What are the safest national parks in Arizona?
Arizona has three national parks, 13 national monuments, three national historic sites, two national historic trails, and one national recreation area. These 22 units of the U.S. National Park Service provide recreational and sightseeing for nearly 7.7 million visitors every year.
But unfortunately, visitors also get killed, injured, or victimized by criminals while visiting Arizona’s parks. Between 2010 and 2022, 149 people died in Arizona’s national parks.
Here’s an overview of the safest national parks in Arizona along with a breakdown of how people get injured and killed.
Dangers Posed in National Parks
Visitors at national parks around the country are relatively safe. According to the National Park Service, the national parks have about one death per 1 million visitors every year.
In 2022, Outforia submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the National Park Service for data about deaths in the park system. The National Parks Service’s response confirmed that deaths happen in the park and explained how they happen.
But deaths are not the only measure of safety. National parks also see injuries and crime.
Crime in the National Parks
The National Park Service does not release crime statistics for individual parks. But it does release crime statistics across the entire park system.
In 2020, the National Park Service broke down the relative percentage of each type of crime investigated by the Investigative Services Branch (ISB) of the National Park Service. This branch investigates all crimes reported inside the national park system. The branch has been referred to as the FBI of the national parks.
The ISB releases an annual report with highlights of its law enforcement activities during the previous year. In 2020, the ISB reported 584 open criminal investigations across the entire park system.
These investigations included 204 investigations that remained open from a prior year. The ISB assisted other law enforcement agencies, such as local police and sheriff’s departments, in 280 cases. And the ISB opened 100 new cases.
According to the ISB, these 100 cases included:
• 67 crimes against people, such as assault, domestic violence, and homicide
• Nine cultural resources crimes, namely the destruction, theft, or vandalism of cultural resources
• Eight property crimes such as theft and burglary
• Five natural resources crimes like poaching or cutting lumber without a permit
• Three drug crimes
These numbers are relatively low, given that Grand Canyon National Park alone receives nearly 6 million visitors every year. Based on these statistics, chances are good that the ISB only handles one or two crime reports each year from Grand Canyon National Park.
Traffic Accidents in the National Parks
As with crimes, traffic accidents are rare in national parks. According to the FOIA response, between 2010 and 2022, Grand Canyon National Park had four motor vehicle fatalities, zero pedestrian deaths, and zero bicycle deaths.
Grand Canyon National Park, Saguaro National Park, and Petrified Forest National Park had a combined ten motor vehicle fatalities over 12 years.
For comparison, Arizona averaged 2.9 traffic fatalities per day in 2020. Arizona has had over 9,000 traffic fatalities since 2010.
Natural Accidents in the National Parks
The real danger in the national parks comes from natural conditions. Falls are by far the most common cause of death in the national parks. Outforia’s FOIA response listed 245 fatal falls on record since 2010.
Drowning is another common cause of death in national parks. Outforia’s FOIA response identified 139 drownings in national parks from 2010 to the present.
Another common cause of death was natural causes. The FOIA response listed 192 medical deaths. These deaths often happened when someone with a pre-existing condition visited the park and died during their trip. For example, if someone died of a heart attack while hiking, the National Park Service would list the death as natural.
The Safest National Parks in Arizona
Arizona has three national parks — Grand Canyon National Park, Saguaro National Park, and Petrified Forest National Park. It also has Lake Mead National Recreation Area.
Here’s how visitor safety in these major parks compares.
Petrified Forest National Park
Petrified Forest National Park is the safest of Arizona’s national parks. The park receives nearly 650,000 visitors every year. But according to the FOIA response provided to Outforia, Petrified Forest has had zero deaths since 2010.
The virtually nonexistent death rate likely comes from the park’s small size and relatively low number of visitors. The park only covers about 221,000 acres, compared to 1.2 million acres in Grand Canyon National Park. And Petrified Forest only receives about one-ninth of the visitors who travel to the Grand Canyon.
Saguaro National Park
Saguaro National Park is the second-safest of Arizona’s national parks. According to the FOIA response, Saguaro National Park has had 15 deaths since 2010. These deaths included:
- Six car accident fatalities
- Two deaths from environmental causes
- One death from natural causes
The park also had three deaths from other causes and three deaths from undetermined causes.
Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon and Lake Mead are not just the most dangerous parks in Arizona. They are the most dangerous parks in the entire national park system.
But keep in mind two factors when reading these statistics. First, Grand Canyon National Park is relatively safe compared to the rest of Arizona. While the park’s 134 fatalities since 2010 top the list of national parks, that only equates to about ten deaths per year.
Second, when you account for visitorship of 5.9 million people per year, Grand Canyon National Park’s death toll is not even in the top ten.
Lake Mead National Recreation Area
Like Grand Canyon National Park, Lake Mead tops studies of the most dangerous locations in the national park system. In a study conducted in 2017, researchers analyzed death data between a recent 10-year period. They concluded that Lake Mead was the most dangerous national park with about 25 deaths per year over that period.
Visiting Arizona’s National Parks Safely
These numbers should provide comfort to visitors. National parks, including Lake Mead and Grand Canyon, are relatively safe. More importantly, these studies show that many of these deaths were avoidable.
By wearing a life vest, packing water, watching weather reports, and avoiding overexertion, you stand a good chance of steering clear of problems on your next visit to Arizona’s national parks.