A Mystery Illness Is Targeting Tourists at the Grand Canyon

"We haven’t seen something like this kind of outbreak in about 10 years."

Hikers on a trail in the Grand Canyon

It’s not COVID-19, and it’s not monkeypox, either. So why are hundreds of tourists suddenly getting sick while visiting the Grand Canyon?

According to a new report from The Daily Beast, the park is currently in the throes of an outbreak of a “gastrointestinal illness that closely resembles norovirus,” which, for the uninitiated, is a disease that can cause vomiting, diarrhea, cramping, body aches and mild fever. It’s also highly contagious — you can get it by having direct contact with an infected person, consuming contaminated food or water or touching contaminated surfaces and then putting your unwashed hands in your mouth, per the CDC — and anyone can get it.

At the time of writing, 118 people were confirmed to have been sick between the months of May and June, with the park issuing a notice on May 20 to alert visitors. Though, while tests are currently being run, it is unclear whether or not the virus is truly noro. Compounding the difficulty to diagnose the illness, is the “limited time frame” in which stool samples can be tested for norovirus. Most Grand Canyon trips and excursions exceed said time frame.

In a statement to The Daily Beast, an official at the National Park Service Office of Public Health said that, for now, they’re calling it a “heightened GI-illness” and that an investigation will “consider all potential sources. It is unknown at this time what the source of the illness is.”

“We haven’t seen something like this kind of outbreak in about 10 years,” Jan Balsom, chief of communications, partnerships, and external affairs at the Office of the Superintendent at Grand Canyon National Park, said.

Of course, norovirus isn’t fatal and it rarely leads to serious illness. That said, I can’t imagine any place I’d rather come down with a noro-like virus less than the Grand Canyon, especially this time of year. Between the months of June and August, temperatures usually hover around  80+ degrees at the South Rim and a bit over 100 degrees at the bottom of the canyon, so the threat of dehydration is near-constant even in the absence of a gastrointestinal illness. Further, it’s a national park, meaning comfortable accommodations are generally few and far between. (The only time I’ve stayed in the park, I camped.)

In the interim, the park is advising visitors to chemically disinfect or boil their water, and to not drink from streams, pools or waterfalls. And maybe just keep your distance from other tourists, which — given the sheer size of the park — really shouldn’t be too difficult.


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