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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: -


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. I’ve 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

Old Fogey
Jan 09, 2010

This is ridiculous. A walk in Central Park is far more dangerous than the hike to Abrams Falls.

Phil Richie
Jan 01, 2010

Under "Also on" there is an option for how to fend off a bear attack. Only when you select that you get a video on how to put on crampons. Oops! Can you fix it? I'd really like to see the video about fending off a bear attack.

Tim B, Cincinnati, OH
Dec 31, 2009

Hey Guys, cut the writer a break. He's talking about the rainfall, over swollen streams, city people, and tourists, and a lack of respect for the outdoors that we find second nature to think about.

Happy Bottom Jim
Dec 31, 2009

I have hiked the trail many times, both from the Cades Cove side and the Happy Valley side. Dangerous, no, not to those who respect the land and the waters. Millions possibly have hiked to the falls over the years, most have come back with a memorable experiance. It is those we like to call "Darwin Award Winner's" that cause lists like this to exist. We don't swim with sharks, we don't pet buffalo or rattlesnakes, and we don't swim in cold, strong current streams. For those who do (and I have seen all of these), please stay out of the Smoky Mountains. I love hiking these great mountains with my freinds, and we don't need you out there. Like the family hiking one day late in the afternon, no food (oh, the small child had a bag of Doritos), no water, and no idea where they were going. We turned them around before the search party had to be formed. So, most dangerous, not the trail, just the people who think they can master Mother Nature, they also belive in the Easter Bunny.

Dec 31, 2009

Chimney Tops is awesome and icy/windy/cold. I really thought that would be the hike here. Add ice to a tempting overlook for exhausted hikers...

Ric Brooks
Dec 31, 2009

Abrams Falls is definitely not dangerous. It's even a nice place to swim in the summer but don't swim near the falls. Peregrines/Keyhole Ridge on one of the LeConte trails is far more dangerous and the park service has closed it off. You could put almost any trail as dangerous if you include people not using common sense.

Dec 31, 2009

Agree that it is a lovely trail, but swimming requires common sense and not bravado. The fact that it is so littered with water bottles and trash of civilization shows that it is hiked by a lot of tourists who think that the city sanitation department is going to clean up after them. Disposable water bottles should be outlawed.

Dec 31, 2009

Abrams falls? Really? Saying the trail is dangerous because some idiots chose to dive off the falls or swim at the base and drowned is like saying the stretch of AT from Newfound Gap to Charlies Bunion is dangerous because people do stupid stuff like jumping down to the furthest point and fall off the mountain. In truth every foot of the 900 or so miles at GSMNP is only dangerous when the people on the trails make poor choices. Otherwise I would say that hiking the Smokies is safer than walking - or driving - the streets in gatlinburg

Keeley - Greeneville, TN
Oct 30, 2009

I too agree that this trail is not dangerous at all unless you decide to swim is a flooded stream or jump off the falls. The trail itself is safe and family friendly. As for the comment above about the trash on the trail, it is very disturbing to see this. I feel that this would most likely be eliminated if there was a park fee as there are with many other National Parks. Not too many people who are ignorant enough to litter would pay to hike and see nature's beauty in my opinion.

Chris R.
Oct 06, 2009

I'm excited that I hiked one of "Amnerica's Most Dangerous Hikes." But this hike is really not dangerous at all. I guess if you try swimming under a 25 foot waterfall it becomes dangerous - but then your just being stupid.

I was there in August of 2005 and was deeply disturbed by all of the trash (95% water bottles) that was littered along the trail. At first I picked up about 3 or 4 plastic bottles to carry out and put in the trash but then soon realized that I was not going to make a dent in the 150-250 bottles we saw along the 2.5 mile trail. This must have been the accumulation of all the trash over the summer break. What is wrong with people? Humans have made this hike far more dangerous for the animals that live there, than the trail is dangerous for us.

Michael Hines
May 25, 2009

The body of the drowning victim in 2006 was recovered. A 14 year old male drowned below the falls in 2004. Recovery efforts are currently underway 5/25/2009 to recover another presumed drowning victim in the falls pool. The trail itself is very safe, easy and heavily used. Swimming under or climbing around the falls is very dangerous but many do.

