Great Smoky Mountain road trip

Paul Rogers invited me to join him photographing fall colors in the Smoky Mountain National Park over a long weekend this October. We had traveled together before… photographing Monument Valley, Moab, Natural Bridges, Arches and Canyonlands so this was a no brainer. We’d be sure to create some killer sunrise and sunset photographs of the Smoky Mountains, dreamy images of the area creeks and waterfalls and of course share plenty of great laughs and good food. You can’t predict fall colors months in advance so the lack of peak colors during our visit was I think the only disappointment… but Paul likes to say, “It’s not what you look at.. it’s what you see”…. 
We did “see” plenty!

Our first sunset was at Clingman’s Dome. We happened onto a couple park rangers as they were leaving and we asked where the best location was to photograph the sunset. Without missing a beat they said in unison – from the parking lot next to the dumpster. Thankfully they saved us an unnecessary and exhausting hike up to the tower. Tripods set, cameras locked and loaded we wait and chat and laugh and photograph anything and everything we can “see” – THIS is one of my challenges. I always want to take full advantage of a scene and try not to get too narrowly focused on only one subject. Look behind and the trees might be glowing. Look left and right and you’d be surprised at the scene of tripods, photographers and travelers who have stopped their lives to watch a few moments of natural beauty together. Seldom do we actually connect with those folks even though we’re all looking forward to the same show presented just for us by the Almighty.

You hate to experience a sunset and walk away disappointed.. as if you could have designed the sunset better.. it’s easy to say some are better than others… but that too seems presumptuous and self centered… any which way… we stayed and watched as the sun and clouds performed admirably. If a sunset is colorful you generally finish the image in color – tonight’s sunset is lacking big bold color so black and white it is.

Another park ranger suggests Country Steak N’ Eggs in Townsend, Tennessee for a great breakfast stop. Sitting next to a quiet misty river with our coffee was an awesome way to start the day before heading back into the park to photograph some of the rocky water ways along the park’s main road. We subconsciously try to one up each location and stop and reject several spots.


Funny how doing this you almost feel obliged to put your tripod in the water.. after all that IS where the water is flowing and where it seems, most of the better images are created.

Saturday evening we checked out Newfound Gap for our sunset. A bit more research would have made it clear. The setting sun would not be visible here tonight, clouds or no clouds. The sun travels more than many people might think throughout the year so while sunset at Newfound Gap might be perfect during May or June that was not our experience. We stayed and enjoyed the show before us, photographed the clouds and mountains and splashes of color as we discovered them and even helped families who needed a hand with their family photographs… then back to Townsend for some delicious BBQ at another local restaurant.


Sunday morning we’re up early. We pack our lunch, water, camera gear and head out for another sunrise at Newfound Gap’s eastern observation point and we watch the dance again: Wind drives the clouds though the scene and the sun lights up the mountains as if that’s its only task. A treat for getting up for a sunrise is breakfast on location, today it’s donuts and coffee… breakfast of champions.


Our next destination was Mouse Creek Falls on the far eastern edge of the park… following the GPS blindly we drove through some of Tennessee’s most rural, remote and ravaged areas… to say we might have heard banjo music playing as we bounced down the gravel road passed hillbilly ruins is a significant understatement!

FINALLY we made it to the trail! Two miles up a gentle sloping trail we hit pay dirt. The Big Creek is absolutely beautiful with countless rocks and boulders creating one of the most picturesque creeks around… but wait there’s more! When Mouse Creek meets the Big Creek it falls over 45 feet, cascading down several tiers of mossy green boulders. We spent hours here climbing over boulders big and small and practiced our patience waiting for the clouds to soften the sun’s rays in order to create some spectacular smooth and silky water portraits. This location was the highlight of the trip for both of us!

Time for a last sunset at Clingman’s Dome. We met a photographer who had crossed our path at previous locations. We exchanged stories about shared parks and photographic events and even business cards to connect later. Nice to meet you Robert.

Paul suggested we end a perfect day with a perfect meal. Gatlinburg’s Park Grill was pretty perfect. Great food. Good laughs and the unspoken agreement that we will do this again!

I’m thankful that the Creator has put all this in the world for us to look at… and grateful for the ability to see it as well.

Oh and by the way… a really neat bonus from traveling with a fabulous photographer friend is getting super cool portraits along the way! Thanks Paul Rogers