Autumn in the Great Smoky Mountains
Half way around the world from where I am this season, the Appalachian Mountains sit and promise to put on a wonderful show again as they have for millions of years. Within the Appalachian Mountain range are the famed Great Smoky Mountains and the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The entire region comes ablaze in the autumn with color.
For photographers and leaf-peepers, I truly believe there is no better place to be in autumn on the East Coast. Side note, the Smokies are my favorite spot any time of year and I have been visiting them since I was a small child, so I could be a bit bias in my view of them.
The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited National Park in the park system with over 11 million visitors a year! That is a lot of people rambling through small bi-ways and filling parking lots in the most popular areas. Through this article I hope to give you, the readers, an insider's look at some often overlooked areas of these popular (understatement) geographic icons.
Peak visitation usually occurs during fall foliage change so please plan accordingly. This means booking accommodations further out than you might in other times of the year and bringing your patience with you when on the road or waiting on services, such as at restaurants. My go-to place to stay is Tremont Outdoor Resort. With tent, RV, and cabins available, it is the closest lodging to the edge of the National Park and the people are always super friendly.
Timing is important and understanding the effects elevation has on the timing and speed of change helps. Lucky for us, we are living in an age of technology. Utilize prediction websites such as the one on SmokyMountains.com to help target your visit with peak viewing in the areas you wish to see.
As I said, these mountain areas I'm going to share with you are some of my favorite and where I go when I need to reconnect with nature, photography, and myself. Please respect them and the other creatures you will share the area with when visiting! Learn about Leave No Trace principles here if you are not already familiar with them or if you need a refresher.
By far, my go-to location in all seasons, this place is slowly becoming more popular as more people recognize the treasures hidden on the "Peaceful Side of the Smokies." During autumn there is so much that can be captured in the area, everything from the obvious fall color landscapes to macro work, reflections, and all the waterfalls and river scenes you could possibly want.
Location tip: Even though this area is not as busy as other more popular places, plan your trip during mid-week as parking in these areas tend to be smaller and can fill quickly on weekends.
Photo tip: Make sure you bring a tripod! Working under a canopy of beautiful leaves will restrict the lighting. To get silky water or to get tack sharp images early/late in the day (without introducing excessive noise from elevated ISO), a tripod is an absolute necessity. I love my Zomei travel tripod!
Within the Tremont area there are three particular spots or trails I really like. Spruce Flats Falls is always my first stop if the light is good for waterfall photography. This image was taken in the spring, but I show you it as I love the falls. I just have not gotten an autumn image of the falls, yet, that I really love.
A bit deeper into the area, there are a multitude of cascades on the Middle Prong River. A photographer can spend all day finding various compositions up and down this section of river and never get bored. The classic subject in this area is a wide flat rock in the bend of the river that creates a nice horseshoe looking fall. Despite this, I find, as the years have passed, getting a good shot of that is becoming more difficult as the trees continue to grow, and thus forcing us photographers to find new classics. Just another opportunity for more adventures!
At the end of the road, it dead ends into a trail head parking area for Lynn Camp Prong Trail. Cascades, waterfalls, and fall foliage abound here. The trail is 3.7 miles one way, but take a look at hiking maps of the area as it connects with several other trails within the park which could expand your photographic exploration of the area.
Gear tip: Due to the relatively gentle streams that flow here, I tend to get my feet wet quite a bit when in the Smokies. Since no-one really likes hiking with wet socks, I have used Neos Overshoes with great success. If you are looking for a more compact option, my friend and amazing international photographer, Nick Page, recommends NRS Boundary socks with hydrocuffs. These are next on my list of gear to purchase and try.
Cataloochee Valley, North Carolina
Best known for being the spot where elk were reintroduced into the Smoky Mountains in the early 2000s, Cataloochee Valley is a premier location for wildlife viewing. During the fall foliage change, the elk start their rut season as well. This can lead to some exciting moment as the males battle and bugle throughout the valley.
Location note: Always be aware of your surroundings and never leave food/trash unattended! Here the wildlife is not afraid of people and elk can be dangerous, especially during rut. Follow all posted signs and regulations, including keeping a minimum distance from the animals - even if they approach you. A friendly animal is a dead animal. Don't be the reason one of these creatures has to be put down.
Photo tip: Go early in the morning to get mist rising through the herd and, if cold enough, visible breath as they bugle. As with much wildlife photography, anticipate the animals movements and use patience to get the shot that you are envisioning.
Follow the road through the valley keeping an eye out for other wildlife such as turkey and the late season bear. When you get to the end, there is another parking area for the Rough Fork trail. At two miles to the historic Woody House, it is a gentle trail with a few bridges crossing Cove Creek.
This is where I fell in love with Intentional Camera Movement (ICM). I was having a hard time capturing how walking through the color filled woods felt to me and in an attempt to try something new, figured I would just play with my settings for a bit. Maybe it is the enjoyment I get from impressionistic paintings, or how I know my mom loves impressionistic art, but I found ICM really helped visually capture how I felt autumn should look like. I now try these methods in other situations with varied results, and here are a few from my collection so far. The rest of the collection can be viewed here.
Photo tip: If you are feeling stuck or are wanting a change of pace, try something new. Whether that is trying to shoot a different subject, focusing on using just one lens, or trying new techniques, such as ICM or long exposures. Fall is an great time to try one of these techniques and you never know what you might create.
Overall, these places are excellent shooting locations in all seasons. However, Autumn's special display only enhances the charms found here. As always, I hope this helps you plan your next adventure and that you come away with amazing shots. Cheers until next time!
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