A week ago, I returned from Wears Valley, Tennessee, which is adjacent to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I was there for a family reunion, and of course, to do some nature photography in and around the park. Of all of our national parks, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited with over 9 million visitors a year. Unfortunately, it is also the most polluted park, because it is downwind from major cities, industry, and power plants. The pollution significantly affects visibility and the health of the park’s fauna and flora. Since 1948, visibility has decreased 80 percent in the summer to 40 percent during the winter, or about 20 miles in the summer to 100 miles during the winter. Knowing this, I was concerned about effectively photographing the Great Smoky Mountains. The Smokies get their name from the clouds that blanket the valleys and mountains, not from the pollution that hinders the views.
I arrived Saturday after the fourth of July, and the traffic on the roads near the park was worse than traffic around Washington DC, where I live. The amount of people and cars in and around the park, made it difficult at times to do serious landscape and wildlife photography, because the crowds were at the park’s most popular and beautiful locations. Regardless, the park encompasses over 522,000 acres, making it one of the largest protected areas in the eastern U.S., with plenty of locations to find solitude and beautiful scenes to photograph, like the one above and below in Cades Cove.
One morning, I went to Laurel Falls with some family members from the reunion. It was a perfect morning to photograph the falls since it was overcast and the sunlight filtered. The falls are located 1.25 miles up a mostly paved trail (with many people coming and going). It was a challenge to compose and shoot the below image due to the large number of people at the falls. Notice, there are no people in my image. That is because I typically avoid photographing people and manmade objects. To capture this image, I had to wait patiently (not really) until there were no people or children in the frame.
Using a wide angle lens contributed to the challenge, but it was a necessity to capture the entire falls. I could not step back to open the view/composition because the space in front of the falls was very limited, and there were people everywhere. I shot the below image with my iPhone to capture this memorable moment. Actually, it was not a good memory, but I did enjoy being with the family, and I did get the shot.
After seeing the above photo, you get the picture (people everywhere), and you can better appreciate and understand the challenge of capturing the images in this article. I was expecting the park and surrounding areas to be busy, but it was almost unbearable at times. It was not my vision of an ideal outdoor experience. Nevertheless, I made the best of it, immensely enjoyed the family reunion, and was able to capture some of the park’s spectacular beauty, like the scene below.
One of the most popular locations of park visitors and photographers is Clingmans Dome. It is the tallest peak in the park, towering 6,643 feet, and one of 16 mountain peaks over 6,000 feet. I went there during the day with family members, but I was also there on the “hunt” for the perfect location to photograph a mountain sunrise. After assessing a number of other locations, Clingmans Dome seemed to be the best. Unfortunately, as a sign states at Clingmans Dome, many people (80% of its visitors) are disappointed with the very limited views because of cloud cover, which of course is why the mountains are called the Smokies. Regardless, after seeing the potential, I made plans to shoot the sunrise from the top of Clingmans Dome. Below are three images from Clingmans Dome from my first visit.
The following day, I got up at 4:15 AM to photograph the sunrise from Clingmans Dome. From where I was staying in Wears Valley, it was about a 95 minute drive on dark, winding mountain roads. When I reached the parking lot near the peak, I could see stars in the dark sky. I was excited that the mountain top was not covered in clouds (and people). I could not believe it, I was the only one there. At a minimum, I expected to see other photographers shooting the sunrise.
Knowing that clouds could sweep in quickly and that the sun would be rising very soon, I very quickly hiked, carrying my camera gear and tripod, a half mile up the trail’s steady incline to the viewing platform at the top. It was windy and a cool 53 degrees, and by the time I got to the top, clouds were rapidly moving into my view of where the sun would rise. Clouds already covered the lower mountains and began filling up the sky. I managed to take only a couple shots before the mountain top and view was entirely engulfed in clouds. Unfortunately, it was before the sun rose above the horizon. Nevertheless, the below dawn image is one of my best sunrise photographs. I am having it printed 24″x36″, matted, and framed to hang in my home. Be sure to click on the image to view it full screen.