Dec 12, 2008

There are two Abrams Falls in Tennessee. This one is by far the easier, safer one. The other is a a very dangerous hike along a deer trail that leads to a 80 foot falls. More people have died along this trail than the one being mentioned here. I believe the author has gotten his hikes mixed up.

David Prager
Nov 26, 2008

Eric: Not really; this trail departs from Cades Cove, which is about 5 miles and 3000+ feet down from the AT. I hiked to Abrams Falls last year, and it is a nice hike and waterfall despite the crowds; a description is included in my online hiking log. As many others have mentioned, the trail is not dangerous provided you don't swim in raging rivers (duh) or walk off the trail and over a cliff (double duh). Also, based on my reading and experience, bears aren't really a problem in the Smokies unless you store food improperly at a campsite.
Nov 21, 2008

Is this trail near the A.T.? I've been maintaining a file on it planning to thru-hike it some day; I thought bears was going to be the story of why G.S.Mntns. is dangerous.

Nov 18, 2008

I believe they only added this trail so us east coasters would have something on the list.

Doc D
Nov 18, 2008

I agree with all the previous postings: Abrams Falls trail is a family-friendly trail that poses little danger to anyone. I have hiked it perhaps as many as fifty times over the years, once with my then 5-year-old daughter. As for swimming in the falls pool - duh? Sure, that's dangerous. Hop-scotching along the rim of the Boulevard Trail or glissading down Porter Creek trail or tripping on Chimney Tops or -- you get the point -- is equally dangerous.

Park Ranger
Nov 16, 2008

I have grown up hiking in the Smokies and did Abrams falls as a small child. It is most certainly absurd for it to be on the dangerous list. Chimney Tops is more dangerous than Abrams Falls.

Brian Ribeiro, GSMNP-lover
Nov 16, 2008

Oops, that last response should be to phil G, not Bert (no coffee yet, my bad).

Brian Ribeiro, GSMNP-lover
Nov 16, 2008

Actually, Bert, the author definitely doesn't say "he never re-surfaced on his own". What the author says is that "His body never surfaced" (which reads quite differently from "*He* never surfaced"). To speak of "his body" already suggests his death and recovery efforts. I recognize this may only be sloppy writing on the author's part, but, if not--if a body went down and disappeared at one of the most visited GSMNP landmarks--then I want to hear THAT story, right?

Thad Rathe - Boulder, CO
Nov 15, 2008

I hiked this trail with my son who was six at the time a few years ago. I have to agree with Bert. To say this trail is one of the most dangerous in GSMNP is silly. Streams ANYWHERE can be dangerous if one is not careful and there is nothing along this trail that forces you into or even that close to the water. There are more dangerous hikes than this in the Flatirons.

Bert in Maryville, TN
Nov 14, 2008

We refer to this trail as the best “geriatric hike in the park”. The only thing it doesn’t have is asphalt. The trail happens to pass by the falls but there is no stream crossing required. The falls have nothing to do with the hike Yes; anyone would be well advised to stay out of any swollen stream and there are warning signs at almost every waterfall in the park to stay off the rocks. There is nothing to distinguish this TRAIL as dangerous.

For the past 59 years I have lived less than 30 minutes away from the Abrams Falls trailhead. I have been hiking and backpacking in the park since I was a Boy Scout and cover a couple hundred miles of the park’s trails every year. To call the Abrams Falls trail one of the most dangerous trails is absurd!

phil G
Nov 14, 2008

They said he never re-surfaced on his own. They didn't say he wasn't found. Read between the lines.

Brian Ribeiro, GSMNP-lover
Nov 14, 2008

"In July 2006, a strong swimmer was last spotted plunging underwater toward the base of Abrams Falls. His body never resurfaced." Really? I find that almost impossible to believe. This is a national park. They didn't search? Divers weren't called? And if they did search, they didn't find the body? Where could it have gone? Did they just decide "Oh well, he'll turn up...."? Remember, this is a national park and stories like this tend to get press attention. Fill us in, Kelly Bastone!


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