The Great Smoky Birthday Adventure / by Michael Zwack

In May of this year, it was once again time for another annual national park birthday adventure.  The spend a week camping and photographing the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  With an itinerary set and packing complete the only thing left was to put the cold MN Spring behind and make the 16 hour drive from Minneapolis to Gatlinburg, Tennessee. 

Of course, that's not what happened.  Suffering from a herniated disc and a last minute bout of Kidney Stones, the week was instead spent wallowing in agony and discontent, knowing the Great Smoky Birthday Adventure would be postponed.

The next 6 months would be spent re-sculpting a broken shell disheveled from years of poor posture and minimal maintenance.  Luckily the months of physical therapy and exercise succeeded in putting Humpty Dumpty back together again. Feeling pretty good, it was time to put the months of progress to the test.  The Great Smoky Birthday Adventure waited long enough and with another cool crisp autumn gently descending on Minnesota, it was time to head South to rejuvenate in the warm fall glow of the Appalachian Mountains.    

Morton Overlook Sunset

Morton Overlook Sunset

The Great Smoky Mountain National Park is over 520,000 acres of unadulterated wilderness stretching across North Carolina and Tennessee.  With 10 campgrounds, 1000 campsites, and 850 miles of trails, it's no wonder why it's the most visited US National Park.  With warm autumn days and countless trees shedding their summer skin it's as perfect place as any to photograph fall foliage.  Throw in some cool night rain and the mountains come alive with slow rising smoke creeping its way through the lush rivers and valleys. 

Whereas fall provides the best climate for experiencing the park's natural beauty, it also brings with it droves of hikers, campers, and photographers. With over 400,000 annual hikers it's not the place to visit for solitude.  Luckily, it doesn't take much exploration to find a quiet corner for reprieve.  With roads connecting the various fringe towns such as Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and Cherokee most visits come from through-traffic.  Interestingly, it was the auto clubs of the early 1900s who pushed for an accessible drive through the scenic mountainside which helped fund the 384 miles of paved roads. For this reason, admission is free, relying instead on various donation efforts and federal funding to keep the park maintained. 

It's these roads, which allow access to some of the most awe-inspiring scenery for photography.  Whereas photographic opportunities can be found virtually everywhere, the most popular locations are Cades Cove, Morton Overlook, Newfound Gap, and Clingman's Dome...all accessible by car.  The more adventurous photographer may attempt hiking Mount LeConte and Chimney Tops trails for epic views of the surrounding valleys. 

Misty Mountain Fog

Misty Mountain Fog

Upon checking into Elkmont Campground, the stresses of the last half year quickly melted away under the canopy of color.  The magnitude of the Smokies is a site that must be witnessed to understand; Not knowing what laid ahead, the only thing to do was surrender to the experience.  The first day brought rain, and with it, the quintessential smoke from whence the park derived its name.  A thick fog enveloped the valleys and trees, so heavy the view from Clingman's Dome was shrouded in a grey mystery only discoverable days later. 

The following morning would be spent in Cades Cove. A tourist hot spot to be sure, yet nonetheless one that deserves and requires a full day to appreciate.  The 11 mile road loops around a mountainous valley, and offers the largest collection of historic buildings in the park, founded in the early 1800s by a community of European settlers.  Many buildings still remain, the remnant of a not too distant past. 

Popular stops along the way include: John Oliver Cabin, Cable Mill, Tipton Place, numerous pull-offs with views of the surrounding valley, and of course the Cades Cove Visitor Center. The Cove is also a prime environment for viewing wildlife, including Black Bears, Deer, Coyote, and Turkey.  Prior to 10 AM only bikers and foot traffic are allowed, so to capitalize on the morning light and lack of tourists, the best plan is to utilize the campground and get an early start.  

