Yellowstone Park Wildlife Guide

Geothermal Attractions Can Be Dangerous

yellowstone-warning-geothermic

Wild Animals are not the Only Dangerous Threat in Yellowstone

Yellowstone National Park remains a wild and sometimes fearsome landscape.

That’s why three million people travel to the park every year to view untrammeled vistas, glimpse untamed bears and bison, and get close to hot gushing geysers and simmering thermal springs. But for unwary visitors, the extraordinary natural features that keep Yellowstone such an alluring place can also make it perilous.

Since Yellowstone was established, grizzlies have mauled several people to death and three visitors have been killed by bison. While backcountry hikers may be well aware that grizzlies and bison can be dangerous threats, Yellowstone visitors can get into serious trouble while wandering near the park’s heavily visited geyser basins and other geothermal features.

Deaths and Injuries From Geysers and Geothermal Water

In June 2006, a six-year-old Utah boy suffered serious burns after heĀ slipped on a wet boardwalk in the Old Faithful area. The boy fell into hot water that had erupted from nearby West Triplet Geyser. He survived, but 20 park visitors have died, the most recent in 2000, scalded by boiling Yellowstone waters as hot as 250 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Geothermal attractions are one of the most dangerous natural features in Yellowstone, but I don’t sense that awareness in either visitors or employees,” says Hank Heasler, the park’s principle geologist. The National Park Service publishes warnings, posts signs, and maintains boardwalks where people can walk to get close to popular geyser fields. Yet every year, rangers rescue one or two visitors, frequently small children, who fall from boardwalks or wander off designated paths and punch their feet through thin earthen crust into boiling water.

Yellowstone protects 10,000 or so geysers, mudpots, steamvents, and hot springs. People who got too close have been suffering burns since the first explorations of the region. During the 1870 Washburn Expedition exploring the region, Truman Everts was separated from the main party for 37 days and burned his hip seeking warmth from hot springs at Heart Lake. The first fatality, most likely, was a seven-year-old Livingston, Montana, boy whose family reported he died after falling into a hot spring in 1890.

Writing his 1995 book Death in Yellowstone, park historical archivist Lee H. Whittlesey sifted through National Park Service records to identify 19 human fatalities from falling into thermal features. The victims include seven young children who slipped away from parents, teenagers who fell through thin surface crust, fishermen who inadvertently stepped into hot springs near Yellowstone Lake, and park concession employees who illegally took “hot pot” swims in thermal pools.

Following his parents along a boardwalk in the Old Faithful area in 1970, nine-year-old Andy Hecht from Williamsville, New York, tripped or slipped into the scalding waters of Crested Pool. He swam a couple of strokes, then sank in front of his horrified family. In 1981, David Allen Kirwin, a 24-year-old Californian, died from three-degree burns over his entire body. He dove head-first into Celestine Pool‘s 202 degree water, attempting to rescue a friend’s dog.

The most recent thermal fatality occurred in 2000. One moonless August night, 20-year-old Sara Hulphers, a park concession employee from Oroville, Washington, went swimming with friends in the Firehole River. Accompanied by two co-workers for Old Faithful businesses, Hulphers returned by hiking through Lower Geyser Basin. They carried no flashlights, and the three thought they were jumping a small stream when they fell into Cavern Spring’s ten-foot-deep boiling waters. Hulphers went completely underwater and died several hours later from third-degree burns that covered her entire body. Her companions survived, but the two men spent months in a Salt Lake City hospital recovering from severe burns over most of their bodies.

Other Dangers: Drowning, Falling, Crashes

Of course, any national park can be hazardous, especially for visitors who don’t pay enough respectful attention to the risks that come with entering any wilderness. As in other parks, some Yellowstone visitors die just about any year from drowning, falling off cliffs, and crashing vehicles.

In 2005, there were six accidental deaths in Yellowstone: two visitors drowned, two died in traffic accidents, and an Arizona father and his son fell from the high Gardner River bridge on the road between Mammoth Hot Springs and Tower Junction. Two more visitors were killed in the first six months of 2006. One died in a snowmobile accident and another lost her balance taking a photograph and fell into the Yellowstone Canyon.

