A Photographers Guide to Visiting Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, America's most visited National Park, sits at the southern end of the Appalachian Mountains. The Great Smoky Mountains offer up an endless variety of subject matter for photographers from rushing streams to Appalachian mountain vistas and over 522,419 acres of protected forests, meadows and coves.
While anytime of the year is a good time to visit and photograph in the Smokies, I especially love visiting the park in the spring and autumn. If you can try to plan your visit to the park over the work week and not the weekends to avoid the crowds and traffic in the park. Remember this is America's most visited National Park and it definitely shows over the weekends and holidays.
The park startles the North Carolina and Tennessee state lines with Route 441 running from Gatlinburg, Tennessee over the crest of the highest peaks in the park to Cherokee, North Carolina. There are several other roads and access points to explore the park including Little River Road, The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, Interstate 40 on the parks north east boundary and State Route 129/28 on the Southwestern border of the park and many smaller access roads in-between. Most photographers choose to concentrate their photographic explorations in the central district of the park because this has the most access as well as scenic diversity from woodlands and streams to mountain vistas.
As far as lodging is concerned the vast majority of visitors stay on the Tennessee side of the park where there is the greatest abundance of hotels and restruants and easiest access to the parks best locations. The towns of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Townsend being the three locations just outside the park boundary where most stay. I avoid the towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge like the plague and only deal with passing through these places when I need to access certain locations in the park. Townsend Tennessee, the sleepy side of the Smokies, is the recommended location to stay to avoid the crowds and the hustle and bustle of the very touristy and over developed towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
Nearby Airpots w/Directions to the Smokies
- McGhee Tyson Airport: The closest airport to the park, McGhee Tyson, is located just outside of Knoxville, TN and is mid size domestic airport. From the Airport it is only a 1 hour drive to enter the park via Gatlinburg and a 30 minute drive to Townsend, TN just outside of the park. (Google Maps Directions)
- Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport: Located in Greenville, SC the airport is the second closest major airport to the Smoky Mountains with a 2 hour drive to the east entrance outside of Cherokee, NC. add another hour to hour and a half to the drive to make it to either Gatlinburg or Townsend, TN. (Google Maps Directions)
- Atlanta International Airport: By far the largest airport in the region, Atlanta International Airport offers the most options for domestic and international flights, but is the furthest from the park. The drive from Atlanta (without traffic) is 4 hours to Townsend, TN. (Google Maps Directions)
Recommended Lodging & Camping
- Talley Ho Inn, Townsend, Tennessee
- Highland Manor Inn, Townsend, Tennessee
- Cades Cove Campground - Inside of the park (no cellular reception or dining options)
- Elkmont Campground - Inside of the park (no cellular reception or dining options)
When To Visit
Anytime of the year can provide great conditions for landscape and nature photography in the Smokies. The summers and Fall being the busiest times of the year. Make sure you check the weather in advance and or take a look at the various webcams that offer a realtime glimpse at conditions in the park.
Winter: December through February - Winter is the quiet time in the smokies with the least amount of visitation. Although the park does not receive much snowfall, especially in the lower elevations, winter can still be a great time to visit and photograph early morning frosts, ice on the streams, wildlife and atmospherics in the valleys due to weather inversions. The road to Clingmans Dome is closed over the winter months and at times the park service may close the roads accessing higher elevations in the park when they're is inclement weather. Many lodges and campgrounds are closed over the winter months, so make sure to plan your trip well in advance.
Spring: March through June - Spring is by far my favorite time to visit and photograph the park. The visitation is still relatively low and the the new spring foliage, wildflowers, rushing streams/waterfalls and valley fog offers endless opportunities at this time of the year. The flowers in the smokies come in phases with the lower elevation wildflowers in April to the showy blooms of the Rhododendrons at elevations over 3,500 feet in mid to Late June. Take a look at the NPS Smoky Mountains Wildflowers Guide for more detailed information on blooming species and schedules.
Summer: July through September - Just don't. I kid, however, I won't touch the park during the summer months. Between the crowds, traffic and heat and humidity its the least productive and scenic time of the year for good photography in the Smokies.
Autumn: Late September through late November - Autumn colors in the Smoky Mountains can be amazing and you should definitely plan to visit the park in the autumn. Weekend crowds can be horrendous, so plan your trip over the work week. The colors usually start coming on in mid October and will peak at various altitudes in the park from the third week of October through the first week of November.
