Great Smoky Mountains Ranks as the Third-most Dangerous National Park?

Monday, February 8, 2021

An online guide for outdoor travel called recently published a list of fatality figures for America's national parks. The data was derived from the National Park Service through a Freedom of Information Act. The numbers were compiled from 2010 to 2020, with deaths tallied in several separate categories, including drowning, falls, wildlife, motor vehicle accidents, medical/natural deaths, poisoning, boats, bicycles, homicides, environmental, and undetermined deaths.

According to the data, the Great Smoky Mountains ranks as third-most dangerous national park in terms of the total number of deaths in the park during that time period. The Grand Canyon recorded 134 deaths, Yosemite saw 126 deaths, while the Great Smoky Mountains reported 92 deaths.

Now, as we all know, the Great Smoky Mountains has by far the highest number of visitors per year; therefore, it's a bit disingenuous to say that they should be considered the third most dangerous national park. So, I decided to see what the data would look like if we reviewed fatality rates on a per one million visitor basis. The results, as you might expect, were quite different. Using this method the Virgin Islands is actually the most dangerous national park in the system. During the 2010 to 2020 study period the park recorded almost 165 deaths per one million visitors. Denali ranked second with 84.8 deaths per one million visitors, while Big Bend finished a distant third with 47.4 deaths per one million visitors. Among the top 20 parks on's list, the Great Smoky Mountains actually ranks as the 19th most dangerous park, with just 7.3 deaths per one million visitors.

I then decided to look at this same data from a slightly different angle. All of the numbers discussed so far include medical and natural deaths, which really have no bearing on how dangerous a park really is. As a result, I removed these deaths from the total number of deaths to see if there were any substantial differences. The Virgin Islands and Denali were still the two most dangerous parks, with Redwoods coming in as the third. The Great Smoky Mountains still ranked 19th on this list. Although the Grand Canyon had the highest number of total deaths, the park actually ranks 9th on a per million visitor basis, with medical and natural deaths stripped out of the total counts. Yosemite ranked 7th using this methodology.

A few other statistics shed some additional light on why parks report so many deaths. For example, the Smokies reported 37 motor vehicle deaths - by far the most of any park. This represents 40% of all deaths recorded in the park during the study period. Yosemite recorded 45 deaths from falls, which represents almost 36% of all deaths in that park. Surprisingly, there were only 6 deaths recorded as a result of wildlife throughout the entire National Park System. Yellowstone recorded 3 of those deaths during the study period. The Grand Canyon had the highest number of "undetermined" deaths (17), with Yosemite, the Great Smoky Mountains and Sequoia-Kings Canyon each reporting 13. My assumption is that this category includes disappearances and suicides.

To review the article and the data, please click here.


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