Great Smoky Mountains listed third-most dangerous national park

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GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) — The Great Smoky Mountains National Park was listed the third-most dangerous national park, according to Outforia.

Outforia, a guide for outdoor travels, ranked the most dangerous national parks by the number of deaths between 2010 and 2020, based on data requested from the National Park Service.

According to the data, GSMNP had at least 92 deaths in that 10-year span.

The GSMNP came after the Grand Canyon (No.1) and Yosemite (No.2).

Lisa Hendy, Chief Ranger for GSMNP, said she wasn’t surprised at the rankings of those three national parks.

“I was the emergency manager at Yosemite, and so I was in charge of the emergency services there, so I’m very familiar with what happens there; and then at Grand Canyon for seven years,” Hendy said.

Hendy said that unlike the Smokies, death by fall was more probable.

However, the most common cause of death in the GSMNP was car crashes, and that also didn’t surprise Hendy.

“The last 10 years, we’ve had four of the deadliest on record. But we’ve also had a lot of serious life-altering injuries in those car accidents,” Hendy said.

Hendy said there are numerous reasons why there are so many fatal and non-fatal traffic incidents in the park.

One is the sheer amount of traffic volume. The GSMNP has about 12 million visitors a year.

Hendy said on top of that, they have a lot of locals who either commute between the park, or visit often and know the roads a little too well.

She said all in all, it boils down to speed, inattentiveness and drunk driving.

“The willingness to push because you’re a little more comfortable with the fact that you’re driving your own car instead of a rental, you know, makes you a little familiar with the vehicle; all those things lend themselves to getting a little more careless and letting your foot drop a little-more than you want it to,” Hendy said.

Hendy said distracted driving often involves drivers trying to take care of the family in their car, or looking at wildlife, such as bears.

“You know the turkeys are everywhere in the road. So I think the wildlife, I think the rain and the weather does play a role. I think it limits visibility. I mean, the Smokies got their name for a reason,” Hendy said.

The terrain also plays a role. Hendy said some mountainous roads are curvy or steep, or both.

She said areas like the Foothills Parkway and mountainous parts of Newfound Gap Road can be attractive for fast drivers.

Hendy knows the temptation because she also rides a motorcycle, but she doesn’t push it the speed limit. She said The Spur is another road that has more crashes.

“A lot of times that’s pure speed. It’s just people going really fast. You know how it is when you, even when you’re not in your normal area, that road, because it’s two lane, it kind of suggest to you that you could go a little faster,” Hendy said.

Hendy said her rangers catch a lot of DUIs along U.S. 441 as well.

Just within 2020, at least 60 people were prosecuted for DUIs in the park, and Hendy said that’s only the cases that made it to prosecution.

Fatalities along trails can happen. Within the last ten years, at least three people died from falling off cliffs or along trails.

Just in November, one man died falling from Chimney Tops trail.

Hendy said that is a more rare occurrence because most visitors in the Smokies don’t hike far enough to reach places where they can fall.

“In Yosemite, you go for a hike, there’s lots of things for you to fall off of at Yosemite. Here, you know, most of the hikes, until you get to a waterfall and decide climb up the waterfall, like the whole hike doesn’t have things to fall off of,” Hendy said.

She said most of the more dangerous hikes are off-trail. That being said, Hendy said that’s why her rangers work traffic incidents more often. She said they take enforcement very seriously.

They have 384 miles of road to cover, and they can become backed up, slick or blocked by animals at any moment.

Hendy said what people have to think about is there is a face and a family behind these death statistics, and often times there are also victims who survive or witnesses who can’t forget the fatal crash they saw.

She said the easiest way to stay safe in the park is to go the speed limit, pay attention to your surroundings and don’t drive under the influence.

“You know, you’re on vacation. Relax. Go the speed limit. Um, I think second to that is don’t drink and drive. Alright? I mean, that’s a horrific statistic to have as many DUIs as we have,” Hendy said.

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