It’s easy to get swept up in the beauty of our country’s national parks and forget that the great outdoors can actually be quite dangerous and even deadly. Common hazards include getting lost and/or injured, drowning, heatstroke, severe weather, and wildlife.
When the unthinkable happens, National Park Service (NPS) professionals are on the case. NPS responders, officers, and special agents conduct inland search-and-rescue (SAR) operations and missing person investigations in urban parks and wilderness areas of the National Park System (NPS) all over the country. Some see more action than others, as Outforia discovered in data obtained from the National Parks Authority via a Freedom of Information request. Here are the national parks that had the highest number of search and rescue (SAR) incidents between 2018 and 2020.
NPS Most Search and Rescue by Outforia
National Parks With The Most SAR Incidents 2018-2020
It makes sense that some of the most-visited national parks would see the most SAR incidents. Here are the top parks that had the highest volume of reported incidents between 2018 and 2020.
1. Grand Canyon National Park: 785 incidents
At over a million acres, Grand Canyon National Park is just about as grand as the canyon it’s named after. With millions of visitors every year, this bucket-list destination is one of the most popular national parks in the U.S.
Out of the 785 SAR incidents that took place at the park between 2018 and 2020, only four remain open. When hiking this natural wonder of the world, but sure to stay on designated trails and walkways — and always stay at least 6 feet from the edge of the canyon rim. Steer clear of squirrels, bison, deer, and elk. Here are 10 Key Ranger Tips For Visiting The Grand Canyon.
2. Yosemite National Park: 732 incidents
If you’ve ever gazed at Half Dome in California’s Yosemite National Park, it will come as no surprise that the park ranks second for SAR incidents. Of the 732 incidents that took place over the 3-year period, five are still open. One was closed after an unsuccessful search, with the person in question not being found. Here are some missing-person cases that are still open. The park’s Preventive Search and Rescue (PSAR) program recommends watching out for hazards such as rattlesnakes and swift water. Here are 10 Important Ranger Tips For Visiting Yosemite National Park.
3. Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks: 503 incidents
California’s Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks may have topped the list since they are combined into one authority that covers 1,353 square miles. Of the 503 SAR incidents, three remain open while one was closed without finding the missing person. This data predates the KNP Complex Fire which closed Sequoia National Park in the fall of 2021, but it has since reopened. For more information, check the current park conditions.
States Most Search and Rescue by Outforia
States With The Most SAR Incidents 2018–2020
It also stands to reason that states with the most or largest national parks have the highest rate of SAR incidents. Incidents for parks that spill over state lines were counted for each state the park falls into. Here are the states with the highest volume of reported SAR incidents between 2018 and 2020.
1. California: 1,868 incidents
Home to several national parks, including Joshua Tree, one of the most-visited parks in 2020, as well as parks that topped the list for most SAR incidents, Yosemite and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, California tops the list with 1,868 SAR incidents within the 3 year period. Here are 10 Key Ranger Tips For Visiting Joshua Tree National Park that will come in handy when facing the Mojave and the Colorado deserts that meet in the vast wilderness of southern California.
2. Arizona: 1,643 incidents
Since Arizona is where you’ll find the Grand Canyon, aka the park with the most SAR incidents, it’s no surprise to see it in the top three states. In addition to the Grand Canyon, Arizona’s 1,643 incidents from 2018–2020 took place at Canyon de Chelly National Monument, where a steep trail leads to cliff dwellings as well as Saguaro National Park. Thinking of exploring Saguaro National Park? Here’s what to know before you go.
3. Utah: 1,043 incidents
In addition to ski resorts, Mormons, and Salt Lake City, the Beehive State is known for its stunning national parks. Utah’s Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion National Parks are known as the “Mighty Five.”
The state saw 1,043 SAR incidents from 2018 to 2020. Thinking of checking out the magnificent red rock formations for yourself? Here are 10 Important Ranger Tips For Visiting Arches National Park.
NPS Most Open Search and Rescue by Outforia
National Parks With The Most Open SAR Incidents 2018-2020
Search and rescue operations may go on for months. Some cases take years to be resolved. According to Outforia, “In some cases, there may not be a missing person involved but an incident being investigated, leading to numerous cases remaining open.” Here are the stats on the parks with the most open SAR incidents from 2018 to 2020.
1. Mount Rainier National Park: 101 Open Incidents
Hikers, skiers, and snowshoers are drawn to Washington state’s Mount Rainier National Park and the sleeping volcano for which it’s named. The 369-square-mile park boasts elevations up to 14,000 feet. Add wintry weather conditions, wildlife such as black bears and mountain lions, inexperience, and strong, fast rivers, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for disaster. Weather conditions, remote locations, and technical terrain are most likely why so many of Mount Rainier’s 146 SAR incidents remain open. A mere 45 of the cases were resolved, leaving 101, or 69 percent of total incidents open. Check out these 10 Important Ranger Tips For Visiting Mount Rainier National Park.
2. Blue Ridge Parkway: 28 Open Incidents
At 469 miles long, the Blue Ridge Parkway poses a unique challenge for search and rescue teams who contend with the mountainous, linear park. There are several points at which hikers can access trails along the parkway. In addition to getting lost or injured on a hike, wildlife poses a risk. Last year, we reported on a black bear that attacked a picnicking couple. Of the 78 SAR incidents which took place over the reported 3-year period, 28, or 36 percent, remain open.
3. Rocky Mountain National Park: 19 Open Incidents
Hmm … mountainous terrain seems to be a theme with these open SAR incidents. Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park is also home to black bears. However, the rate of open cases falls here dramatically. Only 19 of the park’s 341 total incidents were open, accounting for a mere six percent.
NPS Most Unfound Search and Rescue by Outforia
National Parks With The Most Unfound Cases
Unfortunately, many search and rescue efforts remain cold cases. Sometimes cases get closed without having found the missing party. Here are the parks with the most instances of unfound cases between 2018 and 2020.
1. Arches National Park: 6 Unfound Cases
When standing amongst the 2,000 natural sandstone arches of Arches National Park, you probably aren’t thinking of the missing persons who are still unlocated somewhere within the Utah park. Part of the Colorado Plateau, the “high desert” region can see temperatures fluctuate over 40 degrees in a single day. Of Arch’s 202 SAR incidents within the reported period, six were closed without having rescued the person, accounting for 3 percent of total incidents.
2. Guadalupe Mountains National Park: 4 Unfound Cases
Ten percent of Guadalupe Mountains National Park’s 40 SAR incidents were closed without finding the person involved. Located near El Paso, Texas, the mountain range covers nearly 135 square miles and is home to the highest peak in the state.
3. Rocky Mountain National Park: 3 Unfound Cases
With 341 SAR incidents, Rocky Mountain National Park was one of the top five national parks with the most reported incidents between 2018 and 2020. It also ranks in the top three for unfound cases, although there were only a few, accounting for just 1 percent of total park incidents.
Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is tied with Rocky Mountain National Park with three unfound cases.
National Park Safety Tips
The NPS is dedicated to protecting visitors’ safety from hazards that can include severe weather, hypothermia, falls, avalanches, or even being eaten by a mountain lion. Here are some tips to help you stay safe when visiting national parks:
- Be prepared for your activity before you go.
- Pack the 10 essentials.
- Leave your trip plan with your emergency contact.
- Plan for emergencies.