These Are the 3 Biggest Dangers You Need to Avoid in the Smoky Mountains

a woman taking a picture of a black bear

Also be sure to keep a respectable distance from wildlife while in the Smoky Mountains (photo by Yena Lou/

The Smoky Mountains can be a dangerous place, even when you know what you’re doing

I don’t think of the mountains as dangerous, and I’ve been around them for 30 years. Generally, I think as long as you exercise even a modicum of judgment, you’ll be fine. However, that doesn’t mean the Smokies are without danger. In this article, we will discuss the three biggest dangers in the Smokies. 

The mountains do come with some inherent dangers which if acknowledged can be chiefly managed. Among the dangers of the mountains are things like getting lost, getting overwhelmed in the mountains’ rivers and streams and frankly, the people. None of these dangers should be enough to dissuade you from going to the mountains, but they are enough you should be aware of.  

Map of Dennis martin disappearance spot
Dennis Martin and family and friends camped overnight and then made their way to Spence Field. This map is meant to be used as a reference and may not be to scale (rending by

1. Getting Lost

People underestimate the Smokies all the time. They underestimate the size. Also, they underestimate the elevation. Sometimes, they underestimate just how much earlier it gets dark in the mountains. Finally, they underestimate how easy it is to get lost. 

Each year there’s a “hiker” or two who gets too far out into the mountains to make it back by sunset and has to be rescued. Occasionally, someone will fall down a hill or embankment, twist an ankle or break a leg and may even be missing for a day or two. 

Most of the people who get lost in the Smokies get found. Most of them. That said, in 1969, Dennis Martin, 6, was up in the high mountains with family–experienced hikers. It was William and Clyde – Dennis’ father and grandfather – and two brothers. They met another family at Spence Field and the boys began to play. 

They decided to sneak up on their elders as a prank. Dennis went one way – the other three boys went the other. The adults were on to the sneak attack and watched, bemused at the boys’ efforts. But it was the last time anyone ever saw Dennis. Dennis hadn’t been out of his father’s site long when William got up to look for him, only a few minutes. But the boy was nowhere to be found. 

Do you know what else people underestimate in the mountains? The noise. Up in those high mountains, the wind drowns everything out. Dennis could have been relatively close, and no one would have heard him. A massive search turned up nothing and the only thing left were wild theories about abductions, feral humans and more. But the simplest explanation is Dennis got lost and couldn’t find his way back. He hid somewhere when the temperature dropped and was never found. 

the sinks waterfall
The Sinks are a series of manmade waterfalls (photo by ehrlif/

2. Drowning (and heavy currents)

Speaking of things people underestimate in the mountains, it’s the power of the water. Sure, most of the rivers and streams in the mountains are fairly shallow and good for wading. But if you haven’t been in rushing water up to your knees or waist, you don’t know how quickly you can get swept off balance. Most of the time that means a nasty bruise or even a broken bone. Occasionally, it can mean a concussion. But there are places where misjudging the water can be a matter of life or death. 

Welcome, my friends, to the Sinks. The Sinks are a series of waterfalls in the Little River – alongside Little River Gorge Road. The Sinks are not a natural occurrence. Back in the days before the National Park loggers used to send their logs down the Little River which frankly is ill-suited to that task. There was a big – literal – logjam and the loggers decided to fix the problem with dynamite. They overestimated the job, however, and blew the whole river up. They changed the rock bed and the course of the thing. creating the series of waterfalls that became known as the Sinks. 

Now, we are reaching a bit into the depths of my psyche. I’m afraid of drowning and people have drowned in the Sinks. Not a lot over the years, I suppose, but enough that I cringe anytime I see a rival site recommend the Sinks as a swimming hole. The truth is people do swim and tube there. I think when the water is relatively down, you’d probably be fine. But you won’t catch me or mine there. There are plenty of other places to tube or swim where multiple people have not drowned. Those are the places we go. 

Lone Hiker on the AT
Hiking in the woods after a rainstorm on the AT (photo by Nico Schueler/

3. The People

We talked a bit about this when we discussed dangerous animals in the park but your No. 1 danger is probably just the people. Maybe it’s that they’re bad drivers – I’m thinking specifically here about the people driving the wrong way on the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. There’s also the occasional dope who gets too close to a black bear (as pictured above).

But this could also be someone on a remote hiking trail or the Appalachian Trail (AT). Look, 99.9% of the people you’d meet in these places are awesome. And there’s a cool community of people on the AT. But you should 100% keep your guard up if you encounter someone in a remote area while hiking. That doesn’t mean you need to panic or even be rude. But keep a comfortable distance. Don’t overshare with the chitchat and be vigilant.  I’m going to repeat this for emphasis … thousands of people hike in the Smokies every day. The likelihood of you running into someone with nefarious intent on the trail is quite small. But it’s not zero, you know what I mean. 

Are the Smokies a dangerous place?

I don’t think of the Smokies as a dangerous place. I’ve been visiting them and hiking them for decades without an incident worse than a bruised back. In my invincible youth, I was jumping from rock to rock in the West Prong of the Little River and slipped on a massive rock. I landed with a thud square on my back. But it would be naïve to say the mountains are without danger. When you’re considering your mountain vacation make sure to plan accordingly

  • Tell Your Family: Make sure if you’re hiking in remote areas that people know where you’re going and when you should be back. Take proper provisions and dress accordingly. A good map is a great idea as well. 
  • Remain Aware: If you’re swimming or tubing, be aware of the water levels downstream. If the water is high, you need to know. When tubing, be aware of any obstacles between you and the pickup point. Again, make sure you have people who know where you’re going and when you should be back.
  • Beware of Strangers: Beware the beast, man. Look, people are great until they’re not. I espouse a philosophy of friendly vigilance both on the roads and in remote places where I might encounter others. Please don’t be paranoid in those positions but don’t be naïve either.

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