Risks and Recklessness in the Grand Canyon

Last summer, I made my second trek across the width of the Grand Canyon. Twenty-four miles hiked, descending 6,000 feet and trekking up 4,500 feet, from north rim to south rim, in early July, braving hot hikes and early mornings, all to immerse myself in the beauty of the canyon. Despite the familiarity of the hike, I was still in awe of the power of nature, the respect I have for the land, and the inspiration of those that first walked and lived in these lands.

Grand Canyon
Looking up at the South Rim, from Indian Gardens, while inside the canyon.

After finishing the hike and returning back to civilization, I was amazed that so many visitors of the Grand Canyon completely disregard any common sense while in the park. I’ve had personal experiences in the Grand Canyon, seeing people hop from rock to rock, completely exposed to the canyon below; adults hiking in the heat of a summer day without water; kids scrambling out to an edge for a better view of the canyon; hikers heading down the Bright Angel Trail in sandals; a hiker at the bottom of the canyon in jeans at 9 am in July when temps are easily in the 90’s; and people climbing over railings, hanging recklessly over an edge with the canyon a thousand feet below.

Take your chance on nature, but don’t be surprised when natures wins.

Grand Canyon Safety Tips
Warning signs along the Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon warn inexperienced hikers.

I absolutely love the canyon. But as a lover of the park, I respect the canyon. I respect its wildness. I respect the warnings.

As with all national parks, the Grand Canyon is left to its untouched, natural state.  In these parks, any visitor inherently takes the risks that come with being in a ‘wild’ area.  However, too many people don’t take these risks seriously.  Whether in the backcountry, on a trail, or simply at the rim, you have to be cautious. Hike safe, hike smart, and avoid danger at all costs.

Grand Canyon Safety Tips
A hot 120 degrees, the temperature at Phantom Ranch, at the bottom of the Grand Canyon on July 3, 2019 at 6 pm. Yes, temperatures can kill you if you’re not prepared.

I once read the book Over the Edge:Death in Grand Canyon (Amazon link) by Michael P. Ghiglieri and Thomas M. Myers. Many people probably wonder why such a book would be published, let alone that there are people that would read it. I actually found this book to be very interesting, educational, and something all hikers should read. You learn that even the most skilled hiker, rafter, or explorer can make one mistake that can affect their fate.

Grand Canyon statistics show that on average, 2-3 people die there each year from falls at the rim. Not a shocker, but if you fall from the rim of the Grand Canyon, you will likely die.  Reportedly, three people fell to their deaths in just eight days during early 2019.

falling sign warning

Why is this happening? Despite the guard rails, signs, and ranger warnings, people don’t seem to take their safety seriously.  When hiking in these National Parks, please remember to pack your common sense.

Falls don’t just happen from the rim.  They are also common from within the canyon. Climbing, hiking ledges, and rock scrambling, especially with weighted backpacks, can be perilous.

From Over the Edge, here are the most common causes of accidental falls in the Grand Canyon:

  • Taking photographs – People will try anything to get the perfect shot. Walking way out to ledges or dangerous cliffs is not smart.  Even telling people posing for a photo to “back up just a little bit,” while standing on the rim has been known to prove deadly.  Goofing off while posing for photos (“Look! I’m falling!”) also comes with its own perils.
  • Crossing retaining walls or guard rails – These guard rails are there for a reason.  If you walk or climb anywhere past them, you are not guaranteed safe ground.  Crumbling rock and unstable ground has given away in the Grand Canyon before and will do so again.
  • Walking off the trail – Just like the guard rails, the trails indicate safer areas to hike.  As soon as you leave a trail, you take a risk.
  • Jumping rock to rock or ledge to ledge –  Self-explanatory.  Use your head.
  • Dizziness – Sometimes the vastness of the canyon can be overwhelming.  Don’t sit right on the edge and get up quickly. This can result in a drop in blood pressure and cause instability.  Dehydration (from heat, exercise, or too much alcohol) and older age also contributes to dizziness.
  • Snow and ice – I’m sure there are some people who hike around and within the canyon when there is snow and ice, but it seems way too risky.  Icy trails and thousand foot drop-offs don’t mix.
  • Hiking at night – Yes, hiking can be done at night, but it certainly isn’t recommended.  Between the darkness and vastness of the canyon, you can easily get disoriented and not know where you are.  At the very least, please hike with a headlamp and walk slowly to assure your footing.

All of this information can be applied to any national or state park since these natural areas have degrees of elevation change, which come with falling risks. Don’t let the wonder of these parks dampen your ability to see these risks.

However, falls aren’t the only risks in our national and state parks. Many people hike unprepared and/or without knowledge of the terrain and environment of the park. Questions like, “What are the night and day temperatures for my stay?,” “How much food and water should I pack?,” Is there a way to resupply my fresh water?,” “What are the biggest dangers on this hike?,” are just a few of the questions you need to answer before you head out on your trip.

Safety Tips
Another warning sign along the Bright Angel Trail

Defacing National Parks by etching your name in rocks and monuments, trying to take close-up photos or selfies with large mammals (bears, bison, etc), and feeding the wild animals is an ongoing problem the parks are trying to solve. However, there are too many reckless tourists who don’t read warning signs, don’t care, or don’t realize they are part of the problem.

In conclusion, while touring and hiking through our great National Parks:

  • Use your head – Know what you are physically able to do and use your common sense.
  • Read the signs – The warnings are there for a reason. Take a minute and consider the dangers involved.
  • Do your research Know what you’re getting into before you hike, pack what is necessary, and be prepared for anything.
  • Listen to the park rangers – Respect the experts, as they know the park better than you. Think about how they will be the ones risking their own lives to come out and save you if necessary.
  • Respect the park –  The National Parks are wild places.  Respect their power and majesty.

Happy Travels!


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