Photographer’s Paradise

Fall FoliageThe Smoky Mountains truly are a photographers paradise.  From the wildlife that roams the area to the plants that help to make up the ecosystem to the formation of the mountains themselves, there is always something to take a picture of.  Getting out in the wilderness, driving through Cades Cove or taking one of the many hikes in the Smokies gets you into an environment to capture tremendous pictures.  If you are a photog, if you are someone that enjoys taking pictures, the Smokies hold all the wonder and excitement that you will be able to stand.

What to Bring:

  • SLR or DSLR Camera – Bring your phone camera for snapshots but if you are wanting to capture the best images that you can find, bring a good camera.  Also, if you are wanting to learn to use your camera and have a blast while you experiment,  the Smokies are one of the best places to break in new gear.
  • Tripod – For sunsets and low light conditions you are going to want a tripod.  The sunrises and sunsets in the Smoky Mountains are spectacular and a tripod will allow you to get those still images of the mountains that you will be showing off for years to come.
  • Hiking Boots and Clothes – Get off the beaten path.  If you see a tree that needs to have a picture taken of it.  Get out of the car and get up close.  Pull on the hiking boots and clothes that you don’t mind getting dirty and take a hike with your camera in hand.
  • Picnic and Plenty of Water – If you are really serious about taking pictures, you are going to be out in the wild for a while.  Bring a lunch and plenty of water and spend the day out in the elements.

Somethings to keep in Mind:

  1. If you can see it from your car… so has everyone else.  Get out of the car and get a different perspective on the scene you want to capture.
  2. Those baby bears are cute but I would bet that there mother is close by.
  3. Elk are not deer – they are bigger and much meaner.  They will charge you.
  4. Don’t be afraid to get dirty.  Changing your perspective might mean the difference between a good picture and a great picture.
  5. If you have a macro lens, you have found your new home.  The opportunities for a macro photographer are second to none in the Smoky Mountains.  From insects and amphibians to plants and wildflowers, the shots are endless.

Stargazing in the Smokies

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a very quiet place at night, which is good for all you stargazers out there.  It’s a totally different world as most people leave, the cars seem fewer and far between and most of the animals have gone in for the night. Nothing to see, right? Wrong. In fact, you could argue that there is even more to see at night than during the day.  Stargazing in the Smokies is a great way to get to know the natural elements of the Smoky Mountains minus all the daily visitors

The term “celestial wildlife” comes to mind when talking about stargazing in the Smoky Mountains.  Stars that are usually hidden due to city lights are seen majestically undeterred.  Orion’s belt seems to be accessorized by additional stars.  Ursa Major and Ursa Minor come into clear view and their resemblance to a large bear is more distinct. From any of the observation points in the Smoky Mountains, or from any backcountry vantage point, the night sky opens up as you leave the vestiges of civilization and work your way towards the Smokies.  Speaking of vantage points, Newfound Gap Trailhead, which doubles as a parking area for one of the most hiked portions of the Appalachian Trail, is a prime spot to stargaze in the Smokies.

Newfound Gap Trailhead is void of any street lights and there are no cities close enough to muddy up the sky at night. At night, the parking lot is usually vacant with the exception of a few cars and the passing cars won’t affect your night vision. Once you reach the trailhead, go to the furthest end of the parking lot, dim the lights and wait for your eyes to adjust to the darkness.  Then you’ll slowly start to see some eye-popping sights in the night sky.  This parking lot is 6,000 feet above sea level so you may want to pack a coat if you decide to stargaze in the early spring or fall. For example, if it’s 60 degrees in Pigeon Forge, then it will be at least 10 degrees cooler in the Smokies.

The moon and its position in the night sky is another thing to keep in mind.  The moon at its peak is ten times brighter in the Smoky Mountains than the stars.  A full moon on top of the mountain is a spectacular sight to behold but if you’re planning on looking at stars keep the phase of the moon in mind. A new moon is the perfect time to see the most stars. Sans a full moon, your view of the stars will be unobstructed and your stargazing trip to the Great Smoky Mountains will be complete.  If you want to see an amazing moonrise, then get to the summit early during a full moon and it will bright enough to read by.

Because of the lack of lights on the mountain it is possible to take pictures of this starry expanse.  You will need to turn the flash off on your camera and you will have to use fairly long exposures.  Long exposures (one and half to two minutes minimum) will produce star lines on the exposure.  The Earth’s constant movement in relation to the unmovable positions of the stars causes the star lines. This is what you want.  Lots of light into the camera and giving the camera enough time to absorb the light you are letting it will make the outline of the trees hazy and the stars will be small streaks in the sky.  You’ll need to use a tripod to eliminate movement of the camera.

