Yellowstone Park: America’s Cherished Cauldron of Death

By Nathaniel Scharping | November 18, 2016 10:28 am

(Kris Wiktor/Shutterstock)

Walking into the wilderness is always dangerous.

That holds true in national parks, where the bounty of paved roads, groomed campsites and friendly rangers can make nature feel downright civilized. The great outdoors still pose risks to tourists and grizzled mountain men alike, whether due to freak accidents — being dissolved in acid — or incidents of regrettable decision-making — putting a bison calf in your trunk.

“There are a lot of different ways to get killed in this park, it’s an unforgiving environment. This is a true wilderness area,” says Lee Whittlesey, the Yellowstone National Park historian. In his 1995 book, Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park, Whittlesey chronicled the many ways visitors met their end in the park. There are so many, in fact, he released a larger, updated version of the book in 2014.

Don’t Go For a Dip

One of the latest fatalities in Yellowstone occurred this summer, when a 23-year-old Oregon man slipped and fell into a hot spring while attempting to test the water. Authorities think that he and his sister, who was not harmed, were likely trying to “hot pot,” or take an illicit dip in one of the park’s iconic geothermal features. This particular spring, in the Norris Geyser Basin, contained water that was upwards of 212 degrees Fahrenheit, scalding him to death. His body was never recovered from the pool — authorities believe that the burning, acidic water likely dissolved his remains.


As the nation’s first national park, Yellowstone has seen its fair share of deaths over the years. Ironically, many of them have come as a result of the some 10,000 geysers and hot springs that draw people to the park in the first place. At least 22 people have died, and many more have been injured, in these natural wonders since the park’s inception, according to Whittlesey.

This includes three park employees who jumped into a hot spring in the dark, thinking it was only a small stream. One died and two were severely burned. Another young man died after diving headfirst into the 200-degree Celestine Pool in an attempt to save his friends’ dog. The first recorded casualty of the hot springs was a seven-year-old boy in 1890, and the total number of geyser-related injuries is probably much higher.

“Most people who get thermal burns feel a little sheepish about it,” Hank Heasler, the park’s principle geologist, said in a Yellowstone blog post. “Geothermal attractions are one of the most dangerous natural features in Yellowstone, but I don’t sense that awareness in either visitors or employees.”


( e X p o s e/Shutterstock)

Grizzly bear attacks are another high-profile danger in Yellowstone, and each incident opens anew the debate about euthanizing the animal responsible. Since 1980, there has been on average only one such attack a year, and the victims usually dodge fatal injuries. Only eight people have been killed by grizzlies in the park, although 2011 did see a bizarre pair of deadly attacks just miles from each other. A bear known as the “Wapiti sow” believed to be responsible was captured and killed, although later evidence cast doubts on her involvement in the second death.

Many Ways to Die

There are other, more random, dangers in Yellowstone.

A ranger was killed in the 1920s after misidentifying and eating the poisonous roots of a hemlock plant, a couple died after backing their car off of a cliff, and a worker at the park perished after being exposed to toxic hydrogen sulphide gas at the bottom of a pit. Rockfalls, exposure and drowning have also killed visitors to the park.

And even if you never visit Yellowstone, you aren’t immune to its dangers.

Every few years, it seems that someone sounds the alarm about the Yellowstone “supervolcano” erupting and wiping out civilization on North America. The evidence for such an eruption in our lifetimes, or anytime in the next few millennia is slim: the odds are about one in 700,000 for any given year.

Scientists are using a helicopter equipped with a hoop-shaped, electromagnetic device to better understand the behavior of a magma chamber beneath Yellowstone. Laster year, scientists discovered this massive reservoir was four times larger than they anticipated. That doesn’t mean the supervolcano is any more dangerous, however. The reservoir has been there for a long time, and it’s not getting bigger. We just haven’t examined it closely until now.

Boiling hot springs and giant magma chambers remind us that slapping the wilderness with a national park designation doesn’t tame it. Over 99 percent of Yellowstone is pure backcountry, and it will likely stay that way — wilderness is what we come to experience.

“That is what a place like this is about, is wildness,” says Whittlesey. “That is what we’re protecting here, the wildness of an ecosystem.”

  • Uncle Al

    “contained water that was upwards of 212 degrees Fahrenheit” Given its altitude of 8000 feet (0.7 atm pressure), how much upwards of water’s normal boiling point at sea level would Yellowstone’s 194 degrees F water’s boiling point be?

    • darryl

      Is it possible there are enough dissolved minerals to increase the boiling temperature?


      • Uncle Al

        Crack a p-chem book, colligative properties. +0.52 °C.for each molal added soluble particles in water. (212 – 194)/1.8 = 10 molal solution, roughly 5 molar NaCl, 584 g/liter, so no.

        Mars is apparently lightly sodden with Na, Mg, Ca perchlorate eutetics. 9.8 molal Na perchlorate! (-35 °C mp), So Officially yes, in reality still no.

    • jimoppenheimer

      The water was extraordinarily hot. Fatally so, one might add. 194 deg., vs. 212 deg. — who really gives a sugar?

  • OWilson

    A wonderful United Nations Heritage Site, thanks to the ice melting, and the glaciers retreating.

    If the global warmers had been around in those days, they would have tried to keep it clogged with 7,000 feet of dirty ice!

    • Uncle Al

      7000 vertical feet of ice. Canada did not have earthworms until Europeans arrived with plants in pots of soil with hitchhikers. Invasive species! Kill all earthworms! Sanctuary country!

      We need $billions/year to study this, and international massive bloody riots to disavow the studies and the dissenting studies.

      • OWilson

        Not to mention potatoes invading Ireland, and Tomatoes invading Italy! :)

    • 7eggert

      Unfortunately only half of the story is usually told. The climate _will_ change, but we selfishly want to survive that. On order to do so, we’d like it to not be a change at mass extinction pace.

      • OWilson

        What do you have against human progress?

        Longevity, better health, cleaner air, cleaner water, more education, less poverty, less children starving and world record food production, thanks to human technology, and adaption to the retreat of the North Polar Ice Cap.

        The Great Lakes and the Great Plains, Swiss Alpine valleys, and Manhattan, are better now than under 2 miles of dirty ice!

        • 7eggert

          1) If you want clean air and health, what do you have against the people fighting for it? Without them, you’d have Peking air quality.

          2) You should read what I wrote. The climate _will_ change, but we don’t want it to change faster than we can adopt, or faster than nature can adopt. We don’t want to be the 99.5 %.

          • OWilson

            Thanks to the fossil fuel powered Industrial Revolution, we are NOT the 99.5%

            I’ll take record world food production, long life and good health.

            You can pine for the dinosaurs, and pre-industrial levels of poverty and disease, hygiene and human misery.

            Mother Nature (Darwinism) doesn’t care what you “WANT”, she will never adapt to YOU!

            You’ll have to live with the reality that you are really not that special! :)


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