Hiking Trails

Family member of 1987 Red Fork Falls victim wants trail closed | WJHL

UNICOI, Tenn. (WJHL) – After a man died in Red Fork Falls, a Johnson City woman who lost her nephew in a similar incident 35 years ago says something must be done to prevent another person from dying there -down.

It took 20 people from eight different crews to recover the man’s body on Sunday. The victim was described as a man in his thirties. He was hiking with a group when he fell.

Cindy Young, who some may know as Community Outreach Director at Johnson City’s Coalition for Kids, was hiking with her nephew, Greg Willett, and other family members in 1987.

Young said the group made it to the upper edge of the falls, where Willett lost his footing and dived to his death.

“He had stepped on one of the mossy rocks and was coming down the cliff feet first,” Young said. “It’s beautiful, but it’s a death trap because it only takes one misstep.”

Willett was 21 and left behind a fiancée.

After another hiker dies in Red Fork Falls, Young calls for the area to be closed to the public.

“I want to ask the city or the federal government to close these falls,” Young said. “I hope to get the attention of the US Forest Service so we can sit down with them and see what can be done.”

The falls are on public Forest Service land on Unaka Mountain in Unicoi County. The trail is not recognized by the service as it does not meet federal trail standards. For this reason, the Forest Service recommends against the trail due to slippery surfaces, steep elevations, difficult terrain, and lack of trail markings.

Leslie Morgan, a ranger from the Unaka District of the Cherokee National Forest, said fatalities and serious injuries from falls are not uncommon.

“Almost every year we have at least one serious head injury, if not a broken ankle, a broken arm, a broken leg,” Morgan said.

Morgan said she has now seen two fatalities on the track in her eight years in the role. But since the trail is on public land, it’s hard to stop people from using it.

“It’s not illegal [to go to Red Fork Falls ]because anyone can walk through the woods,” Morgan said.

Morgan said it was a user-created trail, meaning it was forged by someone outside the forest service.

Additionally, attempts to deter hikers from descending to the falls have proven unsuccessful.

“We attempted to sign off the area as very dangerous,” Morgan said. “Panels are ripped off and thrown away.”

There is a small setback area at the trail entrance. Morgan suggested putting rocks in there to keep people from parking there, but said that probably wouldn’t work either.

“There’s a good chance they’ll park somewhere else and walk from somewhere else,” Morgan said.

Additionally, the Morgan District is largely made up of volunteer workers. She said they were understaffed to stop people going.

“We don’t have the personnel to stay there and patrol seven days a week,” Morgan said.

Morgan said bringing attention to the danger of the falls could also have the opposite effect in drawing thrill seekers to the area.

She said anyone considering attempting the hike must consider the immense risk to themselves and to rescuers should something go wrong.

“People really have to think about it before they put other people in these situations that have to go out there and save them,” Morgan said.

The hiker’s recovery on Sunday took about four hours due to the dangerous terrain.

Regardless of those factors, Young wants to see some action.

“Something needs to be done and we need to get people’s attention so that measures can be put in place,” Young said.

Young said she wanted to reach out to the families of other trail victims to continue her efforts to have the area closed.