Autumn in The Smokies 2023

Traveling to Pigeon Forge Tennessee

We have been to the Smokie Mountains several times and have always come back with a few photographs that we refer to as “keepers”. Keeper photos are photos that we really like and require very little manipulation. So, for fall of 2023, we decided to return to the Smokies and see if we could capture some of the fall color. Because we print mostly in black and white it may be difficult for you to visualize the colors. Since Autumn is all about color most of the images presented here will be in color.

We do spend a lot of time researching where and what we want to photograph before we get there, however, we found that after we get on location the places, we planned to photograph are not what we thought they would be or for some reason they are not accessible. Then, when we reach our destination, or sometimes when traveling to it, folks tell us about these beautiful areas that we never ran across when we were preparing for the trip. As a result, we purchased an RV which gives us flexibility with regards to how long we stay, where we stay, and gives us the ability to relocate if necessary. We planned our trip to take 2 days to arrive at our destination. For the first time we used a Harvest Host site. If you are not familiar with Harvest Hosts, they are locations that let folks park their rigs at their locations overnight for free. Some are businesses and they only ask that you visit their establishment during your stay.

Southern Orchards

We chose to spend the first night at a Harvest Host in Fort Valley, Georgia known as Southern Orchards. When traveling through Atlanta we like to camp just before getting into the Atlanta Metro Area. Then we get a early fresh start in the morning to try to miss some of the Atlanta traffic. That leg of our trip was about 360 miles. The next day we reached our final destination which was Camp Rivers Landing Campground in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, approximately another 360 miles.

We had purchased a carrier that was attached to hitch channel on the back of the RV for storage and transportation of some of the stuff that we normally carry in the bed of the truck. This carrier was supposed to carry up to 500 lbs. We had it loaded with approximately 80 lbs. of stuff  as a test. About 400 miles into the trip to Pigeon Forge it broke and was dragging on the ground. Fortunately, nothing was lost. We decided to go without one going forward.

Camp RiversLanding Campground

We had previously stayed at Camp Rivers Landing campground. The management is very accommodating, and the location is perfect for our adventures in and around the National Park. It is also situated along a river and has a very family-friendly, relaxing atmosphere. Christmas 2023 we did have a site that was right along the river. This time we chose a site that backed up to an incline. Since we were staying for a while, we had a site that had full hookup with 50 amp and also sufficient room for parking our truck without the vehicle encroaching on the seating/camping area. Our site also had a concrete pad, a picnic table and a fire ring. As one would expect being in the Smokies, the campground has a lot of trees and, since it was October, the trees were shedding their leaves. The campground did a great job of corralling those leaves and removing them with a vacuum truck. This happened several times during our stay. Halloween weekend was full of activities. There was a family bonfire, a family night with live music, a costume contest, and of course trick or treating.

The National Park

The Smokie Mountain National Park is the most visited park in the National Park System. Last year it drew 3 times the visitors as the second most visited National Park which is the Grand Canyon. We had previouly visited the Smokie Mountain National Park during the Summer and Winter and it has been crowded every time we visited the park, not only with visiting tourist but with those who live close by and visit for the day. The busiest times are Christmas and the peak of fall foliage. Whatever the reason it can get very crowded.

There is no fee to enter the Smokie Mountains National Park, however there is a parking fee. As of this writing the fee is $5 per day, $15 per week or $40 annually. These passes are available at kiosks 24 hours a day at the visitor’s center. If you plan to stop and park anywhere within the park, it is necessary to obtain one of these passes upon entering the park.

The park is quite large but there are several paved roads that crisscross the park. Because most of the tourists do not have high, off-road vehicles, most of the traffic is on those roads. We do have a 4-wheel drive pickup truck so, from time to time, we may do a little off road exploring.

Below you will find a high-level view of the Park. Some of the key areas of the park are highlighted. If you come to this park at the peak of fall foliage season and plan to capture landscape images without having humans, or vehicular, or helicopter traffic in your images I would suggest getting into the park very early in the morning. Twilight time can also be difficult to photograph with the headlights of cars and trucks poking through fauna and flora.

Because we stay in a campground that is at the south end of Pigeon Forge, we normally enter the park at the Sugarlands visitors entrance but sometimes we enter through the Townsend visitors entrance. On this trip, traffic was kimd of crazy most of the time we were there. From sunup to about 10 AM was OK for capturing images, however after that it was a traffic nightmare. So we had scouted out the areas on previous trips and kind of knew where we wanted to go. We did do some exploring as well to get ready for our next trip to the park.

Clingmens Dome – 2016

We had visited Clingmans Dome on a previous trip to the Smokies. That day we got up bright and early and made our way to the Dome. We were staying in Sevierville at the time so it took us a little longer to get there than from Pigeon Forge. When we got there it was very foggy. Not so foggy getting there but once we drove to the parking area, we were lucky if we could see our hands in front of our faces. So we headed back down but the trip was not without its benefits. We did see a mother black bear and her cubs on the side of the road. Unfortunately, they darted into the woods before we could get an image of them. Attaching a photo taken near the Clingmans Dome gift shop. As you can see the fog was pretty intense. The weather forecast for the day was predicted to be fair with clear skies proving once again that the weather in the mountains can be very unpredictable. So make sure you build in some extra time in your schedule to account for bad weather. We gone out on photography shoots and it was bad weather through-out the whole shoot

 

Clingmens Dome – 2023

Our trip to Clingmans dome in 2023 was much more productive. We left the campground at ohdark-thirty and arrived at the parking lot at Clingmens Dome before sunrise. Upon our arrival
we found about 50 photographers already set up with their tripods pointing east, ready to catch
the sunrise. As daylight appeared and the sun started to rise not a word was spoken and all that
could be heard was the clicking of cameras.

