Last week I had the opportunity to travel to the Great Smoky Mountains between Tennessee and North Carolina. This is a location (among many others) that I have always wanted to go see and photograph. This is going to be a slight recap, plus what I learned along the way to help you plan a trip to the Smokies without missing the photos that you want. This blog will be broken down into several sections. First section is a “map” of the area. Second section is going to be some of my favorite locations that I visited, plus the ones that I didn’t get to see and will be going back for. The last section will be about some hints and tips that I have discovered and picked up from other resources along the way.
The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is situated in the southern Appalachian Mountains along the east coast of the US and is VAST in size. I will be honest, I was absolutely blown away with the enormity of the area and the park. The Smokies is home to the highest peak along the Appalachian Trail clocking in at just over 6600 feet. That is more than a mile above sea level. Since the park is located in Eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina along those state borders, but the AT follows those peaks in the park along that border pretty closely. The “base camp” towns for the Smokies that I saw are Gatlinburg and Townsend in Tennessee, and Cherokee and Bryson City in North Carolina. For this trip I stayed in Gatlinburg near the Roaring Forks Nature Trail, more on that later.
Through some research, reading blogs (like this one) and using resources like Google Maps, National Park Service website, and local tourism sites I settled on Gatlinburg as my base camp to explore the park from. The first area that I wanted to visit was the Roaring Fork Nature Trail that began just up the road from my hotel. This is an 11 mile road that is mostly one way and single lane with multiple stops and pulloffs to see the various sites along the way. Highlights for me were the Bud Ogle Homestead, and Place of a Thousand Drips. I missed the marquee sights of Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls because of timing, but I highly recommend Roaring Forks for a day trip exploring the various areas there. Another area that was an imperative for me is Clingman’s Dome. Clingman’s Dome is the highest point in the Smokies and has a parking area that gives you panoramic views to the southeastern to southwestern Smokies. The walk up to the observation tower is about a half mile, and feels pretty much straight up the last bit of the mountain. For the uninitiated it will be a relatively difficult climb, but worth the effort. The last area that I set out to visit, and I am glad that I did for a few reasons was Cade’s Cove. Cade’s Cove is a scenic loop in the foothills of the Smokies with some pretty amazing sights and views along the way. A few of my favorite photos from the trip came from Cade’s Cove. It is about 25 miles from the Visitor’s Center and Park Headquarters just outside of Gatlinburg, but the windy road provides plenty of pulloffs for other views along the way.
The list of locations that I must come back for is nothing less than spectacular on their own of course, but because of time constraints and timing of the trip it was difficult to squeeze it all in. The first are going to be a group of hikes that I was unable to do. Specifically waterfall hikes to locations like Laurel Falls on the way out to Cade’s Cove, Rainbow Falls and Grotto Falls on the Roaring Fork Nature trail. Another “must come back for” are a couple of events at Clingman’s Dome. The first is sunrise at Clingman’s which I had all planned out and ready to go, but unfortunately the weather did not cooperate with my schedule. The second event was for night sky and milky way photography from Clongman’s dome as well, but like sunrise conditions were an issue. There have been some wildfires in Western Canada that were making the night sky when it was not cloudy a bit murky and not optimal for getting photos of stars. These are certainly not exhaustive lists of what I wanted to do, and what I intend on going back for but are definitely a few things that you can get started on in the meantime.
The last part of all this are some hints, tips and “gotchas” that will help make your trip successful and more efficient. The first is a gotcha that I prepared for, but could have prepared better for. Time. When looking at a map and planning things out I did not account for the amount of time it took to get places. Now, I didn’t spend hours on the road getting to places, but the treks to get to various locations were significant. For example, among the distance to Cade’s Cove there was also things I didn’t account for like speed limits and traffic. The Smokies are a popular and beautiful location and are well attended. Then when you add the fact that some areas the speed limit is 25 miles per hour some of these distances take a little bit longer than what you might be used to. Clingman’s Dome looked like a relatively close run up the mountain to get to the parking area, when in reality it was about a 45 minute drive. So just going there and coming back to Gatlinburg was an hour and a half right off the bat. So make sure to factor in time and add to your estimates to make sure you get the time you need to get to where you are going. Another gotcha is temperature. Make sure you bring with you some gear to keep yourself warm. I went in Mid-May where temperatures in Gatlinburg were in the mid to high 70’s, but when you get into the heavily forested mountains and up on top of those mountains the temperature variations I saw were upwards of 25 degrees. That much variation turns a 75 degree day into a 50 degree day, and if you forget a jacket or sweatshirt it could get quite chilly for you.
So for a few hints and tips, some of these I took directly from the National Park Service themselves, and would recommend following them. The first is parking. After March 1st you will need a parking permit to park within the roadways and lots in the park. So having one is essential if you don’t want a ticket or be towed. These permits are $15 for a week and can be purchased online and printed at home, which I highly recommend you do. On the first day I went to the visitor center for some info and souvenirs and saw lines about 20 people deep at the kiosks for purchasing those permits. Because I had mine I was in and out of there in a few minutes. Next tip has to also do with time that I mentioned earlier. Some of these locations can be extremely popular, so getting there early is essential. I wanted to do the Grotto Falls hike with my wife for photos along the Roaring Fork Nature trail and every parking area leading up to and following the main parking area for the trailhead were packed by 10am. Clingman’s Dome parking area was also full when we got there at lunchtime the one day, and we got extremely lucky that there were a couple of motorcyclists leaving as we came around to the end of the loop. Going back to the Visitor’s Center for a moment, I would suggest going in there for information. They have a few free resources available, but also some guides for various activities that are $1 each. I dropped less than $5 for some guides that included a ton of information that I did not see online, so definitely a worthwhile investment.
So to wrap things up, I know this was a really long one, but I was really excited about this trip and wanted to share a few of my experiences. I know I have said it a few times, but this is definitely a trip that I will be repeating a few times to see things I missed, but also see things at different points of the year as well. If you have any questions at all, or want to know more about my experiences on this trip feel free to reach out, I will do my best to answer them. As always, thanks for supporting, and reading this and watching the accompanying video to this blog. All of the support is appreciated. Make sure to get out and take some great photos!!