Photo: Ronnie Chua/Shutterstock

The Lesson From Yellowstone's Latest Visitor Death: Don't Leave the Trail

Wyoming National Parks
by Matt Hershberger Jun 9, 2016

YELLOWSTONE IS HAVING A ROUGH YEAR when it comes to misbehaving visitors. There was the bison calf that had to be put down after tourists misguidedly tried to help it, there was the woman who got charged by an elk she got too close to, and, of course, there are the regular bison gorings when visitors get too close while trying to take a selfie.

Wednesday saw the most recent visitor incident, and this one, unfortunately, was fatal. A 23-year-old man visiting from Portland had wandered off of the marked boardwalks and trails with his sister, and fell into one of the thermal springs. The geothermal hot springs in Yellowstone are not like the spa-oriented ones in other parts of the world: they are literally boiling. The Norris Geyser Basin, where the man fell in, is the hottest basin in the park, as it sits on three fault lines right on top of the Yellowstone Caldera. Temperatures in the geothermal features can reach 459 degrees Fahrenheit.

Surprisingly, the number of deaths in the hot springs since Yellowstone’s opening as a park has been relatively low: 22 fatalities in 126 years. This is in part because the Park is very good at marking trails and making safe boardwalks which visitors can walk on. It’s when visitors leave the trails that people start to die.

And unfortunately, this is happening more and more frequently. Yellowstone is seeing a record amount of visitors (which is a good thing), so more visitors are leaving the trails and approaching wildlife. Yellowstone officials have expressed their frustration: “The rules in the park aren’t just arbitrary,” a spokeswoman for Yellowstone said. “They’re really here to protect people who are visiting the park and the things that they’re here to see.”

The geysers are so dangerous that the park has called off a recovery effort, saying that there is no part of the body that can safely be removed. Part of the problem is that there’s literally a volcano underneath the rocks in the area, and sometimes, the rocks beneath searchers’ feet is just a thin fragile layer above boiling water and earth.

If you plan on visiting Yellowstone (and you should, it’s a truly gorgeous place that’s like nowhere else on earth), please: follow the rules and guidelines. Stay on the trails. If you leave them, the best case scenario is that you damage part of one of our most precious ecosystems. The worst case scenario is that you die a really horrible death.

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