by Matt. Updated Oct 2021.
It’s one of the most common questions visitors ask rangers at Grand Canyon National Park. It seems to be an often unspoken curiosity. Whether it’s a healthy or unhealthy curiosity, humans are often interested in death.
So, how many people have died at the Grand Canyon?
As of 2021, there have been about 900 deaths in the Grand Canyon. The leading cause of death is airplane and helicopter crashes, followed by falling from cliffs, environmental deaths (such as overheating), and drowning. On average, about 11 people die per year in the Grand Canyon.
As always, there’s MUCH more behind the numbers, not to mention the personal stories and tragedies behind each statistic.
If you want to know more about death in the Grand Canyon (don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone), keep on reading.
Nearly all of the information in this article comes from the seminal book Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon, by Michael P. Ghiglieri and Thomas M. Myers, two people who have a long connection with the park. Their book is painstakingly researched and presented in an academic tone, rather than a sensational tone.
There is no need to reinvent the wheel: these two have documented death in the Grand Canyon…well, to death. But after reading their book and crunching some numbers, I have some of my own categories and lessons.
Ways to die in the Grand Canyon
Ghiglieri and Myers (G&M) categorized the deaths by type. I’ve rearranged the categories a little for simplicity.
The numbers in parenthesis come from their listing of deaths through 2017. I tried to find numbers from 2018 until now (2021) by using the official park website’s news releases, but they are too unreliable.
From the Air (379)
I was surprised to find out that aerial deaths were by far the biggest killer in the Grand Canyon.
Some of this can be explained by the tragic and unbelievable mid-air collision of two commercial airliners in 1956, which killed 128 people — everyone on both flights.
These two airplanes were carrying passengers from California to the midwest. At the time, there was no Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), so each airline was responsible for handling its own flight paths.
Both sought permission to fly over the Grand Canyon on the way (presumable for the scenery), but they didn’t communicate with each other and crashed. It boggles the mind just thinking about the odds.
This landmark event actually led to the creation of the FAA.
Even more unbelievable is that there was another aerial crash over the Grand Canyon in 1986, in which an airplane crashed into a helicopter. Both were sight-seeing tours; 25 people died.
But even if we remove them from the equation, aerial deaths still account for much more than the next closest category!
Who knew there were so many airplane and helicopter crashes at the Grand Canyon? Not me.
Three things combine to account for this:
- There are MANY flights over the canyon
Commercial tourism flights over the Grand Canyon occur at a rate of about 2 flights per minute. Yes, per minute.
Over the last few decades, the National Park has mostly prohibited flights over its part of the canyon to preserve the environment. But the canyon is HUGE, and there are plenty of places the tour companies can still fly over.
2. Air turbulence over the canyon
Hot air in the canyon mixes with the cooler air from the plateaus above creating a lot of wind and dangerous flying conditions.
3. Inexperienced tour operators
Most of the accidents have been with tour companies. The National Park Service, which flies into the canyon for construction projects and rescue operations, hasn’t had an aerial accident in over 40 years. So it’s possible the NPS has much more experienced pilots who can handle the challenging flying environment.
Falls (about 198)
About 180 people have died by falling in the Grand Canyon. G&M divided these into the following:
- Falls from the ledge
- Falls from within the canyon
Falls from the Ledge (60)
Most people who ask “how many people have died in the Grand Canyon?” are actually asking “how many people have died by falling from the ledge of the canyon?” The answer is about 65 (including recent years).
People have fallen from the ledge while
- taking selfies
- horsing around
- being drunk
- urinating into the canyon
- standing up from having just sat on the edge of the canyon (dizziness seems to be the main cause here).
One father was playing a prank on his daughter and pretended to jump off the ledge into the canyon. He planned to land on a ledge a few feet below the rim, but he missed the ledge and plunged to his death.
One gentleman was taking a photo of the Bright Angel Lodge with his back turned to the canyon. He backed up to get a wider angle for his shot…but he backed up too far and tumbled over the edge.
There have also been many near-deaths from people who fell over the ledge.
One famous event happened with Dee Dee Johnson, who was a well-known Hollywood fashion designer. While doing a publicity shoot on the edge of the canyon for her new fashion design — pedal pushers, or tight pants — she fell into the canyon.
Remarkably, she landed on a slanted ledge just below, only a few feet away from certain death. Rescuers rappeled to her and tied a rope around her, lifting her out of the canyon.
