The Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddles the border of Tennessee and North Carolina, encompassing over 500,000 acres of protected land, with the Appalachian trail cutting through its heart. It is the most visited national park as well as a UNESCO world heritage site, honors which it deserves for many reasons. A true American treasure, the magic of the Smokies lies in its deep historical roots, its incredible diversity of plant and animal life and stunning landscapes. As a professional nature photographer, I have been fortunate to experience the wonder of the Smokies several times. Over the succeeding posts, I will be expanding on the initial post and offering you unique insight into what makes the Great Smoky Mountains and the surrounding areas so special. The inclusion of my images will aid in telling the perpetually captivating story of the Smokies and help you in planning your visit.
No introduction to the Smokies would not be complete without emphasis on how dramatically different each geographical region of the park is from the next, a seldom encountered feature in a national park. Exploration of the mountainous areas is best accomplished by spending the majority of one’s stay at Gatlinburg, a bustling town at the northern edge of the park (see the official National Park Service map here), allowing for firsthand experience of the rich, warm Southern Appalachian culture. With minutes to the park entrance, a leisurely drive from Gatlinburg climbing south along route US-441 culminates in multiple breathtaking viewpoints looking out over endless Appalachian mountain ridges. There is nothing quite like waking up before dawn to watch the sunrise light spill across the mountain tops at the evergreen spruce-fir forest covering Newfound Gap (see image above) which towers over 5,000 feet in altitude, a mere 16-mile drive from Gatlinburg.
Pristine mountain streams and bustling waterfalls are found everywhere throughout the park. There are few things that I enjoy more than hiking on the moss-covered rocks along a stream, taking in that soothing sound of trickle and hum of the water. One of my favorites, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail (image above) is a one-way road starting out from Gatlinburg and winding along intimate verdant fast-moving streams with stops for short hikes to beautiful waterfalls. Or one may explore the wide but just as quick Little River, which snakes through imposing cliffs along the drive from just past the Sugarlands Visitor Center west to Cades Cove.
Countless books and articles have been written about the fascinating history and amazing natural beauty of Cades Cove, a broad valley refuge among the surrounding mountains. Every time I have sat behind the wheel waiting for its gates to open at dawn I was filled with excitement for another look at the morning fog covering the country roads lined by blooming dogwoods. The cabins, churches, log houses, mills and barns built by the first settlers dating back to the early 1800s offer insight into the way things were and will never be again. The evenings spent at Cades Cove are perfect for observing and photographing wildlife, such as white-tailed deer, black bears, coyotes, ground hogs, turkeys, raccoons and skunks.
The beauty of the changing seasons is at its full display in the Smokies. Visiting during the middle to latter half of April will reward you with the timeless experience of witnessing the park awaken from its winter slumber. The mountain ridges become covered with all imaginable shades of vibrant green. The black bears in Cades Cove are at the peak of their activity after hibernation; it is not infrequent to see a sow and cubs walk along the loop road. Spring breathes new life into what should really be called the “Great Wildflower National Park,” with countless blossoming species found everywhere you look. The Great Smokies are typically busiest during the summer, with visitation at its highest from July 1st to August 15th. As autumn comes, bright foliage paints the mountain slopes in late October, another terrific time to visit.
In the coming months, I will be showing you the wonder of the Smokies through detailed discussions of key locations to visit and photograph, so make sure to subscribe or bookmark this blog!
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