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Backpacker Magazine – October 2008

America's 10 Most Dangerous Hikes - Abrams Falls, Great Smoky Mtns., TN

Drowning in beauty

by: Kelly Bastone

The Hike Great Smoky Mountains National Park receives more rainfall than any other spot in the Lower 48 except for the Pacific Northwest–from 55 inches in the valleys to more than 85 on some peaks–and plenty of that abundant precip gets funneled into the park's streams and swimming holes. So it's no surprise that drowning leads the list of park fatalities, with 29 lives lost in watery accidents since 1971. "All sorts of unknown hazards lie at the bottom of our streams and waterfalls," warns Bob Miller, park spokesman. Abrams Falls, reached by a deceptively easy 2.5-mile hike, poses the greatest threat: Strong currents beneath the falls have swept capable swimmers into unseen traps, and slick rocks have tripped hikers into the chilly depths.

Exhibit A In 1993, 19-year-old William Diefenbach drowned after getting carried downstream trying to ford raging Newt Prong. Had he waited only six to eight hours, the stream's storm-swollen waters likely would've subsided to their typical trickle. Powerful rains here often result in sudden floods; water levels rise quickly in the steep mountain creeks. Most backcountry casualties, however, are caused by the unpredictable currents of the park's swimming holes: In July 2006, a strong swimmer was last spotted plunging underwater toward the base of Abrams Falls. His body never resurfaced.

Survival Plan Splash in a swimming hole's calm water rather than directly beneath its waterfalls. Watch your footing when hiking near streams and cascades, where mist-moistened rocks often grow algae that makes them especially slick. Don't be in a rush to cross flooded streams: Patience could save your life.

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Reader Rating: -


Star Star Star Star Star
Jan 28, 2014

Nice! It's easy to forget about being extra careful in awe of such beauty! Read my blog on Abrams Falls

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Jim Salkas
May 25, 2012

Fall Creek Falls State Park Southwest of GSMNP has numerous falls which are great to swim under (near) on a hot Summer day. However, last time I was there, an emergency room doctor told us 3 teenagers had broken their necks diving into the pools. He asked that we warn them of the danger, and at least attempt to get them to go "feet first." Worse that could happen then is a broken leg. At one pool, a mother was encouraging her son to jump in from a high perch. I explained to him that in order to hit deep water, he would have to jump past the hidden ledge just below the surface, a jump of about 10 feet. Fortunately, he decided against it. None of these trails were dangerous, just the looney tunes hiking them.

May 24, 2012

While any trail in any park can be dangerous due to bad planning, bad decisions, bad luck, or just plain stupidity in action. Abrams Creek is not one of the most dangerous trails in the US by a VERY LARGE margin. This is clearly someone who is just compiling data to fill an article. This is one of the top ten traveled trails in GSMNP so it is due to see more injury over all.
As one who has hiked every trail in GSMNP at least once (900 miler) and some more than 25 times I can say many other trails are much more challenging and dangerous. Cold Spring Gap, and others in GSMNP come to mind due to the poor trail conditions and their remoteness. Those who say "a bear followed us down the trail" oh my! your practically in a petting zoo around the Cades Cove area (don't try) these animals are generally not going to bother you. I've seen almost 80 bear in the park at this point and I mostly solo hike and have NEVER had a bad bear encounter, not saying they don't happen, just not often. Rattle snakes (at least the ones you don't see) are much more of a danger if they feel threatened. Iíve seen many in the park, and even several above 5,500 feet.
BACKPACKER has lost much credibility with me for printing such hype. If you want to be taken seriously, do serious research to back up such an ignorant claim. GSMNP is very close to home for me. How do you think your readers would react traveling a long distance to hike this trail?

Aug 16, 2011

One of my fondest memories is of swimming about 27 years ago in the wide, breathtakingly cold pool below Abrams Falls on a hot summer day, but I knew better than to get too close to the falls, let alone to jump off of the obviously very slippery, moss-covered rocks adjoining the falls. Some people just have no common sense!