Smoky Mountains Photography Hotspots
The locations listed below are a few of the best locations in the park, but happen to be my favorite locations and they provide an opportunity to photograph everything from grand scenic vistas to intimate woodland and stream photography.
At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is the highest point in Tennessee, and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi. Only Mt. Mitchell (6,684 feet) and Mt. Craig (6,647), both located in Mt. Mitchell State Park in western North Carolina, rise higher. The observation tower on the summit of Clingmans Dome offers spectacular 360° views of the Smokies and beyond for visitors willing to climb the steep half-mile walk to the tower at the top. On clear days views expand over a 100 miles.
The best photographs from Clingmans Dome are from the main parking lot. From here you can choose a location looking to the east, south or west to frame the best views and light. Clingmans Dome is best at sunrise and or sunset.
This overlook is possibly the best location in the park to catch the classic Smoky Mountain layers at sunrise. The overlook is a small parking lot just past Newfound Gap heading towards Cherokee, North Carolina and looks due east down there Oconaluftee River drainage. get here at least 1 hour before sunrise to get a good spot and watch the light as changes from a soft pastel to blazing orange as the sun rises. Also do your valley fog dance the night before because this pot is absolutely magical when fog is present. (Google Map Directions)
The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
An exuberant mountain stream gave this area its unusual name. Roaring Fork is one of the larger and faster flowing mountain streams in the park. Drive this road after a hard rain and the inspiration behind the name will be apparent.
The narrow, winding, Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail invites you to slow down and enjoy the forest and historic buildings of the area. The 5.5-mile-long, one-way, loop road is a favorite side trip for many people who frequently visit the Smokies. It offers rushing mountain streams, glimpses of old-growth forest, and a number of well-preserved log cabins, grist mills, and other historic buildings. Please note that the road is closed in winter.
Tremont - Middle Prong
Tremont is situated along the Middle Prong of Little River a few miles south of Townsend. Tremont" can refer to the former logging town of Tremont or the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont, but it generally applies to Middle Prong's entire watershed between Miry Ridge to the east and Defeat Ridge to the west. Both of these ridges run perpendicular to the main crest of the Great Smokies, which rises several thousand feet above Tremont to the south.
The half paved and then dirt road after the Tremont Institute follows the course of the river the entire way and is the best location in the park for stream, cascade and waterfall photography. I love this are so much that I often visit it many, many times on every trip I take to photograph the Smokies.
Don't forget to bring along your longer lenses for intimate compositions of water features and reflections. Early to mid mornings and late afternoons on sunny days provide the best times for capturing reflections and abstractions in the river.
In addition to the stream, Tremont has beautiful forest woodlands to photograph. I like to use my 70-200mm to isolate interesting trees and sections of the forest. This image was captured from the roadside near the top of the drive in early spring as light illuminated this Sugar Maple and its early spring leaves.
Cades Cove is a broad, verdant valley surrounded by mountains and is one of the most popular destinations in the Great Smokies. It offers some of the best opportunities for wildlife viewing in the park. I only photograph Cades Cove in the morning and on weekdays as it is the most popular location in the park and that brings crowds. The Cove is a loop road running around the valley with a speed limit of 10 MPH, so if you get stuck here with heavy crowds you'll find yourself in the cart for hours. The Cove is gated and closed overnight, but a ranger will arrive to unlock the gate around 7am. Get in line early to make sure you have time to get to a good spot for sunrise.
Wednesdays from May 1st to September 1st the Cove is closed to vehicles. This is a great chance to visit the cove without the crowds, but you will need to either walk in or ride a non-motorized bike to tour the cove.
If I had to choose one lens for Cades Cove it would be a telephoto zoom lens. I like to look for interesting light, atmospherics, fog and intimate sections of tree lines in the valley. A long lens can also be very useful if you want to photograph the wildlife in the Cove including Turkey, Whitetail Deer, Black Bear and Fox to name a few.
There are two dirt lanes that run north south, intersecting the loop road, in the Valley, Sparks Lane and Hyatt Lane. Both of these roads provide great wide angle landscape opportunities to photograph the winding country lanes and mountain scenery. Early morning light and fog are the perfect recipe here for dramatic landscapes. Aslo along Sparks and Hyatt Lanes you will have opportunities to photograph intimate scenes as well as wildlife with much less traffic than the scenic loop.