Is North Cascades National Park the most deadly park in the country?

Jul 1, 2022, 6:27 AM
(Rich Martello/Unsplash)...
(Rich Martello/Unsplash)
(Rich Martello/Unsplash)

A Forbes article titled “Warning: The Deadliest National Parks In America” cited a study where Washington’s North Cascades National Park was crowned “the top park where you are most likely to suffer a fatal accident.” Lots of other news sources and websites picked up the story, but, it turns out, the data crunched by the personal injury law firm that commissioned the study doesn’t show the full picture.

“I’m not afraid of the clickbaity piece of it,” said Don Striker, Superintendent of the North Cascades National Park Service Complex.

The study analyzed National Park Service data between 2007 and 2018 and reported that North Cascades National Park averages 652 deaths per 10 million visitors, more than any other park. But Striker says the national park itself is much smaller than what most visitors might imagine. Technically, the most popular hikes, heavily trafficked places like Chelan and Diablo Lake and all of the campgrounds, aren’t in the national park itself.

“Probably, most people think they’re in the park when they hit that North Cascades National Park sign on Route 20,” said Striker. “You’re not. You’re technically in the recreational area. We get close to a million visitors in the two recreation areas. You have to get pretty far off the easy road access and hike through some fairly vertical terrain to actually get to the national park. Statistically speaking, that [study takes the] 56 national parks, and how many deaths there are, divided by the number of visitors. When you break down the statistics, sometimes they don’t really work out. As a result, our denominator is low, so many deaths in the park divided by not as many people is going to make you classically one of the more dangerous places.”

Backpacker magazine did a more scientific study, and in their analysis, North Cascades National Park doesn’t even make the Top 10. They assigned the number one most dangerous spot to Denali National Park in Alaska, followed by the Virgin Islands and Big Bend in Texas, where many heat-related deaths occur. But it was easy to point the finger at North Cascades, which is much more rugged and wild than the country’s most visited national parks.

“Most of North Cascades National Park is actually designated wilderness, and that means you don’t have a lot of manmade infrastructure to make your life easier,” said Striker. “Typically, that means there’s not a lot of other people around to help you out when you get in trouble. We have no cell coverage. Even our radio systems have a lot of dead spots. Relying on your modern technology to bail you out when you get in trouble is not the best insurance plan in a place like the North Cascades.”

He says clickbaity lists like these often leave a lot of details unexamined. When someone dies at a national park, it doesn’t necessarily mean they got in trouble while out hiking or kayaking.

“It could be as simple as some places having lots of heart attacks, right?” said Striker. “I think the thing that we need to pay attention to, and the reason that I’m not actually disturbed by being singled out, is because it gives us an opportunity to talk about being prepared for what you’re getting in for. With the pandemic, there are a lot of people who are rushing to get outside. They may not necessarily be prepared, and how can we help make sure that you get educated and prepared.”

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Is North Cascades National Park the most deadly park in the country?