Within a couple minutes, the entire mountain top and as far as I could see was covered in a thick layer of clouds. As fast as they rolled in, I thought they might clear before the sun rose, but that was not the case. I did see and was able to capture the sun very briefly as it struggled to shine through the thick clouds. As it turned out, that image (below) is also beautiful but in a mystical or mysterious way, and obviously very different than the above image before the clouds completely covered the sky.
If you are wondering why there are so many dead trees in these images, it is because of insects (Balsam Woolly Adelgid (Adelges piceae)) that were introduced in trees from Europe that infest and kill stands of Fraser Fir trees. The insects inject toxins into the tree that block the flow of nutrients, and the trees die of starvation. Fir trees were the dominant tree at high elevations in the lower Appalachian Mountains.
On my last day in the park, I photographed some of the small falls (above and below images) along the Roaring Fork Nature Motor Trail. It too was very busy with visitors, but I managed to locate several small falls where I could take some unobstructed photographs.
I was also very fortunate to see and photograph Elk, Black Bears and their cubs, Wild Turkeys, deer, and a herd of wild horses. Some of those images are below, starting with the Elk. It took awhile, but eventually the Elk stopped feeding and stared at me while I took this image. Below the Elk image is a photograph of the herd of wild horses near the entrance to Cades Cove.
The below images were also taken in Cades Cove. I went there several times, and every time I went, I saw Black Bears. According to the Park Service there are two bears in every square mile of the park, or about 1,500. In the below image, I was driving the oneway road around Cades Cove, when a mother bear was strolling along the road with her three cubs. She followed the barbed wire fence until there was an opening and then led her cubs into the open field.
In the below image, you can see the three cubs in the tall vegetation following their mother, and at one point, one of the cubs stood up to look around.
As you can see in my photos, Black Bears in the park are black, but in other parts of the country they may be brown or cinnamon. They may be six feet in length and up to three feet high at the shoulder. During the summer months, an adult male bear can weigh as much as 250 pounds while adult females are generally smaller and weigh slightly over 100 pounds. Bears typically double their weight by the fall, and male bears over 600 pounds can be found in the park. Unfortunately, I only saw one male bear, which was feeding deep in a heavily wooded area, but when it spotted me, it quickly left. Bears can live 12-15 years or more, however, bears which have had access to human food and garbage have a life expectancy of only half that time. That makes me wonder what our food is doing to us.
During another visit to Cades Cove, a female Black Bear and her two cubs were feeding not too far off the road. The cubs stayed mostly out of sight, but I managed to get one image of the cub standing up to look around. This image is followed by images of the cub’s mother.
I saw several turkeys (some driving cars) and in open fields in and around the park. Below are two images of a female Wild Turkey that I saw in Cades Cove.
Finally, below is one of the deer images that I also took in Cades Cove. This deer was watching me closely as I was photographing a bear. Cades Cove turned out to be an outstanding place to see wildlife.
It has been over a month since my last article on this blog, but it is not due to a lack of photography. I have many images to process and post from other trips, but I wanted to get this one posted first because of the incredible scenery and abundant wildlife that I saw in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. If you have not been there, I highly recommend a visit, but also recommend it not be around a holiday, like the fourth of July, unless you do not mind a lot of people and cars. The best time to visit is in the spring before the large numbers of visitors begin arriving at the park. Obviously, autumn would be perfect to see the fall colors, but it is also one of the busiest times of the year.
The images in this article were photographed with either a Nikon D700 or D800 and a variety of Nikon lenses to include: 16-35mm, 28-300mm, 24-70mm, 70-200mm with a TC20, and 600mm. EXIF data is available by email.
One more item of interest, I was interviewed for the American Wild Bird website in June, and the video of the interview can be seen on the American Wild Bird website home page. If you enjoy photographing birds or just looking at excellent bird photographs, I highly recommend that you visit this website often.