Injury Incidents are Probably Higher Than Reported

Yellowstone is known throughout the world for its geysers and other geothermal features. Entrance station rangers hand out park newspapers that print warnings about the danger, but National Park Service safety managers say some visitors can’t resist testing how hot the water is by sticking in fingers or toes. “Most people who get thermal burns feel a little sheepish about it,” Heasler says, and may not report the injuries to park rangers.

More serious third-degree burns are suffered by visitors who leave boardwalks and marked trails. They break through the thin surface crust up to their knees and their boots fill with scalding water. Some thermal waters are tepid, but most water temperatures are well above safe levels. People can sit comfortably in hot tub waters heated to between 102 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, “but above about 120 degrees, you have an increasing chance of getting burned if you go in,” says Steve Sarles, the Yellowstone ranger division’s emergency medical services director. Most hand and foot burns can be treated at local hospitals, but Sarles says one or two people a year suffer more extensive third-degree burns over their bodies after falling into thermal waters with temperatures of 180 degrees or higher.

Over the last decade, 16 park visitors have been burned extensively and deeply enough by geysers or hot springs that they’ve been immediately flown to Salt Lake City for treatment at the University of Utah Hospital regional burn center. On average, they spent 20 days at the center being treated for their burns, and many go through skin grafts to replace damaged tissue. The most severely injured stayed 100 or so days, and some survivors are left with permanent disfiguring scars, says Brad Wiggins, the burn center’s clinical nursing coordinator.

Some victims have faulted the Park Service for not erecting barriers and cautioning visitors more sternly about how dangerous thermal areas can be.

Thirty-five years ago, the parents of Andy Hecht, the nine-year-old who died in Crested Pool, mounted a nationwide campaign to improve national park safety. They eventually settled a wrongful death lawsuit against the Park Service. A Wyoming judge threw out a lawsuit by Lance Buchi, one of Sara Hulpher’s friends, who was severely burned six years ago. Buchi contended that park officials failed to give adequate warning about thermal feature dangers.

“We try to educate people starting when they come through the gate,” Brandon Gauthier, the park’s chief safety officer says. Park managers have installed guard rails near some features, but they walk a fine line between giving visitors a chance to get close to popular attractions and ruining the natural landscapes that national parks were created to preserve. Rangers stress that it’s important for parents to keep a close eye on curious and rambunctious children when they visit thermal areas.

“There are a lot more people around geothermal areas than in the backcountry,” Gauthier says, and the unwary can get hurt badly if they stray off established paths.

People Will Do What They Want to Do Regardless of Danger

“There are many risks in Yellowstone,” Gauthier adds. “It’s something you’ve got to respect and pay attention to.”

Sometimes, despite the park service’s warnings, “people will do what they want to do,” says Wiggins. When Wiggins took his own young children to the park’s geyser basins, “I held onto them very tightly, and we didn’t go off the trail. Yellowstone’s a beautiful place, but it’s also a very dangerous place.”

Especially to those who behave carelessly or recklessly. Anyone who pays attention to warnings and stays on the boardwalks, should be just fine.


Tom Arrandale is a freelance journalist covering state and local government environmental policies. He lives in Livingston, in Park County, Montana.

Comment Feed

22 Responses

  1. September 11, 2011…Having just returned this evening from Yellowstone, I will be haunted by the three children running around on the boardwalk in a dangerous area. The parents didn’t seem to understand the danger of this. In another incident, three small children were climbing on the rail right over a beautiful thermal pool..was it the abyss pool..well,this pool was directly under the three children. I was having a hard time understanding why the father of these three children didn’t understand how dangerous it was. Next time I go, I’m going to carry this article with me and hand it off to a parent in need.

