Death In Yellowstone

In the wilderness you are never very far away from the edge, and if you take it for granted, it will come up and bite you!

Yellowstone National Park is untamed and unfenced. It is not Disneyland with moats and guardrails separating the wild from the domesticated.

You can die a thousand different ways in the Park, and over 300 (not counting car wrecks) have succumbed to accidents and foolhardiness since 1870.



The unsuspecting have been clawed & eaten by bears, and the careless have been gored by bison

warning sign Unsupervised kids have tumbled into thermal hot springs and been reduced to a bleached white skeleton in seconds

Yellowstone Falls Backing up without looking to take another picture and you can slip and fall hundreds of feet from a rocky ledge

Sampling one of the 6 types of poisonous mushrooms or 2 types of water hemlock can be deadly

Ski near the base of a steep slope and an avalanche could bury you until Spring

Venture out in a thunderstorm and you can get struck by lightning or crushed by falling trees

People have been trapped in forest fires and caught up in earthquakes

Meet up with the wrong guy and you can get murdered in the Park as readily as anywhere else

[I didn’t make any of this up, folks; it’s the gospel truth.]

And you can drown. More than 100 people have heard Shakespeare’s “dreadful noise of waters” in their ears while they sank down into murky depths or been tossed and carried for miles by raging rivers.

Yellowstone Lake

Most drownings, about 40, have occurred in Yellowstone Lake.  At a maximum depth of 410 feet and an average year-round temperature of 45 degrees Fahrenheit, it is perhaps the most potentially deadly body of water in the United States.

Frequent afternoon windstorms produce waves of five to six feet, which can easily capsize a small boat. It is said to be a Catch-22 situation whether to swim for shore or cling to your overturned vessel.

Did I mention that it was 20 miles across, north to south, and 14 miles east to west?

Either way, hypothermia is gonna get you in 20 minutes.

😦 😦 😦

Lord, Lord! methought, what pain it was to drown;

What dreadful noise of waters in mine ears!

What ugly sights of death within mine eyes!

Shakespeare, King Richard III

PS – the “warning” in the header image above was actually posted for years at Bridge Bay, at the entrance to Yellowstone Lake.  I am unable to confirm but I think it has since been modified (slightly) to eliminate the last three words, “to 20 minutes.”

boat caution sign

22 Replies to “Death In Yellowstone”

  1. oops … 2 thoughts … 1) Regarding Disney, I’ve always wondered who was “the wild” and who “was the domesticated.” 2) I think you might want to find a traveling companion … A great observation and neat twist on “life in Yellowstone, but at the same time, this is bleak, babe … bleak.


    1. No problem, Richard – as long as I don’t peer over ledges or swim in cold water or hang out with shifty characters. 🙂


  2. Nothing like being tempered by nature’s riskier elements …. perhaps adds to the adrenalin-enriched type experience? Love the head on angle of the bison, gives an impression of huge bulk, unstoppable looks. Very much enjoyed this post .. nature rules 🙂


    1. Thanks, Liz. Although, like Richard says above, this post may be a bit morbid. But I just finished reading a book about deaths in Yellowstone and couldn’t help myself. 🙂


      1. The post isn’t morbid at all. It is simply realistic. And an often necessary reminder of who is boss after all, and it ain’t us!


        1. ‘Morbid’ might be a bit strong but I used it to appease Richard. (That’s Dick Huss, Martha – remember him, founding freshman?) He’s a writer now and I try to keep on his good side. 🙂


          1. Yep, been in touch with Richard, actually. Always was very fond of him and now having the happy experience of getting to know him now once again! Love his magazine PULSE so much that Ronnie and I are headed to Mount Dora next week to look at homes! After all, 144 feet above sea level with a Cajun restaurant and lotsa artists and writers? Sounds good to us!


  3. I don’t think it’s morbid so much as thoughtful. The times I’ve been in stark wilderness this moment you describe comes, and it needs to come on you, and to be tucked inside for some level of cautionary survival. A sudden realization in the midst of the dazzle: ‘I could die here’. And of the millions who go to experience such bold adventures as yours, most carry on to the next one.
    Good sobering food for thought, John.
    And present in all you wrote stands tall the thrill of being on edge which is excellent in any life.


    1. Given the millions of visitors here every year, bad things only happen to a small percentage. I actually feel much safer here than, say, where you lived in Brooklyn as a vulnerable female in an artist’s studio in the 60s, up above the office of – who were they, militant Black Panthers? We size up our dangers and our opportunities and our needs, and learn to survive.

      Plus, I don’t do solo backcountry hikes. 🙂


  4. The grandeur of Yellowstone we hear about often. The realities of that grandeur and its potentials are inspiring to me, that anyone would ever even dare to go there, to become intimate with that environment. Balance between risk and caution–how better to learn how to be human?


    1. What a nice statement, the “balance between risk and caution”! I think my life has always veered between those two extremes. Times when I made impulsive choices and burned bridges, times when I stayed low profile. Thanks, Martha…


  5. Then again I have irreverent thoughts of cleaning out the gene pool… 😉 Same thoughts that come to me watching fools walking near the edge of steep cliffs here peering into their smart-phones. Disney World indeed!


    1. Years ago there was a web site which chronicled the aptly-named so-called “darwin deaths.” But the term was repulsive to some and quickly made the politically incorrect list. I myself no longer even try to warn tourists of their stupid dangerous behavior, I just quickly make sure my camera settings are sufficient to capture their demise. 🙂


  6. My daughter was a park ranger in Yellowstone for several seasons and has MANY stupid tourist stories to tell. Like you, I ignore as much as I can when I’m there because it’s so aggravating to do otherwise. I get off the main roads and into the back country as fast as I can and enjoy what Yellowstone is really all about, far far away from the hordes of people. Great post.


    1. Funny, we ‘civilized’ people live in social groups but can’t wait to get back into the wild every now and then. Thanks, Angela.


  7. Wild!! Especially love the Bison/bird photo, fantastic! But then again, the river/gorge shot is equally stunning!


      1. Prize? What do I get a free close up visit to wolf cubs right at their den with mama wolf while you’re a hundred yards away with your 400mm (or do you have a 600mm)
        I’m not falling for that!! You just “wanna See Blood and Gore and Guts and Veins in My Teeth!” and get it all on camera!!


        1. So you’re going to ruin my party, eh? And I was going to give you half credit for any Pulitzer I might win!

          Interesting side note: Doug Smith, the head biologist who first reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone back in ’95, tells in his book of going to their den and actually reaching in and grabbing wolf pups while the parents howled and made a fuss 50 yards away but wouldn’t approach the humans. (They had to relocate the den because they were outside the Park and could have been shot by hunters.) So, you probably would be safe enough.

          Particularly if you take some food and try to feed the wolves by hand 🙂


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