Great Smokey Mountains National Park

Bump: Autumn in the Smokies paints these venerable mountains with a riot of brilliant colors.
Bump: Autumn in the Smokies paints these venerable mountains with a riot of brilliant colors.

Story & photos by Jerry Ginsberg

The Basics

It doesn’t have the granite domes of Yosemite or the geysers of Yellowstone, but Great Smoky Mountains National Park attracts over 11 million visitors each year making it the most popular in the nation. That’s more than Yosemite, Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks combined.

There are three reasons for this great magnetism.

First, the Great Smoky Mountains are nestled in the Appalachian chain straddling the North Carolina – Tennessee state line within just a day’s drive of a third or more of our nation’s total population.

Next, the Smokies have a tremendous breadth of scenic variety and bio-diversity.

Third, this big park is just plain gorgeous!

Smokies Reflection: Brilliant autumn color reflecting in the many streams can make for some lovely impressionistic images.
Smokies Reflection: Brilliant autumn color reflecting in the many streams can make for some lovely impressionistic images.

Timing

Photographically speaking, the most productive times to go to the Smokies are in spring and autumn.  

  • April when the wildflowers begin to explode and May & June when the azaleas, rhododendrons and other big flowers are in bloom, painting the hills and “balds” in brilliant hues of crimson
    and
  •  October for an explosion of autumn foliage as these once clear-cut second growth forests prepare for the onset of winter.

After many trips to these mountains in all seasons, I have learned that a very productive time for me has consistently been the last weekend of October. That is approximately when the autumn color hits its peak. The major downside to this strategy is that a million other “leaf peepers” have the very same idea. That means that the winding roads through the park, already slow going, can slow to a crawl when packed with traffic.

It’s still the best compromise; just requires us to allow some extra time and have lots of patience behind the wheel.

Cole Cabin:  Roaring Fork is one of the most intimate spots around. This type of log cabin, primitive by modern standards, was the standard of the day prior to the national park being established.
Cole Cabin: Roaring Fork is one of the most intimate spots around. This type of log cabin, primitive by modern standards, was the standard of the day prior to the national park being established.

Getting Around

Before we get into specific locations, let’s first divide the park’s road system into four basic chunks.*

1 – Newfound Gap Road (US Rt. 441) running north – south between Cherokee, NC and Gatlinburg, TN. Don’t miss the spur road to the summit of Clingman’s Dome.

2 – The park road roughly paralleling the Little River from Gatlinburg to Cade’s Cove. Also explore the southbound spur road to Tremont and beyond.

3 – Cade’s Cove one way loop road. The slowest going of all. To get a bit of a jump on both the light and the traffic, line up at the locked gate at least 60-90 minutes before the posted opening time.

4 – The Roaring Fork Motor Trail on the east side of downtown Gatlinburg.

Each one of these paved tracks offers a multitude of shooting locations right along its path.

These include the historic log cabins, grist mills, churches and graveyards of the ‘mountain folk’ who were mostly moved out when the park was created in 1934, several short, but lovely waterfalls and scenic lookouts from which to enjoy some terrific grand scenics of these vast mountains of blue smoke and spectacular forests as their many layers recede into the distance.

If you have the time, think about also taking in the Deep Creek area accessed through Bryson City, NC. Getting to Deep Creek requires exiting the park, driving around the edge on Rt. 19 and the re-entering through the town. Make sure to obey local speed limits.

One of the many compelling reasons to attend NANPA’s 2020 Nature Photography Celebration is that it will be held close to the Smokeys, in Asheville, NC, April 19 – 21. And, just before the Celebration, you can join Hank Erdmann exploring this spectacular park at NANPA’s Great Smokey Mountains Regional Event, April 16 – 19. Start making your plans now, and register before the Regional Event fills up! .

Glowing sunset from atop Clingman’s Dome, highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains. Reached by a short drive off Newfound Gap Road.
Glowing sunset from atop Clingman’s Dome, highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains. Reached by a short drive off Newfound Gap Road.