She was wearing a halter top which the rope pulled off on the way up. She arrived safely, but topless, to the welcoming of plenty of media men happy to cover the story.
Falls from within the canyon (63)
Falls from within the canyon include people falling while
Many of these were hikers who were dangerously scrambling off the main trail.
Some of these are mysteriously heartbreaking, like the dad who was hiking with his 13-year-old daughter on the South Kaibab Trail. He turned around and she was gone. Somehow she fell off the trail, 177 feet to the ground.
In 2018, Iona Hociota, an amazing woman from Romania was trying to become the 16th person to hike the length of the Grand Canyon (from Lee’s Ferry to Lake Mead) — a distance of approximately 800 miles.
She was only 24 but had two college degrees, spoke 4 languages, and had just gotten married. She would have become the youngest person to accomplish the feat.
She was close to accomplishing her goal when she took a wrong step on a trail. A rock slipped out from her foot and she fell 300 feet off the ledge. She only had 80 miles to go.
Suicide (about 75 from falls)
Suicides at the Grand Canyon include:
- Jumping off the ledge
- Driving off the ledge
- Jumping off bridges
There have been about 91 suicides in the Grand Canyon, with jumping off the ledge being the most common method. But there have been 13 times when someone drove their vehicle off the ledge.
Three of these occurred in one year, 1993. This came on the heels of the film Thelma & Louis, which was released in 1991 to critical acclaim.
In the movie’s final scene, the two protagonists drive their vehicle off the ledge of the canyon.
Were the suicides in 1993 influenced by the movie?
We know that at least one of the women who died watched that movie over 50 times and was determined to recreate the event.
Her name was Patricia Astolfo, and she drove her suburban off the ledge. However, it got high centered on a rock, preventing her from falling into the canyon.
So she got out of her vehicle, walked to the ledge, and jumped. Only she landed on another ledge 15 feet below.
Injured, she crawled to another ledge and jumped. Only she landed on another ledge 25 feet below.
Still determined, she crawled to another ledge and fell, this time falling a fatal 75 feet.
One other disturbing event: one person jumped out of a helicopter while on an aerial tour of the canyon, to the shock of the others on the helicopter.
Environmental (About 124)
The major causes of death in this category are:
- cardiac arrest (usually from the heat or overexhersion while hiking)
- starving from being lost
- drinking too much water
- flash floods
- lightning strikes
Dehydration and cardiac arrest (around 100)
But both of these are generally caused by the intense heat from within the canyon, which can get up to 120 degrees at the bottom.
The majority of these were avoidable. Those who died failed to prepare properly. They didn’t bring enough water and either over-estimated their abilities, or under-estimated the canyon.
Another fatal mistake: many of them hiked alone. Many solo hikers who died got stranded and either dehydrated or starved to death because no one knew they were in the canyon – or where they were.
Yet another fatal mistake: many of them left the established trails and got lost. The canyon is more complicated than it looks from the rim — apparently, it’s easy to get lost in there.
Some people who got lost faced the daunting choice between bad and worse:
- descend further into the canyon where they could get water from the river (and survive until someone could find them), or
- attempt to climb out of the canyon with little to no water and no certainty of finding a good trail.
Some never made it and left behind notes such as “4 days without food or water. lost.”
Here’s something crazy: multiple skeletons have been found in the canyon.
Freezing and drinking too much water
Strangely, people have also died from freezing and from drinking too much water!
Freezing deaths occur because the Grand Canyon is high elevation and gets snow in the winter. Some people aren’t prepared and have gotten caught in a snowstorm in the canyon.
And since the early 1990s, deaths from drinking too much water have spiked. People living by the admonition “drink before you get thirsty” forget to eat and balance out the sodium in their bloodstream.
So the park now recommends bringing water AND salty snacks.
Flash floods & Lighting strikes
Flash floods are exactly what they sound like: floods that happen in a flash.
They occur in the desert southwest because there is often little vegetation to soak up water, and the ground is so dry anyway that when enough rain finally falls, the water just flows across the soil.
While often not associated with the Grand Canyon, flash floods happen in many of the side canyons. Sometimes a deceivingly simple stream will turn into a roaring flood.
On one particularly vengeful day, September 11, 1997, two people were drowned in a flash flood. One hour later, lightning struck two visitors from Germany on the south rim. The two visitors survived, miraculously.
Several people have been struck by lightning and survived. Lightning strikes an average of 25,000 times per year at the Grand Canyon.