 

View from the Parking Lot at Clingmans Done

At 6,643 feet, Clingmans Dome is the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is the highest point in Tennessee, and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi. Only Mt. Mitchell (6,684 feet) and Mt. Craig (6,647), both located in Mt. Mitchell State Park in western North Carolina, rise higher. The observation tower on the summit of Clingmans Dome offers spectacular 360° views of the Smokies and beyond for visitors willing to climb the steep half-mile walk to the tower at the top.

On clear days views expand over a 100 miles. Unfortunately, air pollution or Fog often limits viewing distances to under 20 miles.

Clouds, precipitation, and cold temperatures are common at Clingmans Dome. Temperatures at the dome can be 10-20 degrees Fahrenheit cooler than in the surrounding lowlands. In fact, the cool, wet conditions on Clingmans Dome’s summit make the spruce-fir forest that grows there a coniferous rainforest. Proper preparation is essential for a good visit. Dress in layers and be sure to bring a jacket, even in summer.

The road leading to the tower is closed seasonally, typically from early December through late March, and whenever dangerous weather conditions require.

It’s seven miles to the end of Clingmans Dome Road and scenic pullouts offer endless views of ridges and valleys along the way. The road ends in a large parking area from which a 0.5-mile trail leads to the summit. The trail is paved but steep, and leads to an observation tower on top.

On The Road Leading to Clingmans Dome

On The Road Leading to Clingmans Dome

Pets and bicycles are not permitted on the paved trail to the observation tower, or on any other trails in the area. A bike rack is located near the beginning of the paved trail to park bikes while walking to the top. You will need to bring a lock with you to secure your bike.

Although the trail is paved, I believe it is too steep to be wheelchair accessible.

Besides the trail to the summit, there are several trails that start from the Clingmans Dome Road and parking area. The Appalachian Trail (AT) crosses Clingmans Dome, marking the highest point along its journey from Georgia to Maine. The Forney Ridge Trail leads to Andrews Bald, a high-elevation grassy bald.

Clingmans Dome

View From Clingmans Dome

Fighting Creek Gap/Little River Gorge Road

Another area we found to have good photo opportunities is along this road which parallels a creek. There are pullovers along this creek. We drive both ways on these roads because the creek flip flops on either side of the road plus you get a different perspective. Whenever possible we like to cruise these types of areas and take notes on where we would like to return. Warning though, depending on the location and the time you try to return to a location, it may not be possible to return to a photography site. I have friends that have paid Big Bucks to travel to a location on a Photography workshop only to get shut out by continuous bad weather.

When photographing lakes, streams, etc., my preference is to get down into the stream or just up next to it. However, at my age I am not as spry as I used to be, so I don’t venture down the steep inclines anymore. My photography partner, Mary Lou, still keeps warning me that I am venturing into places that are beyond my physical limits. She is usually right and so far, all I have gotten is wet and/or a few bruises but I am sure I would have gotten worse if it wasn’t for her vigilance and level-headedness.

Creek 1

Creek 2

The Sinks

Cherokee North Carolina

Some of our photography friends have suggested we take a ride to Cherokee, NC on the other side of the mountains. They told us that there were some photography opportunities there. Cherokee NC is about 1 hour and 30 minutes from our campground. So, we got up early and we left the campground at oh-dark-thirty stopped at Krispy Kream, got a hot donut and a cup of coffee and headed to Cherokee. Did I mention the main Road, Route 441, which goes through the park is very, very, twisty and windy road with switchbacks. That’s why I need my cup of coffee and donut in the morning. We got to Cherokee just as the sun was rising and observed a large herd of elk grazing near the park welcome station. There were a lot of cars everywhere trying to get a photo of an elk in the dark. We were on a mission, so we pushed on. Once in Cherokee we started following the Oconaluftee River. We fell in love with this area. It’s a landscape photographer’s dream. No matter where you look there are opportunities for some great photographs. We planned on getting there early on a Tuesday morning because it was the height of fall foliage and there must have been millions of people (at least there seemed to be millions of people every square inch) there to take in the beauty.

Oconaluftee River 1

The morning, we arrived in Cherokee it was overcast and looked like it may rain. So, I’m thinking a lot of the tourists slept in. There was very little traffic on the roads and no one down by the river. We were fortunate that this area provided us with access to the river although we did travel on a few back roads that were not very user-friendly. We often go off investigating. I will say, “I wonder where this road goes” or “What do you think is down that road.” Then off we go on another adventure.

Oconaluftee River 2

Mingo Falls

Mingo Falls

It was on one of these adventures that we came across the access to Mingo Falls. Once we saw a sign for the falls we had to investigate. There was a parking area next to the river and a flight of steps going up. The steps were often very tall or very slippery (it had rained earlier that morning). Fortunately, we brought along our hiking sticks which helped steady us. I counted 168 steps up to the falls. There were also areas that had no steps so Im guessing it is about a quarter of a mile to the falls from the base of the river. Once at the top there is a bridge over the water, and you can continue on the trail. As you can see by the photo above the hike to the falls was well worth it.

Conclusion

We found this trip to be very fulfilling. We got a few photographs that are keepers and that is all any of us can ask for when we go on a photography shoot. The main issue here was the traffic both vehicular and pedestrian. Usually, shooting early in the morning and late in the evening on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday helps to minimize that problem. However, there seems to be people and vehicular traffic 24 hours a day during Autumn in the Smokies. So if you choose to photograph the peak foliage be prepared to deal with a lot of people and a lot of cars.

 

 

 

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