This Cessna 414A crashed in western North Carolina's Plott Balsam Mountains in 1983 near Blue Ridge Parkway. (Photo: Rebekah Reid/USFWS)

This Plane Crash Site Used to Be a Popular Hiking Destination

National Park Service officials weren’t too happy about people going off-trail to find it

Rebekah Reid/USFWS

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For years, hikers at Blue Ridge Parkway have veered off-trail to see a decades-old plane crash site near Waterrock Knob mountain. On Tuesday, June 27, the National Park Service removed the remaining wreckage, citing safety and environmental concerns.

“While we understand the interest associated with this site, the resource damage and visitor safety issues presented too great a threat to take no action,” Blue Ridge Parkway Superintendent Tracy Swartout said in a news release.

The Cessna 414A plane crashed on the stormy night of November 24, 1983, killing the pilot and one passenger. The wreckage wasn’t discovered for five days, according to news station WLOS. At the time, engines were salvaged from the area, but the fuselage, wings, and other debris were left behind.

In 2016, the land surrounding the crash site was donated to Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469-mile stretch that connects Shenandoah National Park in Virginia with Great Smoky Mountains National Park in North Carolina. Since then, visitors have ventured off the marked trails to reach the crash site, which is located on a steep hillside.

These careless hikers have caused “severe damage to rare and sensitive species from trampling, erosion, soil compaction and vegetation removal,” according to the park service. A place of cultural significance to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the area has also been the focus of collaborative conservation efforts. Since 2016, more than 5,300 acres at Waterrock Knob have been donated to the park service.

This isn’t the first time morbid curiosity has lured hikers to scenes of devastation. The abandoned city bus that Christopher McCandless lived and died in quickly became a sort of pilgrimage site after the 2007 release of the movie Into the Wild. The film was based on Jon Krakauer’s bestselling 1996 book of the same name, which expanded upon a story he wrote for Outside. At least two people died and dozens became lost while attempting the 20-mile hike to the bus, which was situated just outside Denali National Park. Finally, in June 2020, Alaska officials airlifted the bus from its remote location at the request of the Denali Borough.

“I know it’s the right thing for public safety in the area, removing the perilous attraction,” borough mayor Clay Walker told Alaska Public Radio. “At the same time, it’s always a little bittersweet when a piece of your history gets pulled out.”

Wandering off-trail can be detrimental to park flora and fauna. Repeated trampling disturbs soil and stymies plant growth, particularly in mountain environments where vegetation is more sensitive, according to a 2017 study.

To protect these delicate ecosystems, park officials have barred people from visiting overrun attractions. During California’s superbloom this spring, the city of Lake Elsinore closed its trails to the public. The move came after years of chiding tourists for stepping on the picturesque golden poppies. Last summer, Redwood National Park officials banned hikers from visiting Hyperion, the world’s tallest tree, after people bushwhacked their way through brush to see the 380-foot tall behemoth and damaged its root base.

“There was trash, and people were creating even more side trails to use the bathroom,” Leonel Arguello, the park’s chief of natural resources, told SFGate. “They leave used toilet paper and human waste—it’s not a good thing, not a good scene.”

Lead Photo: Rebekah Reid/USFWS