Drowning in the Colorado River (about 100)
Deaths from people drowning in the Colorado River range from
- river rafters
- people trying to cross the river (before the bridges were built)
- people taking a cool-off soak to survive the heat
The most famous deaths due to drowning are Bessie and Glen Hyde in 1928. The newlyweds were rafting the river, trying to establish the fastest time through the canyon. Also, Bessie would have become the first woman to raft through the canyon.
However, they never made it. They disappeared, and the bodies were never found. The most likely explanation is that they drowned.
In 1971, while a river-rafting guide was telling his tour group the story of the Hydes, an older woman in the group claimed to be Bessie. She claimed she murdered Glen, and fled out of the canyon, creating a new life.
A few years later, a skeleton was found in Emery Kolb’s residence on the south rim. Kolb owned a photography studio on the south rim and lived there since the early 1900s. Many suspected the skeleton was Glen Hyde, and that Kolb had killed him over 50 years earlier.
Both of those stories – the elderly woman claiming to be Bessie and the skeleton accusation – are almost certainly false. But they added much more intrigue to a story that was already a well-known mystery.
Other methods of dying in the Grand Canyon include:
- murder (39)
- getting crushed by falling rocks (natural or detonated)
- cliff-jumping into shallower-than-expected water
- BASE jumping
- eating poisonous plants
- getting crushed by a mule or horse
- seeing a rattlesnake (he did not get bit; he died from surprise)
Some of these can be chalked up to errors in judgment or just living on the edge for the adrenaline rush.
Others, like getting hit by a falling boulder, were so freaky that the only explanation seems to be “it was just his or her time to go.”
Has anyone died on a mule ride? Answer: one, and it wasn’t from falling off. An accident caused the mule to fall on a rider, crushing him. A similar situation happened with a horse.
But the biggest category in this section is murder. Like elsewhere, murders in the Grand Canyon include gunshots and beatings.
One particular case was very disturbing.
In 1993, Richard Spangler shoved his wife off the ledge of the canyon. No one saw him, and he reported it as an accidental fall.
Years earlier, in 1978, he murdered his first wife and two of his children. He escaped prosecution for that as well because he claimed it was a murder-suicide and they couldn’t prove otherwise.
But thankfully, some investigators continued to work both cases, convinced Spangler was a serial killer. in 1999, while he had terminal cancer, they got him to admit to the murders. He was sentenced to life in prison. He died of cancer two years later.
I started writing this article thinking it would be a quick answer to a question that many people have.
I didn’t expect it to affect me. But reading stories of people who made poor choices or who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time was bound to, I guess.
Here are a few things I learned:
The Grand Canyon is dangerous
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting it is so dangerous you shouldn’t visit it. It receives 6 million visitors per year and only 11 die. So no reason to be alarmed.
But it is more dangerous than most, or maybe all, other national parks. It has some unique features that a lot of other parks don’t have:
- Huge elevation changes. This creates its own weather patterns, which leads to so many aerial crashes.
- It is an “inverted mountain.” Most mountains weed out people as they hike because they tire of climbing. But at the Grand Canyon, people start their hikes by going down, which makes it tempting to go too far. Not all are prepared for the intense climb combined with the intense heat.
- It has cliffs. A lot of them. Some people actually wonder why the park doesn’t put railings on all the cliffs. The answer? Besides being against the park’s philosophy of keeping the park as natural as possible, there are over 2,000 miles of ledge on both rims. It’s impractical. Yosemite is another park with a lot of cliffs, and it should come as no surprise that it also has many deaths per year.
Most deaths are avoidable
The majority of the deaths in the canyon are due to people making bad choices. Usually, they make a seemingly small choice (like not filling up on water when passing a tap) that results in big consequences (like getting lost and not having enough water to survive).
There’s a lesson here about preparation. Don’t overestimate your ability and don’t underestimate nature.
Even with the best preparation, you never know when your number will be called. Lighting might strike; boulders might fall.
Reading these stories made me more committed to enjoying life. We only live once.
So do what you want to do in life. Go for what you want. Don’t live with a bunch of regrets.
You don’t want your “some days” to turn into “nevers” because you stepped on the wrong rock at the wrong time.
Want to learn more?
Check out the book Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon, by Michael P. Ghiglieri and Thomas M. Myers.
Thinking about visiting the Grand Canyon?
If you’re going to live life by visiting the Grand Canyon, make sure to check out our guide! We give a step-by-step game plan for getting the most out of your visit to the park. We also provide you with a multi-hour audio guide to tell you all about the stories behind the features.