While summer is still with us, it’s not too early to start thinking about good spots for fall photography, particularly if you happen to live in a northerly latitude. Luckily, one of the best in America is within a day’s drive of more than one-third of the nation’s population: Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Popularly called “The Smokies,” this big park is split equally between Tennessee and North Carolina. Three gateway towns provide access: Cherokee, North Carolina, in the south; the combined area of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, on the northern edge; and the small, quiet village of Townsend, Tennessee, bordering the northwest corner of the Smokies. All offer a wide variety of lodgings and restaurants to suit every budget and taste with Gatlinburg being a bustling tourist mecca.
If you are keeping to the main roads, a photo trip to the Smokies can be broken down into four primary areas.
In the northwestern corner of the park is extremely popular Cades Cove. You can see what this lovely pastoral valley has to offer by driving the 12-mile, one-way loop road. The winding track is studded with well-preserved cabins, churches and mills of the long-departed “mountain folk” (early settlers), and white-tailed deer and wild turkeys abound. Don’t miss the Tipton Place with its cantilever barn on the south side of the loop. If you feel like a hike, drive past the Cades Cove Visitor Center and head out for Abrams Falls—about five miles round-trip.
- The east-west park road between Townsend and Gatlinburg runs right along the photogenic bank of the Little River. In autumn, brilliant splashes of red, yellow and orange foliage reflect in the calm eddies of the river. Near the eastern end of this road is the trailhead for the easy hike to lovely Laurel Falls—definitely worth the walk.
- At the Sugarlands Visitor Center, just south of Gatlinburg, turn north into town and then east off Park Way at stoplight #8, and then follow the signs for the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Spend most of a day meandering this quiet and scenic enclave preserved in its natural state on the very edge of hectic Gatlinburg. Two highlights that should not be missed are the Bud Ogle cabin right at the beginning of the drive and the three-mile hike to Grotto Falls.
The main route bisecting the park is the Newfound Gap Road (US Rt. 441), which connects Gatlinburg in the north with Cherokee, North Carolina, in the south. Every one of the pullouts and parking lots along this road has something unique to offer, so try them all. My own favorites are Webb Overlook, Mingus Mill close to Cherokee, and the seven-mile side road up to the summit of Clingman’s Dome. Just past the Oconaluftee Visitor Center is the southern end of the 470-mile Blue Ridge Parkway that takes you all the way up to Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.
Since a great deal of the best photography in the Smokies involves wooded areas and waterfalls, you will be hoping for cloudy bright skies or some overcast rather than a lot of bright sun, which can detract from your shots. If you are interested in hiking, try the steep Chimney Tops Trail or the semi-steep Alum Cave Bluffs Trail. Both trailheads are found along Newfound Gap Road and each is about four miles round-trip.
Jerry Ginsberg is a widely published freelance photographer and co-founder of Master Image Workshops. He has photographed all 59 U.S. national parks as well as most of South America with medium-format cameras. More of Jerry’s work can be seen at www.MasterImageWorkshops.com, which also lists tours to national parks led by Jerry or photographer Kerrick James. Jerry’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org.