid or overcome them.

Kristen Brengel, senior vice president of government affairs with the National Parks Conservation Association, said the Outforia numbers seem misleading, but also contradict a notion that the outdoor recreation sites are dangerous.

"The first thing that struck me is that these parks are much safer than even I anticipated," said Brengel. "It just goes to show what a great job the National Park Service does."

How people die in national parks?

In the movie, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," there's a famous scene where a posse has trapped the protagonists on a cliff overlooking a river.

Butch decides the only hope is a leap into the water below. Sundance adamantly refuses, blurting, "I can't swim." Butch breaks out laughing: "Are you crazy? The fall will probably kill ya."

In fact, the Park Service and 1Point21 Interactive found that more people die from drowning than any other cause in National Parks.

Nearly a quarter of all park deaths involve swimmers, boaters, river rafters and others at places such as Lake Mead National Recreation Area and Cape Hatteras National Seashore, according to 1Point21.

An emergency rescue boat speeds to aid a BASE jumper who was killed in 2006 after his parachute failed to fully open following a leap from  the New River Gorge Bridge in Fayetteville, W.Va. AP Photo/The Register-Herald, Lew Whitener
An emergency rescue boat speeds to aid a BASE jumper who was killed in 2006 after his parachute failed to fully open following a leap from the New River Gorge Bridge in Fayetteville, W.Va. AP Photo/The Register-Herald, Lew Whitener

Outforia, which did not include national recreation areas in its analysis, identified “falls” as the No. 1 cause of death in U.S. parks. That analysis does not appear to separate suicides from accidental falls.

In the Park Service’s three-year analysis, deaths by suicide are nearly two times more common than accidental falls. Places with iconic bridges — New River Gorge, Natchez Trace Parkway and Blue Ridge Parkway — account for a disproportionate number of suicides.

Moreover, the data suggests that many other fatalities have nothing to do with inherent dangers of the great outdoors. According to 1Point21's data, car crashes and suicides, along with natural and undetermined causes, accounted for half of all fatalities during the study years.

The big takeaway from 1Point21's analysis: “Visiting U.S. National Parks is very safe overall” despite frightening anecdotes and statistical reports that may suggest otherwise.

Cohen, the journalism professor, said the lesson may be that, even with something as simple as vacation plans, its wise to question how data are used: “Avoid naivete without becoming so skeptical that you’re cynical.”

Besides, Cohen added, people go to wild places with an understanding that “being out in a beautiful, natural area carries some danger.”

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Most dangerous' national parks rankings by Outforia are flawed