How Not to Die at the Grand Canyon
About a dozen people die each year in the park, and while that’s a small number compared to overall visitors, there are ways to make sure you don’t become one of those fatalities.
Watch your step.
If that sounds like a ragged cliche, it’s a salient bit of advice in the wake of a third death in 10 days in (and near) Grand Canyon National Park, whose centennial celebration is expected to lure five million visitors to its easily underestimated rims this year. National Parks are often so well manicured and lighted and signed that selfie-snapping tourists tend to forget they’re in a dangerous expanse of a monument that lies between 7,000 and 8,000 feet of elevation, where rattlesnakes roam, where temperatures easily creep past 100 degrees, and where there are a dozen ways to die.
“With social media and the internet, you see beautiful pictures of this place all over that really soften what people are going up against in these natural spaces,” says Korey Seyler, managing partner at the Grand Canyon Adventures, on the south rim. How to survive the Grand Canyon, therefore: Don’t underestimate it. This may be a National Park, but it’s also a wild place.
What goes down must come up. What those who stumble down from various points into the canyon itself can too easily forget is that the route down is twice as easy a trek as the way back out, when it’s likely to be hotter, windier, and steep. “People need to know their limits,” says Tawn Mangum, manager of the mule riding company Canyon Trail Rides. “It’s easier in than it is out.” Plan for it to take twice as long to come back as it did to get wherever you’re headed. It never hurts to train for a few weeks before your trip, Seyler adds. “Not a lot of people live in an area that’s nearly 7,000 feet in elevation.”
Get drunk. On water, that is. Many of the 685 deaths catalogued adroitly in the oft-updated book Over the Edge: Death in the Grand Canyon, by Thomas Myers and Michael Ghiglieri, and in this handy if morbid map are from dehydration and heat stroke, which can as you might imagine be prevented by hauling enough of that precious stuff of life to keep you hydrated for the long haul: Seyler recommends a minimum of a liter per hour (a liter and a half, in the summer.) And be sure to add some salty snacks, to keep the electrolytes flowing.
Get dressed. But leave the Instagram-cute outfits back at the Airbnb and be sensible about your wardrobe choices, especially if you plan on hiking into the basin. Flip-flops? Nein. Sturdy boots or trail runners. Tank tops and crop tops? No! Layers, bandannas, even a couple dorktastic trekking poles. Consider that depending on the time of day and time of year you start your hike, the way back may be windy and frigid.
Watch the weather. The Grand Canyon can see monsoons from July to September, often accompanied by thunder and lightning strikes. Wes Neal rents bicycles to visitors at Bike Grand Canyon, and he always advises guests to be on the lookout for bad weather and be ready to call it a day. “If you’re in an electrical storm, just leave the bike, man,” he says. “Get on a bus,” of which several run throughout the park daily.
Take the path more traveled. While the designated trails are well-maintained (and often paved) in the park, visitors craning for a better view (or selfie) often sneak a few feet off the trail, where they may not realize until it’s too late that what presents as stable ground is actually paper-thin, thanks to millennia of the very same erosion that carved that canyon wall in the first place. “The Grand Canyon is beautiful in part because the whole place has been falling apart for a very long time,” Seyler says.
Check the toxic masculinity, bro. Of the 55 people who’ve fallen from the rim of the canyon over the years, 39 of them were male, eight of them rock-hopping for a photograph, according to Myers and Ghiglieri. So be more like women, which is good advice all around.
Don’t be too poor to pay attention. Among the more modern dangers in the Grand Canyon or anywhere is distraction, from people who, as Mangum puts it, “are on their dang phones, walking and texting, not looking where they’re going.”
Life > likes. Increasingly, people endanger themselves in that neverending quest for the epic selfie, which is doubly pernicious on an unstable trail because it typically means you’re neither looking at the ground nor how close you might be to the edge of a cliff. “Selfie taking scares me the most, because your focus is typically on the camera,” Seyler says. Put the phones away and enjoy yourself, and if you must get a memento, do it with the utmost caution.
No diving. Drownings are a common way to die, even in the beckoning turquoise blue waters of Havasu Creek. While some of those victims were caught in recirculating currents, others are the result of diving from too-high heights and smashing into the bottom of not-deep-enough pools.
None of this advice is to suggest the Grand Canyon has turned into some sketchball locale best avoided altogether in favor of the sanctity of a Vegas hotel pool. About a dozen people die each year in the park, but the odds of that tragic end are roughly 1 in 400,000, which is less than those of being attacked by a dog, killed in an airplane crash, or stung by a bee, according to the National Safety Council.