I had an opportunity to visit the Great Smoky Mountains for a few days this past fall, which in a way brought my landscape photography journeys full circle as this was the place of my first official photography trip back in 2006. Previous to that first grand adventure, I spent weeks pouring over detailed guidebooks to make sure I visited the most optimum places for photography in the park. Conversely, on this trip I spent almost zero time in preparations.
The primary purpose of this photo excursion was to capture the fall colors of the Pisgah National Forest in western North Carolina. Ultimately, my timing did not work out for the best. From what I could tell, it was a down year all along the east coast for fall color with no symmetry in foliage changes. There were very few ‘peak’ trees while most were either unchanged, totally brown or leafless. It took about 2 hours of driving through the forest for me to figure out that I needed some new scenery. Enter Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
I headed right to one of my favorite areas of the park that I visited in ’06 – the Big Creek Trail. En route…the mountain sides had marginal color and I didn’t have high hopes of finding prime scenery. What I did know, however, was that if I hiked back a couple of miles and gained some elevation there could be a huge difference in the color of the foliage. I was right! A four mile, late afternoon hike yieled some fantastic results with the picture below representing the most diverse and peak group of colors I saw during my travels.
After spending the night at the trail head I ventured deeper into the heart of the park arriving around lunch time the following day at Gatlinburg, TN. As expected, the traffic and crowds were thick and despite it’s small size and my familiarity with the city; navigating to some of the adjacent areas in the park was still tricky.
I ended up on Newfound Gap Road, which travels up the mountain and over the top of the park ending in its southern terminus just outside of Cherokee, North Carolina. For those of you who don’t know, the Great Smoky Mountains NP gets more visitors than any other national park and autumn is its peak season. Luckily, there were no bears as there were on my last visit in ’06, which can cause massive traffic jams as inconsiderate drivers stop in already congested areas for long periods to see the animals.
Still, finding places to shoot and pull off the road with so much traffic was tricky. The foliage was spotty as was the light and parking and the constant stream of vehicles in both directions created smog that lingered in the valley below the mountains rugged peaks.
I arrived that afternoon in Cherokee eventually making my way over to the charming mountain town of Bryson City, NC. After a late afternoon hike I enjoyed a delicious meal and excellent service at Bryson City Cork and Bean.
After another night at a trailhead I ventured out at sunrise on the Rowland Creek Trail – a remote area of the park that I had not previously visited or researched. As chance would have it, the light and conditions worked out well and spent most of the morning hiking up and down a portion of trail, getting my feet wet in the creek, and enjoying the quiet breezes of solitude and tremendous autumn weather. It was a wonderful day!
Altogether, I spent about 3 days and two nights in the park and explored several other trails in different areas, but the two aforementioned trails were the only two that were bountiful in terms of photography for this year. It was another short, but spellbinding trip and despite the park’s popularity it is very easy to find solitude in the 100′s of miles of trails and watersheds in the area.