24hrs In The Great Smoky Mountains
A Photographers Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited national park in the US, for good reason too. It’s simply stunning and offers so much for the visitor to see and do, however that comes at a price which is the crazy sized crowds that gather in the park at peak times. One of it’s benefits though is getting around by car is easy.
In this guide I’ll help you get around The Great Smoky Mountains inside 24hrs avoiding the crowds, taking in some of the highlights and giving you the photographer some time to take it all in. There are a few things to note before I continue. You will need to buy a weekly pass for the car access to the park, plus you will need to able to hike at least 3/5 miles for a few of the places I recommend with your gear. Take plenty of water, trail mix etc and as always take your trash home with you.
I have tried and tested this 24hrs inside the park, so I know it works and I’m sure you can make it work too. Included in each hike is a suggested packing list for each location, so you can leave some of your gear behind in the car.
Enjoy the park and let’s find some wildlife, waterfalls and vistas.
00:00 - 05:00
You can do this at the start or the end of your trip to the park, either way sunsets, sunrise and the night sky all look amazing in the highest point in the park. Here you can see the night sky in almost 360 from the top of the viewing platform, be warned the viewing platform is about a 1/2 mile hike from the car park at a 20 degree slope on the way up. So keep in mind it takes up to 35 mins to walk to the top of the tower itself.
Clingmans Dome is very popular during the day but after sunset the crowds almost completely gone; making it great to shoot the night sky and awaiting the sunrise from this vantage point. The milky way is visible to the naked eye with the moon is below the horizon on the west side.
Midnight to 5am should be ample time to see the night sky and the sun pop up beyond the observation tower.
I only used a 15-30mm lens for this trip up to Clingmans Dome, not sure I had use for much else when I got there.
Clingmans Dome on Google Maps
06:00 - 10:00
Cades Cove is an early morning photographers dream, the wildlife is in abundance and depending on the time of year and the time of day you get to Caves Cove the deer and bears will be very active.
The park is driveable in a huge tarmac loop, which is all one way traffic but on the way into Cades Cove about 1 – 2 miles out is a sloped approach road which has a small group of bears that live among the trees on the right hand side, don’t drive too quick and you might spot them. It’s worth taking a chair and parking up before the tarmac car park on the right preceding the Cades Cove entrance.
Be careful not to interrupt bears movements and always keep an eye on their behavior, you’re in their house now so give them respect and never get too close. Follow the parks guide on how to deal with bears at all times.
Cades Cove on Google Maps
10:00 - 14:00
This “there and back” 3 to 4 mile hike is well worth taking your time over, the water fall that cascades into the pool of water at the end is a great reward and easy to photograph even with the crowds that may gather during the day. The high sun means the falls have great lighting with its open face and easy to view platform to the side.
It’s a good idea to take a selection of lenses for this hike as well as an ND filter or two to create the lovely misty images of the waterfalls and river that you will spend some time hiking along side most of the way. Half way through the hike is a climb to the top of a group of rocks which sits just above the tree line, if you are going during fall (autumn) the outlook is fantastic, otherwise the tree canopy is a flood of green. There are a few wildflowers to photograph along the way here too so look out for them.
I took two lenses with me 70-200mm and 15-30mm with 6 stop ND filter.
A car park is onsite and easily accessible from Cades Cove which fits into the days agenda very well. Expect to spend 4 hours here.
Abrams Falls Trailhead on Google Maps
15:00 - 19:00
The drive could be upto 40 mins from Cades Cove depending on traffic though Gatlinburg, so give yourself time as you will be heading back to the other side of the park once you finish here too. So remember the timing.
This hike could be short or long depending on the state of the car park on Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, you may have to park on the road which adds at least another hour to the hike and another 2 miles in each direction, if that’s the case you will have the chance to see some wildflowers and deer along the tarmac road side (or the trail which sits to the right of the road) before getting the Grotto Falls trail head itself. Look out for the break in the tree line for an awesome view over the park, you may miss it if you are not on the tarmac road.
Grotto Falls serves as a route to the hotel and used by a Llama Train that takes linen to the resort beyond the trail 3 times a week (schedule is posted at the trail head). The feature of the falls is you can walk right behind it and make some fantastic images of the water from a different perspective also check out the approach to the falls as the framing is spectacular.
Watch out for the tree roots that poke up throughout the trail and I would highly recommend NOT carrying your camera mounted on a tripod for obvious reasons as you are likely to trip. There are a few sections where you will have to cross some streams or water logged parts of the trail so watch out for those.
Going in the late afternoon means you should be able to get some decent sky and light going through the waterfall onto the wall behind it. When you are done you have time to get back to your car before the golden hour kicks in depending on the time of year you go.
I loved this hike and easily one of my favorites during my time in the park and for this hike I took my favorite 90mm macro and 15-30mm.
Grotto Falls Parking on Google Maps
Sunsets are what make Morton overlook so popular, you may have a few problems parking here but you could get lucky and get the rockstar treatment. The sun will set ranging from the left side of the valley and right in the middle later in the season.
Pretty much every postcard you see from The Great Smoky Mountains feature this view and no trip to the park is complete without it.
To nail the shot you can actually use an 85mm or 70-200mm lens, wide angle gets way too much to the hill side which detracts from the valleys as they meet in the middle.
You could do this shoot in the morning with the sun behind and the clouds floating beneath you.
Morton Overlook on Google Maps
SUNDOWN - 00:00
Just round the corner the short drive to Newfound Gap is where we finish the 24hs in The Great Smoky Mountains. The sun is now fully behind you and set which means the stars will start to be made visible right after civil twilight ends.
If you missed the milky way this morning you may have another chance to see it here. Plus using the tree to the right of the car park a great composition item to include in your shot. The trail head is to the far left of the car park if you wanted to hike to the clearing, just make sure you take a flash light as the trail is super dark and get’s hilly.
The large car park is mostly empty but the only hazard here is the cars going round the bend heading or coming back from Clingmans Dome which is another 6 miles up the road. You can always stay for the sunrise here as the sun will come right from the same point as you see it from Climgmans Dome of course. Again the “Smokys” will put on a stunning morning display if you stopped here early.
Take the fantastic MIOPS Trigger with you for this one.
Newfound Gap Parking on Google Maps
Images from Grotto Falls trail
Here are a few more images from the Grotto Falls trail which didn’t make the blog post above;
You can see the tree roots that litter the floor throughout the trail.
The trail head has the warning about the Llama train.
A couple of wildflowers we saw at the end of spring.
One critter that was wanting photographic attention along the way 🙂