Comments on my blog and this article are appreciated and can be entered below by clicking on “Comments” found below the Like this: section. You can also read other’s comments there.
Loved the photographs, they are beautiful as always! Enjoyed reading your article on the park and for answering the question that I was going to ask about all the dead trees. What an experience to see so much wildlife so close! The bear cubs are adorable but how dangerous are the mother bears?
Thank you for the very positive feedback and comments. It was a great trip with gorgeous landscapes and abundant wildlife. The family reunion was fabulous too with over 40 of my relatives attending. Sharing what I saw and my photography with others, like you, is very rewarding, and the feedback inspirational.
Your pictures are so amazing!!! Thanks a lot for sharing!!!
Another outstanding post Steve, As I said before, the sunrise shots are among the very best that I have ever seen – well worth the significant effort to get them. I really enjoyed reading this post even though I got a bit of a play by play while you were there. Thanks for the American Wild Bird mention too!
I appreciate your comments and very positive feedback. We (3) need to plan a trip to the Smokies next spring.
Great pictures and stories go along with your adventure in the Great Smoky Mountains, Steve. I do really appreciate it very much for your thoroughly researched articles and suggestions where and when to go to shoot good photos. The American Wild Bird video is also nice to watch.
As you probably guessed .. I am drawn to the sunrise from the Clingmans Dome. It is fabulous! The mommy black bear with three young ones along the fenced road.. what a fond memory any one would have! GREAT!
The sunrise photography is absolutely stunning and very marketable. You need to get this out there somehow. Can you imagine this photo filling an entire wall in a professional setting? This would also be great on business cards if you could squeeze it in.
Awesome images and great read Steve! I’d love to get down there more often. Total retirement is just 3 years away and then I will visit these neat places on a more often basis!!!!
Thanks Jim. Total retirement for me is in November! Then, we are moving to Florida shortly after that and traveling on a regular basis. I do not understand people that do not retire, because they do not know what they will do in retirement.
Great Photos – Thank you – Ken Snover
Great pictures, Steve. I’d love to see your enlarged sunrise “picture”. Sorry that you missed the bobcat! Love, Joe
I really enjoyed your beautiful photos, Stephen! I have been to Cades Cove twice, but it was a long time ago. So glad to see the abundant wildlife. Nothing cuter than bear cubs! Glad you got such a beautiful sunrise photo – just in the nick of time. It will be incredible displayed in your home!
Thank you for the comments Karen. Cades Cove was one of the highlights of the park, and since you have been there, you know how beautiful and unspoiled it is. The early settlers that made it home lived in a gorgeous and bountiful location.
Enjoyed the video interview on American Wild Bird! I will have to spend some time looking around the site!
Thanks for the tour of the Smokies.That was a nice trip with lots of beautiful pictures.
Beautiful pictures – The Great Smokies are really gorgeous!
Love the pictues and comments and I fully agree with “them”. What a difference from the “scenery” here in flat Florida and many funkies. As long as we’re on th F’s, let me add one more FABULOUS.
I’ll say it again……absolutely eautiful photogtraphy. These are marketable.
Amazing photos especially the long exposure water ones !
Reblogged this on Clover's pages and commented:
The beautiful Smokey Mountains and some of its wildlife.
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We are so blessed to live near enough to visit the Smokey’s often. Your photos are beautiful!
Thanks for sharing!
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Thanks for sharing your photos, they are beautiful. I have never been to the park in the summer, but I can only imagine how crowded it is. I usually try to avoid peak season but even at off-peak times the traffic around Gatlinburg can be very bad. Hiking some of the longer trails is a good way to get away from the worst of the crowds, and there are some great long trails in the park. At my blog I’ve published a detailed guide to photographing the park – https://loadedlandscapes.com/great-smoky-mountains-national-park/
Have been going to Cades Cove for many years,the last few years I find that it is too overcrowded to be enjoyable. Too many traffic jams for me.