Man falls to death off highest waterfall in Smokies, continuing a grim spring ritual

Ramsey Cascades in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Ramsey Cascades in Great Smoky Mountains National Park

A 37-year-old man has died when he fell 80 feet from the tallest waterfall in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, an accident that’s part of an ongoing tragedy in the Southern mountains.

Dozens of people have died after plunging off Western North Carolina’s many waterfalls in recent decades, often despite explicit warning signs.

The victim, who has not yet been publicly identified, was seen climbing across the top of the 100-foot Ramsey Cascades before he fell Sunday afternoon, park officials said. Water from the spectacular falls drops over rock outcroppings into a small pool.

The park cautions hikers not to climb on rocks near the waterfall, which is on the Tennessee side of the park. Rocks are wet and slick with algae. Several people have fallen to their deaths and many others were seriously injured there, the park says.

Despite such warnings, deaths at Western North Carolina waterfalls occur regularly in spring and summer. Waterfalls are popular cooling-off destinations.

Nine people died in fatal falls in state parks between 2005 and February, N.C. State Parks says. Three of those deaths were at High Shoal Falls at South Mountains State Park near Morganton.

Hikers there often cross the top of the waterfall despite a picket fence around its top and nine warning signs, park superintendent Jonathan Griffith told the Observer in March.

“We’ve signed it and barricaded about as well as we can,” Griffith said. “The main takeaway would be to stay on the designated trail.” Rocks are much slicker than they appear, he said.

A 25-year-old Hickory man died in a fall at High Shoal Falls on Feb. 17. The man, Ryan Yount, and his girlfriend had crossed the barricade to take pictures, Griffith said.

“They took the picture and on the way back, she saw some wet areas that she went around and he elected to jump and slipped and fell,” he said. “Once you start down the cascade, there are very few handholds.”

At least 40 people have died at waterfalls in the national forests of Western North Carolina since 1993, the U.S. Forest Service says.

Thirteen people have died since 1995 in falls from Whitewater Falls near Cashiers in Nantahala National Forest. At 411 feet, it’s the highest waterfall in the eastern United States. Access to the falls is temporarily closed following a wildfire.

Most accidents at Whitewater Falls happen in summer, when low water levels in the river tempt visitors to wade across the river, District Ranger Mike Wilkins said recently. That’s despite signs posted that say people have died doing just that.

“When water levels are down, it appears you can just walk out there. It could be six inches deep,” Wilkins said. “But they’re on a slight incline, and those rocks are slick as snot. You slip and fall, you’ve got nothing to grab. And if you slip, you’re gone.”

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender

Staying safe around waterfalls

The U.S. Forest Service offers these tips:

▪ Keep a safe distance from waterfalls.

▪ Heed posted warning signs and stay on established trails.

▪ Never climb on or around waterfalls and never play in the water above one, where rocks can be slick and it’s easy to lose your balance. Currents can be very swift even farther upstream from waterfalls.

▪ Never jump off waterfalls or dive into the plunge pools at their bases. Hidden rocks and logs can be submerged and pools have swirling currents that can drag and keep you underwater.

▪ Even if you see others playing around waterfalls, consider them lucky not to get hurt. Waterfalls change all the time with varying water flows and erosion of rocks around them.