Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited park in the United States with more than 10 millions of visitors every year. With that many people in the park, it’s important to have some wits about you when you are near waterfalls or bears. Here are five tips on capturing the photo to avoid “being” the photo.
1. Too Close to Wildlife
People having run-ins with animals are a surprising case at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In 2021, A backcountry camper was killed by a black bear in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. While there were no witnesses, there was a black bear seen scavenging the 43-year-old’s remains and an autopsy report concluded it was most likely a bear attack that killed the man. While this was only the second fatality from a black bear in the Smokies, it is wake up call to give wild animals like bears a lot of space. In 2000, Glenda Bradley was day hiking in the southeast region of the park when she was fatally attacked by a black bear. A man hiking the Appalachian National Scenic Trail was bitten by a black bear near the Spence Field shelter. There are more than 1,800 black bears roaming the park.
In 2001 the park reintroduced elk back into the park. Today, there are more than 150 elk in roaming the Cataloochee area in the southeast area of the park. Elk also need space and you should keep 25 yards between you and them, especially during the fall rut season, which is the elk mating season.
Park staff recommends if you see wild animals remember to keep a distance of 50 yards. Always exercise serious caution and safety when photographing wildlife. Don’t bait or feed animals, either, which usually leads to the demise of the animal. Dana Soehn, a park spokesperson, says “to turn your back on [animals] to capture a selfie means you’re not only too close but you’re putting yourself in a dangerous situation with an unpredictable wild animal.”
Elk and bears are wild and can harm anyone who comes close enough. Make no mistake. Elks can be greater in size than black bears.
2. In a Waterfall
Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to many gorgeous waterfalls, but waterfalls also are a common location for injury. On May 28,2017, a 37-year-old man fell 80 feet to his death while climbing across rocks at the top of the 100-foot Ramsey Cascade in the park. In 2016, a Georgia news anchor, Taylor Terrell, slipped to her death from the top of Rainbow Falls, a 150-foot waterfall.
There have been 22 drowning incidents park-wide, and five of these occurred at Abrams Falls. Jitendra Patel fell into the water and drowned while trying to take a photo at the base of Abrams Falls. Visitors who ignore the signs and attempt to scale the dangerously slippery and steep surfaces along the waterfall have had fatal spills down the falls.
Don’t try to climb the falls as much as you want the selfie with the cascading waterfalls.
“We have volunteers [Rovers] that walk along the popular trails posted everyday,” says Soehn. “They interact with people, answer questions and remind them to have a safe experience while they are there.”
Rovers are posted at popular locations in the park from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Soehn also recommends following the signs and seeking out safer locations to get the selfie near the waterfalls.
3. Going Off-Trail to Get a Better Shot
The park sees millions of visitors during the year and in certain scenarios visitors get lost or detached from their group to use the bathroom or take a picture.
“Most of the time it’s going to be when somebody gets off-trail, says Soehn. “You’ll hear us repeat that all the time: stay on the trail, stay on the trail.”
Infamously in 2001, Chad Hunter went hiking on the Ramsay Cascades Trail to the the falls and then he went off trail on the Ramsay Prong trail. Hunter planned to hike 20-plus miles in one day but instead spent six days wading through bushes and waiting for rescue.
Additionally, venturing off-trail can harm the environment by causing further erosion and put you in harm’s way traversing rocky, steep and obstructed paths.
If you find yourself in a situation where you cannot find your way back to the trail, stop.
“Stay exactly where you are,” Soehn recommends. “It’s our best chance to find you if you are not a moving target.”
Make sure to always be aware of your surroundings and make sure the trail is visible.
4. In Rivers and Streams
A selfie by the Red River or the Ramsey Cascades may be a beautiful image near running water and an overall picturesque landscape. However, the water at Great Smoky Mountains can be deadly. Seven people have drowned at The Sinks at Little River.
“We don’t encourage water recreation in the park because we do have a lot of unpredictable rising and lowering of the streams depending on where it might be raining,” says Soehn. “It might be raining at the higher elevations and the streams could dramatically rise at the lower elevations very quickly and it could be sunshine.”
The waters are swift, and the river is littered with boulders. It’s important to be cautious near the water. The park does have some foot logs along the 800 miles of trail at the more treacherous crossings. If you find yourself having to cross a stream, Soehn encourages people to make sure they can see where they are placing their feet.
5. Taking Photos While Driving
There are obvious reasons why not to take a selfie while driving, but motor vehicle accidents are the most common incidents in Great Smoky. The winding roads and slow speed limits paired with the scenic views create a perfect storm for motor accidents
In 2010 a man and his family were in a large motor home on Newfound Gap Road when the the shoulder the RV was on began to narrow which gave way and the RV fell on its side and slid 100 feet down the mountain. In November 2016, two women died in a car accident on Little River Road when their vehicle flew off the road. Motor vehicles accidents and drowning are the leading causes of death at Great Smoky.
“We remind everyone to follow the posted speed limits but to go even slower depending on the conditions whether it’s fog, heavy rain or heavy traffic,” says Soehn.
The mountains are filled with curvy roads, therefore slowing down and looking for a pullover spot to get that photo could keep you out of a dangerous situation.