Aug 16, 2011

Daniel Kennedy
Aug 15, 2011

I've done it. Aint shit

Aug 11, 2011

I used Abrams falls trail to access the stream for fly fishing about 3 weeks ago. We fished all day and went to the falls as the last people were leaving. We still got there in time to see teenagers climbing the moss covered rocks at the side of the falls and then jumping into the pool. One of the kids didn't resurface for nearly 30 seconds and finally popped up gasping for air. I don't think they realize the washing machine affect at the base of the fall. It was a nice calm day and the kid almost drowned in 80 degree water. Also his buddy could've. Easily slipped on the mossy rocks and cracked his head on the talus below. Stupid people!

Jan 23, 2011

I have hiked from Cades Cove to Abrams falls a few times. Never had and problems of any kind. I have rested my feet in the water and had lunch. There have been many people swimming or skinny dipping and none of them were taking risks. People that get injured there would get injured in a mall.

Dec 30, 2010

I walk that trail on the way to the falls for fly fishing, and the most dangerous thing I have seen is a hungry bear!

Dec 24, 2010

I missed this when it first came out, so I haven't been scared to continue to use the Abrams Falls trail. I have been hiking this as a "warm up" trail each year when I visit the Smokies. Yes, swimming can be dangerous when currents are fast, and any water falls can have hidden currents. People who swim into the falls (and under them) or jump in from the top of the falls are obviously at greater risk. Some don't even investigate what they are about to do first, but simply jump in! But at the same time, on a hot summer day, you often see dozens of the trail users carrying towels, so their intentions are clear, and obviously there must be a very high ratio of people who swim without death to those who do.

What I found to be unexpected was the almost casual attitude towards skinny dipping and nudity around the pool at the base of the falls. For some reason, some people don't understand that not everyone wants to see their bare bodies. Just because they have hiked 2.5 miles does not mean that they are alone, or that others who make the hike will find the skinny dippers to be not offensive. This is one of the GSMNP's most popular trails, and is heavily used by all types of people, from small children to nuns. Some of these other visitors might not appreciate those choosing to enjoy the outdoors in the buff.

Oct 20, 2010

If you fall in near the falls you will be in trouble. Many lives have been lost here... Just one last year. Many of you may argue its family friendly but I remember the park spending all night last year fishing a body out last year.

Robert Jones
Oct 08, 2010

I'm from the area, and the hike, as someone observed, is a walk in the park compared to anything in the Rockies or Sierra Nevada where I spend my time now. I think the criteria for Backpacker's rating is based on deaths and accidents associated with a trail. The author obviously has never been there. The high death rate is due to the fact that the falls are easily accessible by thousands of people and there are a lot of bone-heads who will dive into any body of water more than two feet deep. Frankly, I hope this article scares people away. The trail is a mess due to overuse and insensitivity. I hiked it on Christmas about three years ago and the area around the falls has been terribly abused by people scrambling like monkeys up the hillsides. Trash is everywhere. If I ran the Great Smoky Mountains NP I'd close the trail for a few years and give the place a rest.

Mar 12, 2010

I'd been to Abrams Falls as a teenager, swimming in the large pool of water in front of the falls. We checked the drop off around the rocks for depth and began problems. I went again and again over the next few years with family or friends, diving and swimming no problem. Finally in 2009 I confidently went to dive off near the falls having done it dozens of times no problem, and....WHAM!!! First jump, my head ricocheted off a big rock hitting dead center of my forehead. My forehead EXPLODED with BLOOD gushing into my eyes and mouth. Thank God I didn't get knocked out and drown, just 13 stitches over at ER in Marryville, TN.

Don't ever be too cautious...even if you've got experience.

Feb 02, 2010

The last time I hiked the trail a bear kept comming down the trail after us.

Jan 15, 2010

there are more than one way to get to abram falls and it is a bit scary if you take the one off of abrams falls road as known in bristol there has been many die and get hurt from just falling off the trial its only about 2 feet wide and about 25 to 30 feet down off the side

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