Favorite Photo Places: The Great Smoky Mountains
By Ron Wolfe and Will Keener—
To be sure, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a place for all seasons, but autumn is especially spectacular!
The park’s allure is particularly strong in the fall, as Mother Nature uncovers yet another set of delights. There’s a reason that photo workshops, pros, and enthusiasts all head for these mountains in the late days of October and early November. It’s also a time when the park sets visitation records.
Driving along the park’s twisty, narrow roads reveals old-growth hardwood forests splashed in scarlet, orange, gold and greens. A climb to one of the park’s mountain overlooks leads to stunning sunrises over North Carolina and sunsets over the tiered ranges of eastern Tennessee. Blue-tinged fog and early snow at some of the highest elevations in Appalachia present possible photo opportunities. Whitewater and dozens of waterfalls mark the paths of numerous streams. Intriguing details that define the park abound.
So what’s to know about this half-million-acre wonderland? To maximize your success in photography, we’ll give you a few ideas based on our recent experience.
Take some time to plan
Resources in print and online abound for visiting the most popular of all of America’s national parks. (See Resources below). There are websites offering professional workshops for those who want to get to some out-of-the-way locations familiar to the experts as well as the iconic locations. Webcams in and around the park offer a look at how the fall colors are shaping up. Former park rangers offer itineraries based on how much time you have to visit and designed to help you avoid the common high traffic problems that come with the season.
Our approach was to examine all of these resources, get a good map and plan our own schedule, based on the kinds of shots we hoped to get. We grouped our photo interests into sunrise/sunset and panoramic vistas, whitewater and waterfalls, the trees instead of the forest (including leaf closeups), people, wildlife, and detail shots designed to capture the feeling Appalachia. Knowing that the weather would be the wildcard in our planning, we attempted to group our days to take advantage of sunshine when we had it and overcast when we didn’t.
Weather predictions in the fall are difficult and the forecast missed the mark on about 50 percent of our visiting days. High winds on one day (predicted accurately) forced the park to close the main road US 441 (Newfound Gap Road), leaving photographers with no access to the most popular high peaks and vistas. Foggy conditions closed roads on another day, causing us to scramble to plan B.
Take the Right Stuff
Although two-thirds of the US population lives within a day’s drive of Great Smoky Mountain National Park, we do not. We flew into Tennessee. Both of us dismantled the heads and packed our tripods away into our checked baggage and we were glad we brought them. If we can do it using air travel, you can get your tripod there too. Sure, you may want to snag some shots of wild turkeys from the window of your car, but for that serious landscape or astro shot, you need a solid tripod.
In wildflower season – there are 1,500 species in the park — a macro lens would be a good choice, but we used ours only briefly for some leaf pattern shots. We brought our walk-around zooms, wide angle, and telephoto lenses. The telephotos were used for isolating colors and shapes in the landscape and for the occasional wildlife sightings. Our plan did not devote any specific time to wildlife photography, which demands both patience and amounts of time we did not have. But we wanted to be prepared if opportunity should arise and it did. Our kit also included circular polarizers, useful to bring out leaf colors in a landscape shot and to reveal – or hide – reflections in water shots. We also packed an assortment of neutral density filters for long exposure situations and graduated density filters for sunrises and sunsets.
When the park was founded in 1934, part of the agreement with the local communities was that there be no lodging or restaurants inside the park. As a result, it behooves you to pack a lunch. We made several trips to grocery stores for snacks, fruit, and water to replace morning, mid-day, and evening meals. You can eat when you get home!
And don’t forget those layers! Temperatures can vary as much as 10 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit from lower to upper elevations. We brought shooting gloves, rain gear for us and our cameras, warm caps, and layers of clothing. In a fit of optimism, we also brought sunglasses – and we used them.
Make hay while the sun shines
Prioritize your shot list and don’t put off the photos that require abundant sunlight or clear skies. On a day when we had mostly clear skies, we were able to:
- be up early and in position for a high peaks view of sunrise
- drive across the park to shoot from several vistas and visit two waterfalls in the Deep Creek area
- get in a few shots of an elk herd trying to cross a major park highway near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee, North Carolina
- return to Clingmans Dome at the top of the park for a sunset, and
- stick around to enjoy the clear night air and capture the Milky Way just two hours after sunset.
