The Grand Canyon is known for its breathtaking vistas and being one of the seven natural wonders of the world. A New York Post investigation recently found it is also the deadliest national park in the country, with the most number of missing persons in the nation.
According to the reporting, there have been at least six people found dead and 56 missing persons at Grand Canyon National Park from 2018 through February 2023. Visitors filed about 1,100 missing persons reports in that time as well. Most of those people were found.
A retired chief of emergency services at the Arizona park told the Post that people die from heat stroke, lightning, drowning on the river, suicides, accidental falls, air crashes and more. He estimated that during his time at the park, about 12 people died in the canyon every year. This number is vastly different from the numbers provided to the Post by the Department of the Interior.
Dangerous heat extremes
Just last month, a 36-year-old woman from Indiana died while attempting to hike to the Colorado River and back in one day, according to the National Park Service. Soon after emergency crews reached the unconscious woman, her pulse stopped. Resuscitation efforts were not successful.
In a statement, the NPS said it does not recommend hiking rim to the river and back in just one day due to weather extremes.
"Park Rangers at Grand Canyon National Park strongly urge visitors, especially inner canyon hikers and backpackers, to be prepared for excessively hot days in the coming weeks," read the statement. "In the summer months, temperatures on exposed parts of the trail can reach over 120 degrees in the shade. Park rangers do not advise hiking in the inner canyon between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. as most heat-related illnesses are from hikers on trail between these hours."
Hiking in extreme heat can lead to heat exhaustion, heat stroke, dehydration and hyponatremia which is a life-threatening electrolyte imbalance from drinking too much water and not enough salt, according to the NPS.
Phantom Ranch, at the base of the canyon, has hit a record high of 120 degrees. Many hikers won’t be expecting the scorching heat because of the relatively cool air on the rims. The North Rim’s record is -22 degrees. The temperature generally increases by 5.5 degrees with every 1,000-foot loss in elevation, according to the Department of the Interior.
FOX Weather’s Max Gorden, who has hiked to the river several times, said he has seen hikers without adequate clothing and water many times.
Altitude sickness makes a challenging hike more rigorous
Elevation changes also make the canyon dangerous. The North Rim sits at about 8,000 feet. The South Rim reaches up to about 7,000 feet. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, spending time at that elevation puts a person at risk of altitude illness, caused by lower oxygen levels.
Even in its mildest form, altitude sickness triggers headaches, tiredness, nausea and vomiting. More extreme forms can cause extreme fatigue, drowsiness, confusion, coordination loss and shortness of breath, according to the CDC.
The steep and challenging trails become even more difficult for anyone suffering from those symptoms.
Busy summer season
The Grand Canyon is the only national park with an on-site, year-round rescue helicopter, according to the Post's reporting.
About 5.9 million people visit the park every year, according to the Department of the Interior. The peak time for tourists at the park is summer, the hottest time of the year. So, many visitors create some backlog for rescues, according to the NPS.
"Be aware that NPS efforts to assist hikers may be delayed during the summer months due to limited staff, the number of rescue calls, employee safety requirements, and limited helicopter flying capability during periods of extreme heat or inclement weather," the NPS said in a statement.
Don’t let the danger scare you
Don’t skip the Grand Canyon despite the statistics, a tour leader told Gorden.
"Don't let it scare you off," said Scott Cundy of Wildland Trekking. "The Grand Canyon is one of the most profoundly beautiful and meaningful places in the world. Yeah, it's dangerous, but go with a guide, be prepared, do your research, don't go alone and you'll have a great time."
The Grand Canyon is the second most visited national park behind the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, which sees three times the number of tourists every year, according to the investigation. The park spanning Tennessee and North Carolina reported three deaths and 34 missing persons in the same 2018-February 2023 time frame.