  2. Last time I was at yellowstone, I watched a girl step out of her mother’s car to take a picture of a grizzly on the road. It was trotting towards her and she waited till it was within about twenty feet to get back into the car. I’m sure a grizzly running full bore can cover 20 feet (close to 7 yards!) In no time. Grizzlies and bison can run about 25 – 35 mph. Had it got a paw in the door before she closed it she would have been in a world of hurt and her mother would have had the priviledge to watch.

    A second incident was when my girlfriend and I rounded a corner of a board walk, we saw a bison less fifteen feet away. It was an unnerving suprise we couldn’t have seen before turning the corner on a board walk. The bull was warming himself by a hot spring. We calmy walked as fast as we could without running or causing a scene. The bull was snorting and acted like it was going to get up. He seemed like the crowd was bothering him. I saw a man and his three or 4 year old son walk like nothing was going on and they were within several feet. The man didn’t even take the childs hand. I know had it been me , I would have picked him up in case it was necessary to make a run for it.

    If you act like you have some common sense and respect for nature, you will be fine in yeellowstone

  3. I’m researching accidents at Yellowstone for a magazine article and recently read in Bill Bryson’s 2003 book, A Shory History of Nearly Everything, that all three Park workers died in the incident in 2000. All my other research points towards Sara Hulphers being the only fatality, with Tyler Montague and Lance Buchi both surviving the accident, although being very badly injured. Can anyone illuminate me further on this point?

    • I read an old archive on David Allen Kirwin, his story is true, his friend’s dog jumped in, started yelping and squealing, he ran after the dog, a few witnesses said they yelled for him to stop and that he cant go in there, to which he supposedly responded ‘like hell i can’t', or something to that effect, he jumped in, swam a bit to the dog, grabbed the dog, tried to swim back, let the dog go, went under the water for a few seconds, then was pulled back onto land by his friend and other by-standers, his friend suffered 2nd and 3rd degree burns helping david back onto land, and upon getting out of the water,david was blind, and stated ‘that was a really stupid thing to do’, and asked ‘how bad am I’? he died early the next morning, tragic story

  4. I was just there this past fall and was amazed by the amount of tourist either getting to with in feet of bison or leaving the boardwalks to get closer to the hot water. I tired not to film, as I really didn’t want to have a death on video. It really is crazy how we somehow get a false sense of safety these days in the good ole out doors.

  5. People easily forget that Yellowstone is not the zoo. I saw several people within 15 feet of several bison, they were very fortunate because one of them was getting aggrevated. He took a few steps towards the people and then backed off. I would hate to see something that large ticked off.

  6. I saw 3 German tourist taking pictures of a bison near the Yellowstone Lodge cabins and were very close to it. Suddenly the bison charged the tourists when they had their back to it. Someone yelled at them and they ran and fortunately the bison stopped short. Fortunately the bison seemed only to be giving a warning. Scary.

  7. Omqq i was qunna qo to a trip here but now im scared

    • LOL, if only a few stories like this scare you away, how do you make it day to day?

    • heed the park warnings on all things wild and enjoy the best place
      on earth

      • on my way there this weekend and look so forward, just ask for safety and protection against any wild animals and hope people will follow the rules. Makes it better for everyone!

  8. Yellowstone is worth a dozen visits but make sure you obey the signs, stay on the trails/boardwalks and don’t think the animals are tame. If you use common sense, there is no problem.

    AmoretteApril 11, 2012 @ 12:01 pmReply
  9. The first time I went to Yellowstone (1992) a man was knocked into next Sunday by a bison when he was taking an up close picture a couple of hundred feet from a road. Dead before he hit the ground. When I visited again in around 2006 a bison was wandering peacefully around old faithful area, right around stores and the hotel. I can see that some people seeing this tolerated would not take warnings too seriously. I was very suprised.

  10. We have just returned from Yellowstone. While we there, we saw an elk 6 pointer too. He was beautiful and a man was mabye 2 or 3 yards from him next to a tree. We. Drove by and my parents and evertlyone in the car was calling him stupid. It never really occured to me that he may not be educated on how friendly they can look and how dangerous they can truley be.

