Home to scorching hot temperatures, spectacularly dry terrain, and the lowest point in North America, California’s Death Valley National Park is a bucket-list destination for many keen outdoor adventurers.
However, the high temperatures of the dog days of summer have already led to three deaths in the park in the last few weeks.
Sometime between July 25 and July 28, park rangers and California Highway Patrol officers found a man who had died while trying to complete a 12 mile trip across some of the harshest terrain in Death Valley. It’s believed that the hiker began his trek on July 25 when the park was experiencing temperatures of up to 118ºF (48ºC) and a relative humidity of around 90%.
More recently, on August 18, Lawrence Standback, 60, from San Francisco, died while hiking along the Golden Canyon Trail. Park rangers were alerted to a potential case of heat stroke and were dispatched to the location that afternoon. However, rescue efforts were unsuccessful and California Highway Patrol assisted with the body recovery.
The most recent death, that of Black Chaplin, 52, of Leawood Kansas, occurred on August 21. Chaplin was found on the Golden Canyon Trail—the same trail where Standback was found. The temperatures that day were approximately 109ºF (43ºC).
While the temperatures of August 21 were lower than the historic daily average of 115ºF (46ºC), they were still dangerous for hikers at mid-day. Chaplin’s cause of death has not been officially confirmed, though Inyo county authorities have stated that they don’t suspect foul play.
Extreme Heat Warrants Extreme Caution
Death Valley is well-known for being one of the hottest places in the world, so it should come as no surprise that heat-related illnesses are common in the park.
That being said, research from Outforia.com has found that 41 people died within Death Valley from the period between 2010 and 2020, an average of about 4 people each year. As such, 3 deaths in a 3 week period is unusual, despite the park’s extreme heat levels in recent months.
It is worth noting, however, that the three recent deaths in the park took place when the air temperature was well above 100ºF (38ºC) and many occurred during periods of high relative humidity. The park service frequently puts out warnings about the dangers of hiking in high heat, though summertime is historically one of the most popular times for outdoor adventure.
If you are planning a trip to Death Valley or any other hot climate, be sure to heed local heat warnings and avoid hiking in the middle of the day. Bring more water than you think for your travels and plan to start either very early in the morning or late in the evening to avoid the midday heat.