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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 nearly 60 lives lost in watery accidents since the 1930s. “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.
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.
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.