On overcast days, we found it wise to embrace the fog when we found it, using it as a compositional element. We focused on smaller details in the mountains. The overcast becomes a giant out-of-studio soft box, suitable for closeups of foliage, long exposures of water features, and some people pictures.
Keep it flexible
A key to your shooting strategy is flexibility. Swapping a whole day’s itinerary or part of a day can be quite useful. To do this you must have realistic estimates of how long it takes to get from place A to place B, given sometimes heavy traffic and narrow roads in parts of the park. For example, photographing in Cade’s Cove — a trip back into the 19th century — is going to take you most of a day if you are stopping for some serious photography at the many historical buildings along the 11-mile one-way road. Two smaller roads cut across the loop to shorten it for some visitors, but those cutoffs eliminate visits to a grist mill and other historic structures at the far end of the loop. Traffic can and will come to a stop from time to time.
And you may have to give up parts of your shot list. We were lucky to see some wildlife, but our check box next to ‘people’ on our list didn’t get filled in. Covid created problems beyond our control and the many volunteers and re-enactors at the park’s museums, grist mills, and other sites were either sidelined or working under restrictions including distancing and wearing of masks.
If you understand your physical capabilities, the park’s resources will also help you gauge how much time you will need to hike to some of the more remarkable waterfalls and other features in the park. While some are easily accessible, others require a significant commitment of shoe leather, energy and time to photograph. Doing your homework will pay dividends.
Two other points here. Paper guides, maps, or notes can be important as cell service within the park is spotty to non-existent. And, when you see a restroom, consider using it. They can be far between.
Outside looking in
Generally, when we think of ‘outside the park,’ we are thinking food and lodging. But there are a couple of parkway drives that merit attention for photographers.
Along the western edge of the park in Tennessee, the Foothills Parkway offers some spectacular views of Mount LeConte, Clingmans Dome, and some of the other tallest peaks in the park. For us, it was a well-maintained, twisting two-lane parkway through forests of fall color.
Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina, which intersects the Smokies, can be accessed from the Oconaluftee area near Cherokee.
It also offers some hiking opportunities and plenty of panoramic overlooks for photography. It is actually part of a more complex parkway system connected to Interstate Highway 40, but the southernmost section attracts many visitors exploring the Great Smoky Mountains.
Coming and Going
If you’re flying, the closest major airport is at Knoxville, Tennessee. The McGee-Tyson Airport, south of town, is about 60 minutes from the park entrance at Sugarlands Visitor Center depending on traffic. You can also go north from the airport to intercept Interstate 40 and circle around the eastern edge of the park to access less-visited features in the southeast park area.
The main gateways to the park are Gatlinburg and Townsend, in Tennessee, and Cherokee and Bryson City on the North Carolina side of the park. Gatlinburg and nearby Pigeon Forge are vibrant tourist destinations, with many name-brand hotels, condos, chain restaurants, and indoor and outdoor entertainment distractions. Townsend offers a quieter more outdoorsy feel with motels, grocery, gas, and some restaurants near its own entrance to the park.
On the North Carolina side, Cherokee also offers motels, restaurants and other services near the Oconoluftee River Valley park entrance. It is the capital of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee and offers a museum interpreting the history of the tribe. Picturesque Bryson City sits just outside the Deep Creek entrance to the park and offers restaurants, lodging and a scenic steam railroad operation for historic rail buffs.
Headquarters: Great Smoky Mountain National Park, 107 Park Headquarters Road, Gatlinburg, TN 37738, 865-436-1200
Internet Site: Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Road Conditions: Call: 865-436-1200 x631
Maps: https://www.nps.gov/grsm/planyourvisit/maps.htm The park service recommends you use maps instead of your GPS, which can become confused in the mountains.
Webcams and other information: The webcams are updated every 15 minutes and the site offers air quality and meteorological information.
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