If you are looking for an after-hours opportunity for your family to enjoy something they may not get to see anywhere else, get out of the cabin or hotel room, pack up the cool weather gear and head to the top of the Smokies, or a place like Cades Cove.  Put a sleeping bag on the hood of your car, lean back and enjoy the view.  Instead of looking at the gorgeous mountains below the heavens, turn your eyes upward and look at the stars.

Fall Foliage

Fall officially begins in September and, though it’s a little early to know for sure, foliage should put on quite a show this year. Though it has been dry lately, usually a negative when it comes to fall color, the next few weeks will determine just how much color we will have.

We need bright sunny days and cool nights–without too much frost or freezing temperatures–to trap the sugars in the leaves, which give us the best reds and most vibrant colors. However, small pockets of color will remain into November–something to consider when deciding whether to fight the unbelievable crowds in certain areas of the Park.

Nature At Its Best – Fall Color Guide To The Smokies

Leaves change colors when trees stop producing chlorophyll–the food producing stuff that keeps the leaves green all summer. When the chlorophyll is gone, the other brilliant colors emerge.Elevation plays a key role in determining when the fall spectacle occurs. At the highest elevations–4,500 to 6,000 feet–colors can begin turning in mid-September, when the yellow birch, American beech, and mountain maple begin to turn. During the first two weeks of October, leaves are at their peak colors above 4,000 feet. The remaining weeks of October present the Smokies at their very best for color. The sugar maple, scarlet oak, sweetgum (our favorite), red maple, and dogwood explode with color.

Though most people don’t question why the Smokies are so beautiful in the Fall–they just enjoy it–it’s interesting to know that the remarkable variety of trees are responsible for the autumn show. Nearly 100 species of trees–most deciduous–offer up their contribution to the timing and palette of the Fall spectacular.

A Sample of Tree Varieties and What They Have To Offer

The sweetgum is a favorite because it offers several colors including reds, purples, and yellow. These trees are found mostly in the lower elevations along streams and will peak mid-to-late October.

The scarlet oak gives us a brilliant scarlet color and can be found in the low-to-mid elevations.

The sugar maple can be found all the way to 4,000 foot elevations and presents yellows and oranges for our enjoyment. These trees proliferate in the Sugarlands Valley, where pioneers tapped them for maple syrup.

The red maple gives us reds and yellows and ranges up to 6,000 feet. The Park boasts the world’s largest red maple, which is 23 feet in circumference and is 135 feet tall.

The flowering dogwood evolves to a deep red color and can be found anywhere in the lush woods below 3,000 feet.

Where To Find Them

You can find the brilliant Fall colors everywhere in the Smokies. In fact, you can find your Fall “fix” of color on the way to the Smokies–something done by many because of the bumper-to-bumper traffic in certain areas of the Park. For example, the most popular spot in the most popular national park is Cades Cove, which might be the major spot to avoid if you don’t like muffler exhaust with your Fall colors.Cataloochee, on the eastern side of the Park, is much less crowded at any time because its away from the most traveled routes to and from the Park. It’s on the North Carolina side of the Park and is a little harder to reach than popular spots like Cades Cove. If you are coming from the north and places like Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville, take Highway 321 north to Interstate 40, and then east towards Asheville. Get off at exit 20 and take Cove Creek Road. Follow the signs 11 miles to Cataloochee.

If you are coming from the south or from Cherokee, North Carolina, take I-40 to exit 20 and follow the signs 11 miles to Cataloochee. The trip from Cherokee is estimated by Park officials as being 82 miles round-trip and can take up to four hours.

From the Gatlinburg, travel through the Park via Newfound Gap Road (the major road which traverses the Park) nearly to Cherokee (approximately 32 miles), and take the Blue Ridge Parkway (just after the Oconoluftee Visitor Center and the Mountain Farm Museum but before leaving the Park for Cherokee) for about 13 miles. Exit the Parkway to U.S. 19 and turn towards Asheville. Follow U.S. 19 through Maggie Valley and then north on Highway 276. Just before the entrance to I-40, turn left and follow the signs 11 miles to Cataloochee.

It’s worth the trouble getting to Cataloochee because it will be a new experience even for those who visit the Park
on a regular basis; it offers the same spectacular color show you will find elsewhere in the Park; and it’s bound to be less crowded even during peak color periods.

Rich Mountain. From Townsend, follow the signs to the Great Smokies and Cades Cove. You will dead-end. Turn right and you will be headed to Cades Cove on Laurel Creek Road. It’s approximately 7 miles to the entrance to Cades Cove.