In one recent week alone, two brushes with death at Yellowstone National Park showed how using poor judgment, or just being plain unlucky, can get people injured or even killed when visiting our nation’s great outdoor treasures. 

A 16-year-old Taiwanese exchange student hiking near Old Faithful was posing for a photo near a bison (within 6 feet, to be exact — 69 feet closer than the minimum distance the National Park Service advises) when the beast lunged forward and gored her. She survived, albeit with serious injuries.

Later that week, a 71-year-old New York man was snapping a photo of a sign at the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and standing perilously close to the edge of the overlook, when he stepped backward, stumbled over a stone barrier and fell into the abyss. He was fortunate: After dropping 25 feet into the canyon, he landed against a narrow crevice instead of falling another 200 feet to the bottom. He was rescued with only minor injuries by rangers who had to haul him out of the canyon on a pulley.

Bison at Yellowstone Park

It’s rare that tourists visiting national parks get gored or fall into canyons. But misfortunes do happen — and most of them are preventable. “While many accidents in parks are the result of carelessness or lack of experience,” says retired National Park Ranger Jim Burnett, “some are due to dumb decisions.”

(Photo: Lorcel/Shutterstock) 

Author of the memoir “ Hey Ranger!, Burnett worked in eight different federal parks during his tenure with the National Park Service, including Glacier National Park and Grand Canyon National Park. What he and other rangers have seen ranges from the ridiculous to the downright terrifying. Here are a few glimpses into the dumbest things people do, and what rangers really and truly wish they wouldn’t.

Taking selfies with wild bears. In the age of smartphones and social media, photo snafus in National Parks are increasingly common. Last year during the annual salmon run near Lake Tahoe, rangers repeatedly had to warn visitors to stop taking selfies with bears. The issue has become such a problem that officials have threatened to close the area to tourists.

Rangers had even found people taking selfies with a bear cub whose mother was fishing just a few feet away, said Gay Eitel of the nearby Taylor Creek Visitor Center in an interview with Bancroft Media. “It could end very badly indeed,” she said. “We had one person say to us, ‘It’s OK, it’s a black bear, they don’t attack people.’ Needless to say, this isn’t true.”

Related: What to Do If You Encounter a Bear?

Skunk standing up

Hand-feeding skunks. Considering how famous skunks are for their foul-smelling spray, would anybody dare to go close enough to feed them? Apparently so. Meet the National Parks skunk aficionados. Burnett has seen (and smelled) the aftermath of a skunk attack on tourists firsthand. “The results can be very unpleasant if the animal becomes agitated,” he says with characteristic understatement. (Photo: Heiko Kiera/Shutterstock)

No matter how many warnings rangers have posted, the likelihood of being sprayed doesn’t stop some visitors from trying to befriend the skunks. Burnett attributes this to the fact that skunks can seem “irresistibly cute.”

Related: Getting Rid of Skunks and Skunk Smell

Attempting to bring home a rattlesnake. One summer day while putzing along the river below the Hoover Dam, an historic site overseen by the National Park Service, a pair of fisherman noticed a rattlesnake floating in the water. They apparently thought a dead rattlesnake would make a nice souvenir, so they scooped it out of the river with a paddle and dumped it into the boat. Then they went back to fishing.

What’s important to know is that the water in that river is cold. So cold, in fact, that when rattlesnakes swim in the water, they occasionally fall into a stupor. In other words, the rattlesnake wasn’t dead. It was sleeping.

rattle snake

Burnett became involved when a pair of visitors to the Lake Mead National Recreation Area alerted him that a boat occupied by a rattlesnake was drifting down the river. When the rattlesnake had woken up, the fisherman — who luckily were wearing life jackets — had been forced to jump overboard.

Park goers, remember the mantra: Take nothing but photos, and leave nothing but footprints.

(Photo: Ryan M. Bolton/Shutterstock) 

Poaching wild ginseng. Bruce Bytnar, a retired National Park Ranger for Blue Ridge Parkway who now blogs at A Park Ranger’s Life, encountered a number of ginseng poachers over the course of his career. Hunting and collecting ginseng is permitted and regulated in some places, but those places do not include National Parks, Bytnar explains. Unfortunately, demand for ginseng has driven people to poach the plants — ginseng sells for thousands of dollars a pound in markets overseas. The poaching has become so prevalent that rangers have begun marking ginseng plants with dye in order to track the ginseng after the plants have been stolen.

The conflict over ginseng turned violent recently at Green River Game Lands in North Carolina. A wildlife officer was investigating a “parked vehicle” when he discovered a pair of men who allegedly had been poaching ginseng. When the men resisted arrest and attempted to flee, the officer Tasered one of them. The men then turned the Taser on him, kicked him repeatedly and beat him with a motorcycle helmet, an attack that caused the officer to be hospitalized. The alleged poachers are now charged with attempted murder.

Related: Safer Winter Hiking

Ignoring severe weather warnings. It’s not uncommon for park visitors to pay little attention to weather reports, something that may result in an emergency rescue later (if they’re lucky). Burnett experience an alarming example of this while working at Buffalo National River.

“Late one afternoon I spoke with two young men who were planning an overnight river trip, warned them about a forecast for severe thunderstorms and flash flooding, and urged them to cancel their trip,” Burnett says. “They said they would spend the night in a nearby campground on high ground, but the next morning we discovered their vehicle, minus their canoe and gear, parked above a launch ramp.”

Although the river was raging from the storm the night before, Burnett and another ranger launched a boat and headed downstream, looking for the canoers. Burnett soon saw them — in the river. The canoers were perched on a tiny, rapidly shrinking gravel bar where they had spent the night. The river had risen while they had slept. Their canoe had been swept away during the night, along with all of their gear. The unhappy pair was “soaking wet, and dangerously cold.”

The canoers waved when they spotted Burnett. Although they had ignored his advice the day before, they were thrilled to see him now.

“It ended well,” Burnett says, “but it was a very close call.”

Matt Baker, who hails from Kentucky, writes about nature and travel for regional and national publications.