Great Smoky Mountain National Park Photographers Guide

Great Smoky Mountain National Park is the most visited in the national park system. This is due to the location of the park, it's accessible for all ages and abilities, and the cities of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge offer many activities for the tourist type of visitor. On my most recent trip I stayed in a log cabin in the hills above Gatlinburg. I avoided Pigeon Forge like the plague because it's very much like Las Vegas. Not my scene. Gatlinburg is not much different just smaller and closer to the park entrance. Great Smoky Mountain National Park has no entrance fees. From what I was told, it's because the property was donated to the park system and in that turnover part of the deal was to keep the park free to the public. It's a nice little bonus for the visiting public. The first thing to keep in mind when headed to The Smokies is realize that it's very crowded. The hiking trails are busy even shortly after daybreak. I was on several hikes just after the sun had risen and people were already on their way down the trail. On the way back to the car it was a steady line of hikers heading into the wilderness. This was the case for a short 3 mile round tripper at Grotto Falls and a longer 8 mile round tripper at Ramsey Cascades. It's the busiest park by far I've been to and it wasn't peak season! I can't imagine what it's like in the summer!

The park has many iconic scenes that photographers must see. On the top of my list was Clingmans Dome. The view is fantastic! Sunrise is a great time to capture the backlit layers of mountains and hills, but a decent sunrise is always a crapshoot. According the the park service, over the last 50 years man made pollution has decreased visibility by upwards of 80% during summer and 40% in the winter. That's crazy! I witnessed it first hand. Even though there were no clouds the haze clearly blocked out the rising sun. Out of the 5 sunrises and 5 sunsets I witnessed only two is what I would consider "normal". The others were ruined by haze and pollution. Plan on trying to get a good sunrise or sunset several times before one decides to make an appearance.

Other than Clingmans Dome, must see locations include The Roaring Fork Motor Trail, Newfoundland Gap, Little River Road, The Greenbrier area, and Cades Cove. The roaring fork motor trail and greenbrier area was my favorite for photographing the rivers. The best overlooks are New Foundland Gap overlook, Clingmans Dome and Morton overlook. There is a lot to explore with opportunities for all seasons. Winter is probably the least desirable. Snow will fall but normally doesn't stay around long at lower elevations and even at higher elevations, like Clingmans Dome, they only see an average of around 70 inches of snowfall a year. So if you are the outdoors type or if you are a tourist type who likes shopping, craft and art fairs, and unique stores, The Smoky Mountain area is a good choice. If you want more seclusion, privacy, and a backcountry experience, I would recommend a different park.


Smoky mountain sunrise photo from Clingmans Dome