The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a paradise for landscape and wildlife photographers. It hosts nine million visitors per year, making it the most visited national park in the United States. The Smokies total approximately half a million acres split evenly between Tennessee and North Carolina. They boast 70 miles of trails and 97 historic Appalachian buildings. The area is also one of the only five Deciduous Forests in the world teaming with white-tailed deer, black bears, elk, turkey and lungless lizards. But the Smokies’ massive size and biodiversity provides a challenge to any photographer, fledgling or seasoned, so we’ve put together a guide that will help you pick the best viewpoints and seasons to shoot in.
Part I: Seasonal Snapshots
Spring weather is completely unpredictable: sunny skies can produce freezing rain or snow flurries in a couple of hours, especially in higher elevations. Wildflowers pop up in the lower elevation in late March, where temperatures are usually between 41°F and 61°F. Bears emerge from their dens scrawny from a long, hard winter. In April and May, the weather is milder, flirting with the 70s and 80s. Four inches of rain make waterfalls and rivers look their best. The annual Spring Wildflower Pilgrimage is also held.
Summer brings the heat, haze and humidity, with temperatures usually in the 90s. Afternoon and evening showers, as well as severe thunderstorms, are common weather conditions. Newborn fawns can be spotted in Cades Cove in early June. By July, bucks begin growing antlers and by August, they begin separating into bachelor groups. Early morning fog carpets the Cove, and bears are extremely active.
September brings Monarch butterflies and broad-winged hawks. Cloudless skies and chilly weather signal the onset of the fall color season. The red, yellow and orange foliage usually reaches its peak around the third to fourth week of October. Warm days, in the 70s and 80s, alternate with cool nights. By November, deer are in their prime and bears have fattened up and are headed for their dens. Snow and hoar frost are possible.
Winter is generally moderate: forty-five days are in the 50s or higher. Nighttime temperatures usually dip below freezing, and one inch of snow occurs one to five times per year in the lower elevations. The higher elevations often get hit with two feet. Deer in the Cove are a sure bet and can be seen better through the threadbare trees. By January, white-tailed bucks sport antlers, which they drop before spring.
Part II: Location Guide
Cades Cove, a lush six-mile valley tucked between pine-covered mountains, is one of the most popular photography destinations in the Smoky Mountains. This visitor hot spot has an 11-mile, single lane road that opens at 10 am. It also offers some of the best opportunities to snap pictures of white-tailed squirrels, river otters, mountain lions, beavers and Monarch butterflies, which migrate through the park in autumn on their way to Michoacan, Mexico. A wide array of historic buildings dating back to 1821, such as Primitive Baptist Church and Carter Shields Cabin, dot the Cove. You’ll want to take a polarizer to slash the glare from their windows and wet walls, especially during March which is the wettest month of the year. The early morning fog, perfect for decreasing background clutter, also tends to drape around these structures in the early morning. You’ll want to spot meter the fog by opening up one stop when shooting in manual mode.
Little River Road
Little River Road, 17 miles long, stretches from the “Y” in Townsend to the Surgarlands Visitor Center. The area is home to 1,500 different species of wildflowers, which look their best in light rain or when the sky is overcast. The ambient light is equalized and the flowers are more intense in color. If you have to shoot during an extremely sunny day, though, use a diffuser, and a gold, white or silver reflector like the Profoto White Beauty Dish, which produces a more natural light than flash. Meigs Falls, The Sinks and Laurel Falls are also located in this area.
Enclosed by mountains, visiting Cataloochee requires an 11 mile trip on narrow, winding roads. Historic structures include Beech Grove School, Caldwell Cemetery, Hannah Cabin and Little Cataloochee Church. Elk, usually active during the early mornings and evenings, roam the fields in Cataloochee Valley. During mating season (September to early October), male elk’s bugling calls can be heard more than a mile away. The largest bulls also use their 40-pound antlers to spar and intimidate other males, making for a wonderful photographic opportunity. Caution: you shouldn’t get too close, come between a mother and calf, cut off an escape route to a safer area or feed animals. A simple solution is to use a telephoto lens, like the 4.5-5.6L IS II USM Telephoto Zoom Lens, while wearing camouflage, hiding behind foliage or using a photography hide.
Clingmans Dome, usually closed December 1-April 1, is the highest peak in the Smokies at 6,643 feet. It’s also the location of the endangered Spruce-Fir Forest: the natural habitat of exotic species such as rock gnome lichens and spruce–fir moss spiders. The skeletons of Fraiser Firs, victims of the balsam wooly adelgid, consume the area. Clingmans Dome’s 54-foot observation tower offers “the classic Smokies” scene. With a 360° view, it’s ideal for sunset and sunrise landscapes. To capture an alpenglow, the rosy light of the setting or rising sun, you’ll need to set up 30 minutes before sunrise or sunset. You’ll also want to use a tripod to keep your horizon lines level and prevent the howling wind from vibrating your camera’s body.
The six-mile Roaring Fork’s Motor Nature Trail is only minutes away from downtown Gatlinburg, and is open from March 25-November 27. It features patches of old-growth forest, well-preserved wooden barns, stone corn houses and gushing mountain streams. Roaring Forks has two major waterfalls: Rainbow Falls and a Place of a Thousand Drips. So, you’ll want to drag along a wide-angle camera to capture the multitude of rivulets.
Newfound Gap Road
Newfound Gap Road stretches along U.S. Highway 441. It is a 33-mile drive from Cherokee, North Carolina to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. It’s also the only route that completely runs through the Smoky Mountains, so naturally, it’s the most heavily trafficked area of the Park. Newfound Gap Road provides access to Mount Le Conte, the Chimneys, Morton Overlook and Oconaluftee Overlook. At these locations, you’ll notice the swirling “smoke” that defines the Park’s namesake, but really is just haze, pollution and water vapor. These elements soften the sun into a red ball, but you’ll still need to wait to snap pictures until you can look directly at it without squinting. If you have to squint, there will probably be sun spots or lens flare in your photos. Cameras with zoom are the most prone to lens flare, so use a fixed focal length or macro lens, which is the most resistant. Strong images can also be shot in the eye of a storm if the clouds break, revealing ridgelines and pine trees.
The Smoky Mountains are the Salamander Capital of the World. If it’s overcast, sprinkling or pouring sheets, the conditions are perfect for capturing pictures of the 40 species of turtles, frogs and snakes that crawl, hop and slither along Tremont’s forest floor. This three-mile stretch features the Middle Prong Little River and Lower Spruce Flat Falls. It’s also the location of the Smoky Mountain Institute that provides educational courses, such as wilderness medicine and wildlife photography.
Mingo Falls, also known as Big Bear Falls, is located on the Cherokee Indian Reservation. It cascades nearly 120 feet down giant, granite boulders, making it one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the Smokies. The hike to Mingo Falls, however, is grueling and requires climbing 161 steps.