Grotto Falls

Grotto Falls

With the early morning fog slowly lifting it's veil over the landscape, the sun peaked overhead creating perfect hiking conditions.  With the sun high in the sky and no cloud coverage, it was however, not optimal midday shooting conditions.  The plan was to spend the next few days shaded by the silhouette of trees; among the endless miles of gently flowing cascades and waterfalls. 

With more waterfalls than possible to name here, an entire month could be spent photographing the subject.  Not having near enough time to photograph them all, tough choices had to be made.  Being accessible from Little River Road, and Cades Cove, Laurel and Abram Falls are likely the most visited in the park.  For better photography opportunities, aim for Grotto or Mingus Falls...the later being the tallest waterfall in the park at 120 feet.  

The previous months of therapy would be put to the ultimate test forging a strenuous 5 mile uphill ascent along Mount LeConte trail to Myrtle point...a panoramic dreamscape.  Whereas the rolling mountainous valley encompassed the entire horizon -the windy, hazy, and sunny conditions didn't allow for a worthwhile capture.  Golden hour light peaked during the descent, and luckily the trail has a plethora of vast-reaching overlooks in which to photograph.  

Arriving well after dark to the protective confines of the campfire, soreness settled in quickly.  Patiently waiting for the fiery coals to cook a replenishing meal of foil packet Pierogis, Sausage, and Peppers -strength slowly returned to a battered, but not broken, body.  

Mount LeConte Trail Overlook

Mount LeConte Trail Overlook

Never being much of a morning person, rising at 5:30 AM has never been an easy task, and admittedly not a helpful position for a landscape photographer.  Preparation for sunrise photography always requires extra effort...and sacrifice of sleep, but bound and determined to view the sun rising above the horizon in such a majestic location, the opportunity couldn't be missed. 

The dark of night still lingered in the air as the car slowly maneuvered through the winding woods on the forty-five minute drive to the highest point in the Smokies, and ultimately best location for witnessing the illumination of a new day. Upon arrival at Clingman's Dome the cool crispness of a fresh dawn nipped at the skin, still not quite sure if the resulting quiet shiver was caused by the surrounding chill, or breathtaking view.  A thin, soft, reddish-yellow band stretched across the horizon below, while a vicissitude of flickering stars softly vanished above. 

The sight was cause for quiet reflection; however, being time waits for no-one, the midnight blue of the previous night's sky gave way to a pastel hue of a new day, and with it the realization that the accompanying photographic opportunity would soon pass.  Struggling to find a suitable composition the race against the rising sun had begun. 

Having dropped and broke the only graduated Neutral Density filter days before, the ensuing capture was tricky and in the end, in need of stronger post processing efforts than normally desired.  At the time, in the frenzied minutes before the sun peaked above the blanket of rolling clouds below, the excitement within couldn't be contained and it was in this struggling concentration the resulting image was captured.  Numerous photos were taken that morning, yet none dared to live up to the real-world sights and sounds.  Some experiences just cannot be described in words or photos, and everyone owes it to themselves to experience that feeling as often as possible.   

Clingman's Dome Sunrise

Clingman's Dome Sunrise

With a fresh sense of life's importances, the remaining time would be spent hiking along the cascading waters of Little River Trail, wooded hills to Henwallow Falls, and leisurely setting up for the last transition to Cosby Campground while absorbing the surrounding peacefulness.        

The 16 hour drive back would be echoed in a quiet solitude of reflection...and a two hour detour through Nashville for some Hot Chicken -of course.   In the end, a better time for reprieve couldn't have been planned. Eight months of focusing on one's health takes an emotional toll; however, fearing losing the ability to follow one's passion only gave strength to a better understanding of life's focus. 

A month later, and I now know the limitations of my rehabilitation; the impending winter months will be spent continually honing and improving my strength and conditioning, in preparation...for the next Great Birthday Adventure is only few short months away. 

For additional images check-out Facebook. Follow on Instagram for phone photos from the trip. 

For more information on Great Smoky National Park consider these resources:


For photo sites who inspired this trip and provide valuable feedback regarding shooting in the Smokies check out the following blogs: