Big Bend National Park mourns visitor fatality on Hot Springs Canyon Trail 

BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK — Last Monday, first responders rushed to the scene of a hiker who had collapsed on Hot Springs Canyon Trail. Rangers attempted to resuscitate the woman, but after an hour their efforts proved unsuccessful. 

The hiker was a 53-year-old woman from Michigan who was visiting the park with her family for the first time. “Big Bend National Park staff and partners are saddened by this loss,” Deputy Superintendent David Elkowitz wrote in a press release. “Our entire park family extends sincere condolences to the hiker’s family and friends.”

The Hot Springs Canyon Trail is a six-mile round-trip hike that begins at Daniels Ranch and ends at the Hot Springs Historic District, where visitors typically cap off their hike with a visit to the famous Langford Hot Springs. The trail is very exposed, and the park’s website warns visitors not to attempt the hike any time temperatures are over 90 degrees. Temperatures at nearby Rio Grande Village on the day of the fatality hovered around 87, just below the threshold. 

As the weather gets hotter, park staff are seeing higher incidences of heat-related illnesses and injuries. “A lot of visitors come here and expect it to be a national park with trees and shade and things like that. It’s not that at all, so it’s a challenging environment,” said Chief of Interpretation and Visitor Services Tom VandenBerg. “Being prepared is a very important part of having a successful experience here at the park.” 

Big Bend National Park is one of the National Park Service’s most remote parks, and its ability to respond to emergencies can be hindered by its sheer size. Big Bend does have its own ambulance, but park staff and guides are quick to remind people that the nearest hospital is in Alpine, 100 miles away. Neighbors are few and far between but happy to lend a hand when they can. “We support Terlingua EMS and vice versa,” VandenBerg said.

Throughout the pandemic, each hot season has coincided with record-smashing attendance in the park, bringing more and more first-time visitors from around the globe to Big Bend. “Our attendance has gone up, and we have experienced a fairly significant increase in search and rescues and emergency responses. I’d say the majority is related to heat,” VandenBerg said. 

Park staff has made it a priority in the past two years to spread awareness of just how dangerous Big Bend’s heat can be — a project known in the park world as PSAR, or “preventative search and rescue.” The park has been developing new permanent signs at trailheads particularly prone to heat, and has a fleet of temporary signs that roll out as temperatures rise at popular destinations in the park. 

The signs warn visitors not to visit in the heat of the afternoon, and advise that all hikers be prepared to carry and drink a gallon of water throughout the day. “It is the season where we’re starting to see an uptick in temperature, and it’s just a really good reminder that it’s not something to play around with. It’s no joke,” VandenBerg said.