  11. After spending a week at Yellowstone and traveling to all the main areas we witnessed many occurrences of dangerous activity. We did our research before going and read all cautionary information including posted signs. We had four grandchildren with us and kept a close watch on them at all times. I was astonished to see people approach wildlife and walk off the boardwalks at the geyser basins. The adults who did this were just idiots. But a greater concern was parents. Many of them let their small children run ahead or trail far behind while walking the boardwalk through the geyser fields almost like they were taking a path through an amusement park, oblivious to the danger. One little toddler’s family upset me so much that I actually said something to the mother but she didn’t seem concerned at all. Her 2 year old was 40+ feet behind the rest of the party on the boardwalk. Anything could have happened to that child. I don’t know what the answer is. I would hate to see the natural beauty spoiled by enclosures and barricades. While driving through Mammoth Hot Springs we were horrified to watch a 3-4 year old little boy almost get backed over by pick-up truck leaving a parking spot. The child had chased a little ball across the roadway and stopped to pick it up right behind the pick up. The driver of the pick up never saw the child, just missed him and drove away. The child returned to a motorhome parked on the opposite side of the road and went through an open side door. As I drove closer slowly, out the door the ball bounced again with the little boy right after it but this time directly in front of me. I stopped just in time. I looked over at the motorhome and the man in the driver’s seat was sitting there on his cellphone totally unaware of both near misses. I just retired after 27 years in EMS as a Paramedic. It has been heartbreaking to see the tragedy of what carelessness can bring in my career. I will never understand what these people are thinking.

    Medic 21July 19, 2012 @ 12:33 pmReply
  12. July 2012 – We just returned from our first trip to beautiful Yellowstone and loved our visit. You will enjoy your visit, too, by obeying the rules and using common sense. Please watch out for the other person and for children on the boardwalks when you are viewing the geysers. Amazingly, parents do not always hold their children’s hands and kids and people bump into you when they are taking pictures and not looking where they are going. And there are very many people from other countries visiting who do not speak English and realize the danger. Our biggest surprise was driving along a main road when the traffic came to a stop for a huge male Elk grazing directly on the side of the road. I could not believe a woman was out of her vehicle taking pictures less than 3 feet away, but what was most disturbing was seeing her two young girls walking in front of her!! I was so scared for the children and told the girls they were too close when I rolled my window down. I know it’s not my business, but who wants to witness a trajedy when you’re on your dream vacation. We left the area as soon as we could. Be mindful on the geyser boardwalks and stay in your car around wildlife and you’ll have a wonderful visit !!

    Debbie McCravyJuly 22, 2012 @ 12:52 pmReply
  13. There is definitely a “Disney effect” going on in the brains of many visitors to our National Parks. At Arches and Zion, I’ve seen parents dragging 2-year-olds up some incredibly steep climbs and once at the top, just letting the kid run wild without a thought or fear that the child might take a tumble over the slickrock. Likewise, earlier this year at Yellowstone, I witnessed a father with his out-of-control young kids next to the Fountain Paint Pots with the kids running and chasing each other on the boardwalk a good 40 feet away from the dad. One actually tripped, skidded, and got a skinned knee out of it but fortunately didn’t fall off the boardwalk itself. It’s like the parents just assume “it’s a park” and think they’re in Disney World. I’m frankly surprised more children aren’t tragically injured.

    Of course, it’s not just toddlers and parents. At Yellowstone, I saw some pretty rough horseplay amongst a group of college-age kids right up next to several features including if I recall correctly Mud Volcano (at least there the railing might help, though it messes with the scenery quite a bit, too).

  14. We went in July and had a wonderful time! I am amazed at the beauty of the park. We all did our homework ahead of time and learned the proper way to do things to stay safe, etc. We realized that not everyone does that though. We had absolutely no problems telling people when they were doing something stupid. I think we said something to 4 different parties of people. Most of them were thankful and realized the danger after that so maybe it helped? I don’t know but we didn’t want to witness a horrible tragedy on our vacation. I don’t care if people think I am sticking my nose in. If I see something wrong, I just speak up.

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