What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of safety risks on the trail? Bears? Snakes? Bees? Poison Ivy? How about getting too close to the edge of a towering cliff at a scenic viewpoint? While all of these things can pose varying levels of risk in particular situations, one of the most (if not the single most) serious safety risks along any trail in our region is perhaps one that you wouldn’t expect: waterfalls.
While it might seem strange that the most dangerous part of a hike would be the very destination that a trail was designed for, that’s absolutely the case when it comes to waterfalls in the Cumberlands and the Appalachians, as a whole. Waterfall injuries and deaths are so common, in fact, that multiple incidents occur annually across the Appalachian region. North Carolina’s infamous Rainbow Falls – known for multiple past deaths – claimed its latest victim last month, while a local hiker fell from eastern Kentucky’s Bad Branch Falls and was seriously injured earlier this year.
These types of incidents are horribly tragic, but they aren’t rare in our region. Waterfall-related accidents are so common that at least 12 deaths or injuries have occurred at waterfalls in the mountains of Virginia, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee this year alone. Compare these types of tragedies to black bear attacks or snakebites from venomous Appalachian species – both of which claim, on the average, less than one fatality per year nationally – and it becomes easy to see just how dangerous waterfalls can be.
Why would this be the case? The answers to this question are many, but one of the biggest involves the fact that few people perceive waterfalls as a safety risk to begin with. Hikers tend to view things like wildlife run-ins as a possible threat and take precautions to minimize encounters, but the same doesn’t happen with waterfalls, despite the much higher risk they pose. Instead, we tend to let our guard down around waterfalls, climb on their slick rocks to get better views or camera angles, and succumb to peer pressure to jump off of waterfalls into seemingly safe pools below. These activities all put hikers at risk, though, and that’s why our post will hit on some key tips to keep safe around waterfalls in the backcountry below:
- Stay away from the top of any waterfall. More than anything else, this single rule of thumb can prevent most accidents that occur on or around waterfalls. Rocks at the top of a set of falls are often slick, slope downward, can be covered with algae, and (for obvious reasons) lie just above a vertical drop that can easily exceed 50-100 feet at many locations. These are all a recipe for disaster, but hikers tend to ignore these risks to get closer to the edge of the falls for a better view. Resist that urge: only view falls from above from a safe distance far from the edge or from a constructed viewing platform. If your hike necessitates fording the stream above a waterfall, make sure that you do it well upstream from the edge of the falls and follow signed or blazed crossings only.
- Don’t climb on or around waterfalls. This is another tip that seems obvious on its face but tends to be ignored once hikers are around a set of falls. Climbing rocks around a waterfall is tempting to allow for a better view or to show off your daredevil skills, but this once again is a recipe for disaster. The spray from a waterfall can make these rocks precariously slick (even icy in winter), and climbing any rock face without appropriate training and safety gear is just asking for a fall. Instead, view falls safely from their base and resist the urge to climb up the side of the falls. This goes hand in hand with our next tip, which is…
- NEVER jump from any waterfall. Leaping from a waterfall into a scenic plunge pool below seems like an exhilarating stunt straight out of a movie or GoPro video, but it’s one of the easiest ways to die in the woods. Calm water can become as hard as concrete when landed onto from a high enough drop, and it’s rare in our region for the pool at the base of a waterfall to be free of jagged rocks or a strong current. Landing onto these types of rocks can be harmful for obvious reasons, while a strong undercurrent (even when the water appears calm) can hold the strongest swimmer underwater and cause drowning. North Carolina’s Elk River Falls has been the source of a number of such tragic deaths in recent years, despite its tempting appearance, and numerous other backcountry falls across our region can do the same thing. The best rule here is the also the safest – just don’t ever try to jump from any waterfall, even if others are doing it.
- Be smart: obey signage. Our last tip may be the simplest of all: if you see signage warning of dangers at a waterfall, obey it. A large proportion of injuries and fatalities at regional waterfalls occur at sites where such accidents have occurred before and where signage clearly spells out these dangers. In spite of this info, visitors routinely jump barriers and railings at overlooks and ignore signs warning users to stay away from the edge of the falls or not swim at the falls’ base – often resulting in tragic consequences. Those signs are there for a reason. Use common sense and follow their instructions. If a viewing platform is available at a waterfall, only use it to view the scenery and don’t jump barriers or strike off the path into the woods.
Ultimately, it may not be possible to prevent every single injury or death around waterfalls. Accidental slips and falls will always happen, even on marked trails and with careful behavior, but the vast majority of waterfall deaths are preventable. Follow these rules – and encourage others in your group to do the same – and you can help vastly reduce the likelihood of a tragic accident during a hike.