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Enjoy the park, but do so safely!


Thanks to a donation from a Sevier County, TN, business, Great Smoky Mountains National Park rangers (from left) Christopher Tedder, Will Jaynes, Marc Eckert and Brad Griest were among 15 other rangers recently presented with high-performance search and rescue jackets to support search and rescue efforts in inclement weather. Rangers respond to approximately 100 SAR incidents annually, many of which occur during hazardous weather conditions. Through this generous donation from Outdoors in the Smokies, the park was able to secure 15 jackets specifically designed for extreme conditions including prolonged rains and extremely cold temperatures. The reflective, yellow jackets also provide high visibility to aid in air-rescue operations. The jackets are rainproof, windproof, and durable for backcountry conditions. The park has approximately 40 park rangers whose primary duty is to aid in search and rescue operations. Many of these rangers receive additional, specialized training for technical rescues, water rescues, and air operations. These jackets are being distributed to rangers who most frequently respond to rescues during hazardous conditions throughout the year.

Last year Great Smoky Mountains National Park conducted more search and rescue operations than any other National Park Service site in the southeast region. And nationwide, only Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Lake Mead had more incidents than the Smokies.

According to acting chief ranger Steve Kloster, rangers in the Smokies respond to a little “over 100 search and rescue incidents per year.” Mostly rescues. We don’t have too many searches because most adult hikers here are pretty good about staying on the trails,” Kloster said.

“Most rescues are for lower leg injuries,” Kloster reported. More serious conditions such as heart attacks, falls, hypothermia, and near-drownings occur every year, too. “On average we save about a dozen lives per year in the park,” Kloster said. The tab for a year’s search and rescue operations usually runs between $100,000 and $200,000 each year.

Who is most likely to need a rescue?

  • Persons ages 20-29
  • Day Hikers
  • Males
  • People who substantially overestimate their ability to hike long distances before sundown

One unpleasant surprise for people lost or injured in the national park is the amount of time it can take to be rescued here. Helicopters are almost never used for actual rescues because of the dense vegetation and risky mountain weather. Also, most places in the park lack cell phone service, so it can take a long time for an incident to be reported. It can easily take rangers 8-12 hours to reach a stranded or injured person in a remote area. If the patient needs to be carried out on a litter, 10-20 people have to be recruited and transported to the site to safely conduct the carry out.

According to David Brill, author of an upcoming book on deaths and disasters in the park, the Top Ten causes of death in the Smokies are:

  1. Automobile accident
  2. Motorcycle or Moped accident
  3. Drowning
  4. Plane crash
  5. Heart attack
  6. Suicide
  7. Fall
  8. Murder
  9. Construction-related
  10.  Hypothermia/exposure

Something for Everyone

Most people come to the Great Smokies for the mountains, but they return for other reasons. Unlike many parks and destinations that have one sight to see or one main story to tell, the Great Smoky Mountains are vast, rich, and complex. GSMNP encompasses more than 800 square miles of mountains, valleys, and rushing streams. It is the largest terrestrial national park in the East and contains many of the highest summits and ridges east of the Black Hills.

There is such a “wondrous diversity of life” in the Smokies that no one knows exactly how many different types of plants and animals live here, but scientists estimate figures upwards of 50,000. There are 100 species of native trees, 65 different mammals, 30 species of salamanders, 76 fish, and over 240 different birds. Over 1,500 kinds of flowering plants have been recorded here. The Smokies are a sanctuary for such magnificent animals as black bear, elk, white-tailed deer, bobcat, great blue heron, red-tailed hawk, and wild turkey. Some species, such as the red-cheeked salamander, are found nowhere else on earth.

In terms of history, the Smokies are equally intriguing. Roaming bands of hunters and gatherers passed through the Smokies more than 12,000 years ago. This was part of the homeland of the Cherokee who nurtured complex systems of agriculture, government, and trade during their more than 1,000 years of habitation. When Euro-American settlers pressed into the mountains in the late 1700s, they had the opportunity to build a new life, wrestling from the forest farms, homes, and communities like no others. Remnants of this past, preserved by the National Park Service, include the largest collection of historic log buildings in the East.

Established in 1934, mostly from privately-owned lands, Great Smoky Mountains has since become the most-visited national park in the nation. Some 10 million visits are recorded in the Smokies each year, bringing more than $800 million in economic activity to the area.

An endless array of recreational activities are available in the park, from fishing for wild native brook trout to hiking one of the Smokies 150 challenging trails. Other opportunities include wildlife watching, wildflower photography, exploring historic buildings, horseback riding, and bicycling.

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