Great Smoky Mountains Spring 2014

Sparks Lane is an amazing place in the pre-dawn light.
Purchase Photo.

I had not expected to get to the Great Smoky Mountains in 2014.  Then a decision to attend a motorsports photography workshop at RoadAtlanta in late April got me thinking of other opportunities. Having gone to school at the University of Tennessee Knoxville I knew well of the Smokies and the Dogwoods, Gatlinburg, and Pigeon Forge. But I was a student back then and photographing the Smokies was not on my college agenda. My travel dates coincided with the peak of Smoky Spring and it was time to finally explore.

I began researching locations and worked out a travel arc coming up Interstate 75 from the airport in Atlanta Wednesday morning after a red eye from Vegas; hitting the Cherohala Skyway; entering the park from Cherokee; shooting a sunset at Newfound Gap; and finally collapsing in a hotel in Pigeon Forge. Thursday would see me take the route from Pigeon Forge to Cades Cove with exploration around Townsend and Tremont. Friday expected a route east to Cataloochee to photograph elk before going further south to my workshop briefing Friday afternoon

The lead photo is Sparks Lane at sunrise. Sparks Lane is one of two primary two-way crossroads in Cades Cove, a valley circled by an eleven mile one-way loop road. The valley is not marked by amazing rock formations or a bold canyon or overlook. Look at Cades Cove as a time capsule showcasing rolling hills, meadows, streams and life in the Appalachia in the early 1900′s.

Of course I had to awake well before dawn, grabbing a couple sodas and a package of powdered donuts as horrible breakfast on my way out of Pigeon Forge. Taking the more northerly and better route to Townsend, then into the National Park up to Cades Cove. I had read that the Cove had gated operating hours, but I still had to see if predawn setup was possible. Nope, I ended up second in line at the gate. Soon other cars joined and by the time the ranger arrived, the line had lengthened out to the exit road. On reflection, the daylight hours helps protect many historic buildings and provides the Cade Cove wildlife a break.

So the gate opens and I headed down to the Wye that is Sparks Lane. Many shots were in flat light, but at a certain moment the sunrise light ripped through the trees at the end of the road. The moment was fleeting, as a a minute later the entire road was flooded with light.

Tremont is a river canyon portion near the Townsend entrance.
Purchase Photos.

 Several falls and rapids provide opportunities for hiking and fly fishing in this old logging area. I traveled this area on a mid-afternoon break from Cades Cove.

I found several shooting locations, including this location where the Spruce Flats branch combines with the main river. I missed Spruce Flat Falls just up the stream in the trees. The river seemed too deep and brisk to challenge; but I understand a trail from the Institute just north provides easy hiking access.

At about the time I finished working this shot, a bee/wasp decided to take a particular fondness to my camera. Patience ensued, and about ten minutes later I was finally able to climb out of my spot.

Ogle Place is south of Gatlinburg near the entry to the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail.
Purchase Photo.

My original plan on Friday was to rise early and drive the two hours around the east side of the park to Cataloochee. But after two hard and full days and a hard weekend ahead, I needed the extra rest time. Once I opened the windows to the outside world, I could see the heavy rain clouds resting over the mountains. Good choice I smiled. And then moved to checkout and travel the direct route south past Gatlinburg and over the Gap.

However before I said goodbye to the Smokies, I had to make a stop at Ogle House. It seemed a great spot with the rain and flat light. Ogle House is just off a two-way road only a few minutes south of Gatlinburg. A parking lot provides quick access down into the farm site, with a nature trail and creek beyond. I spotted three locations, one here, another by the big dogwood tree, and another by the barn. The light was a bit hit and miss, a pause in the rain brought the sun peaking through the clouds – which I believe helped the tree lighting. When I finished, the rain returned and was coming hard by the time I reached the car.

Of all the locations, this felt the most compelling. But in hindsight getting a cabin shot has a challenge…. its squarish, out of form with the trees; and its too easy to end up with a composition worthy of a real estate ad. So I played and played and finally found color harmony to be a good way to pull the elements together. Hue shifted moved several of the reds and darker greens toward the spring green hue in the Dogwood blossoms.

Bald River Falls in the Cherohala Skyway.

This 100′ falls is located deep within the Cherokee National Forest. The access is from the Cherohala Skyway, a winding highway between Tellico Plains TN and Robbinsville TN. Not far from Tellico Plains, signs will guide travelers off the Skyway down to a river road. About eight miles on the falls appear prominently with a bridge crossing the river to a parking area and a trail.

Crossing the bridge to the west side, I found an easy path down to the river. I tried several different views amongst the boulder platforms. I had little room to maneuver down at the bottom with only 21, 24 and 50mm primes. The comp is bit tight, but working much more left gets one chasing the image, so it may be a good thing. I did lose a bit more space tweaking the rotation; water is so revealing as to what should be horizontal and level. There was quite a bit of negative space in the lower right quadrant; I think I brought the rocks and brush up to a level interesting to the viewer.

During my visit, a couple fisherman passed me and climbed over the rocks to an area next to the falls. I considered the same pathway for some close images of the falls. But there were other areas to explore before getting up to Newfound Gap for a sunset.

If you look to the upper left, you can see the fence protecting a trail that leads up to the river. I did not notice the trail on my visit. Reviewing the area on the maps after the trip, I discovered nearly 4000 acres of watershed are in the Bald River Gorge Wilderness.

The sim was low to the west bringing out the color of the Dogwoods.
Purchase Photo.


Cades Cove is such a remarkable place. It is not an amazing rock formation; or spectacular valley; but gentle Appalachian scenes to be explored along an eleven mile loop road crossed by meadow lanes.

I found this view mid-morning on my second loop through the valley. The wall of trees marked with the fully blossomed dogwoods stood out. With the sun high and still behind to the east, I made a note to return here when the light would be better.

When I came back I worked two different views – the wide shot, a portion you see here; and a sharp long shot focused on individual Dogwoods, especially the group on the right. I initially worked on that close shot – the individual blossoms sharp on the tree line. But too many branches behind made the image busy; lost was the star of the show – the avalanche of dogwood blossoms. The wide shots did not seem to fair better. However I recently explored some softened shot techniques. And long with the blue/green muted background palette, the scene finally rendered with the proper accent on the snowy Dogwoods.

The rains that chased me out of Gatlinburg brought me once more over Newfound Gap. I took a brief pause to capture some of the low clouds working through the valleys and peaks.The treatment here is black and white to accentuate the clouds against the trees. Color was kinda dull anyway.

I used some settings from Silver Efex Fine Art formulas, but done manually to avoid grain and other unneeded processing. I like the mix of dark and bright tree profiles with the clouds working through. Its not the best seen so small, lots of detail is lost at this size.

I probably could have spent an hour up there getting different formations of this fast moving weather. But the 5 pm workshop briefing near Braselton GA was starting to push my time.

Newfound Gap Sunset on the Tennessee - North Carolina border.
Purchase Photo.

Great Smoky Mountain National Park is bisected by a north-south highway that climbs out of Cherokee NC to the south up around a ridge to Newfound Gap and then descends down a canyon to Gatlinburg TN. At the top are a series of observation viewpoints and a tunnel.

A set of Neutral Density Gradient filters was used to moderate the exposure between the sky and the Smoky Mountains. With that setup the camera really got the colors. Some additional post in Capture One was used to lift the detail. I love the sharpness in the ridge trees to the left.

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