10 of the Most Dangerous Spots in U.S. National Parks

Dangerous beauties

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Every year, America's national park system gets more than 300 million visits. These popular natural attractions are not dangerous on the whole, but there are, on average, 160 deaths inside U.S. parks each year. Most of these fatalities are due to drowning, car accidents or falls. Perhaps surprisingly, deaths from things like grizzly bear attacks or snake bites are extremely rare.

Some of the most dangerous sections of national parks are quite remote, so most people never set foot there. Other spots where deaths have occurred are surprisingly accessible. Many people have likely set foot in these places without being aware of the relative danger. The National Park Service is aware of the dangers, however. They regularly post or broadcast warnings about safe usage of these places and the presence of unsafe conditions, like in instances of flooding in the Narrows of Zion National Park (pictured).

Here are 10 of the most dangerous spots in national parks.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

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Volcanoes National Park, on the Big Island of Hawaii, features active volcanoes. The most active, and most visited, is Kilauea. It has been erupting continuously for more than 30 years. The park features more than 100 miles of hiking trails, including paths through jungle and old lava fields and through areas that are very near to volcanic activity.

Before stricter regulations were put in place, this was one of the deadliest national parks in the country. Approximately 40 people died between 1992 and 2002, and an additional 100 were seriously injured. Despite worries about being scalded by lava or hit by flying rocks, the biggest danger is exposure to toxic gases released by the volcanic activity. It is possible to avoid the lava flows, but the gas can be moved unexpectedly by wind gusts. The park also features peaks that rise over 13,000 feet above sea level, and this makes altitude sickness is a real danger, especially for people who drive up the slopes without taking time to adjust.

Precipice Trail, Acadia National Park

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Precipice Trail is on Champlain Mountain in Maine's Acadia National Park. Champlain is only the sixth tallest peak in Acadia, but the trail stands out because it clings to the side of a steep cliff. The path features iron rungs, handrails, ladders and wooden walkways that are meant to make the strenuous ascent, which rises 850 feet in elevation, a little bit easier.

It is only a mile from the trail's beginning to the summit (about two-and-a-half miles for a complete loop). Precipice is occasionally closed during the summertime because of falcon nesting activities. The National Park Service issues weather advisories because winds and rain can make the hike extremely treacherous. Though most people can navigate the route successfully, fatal falls are not unheard of here.

The Narrows, Zion National Park

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The Narrows is the most dramatic section of Zion Canyon. The canyon with beautifully textured thousand-foot walls attracts tens of thousands of hikers every year. There is actually no trail here so people wade through the shallow Virgin River. Some visitors stroll through the water for an hour or so and then retrace their steps, while others choose to make a longer round trip.

A challenging two-day journey through the canyon requires a permit, but, actually, hiking any distance can be dangerous. Water levels in the river can change with little warning. Storms occur in the summer when hikers come to take advantage of the warmer water. Floods can rush through the canyon even if it is not raining overhead. The NPS recommends checking the flash flood potential before setting out. A favorable forecast does not guarantee safety, however.

Mount Rainier

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Mount Rainier is very close to Seattle and Tacoma. (In fact, Native Americans call it Mount Tacoma.) It is popular among mountaineers since it is near major cities, features challenging alpine climbing and it is the tallest mountain in the Cascade Range. Despite being visible from Seattle, Rainier is an extremely dangerous place to climb. Nearly 300 fatalities have been recorded on the mountain over the years.

Many visitors decide to take day hikes up to Camp Muir, which is the base for trips to the summit. This hike is very strenuous, requiring an ascent of more than 4,000 feet. The danger comes when hikers and climbers are hit with surprise storms, which are very common in this region. The coastal areas are known for their rains, but it snows and blows heavily at higher elevations. Most of the deaths on Rainier are caused by exposure and hypothermia during such storms.

Bright Angel Trail, Grand Canyon National Park

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The Bright Angel Trail starts at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Over the eight-mile journey to the Colorado River, the elevation drops more than 4,000 feet. The trail's terminus is further along the river; an end-to-end journey covers nearly 10 miles. It is possible to hike the Bright Angel, though traveling down on the back of a mule is also popular. The National Park Service has published rules for how hikers should pass the mules when they encounter them (the animals always have the right of way).

The steepness of the trail does create danger, but it is the desert weather that usually proves deadly. The daytime temperature can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit. A special rescue unit, established 10 years ago after several heat-related deaths, performs approximately 200 rescues each year. Experts recommend starting the hike at dawn so that you reach the Colorado before the mercury rises to dangerous levels.

Blue Ridge Parkway

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Vehicle accidents are the second leading cause of fatalities in national parks (after drowning). It is logical, then, that the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway is one of the more dangerous places overseen by the National Park Service. It certainly sees more than its share of traffic. Off all NPS units in the country, this is the single busiest.

The road has also seen its share of murder investigations, though this is probably due to its remoteness, and not the result of violence against tourists. The Parkway went through a period of motorcycle accidents, but new signage has seen the number of fatalities from such incidents lowered. Annual accident numbers rise into the hundreds, though a majority are single vehicle crashes. Most of these accidents are not deadly, but there are fatalities on the road every year.

Vernal Falls, Yosemite National Park

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Vernal Fall is one of two neighboring waterfalls in Yosemite National Park. The popular falls can be reached by hiking on the so-called Mist Trail. The Vernal Fall hike is three miles, round trip. The walk is considered one of Yosemite's signature experiences, and there is a shuttle bus to the trailhead. The falls are best visited in the spring when the snowmelt at higher elevations increases the water volume.

Despite its popularity, this area can be dangerous. There have been several instances where people swimming above Vernal Fall were swept over the edge by unexpectedly strong currents. There are now signs that prohibit swimming, but these are sometimes ignored. The rocks near the river are slippery, so there is a danger of slipping and fall in.

Death Valley National Park

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More than a million people visit Death Valley National Park each year. This park in the Mojave Desert lives up to its name with extreme temperatures. Not only can summertime temps reach dangerous highs, but nights can be cold enough to induce hypothermia. Many people choose to drive through Death Valley. However, the heat, which can approach 130 degrees Fahrenheit, can cause trouble for the car and, after overheating, trouble for its passengers.

The National Park Service recommends not hiking after 10 a.m. to avoid the chance of heat-related illnesses. They also suggest drinking at least a gallon of water to replace fluids lost due to perspiration. Driver should travel with a supply of water in case of a breakdown. They should also drive carefully, because the single biggest cause of fatalities in Death Valley is not heat stroke, but car crashes.

Lake Mead National Recreation Area

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Lake Mead does not seem dangerous on the surface. The man-made reservoir does not have any poisonous snakes or high cliffs. However, it is one of the deadliest units in the National Park system. The reason: boating accidents, drowning and general "reckless behavior." In the end of the 1990s, an average of one person per week died in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area.

The situation has not gotten much better since the turn of the century. In fact, over the past decade, Lake Mead was the deadliest unit in the National Park system. The National Recreation Area has averaged 25 deaths per year since 2006. Most of these were caused by drowning blamed on reckless boating.

Denali National Park

Photo: Derek Ramsey/Wikimedia Commons

There are stark reminders of the dangers of Alaska's Denali National Park. Denali, formerly called Mount McKinley, is America's tallest peak. It has seen more than its share of tragedy. Avalanches, extreme temperatures and blizzards have killed more than a hundred people over the decades. Because of the altitude, some of the deceased were never brought down and buried. As many as 44 bodies still remain on the mountain.

Denali has a weather station near its summit. It records just how extreme the temperatures are on the peak. The coldest wind chill ever recorded was minus 118.1 degrees Fahrenheit (in December).