Why Blue Ridge Parkway, Great Smokies rank high on list of deadliest national park sites

ASHEVILLE — Millions of people come every year to bask in the serene natural beauty of the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which consistently top the charts of the National Park Service’s most visited sites.

But visits to these parks aren’t always filled with peace and tranquility, as highlighted by data compiled on America’s deadliest national parks.

Information collected by NPS's public risk management program was analyzed by personal injury law firm Connecticut Trial Firm, which looked at the number of deaths that occurred in national parks between July 2013 and July 2023 to determine the most dangerous national parks in the country.

With 16.7 million visitors and 13.3 million outdoor enthusiasts streaming into the parkway and the Smokies last year, respectively, both parks near the top of the list for fatalities — most of which were accidental, though more data on the parkway suggests that has not been the case in recent years.

Visitors surge to the parkway, Smokies: Blue Ridge Parkway 2023 visits surged, Great Smokies also had crowds; How many visitors?

Where does the Blue Ridge Parkway rank?

The scenic drive — spanning 469 curvy miles from Shenandoah National Park in Virginia to the entrance to Great Smokies National Park in Cherokee — ranks fifth on the list of national parks with the most fatalities, according to the analysis. Over the 10-year period reviewed in the study, the parkway recorded 100 deaths.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the leading cause of death was motor vehicle accidents, which killed 38 people.

Fatal accident on the parkway: Man dies in Blue Ridge Parkway motorcycle accident trying to avoid fallen tree

Fall scenes along the Blue Ridge Parkway October 19, 2022.
Fall scenes along the Blue Ridge Parkway October 19, 2022.

However, for the past two years the number of suicides outranks motor vehicle accidents on the parkway as the leading cause of fatalities, according to data shared by parkway spokesperson Leesa Brandon. In 2022 and 2023, there were a combined 19 deaths on the parkway, 11 from suicides and five from motor vehicle accidents, or MVAs.

Incidents of suicide on the parkway spiked in 2022, accounting for 69% of fatalities from that year. Suicides tapered off in 2023, though still equaled the number of MVAs, typically the most common cause of death on the parkway.

The parkway has had just one homicide over the past four years. Josue Calderon, of Providence, Rhode Island, was found dead Oct. 9, 2021, on the parkway near Milepost 289.8 in Watauga County near Blowing Rock. After the discovery, the FBI launched an investigation.

"We are still investigating. No charges have been filed at this time," FBI spokesperson Shelley Lynch confirmed with the Citizen Times Feb. 22.

FBI release details in parkway death: FBI releases new details in Blue Ridge Parkway homicide investigation of 33-year-old

Total fatalities on the parkway for the past four years, including cause of death:


10 MVAs

4 suicides

1 medical emergency

no homicides

15 total


11 MVAs

2 suicides

2 medical emergencies

1 homicide

16 total


4 MVAs

9 suicides

no medical emergencies

no homicides

13 total


2 MVAs

2 suicides

1 fall

1 hit and run

6 total

"Driving and riding on the parkway is not like navigating other roads," Brandon said by email, adding a list of tips to stay safe while traveling on the parkway.

  • In some places, the parkway has steeper grades than normally found on highways. Without paying close attention, traveling speed can increase more than expected.

  • The parkway's road shoulders are narrow in places so that the meadows or forest edges grow close to the pavement. This is part of the beauty of the drive but may require some extra attention.

  • The parkway was designed with gentle curves and not many straight sections, so drivers should be aware of limited sight distances. This is part of what makes the road seem to lie gently on the land and it also requires some extra care while driving.

  • Be aware of speed limit changes. The parkway speed limit is mostly 45 mph, but occasionally it will drop to 35 mph or 25 mph.

  • Most highways have curves with a standard radius that never changes. But the parkway contains many decreasing radius curves that may tighten as drivers go through it. This is a design feature of the parkway that requires some extra care, especially on motorcycles.

Adding another element of possible dangers when driving the parkway in winter, when roads at the higher elevations — the parkway rises over 6,000 feet north and south of Asheville — can ice over quickly. But parkway staff consistently watch the weather, close gates and update road closures on their website when frigid weather is in the forecast.

Always check road conditions before heading to the parkway at nps.gov/blri.

Great Smokies has more fatalities than parkway

Great Smoky Mountains National Park appeared fourth on the list of deadliest national parks with a total of 104 fatalities from 2013 to 2023.

More than a third of the fatalities were motor vehicle accidents, totaling 36 deaths. According to the analysis, the highest number of fatalities took place in September on average across the 10-year period.

Previous reporting: Answer Woman: How many died in Great Smokies, Blue Ridge Parkway in 2022?

The Smokies covers a half-million acres of rugged, mountainous terrain on the Western North Carolina-eastern Tennessee border. It contains more than 800 miles of hiking trails and is brimming with rivers, streams, waterfalls, picnic areas, campgrounds and lots of wildlife, including elk and black bears.

The national park saw a 2.8% increase in visitors from the previous year, up from 12.9 million visitors in 2022 to 13.3 million in 2023, according to preliminary NPS data.

The NPS site with the dubious distinction of having the most fatalities in the past 10 years is Lake Mead National Recreation Are with 203 deaths. In the No. 2 spot is Yosemite National Park with 152 deaths and No. 3 is Grand Canyon National Park with 136 deaths.

Suicide prevention and violence helplines

  • People can call 211 to help find health and human services resources and can call 988 to reach the suicide prevention hotline.

  • To make an adult or child protective services report any time, day or night in Buncombe County, call 828-250-5800 for adult abuse and 828-250-5900 for child abuse.

  • Vaya Health, at vayahealth.com, also provides help finding a health care provider and offers a 24/7 Access to Care Line at 1-800-849-6127.

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 (English), 1-888-628-9454 (Spanish)

  • National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233 or text LOVEIS to 22522

  • National Child Abuse Hotline: 1-800-422-4453 or text 1-800-422-4453

Ryley Ober is the Public Safety Reporter for Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA Today Network. Email her at rober@gannett.com and follow her on Twitter @ryleyober

This article originally appeared on Asheville Citizen Times: Where Blue Ridge Parkway ranks among deadliest national park sites