Like moths to a flame, we fragile humans are subconsciously drawn to dangerous attractions. Naturally occurring deathtraps are terrific at reminding us of our own, impermanent existence. And the geothermal springs at Yellowstone National Park—those boiling, bubbling memento mori—are no exception.
A few months ago, I wanted to know how many Yellowstone visitors recently fell, slipped, tripped, or intentionally waded into the park's many hot springs. As it turns out, the number is surprisingly low, but not insignificant enough to ignore. Curiously, almost everyone who was injured left with poached feet.
I submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for all of Yellowstone's hot spring-related accident reports between 2013 and now. Since the park didn't use an electronic record-keeping database until four years ago, I chose to limit the scope of my request to make things simpler.
Ten incidents were logged over that time period. Though it's possible more injuries occurred and weren't reported by visitors for whatever reason. (If my FOIA request was for accident reports over the park's entire history, there'd be many, many more than ten.)
"All accidents/injuries involving thermal features reported to the NPS since [the database] went online have been entered into the system to the best of our ability," a Yellowstone FOIA officer told me in an email.
One of these resulted in the death of 23-year-old Colin Scott when he fell into Norris Geyser Basin in 2016, one of the Yellowstone's hottest thermal features, which reaches temperatures up to 459 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the incident report, no visible remains were found, except for flip-flops and a shirt that may have belonged to Scott. Investigators suspect the acidic water dissolved his body overnight.
The nine other accidents involved injuries ranging from splash burns to "sloughing skin." There's a clinic near Old Faithful geyser where some patients were treated.
(Be warned, the following documents include semi-graphic photos of feet.)
Now, a few people were just straight up goofin' and being dumb. Don't do this! Yellowstone makes it abundantly clear how not to shabu-shabu your extremities.
One father and son, according to the emergency responder who helped them, were "[illegally] 'horsing around' approximately five to ten yards into the thermal area" when "he and his son's feet both went into the thermal pool for a few seconds." The pair were loaded into an ambulance and sent to Old Faithful clinic. In addition to their wounds, they received $290 in fines and a six-month ban from Yellowstone.
"Yellowstone is filled with natural wonders that are also potential hazards," a Yellowstone spokesperson told me. "Special rules apply here, and those rules exist in order to protect visitors as well as the park."
Some visitors, however, claim to have been following the rules when they got hurt. Several of the incident reports contain testimonies from people who said they were on seemingly-solid ground when they sank into an underlying water pocket.
"[Name redacted] stepped off the path on a grassy area that he prodded with a stick and seemed sound," one report said. When he "stepped off the grass his foot broke through into thermal hot water, burning his ankle and weeping into his boot."
"Interviewed patient with serious language barrier," another report noted. "The story does not totally fit, but she seemed very honest. She basically says she was walking in the Firehole Canyon Swim Area, through a muddy area. Her foot pushed through the mud, then was hit with hot water, and got burned."
In 127 years, since Yellowstone was first established, there have been 22 deaths related to thermal attractions. The 3,471 square-mile park was once described as "raw nature" by historian Lee Whittlesey in his book, Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park.
Indeed, something about Yellowstone' wild splendor makes us crazy stupid. Last year, a bison calf had to be euthanized after visitors loaded it into their SUV, and drove it to a ranger station because they thought it was cold. Another tourist was recently fined $1,000 for damaging a hot spring feature while trying to collect "medicinal" water.
In 1970, the father of a young boy who died after falling into a hot spring filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the National Park Service. The case was settled out of court, but many have since asked Yellowstone how it will stymie dangerous behavior.
After Scott's death last year, the park didn't change any of its laws regarding hot springs, but it did add "a new way of telling people about them," a Yellowstone spokesperson said. It's called the "Yellowstone Pledge," and is basically a promise to follow the rules.'" The park also provides multilingual brochures about safety guidelines.
Sadly, I suspect Yellowstone will continue to suffer the consequences of human idiocy. But let this story be a warning—if you do something dumb and it generates a report, people like me will find it and write about it. And that's just embarrassing.