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The Beauty And The Danger Of The Smokies

Davin Eldridge
Rainbow Falls, located in Transylvania County's Gorges State Park, is nearly 200 feet in length from top to bottom. Approximately 200,000 visitors visit the park each year.


"Keep close to Nature's heart... and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods." - John Muir


Every year in the Smoky Mountains another visitor’s death makes the local news.


“What a scary experience, Gabriel Alexander was attacked while in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”


“Life or death rescue on the Appalachian Trail—all caught on camera.”


“Family and friends are mourning the deaths of two college students killed in a waterfall accident who had slipped while hiking.”


“Some heartbreaking news out of Macon this evening, where a young news anchor has died just one day short of her twenty-fifth birthday.”


That last clip marks the most recent fatality to occur in one of the many parks and forests in Western North Carolina—that of Taylor Terrell, of Macon, Georgia—who died after falling some 185 feet from the top of Rainbow Falls in Transylvania County's Gorges State Park. Terrell was a beloved morning news anchor in central Georgia, and word of her death in late July shook the community of Macon when it spread.


“A face that’s familiar to you here on Daybreak is no longer with us— 41 NBC News anchor Taylor Terrell was involved in an accident overnight, and did not survive…”


Unfortunately, news like this happens all-too-often in the Smoky Mountains. According to the National Parks Service, an average of 129 people sustain some kind of serious injury while visiting the Smokies; including fifty automobile accidents, thirty-eight related to hiking, sixteen bicycle accidents, and nine waterfalls, like Terrell’s.



Credit Davin Eldridge
The trail to Rainbow Falls is roughly a mile and a half long.


“The large majority of the fatalities that we have encountered have been as a result of slick rocks, falls, things of that nature,” that’s Forest Ranger Jeff Owenby, whose jurisdiction includes Rainbow Falls. To date, Owenby has been with the Forest Service for over 25 years, and now manages recreation of the 160,000-acre Pisgah Ranger’s District. “I do think that a large majority of the public will underestimate how swift the water currents can be, how deep the water can be, and they will also probably overestimate their own abilities.”


Owenby says park fatalities are almost always the result of both human error, and the indiscriminate and unpredictable forces of ‘Mother Nature’.


“We urge people to be situationally aware. You are going to be in a forested environment where there are tree limbs, there are snakes, there are wildlife in the area, but in most cases those are not going to be something that will be dangerous if people use the proper precautions.”


But even with five full-time park rangers, Owenby says that the chance for another incident increases each year, as the number of park-visitors gradually increases each year, despite their efforts to make them safe. On the Horse Pasture River, which feeds Rainbow Falls, Owenby estimates that there has been an average fatality every other year.


“The trail is very well-marked. Gorges State Park does a wonderful job in terms of signage, in terms of making visitors aware of where it is, and where they’re going.”


With resources spread thin already, it takes every ranger on-hand, as well as local emergency workers, to assist in a rescue, according to fellow ranger Steve Pagano. “When the call comes in, like this past incident—I happened to be off that day—I immediately, ranger gets call, fire Is already on scene, so even if you’re off, we’re on duty 24-7—we do everything we can for public.”


Owenby: “… I think it’s important, Steve and I will both say, that the unsung heroes in most all of these operations are those local county rescue squads, and VFDs—those are the people that are here the most consistently, they train for such instances like this, and they are actually amazing to work with.”


Back at Rainbow Falls, it’s easy to see why so many people can get swept away in the beauty of the park. But nature, Owenby warns, can be just as easily dangerous.


“Our message to the public is that these are wonderful areas to be enjoyed, but to simply be careful and use some common sense precautions. We strongly people to stay on the trails, to observe the waterfalls from a safe area which is on land where there are observation decks. Simply prepare ahead of time. Pay attention as you start a hike to the info that is there provided for you.”


For WCQS News, I’m Davin Eldridge.

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