The Grand Canyon is one of the most famous and beautiful places in the United States. Spanning 18 miles from rim to rim and thousands of feet in elevation, this natural rocky park is a popular destination for hiking, rafting, and more. Unfortunately due to its high temperatures, unstable terrain, and the rapid river, people die at the Grand Canyon every year.
Using data from the book Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon as well as news releases from the National Park Service, law firm Hastings & Hastings recently analyzed all Grand Canyon deaths. Millions of people visit the Grand Canyon in Arizona every year, and while the odds of dying there are low, it does happen. An average of 12 people die at the Grand Canyon every year.
Since the Grand Canyon National Park was established in 1919, around 900 people have died there.
Quick Stats: Death at the Grand Canyon
- Every year there is an average of 5 million visitors at Grand Canyon National Park
- The odds of falling off the rim of the canyon are 1 in 1.8 million visitors
- That means an average of two to three people die from accidental falls every year
- So far in 2023 there has been one death at the Grand Canyon. Like many others, the fatality was caused by environmental factors.
Grand Canyon Causes of Death
Below are the most common causes of death at the Grand Canyon, in order of prevalence. The data analyzed is from the early 1900s through 2017.
Helicopter and Airplane Crashes
The most common way that people die at the Grand Canyon is in the air. Hundreds of thousands of people fly over the Grand Canyon every year – that’s two flights per minute on average. Turbulence is common on these flights due to the environmental factors of the canyon, which can lead to crashes.
There have been two notable airplane and helicopter crashes at the Grand Canyon. The first incident occurred in 1956 when two commercial airplanes collided, killing all 128 people aboard the planes. This happened before the existence of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and is actually what led to its creation. At the time airplanes were responsible for managing their own flight paths, so there was a lack of communication.
The second incident happened in 1986 when a helicopter and an airplane collided while touring the Grand Canyon. All 25 people aboard the aircrafts died.
Falling into the Grand Canyon
This is often the most common cause of death that people think of when they think of Grand Canyon fatalities. Because the canyon is so expansive and the terrain so rocky, it’s no surprise that people have fallen to their death at the Grand Canyon.
There are a few different ways this happens. One way is accidentally falling from the rim. This can happen when someone is standing too close to the edge, jumping from rock to rock, or leaning over for a selfie. Other people fall while hiking within the canyon, which is still plenty high up for a fatal fall. Others commit suicide by jumping into the canyon, which you can read more about in the section below.
This cause of death is very common, and happens almost as much as falling. Especially in recent decades, the high temperatures in the canyon are enough to kill someone who isn’t prepared.
Environmental factors include heat (leading to dehydration, cardiac arrest), flash floods, freezing, lightning, and starvation after getting lost. On the opposite end of dehydration is drinking too much water, which can be deadly if not enough sodium is being consumed with the water. The most common of these causes is heat – many hikers are not prepared for temperatures as high as 120 degrees, and simply collapse on the trail.
The Grand Canyon is known as the heart of the Colorado River. Many park visitors enjoy hiking down to the river or embarking on boating and rafting adventures. While these activities can be extremely fun, many people don’t realize just how dangerous the river is. Rapids move quickly, and a jump in the water could lead to getting swept away.
Suicide and Murder
As with any location in the world, suicides and murders have happened at the Grand Canyon. Suicides may be less surprising to learn about, especially if you’ve heard of Thelma & Louise. After the movie was released – which ends in the protagonists driving off a cliff to their death – there were copy cats. Even before and after this movie, people have chosen the Grand Canyon as the place they want to jump to their death. Murders are lesser heard of, but do happen. People have killed at the Grand Canyon by pushing someone off or shooting them. Sometimes bodies are found at the bottom of the canyon with no way to confirm cause of death.
Are Deaths Increasing or Decreasing at the Grand Canyon?
While the yearly average number of deaths at the Grand Canyon is 12, those numbers do fluctuate. Here is a chart showing the number of fatalities every year between 2001 and 2022. As you can see, the number of fatalities mostly increased over this time period, but recently declined.
Staying Safe at the Grand Canyon
While there is no way to prevent freak accidents, there are many things you can do to stay safe at the Grand Canyon.
Bring Lots of Water, and a Salty Snack: You may be surprised at how much water you need when the sun is beating and you’re sweating. Not only do you need to drink a lot of water to replenish and hydrate, but you need a salty snack too. If you drink tons of water without salt, your blood’s sodium levels will be off balance and it can actually lead to death. Wearing a hat is another important way to beat the heat.
Stay on the Trails: Staying on the trails may seem obvious, but trails are there for a reason. They are designating a safe place to walk, meaning that anything off trail could be unsafe. Lots of people have stepped off trail to look at nature or take a photo, only to find themselves on unstable ground.
Don’t Push Yourself: If you are hiking in the Grand Canyon and feel like you need a break, take one. Trying to push through your exhaustion will not end well, as many hikers are found unresponsive laying on the trail. Find some shade if possible, sit down, and rest up until you feel good to go. This is especially important if you are feeling dizzy or disoriented.
Don’t Go Alone: If you do run into danger, like rocky terrain or river rapids, having a companion or two will be essential. Many people have died in the Grand Canyon because they were hiking or cliff jumping alone, so no one was there to call for help when they fell.