Here in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, surrounded on three sides by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Armed with only our Great Smoky Mountains National Park Illustrated Trail Map from National Geographic, a basic idea of sunrise and sunset times, and our wits, we set out to capture the majesty of the southern wilderness.

This is officially my first post from the field, though I’ve tried before and failed. My impression so far? Positive!

Photos after the break!

Tips for Visiting

If you think you’d like to come down and visit the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, you’ll want to keep a few things in mind.

The park itself is best accessible via the town of Gatlinburg, which sits on its north edge in Tennessee (that’s where we’re staying). Gatlinburg can be a chore to get around in by car during popular park times. October is a peak foliage time and sometimes the road through Gatlinburg is backed up from one end of town to the other. It’s manageable, but be prepared to sit in bumper-to-bumper for a little while.

Lodging is plentiful in Gatlinburg and in the town of Pigeon Forge, which is about 20 minutes north on the main road (route 441). Between Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, you have access to all of the food and entertainment one could ask for, including small roadside amusement parks, an aquarium, the Miracle Theater (playing two or three Christian stage shows per day), probably around 20 different pancake houses, and so on.

There are only a couple of major attractions within the park that are accessible by car, which makes them prone to congestion and crowding. Unfortunately, they are also the most attractive photographic opportunities as well. The only cause for relief is that some of the best photographs are made at dawn, sunset, and during the night, and most of the weekenders don’t really want to be at Clingman’s Dome at 7:00 in the morning when it’s 37 degrees outside and black as tar.

The most convenient way to photograph the park is to camp there. It will cost you only a few dollars to register for camping in one of the several available campgrounds, so if that is a lifestyle that suits you, you’re going to be better off going that way.

Getting in and out of the park by car is limited to one major road, but it’s empty before dawn and virtually empty after dark.

Photos, As Promised

Photographing dawn is one of the hardest things for me to do. The only thing I hate more than the cold is getting up early in the morning, and photographing dawn–more often than not–involves both of those things. Nevertheless, dawn can be one of the most inspirational and beautiful times of day, especially when viewed from the dramatic overlooks offered by the Great Smoky Mountains.


The photo above was taken at the New Found Gap overlook (which sits right on the line between Tennessee and North Carolina) just after dawn. During the very early morning, the fog is so thick that it’s hard to see more than a few yards ahead of you while driving. The photographic opportunities, however, are splendid.

The foliage change here in Tennessee isn’t quite at peak yet, but some areas are showing a lot of great color. We pulled off the road on a whim to photograph these beautiful orange leaves in the light of very early morning.


Here, again, is an example of what great images are possible when you grit your teeth and forget about the sub-zero wind chill whipping across your body at barely the crack of dawn up near Clingman’s Dome, approximately 6,500 feet above sea level. There was no frost to speak of on the eastern side of the overlook, but about fifty feet toward the west the trees and shrubs were caked with frost and ice.


I used a split tone in Lightroom 1.2 to create the red/blue hues, which I think do a nice job of illustrating what that freezing dawn was like.

This is our last day here, so I do hope to have the rest of the photos online in the coming weeks!