Favorite Shooting Spots

Among my favorite and most productive spots are:

  • Clingman’s Dome
  • Laurel Falls
  • Roaring Fork & Grotto Falls
  • Cable Mill & the cabins of
  • Cade’s Cove
  • Deep Creek Overlook
  • Tremont – Creek at the end of the unpaved road

For some good hiking, try the 3.6 mile round trip walk from the Clingman’s Dome parking lot to Andrews Bald. If you’re here in mid-late spring, you might find some great flowering shrubbery here to serve as a foreground. Another favorite hike is the trail to 80 foot high Rainbow Falls. This trail begins right off the Roaring Fork Motor Trail. Watch for the small sign and parking area. On sunny days, your chances of capturing namesake rainbows here in the afternoon are pretty good. Be prepared for a somewhat strenuous hike of about 5.5 miles round trip.

The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is a narrow road through a calm and serene area of wilderness located right alongside bustling Gatlinburg, TN. Rushing mountain streams punctuate the landscape.
Roaring Fork tumbles over rocks and autumn leaves in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN – NC.

The Creatures

Cade’s Cove offers sightings of long time denizens like white tail deer and wild turkeys. A few years ago, elk, who had been gone for a while, were re-introduced into Cade’s Cove. Packing your long lenses will help with these big quadrupeds. Being here in autumn might allow you to witness the rut when they, along with the bulls’ very impressive antlers, are in prime condition.

As you explore more deeply into the Great Smokies keep a sharp eye out for the black bears who make their homes here. They are far more intent on avoiding us than the reverse. If you are lucky enough to see any of these huge, but timid creatures with their thick, glossy black coats glistening in the sun, your glimpse is likely to be a fleeting one.

Recently the very first armadillo was observed in the park. While this species generally wants to avoid cold temperatures, at least one was captured on video here last summer. Don’t count on seeing one, however.

John Oliver Cabin: As the very first worthwhile stop along the Cade’s Cove loop road, it is possible to be here while the light is still soft and warm if you can line up at the gate very early.
John Oliver Cabin: As the very first worthwhile stop along the Cade’s Cove loop road, it is possible to be here while the light is still soft and warm if you can line up at the gate very early.

Close-ups

In addition to the many big scenes and megafauna discussed above, the Smokies are famous for their small creatures and flora. So bring your macro lens or extension tubes and be prepared to think small. Just some of the other creatures found here include unique salamanders and the now famous population of fireflies.

Aside from the big flowering shrubs mentioned above, this park is also lady’s slipper habitat. These lovely and hardy members of the orchid family are small and not always easy to spot. I have seen some in all of their colorful glory growing right above a smelly dumpster near a visitor center. You never know.

If you’re someone who doesn’t mind crawling around in the ooze to capture some great images of tiny subjects, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the place to be.

Seen from the Newfound Gap Road just south of Gatlinburg, TN, Mt. Le Conte is a popular stop for lots of drivers.
Seen from the Newfound Gap Road just south of Gatlinburg, TN, Mt. Le Conte is a popular stop for lots of drivers.

Logistics

It’s never easy to decide where to stay when visiting the Smokies.

Each location seems to have pros and cons. Laidback Townsend, TN is convenient to Cade’s Cove, but quite a drive to everywhere else. Cherokee, NC on the south side of the Smokies is pleasant, but always feels a bit out of the way. The tourist magnet of Gatlinburg, TN has the most central location and perhaps the widest selection of motels, but is perennially choked with frustrating traffic. Just north of Gatlinburg is Pigeon Forge, home of popular Dollywood.      With its wide thoroughfares and express bypass directly to the national park entrance, Pigeon Forge might well be the most favorable option.

Wherever you go, you’ll find countless meal options ranging from local fare to just about every national chain under the sun.

Jerry Ginsberg is a multi-award winning photographer whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s National Parks with medium format cameras, has been awarded Artistic Residencies in several National Parks and has appeared on ABC TV advising on the National Parks. His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition.

Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America as well as UNESCO World Heritage many other fascinating sites around the world. More of Ginsberg’s images are on display at www.JerryGinsberg.com Or e mail him at jerry@jerryginsberg.com