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Photography in the Great Smoky Mountains

One of the most scenic places in the United States, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park boasts absolutely fantastic photo opportunities. Amateurs and seasoned pros, along with all types of photogs in between, will find ample subjects for beautiful photographs in and around the most visited national park. Nature photography is a big hit in the area, and it’s no wonder based on the rich supply of wildlife, wildflowers, trees, historic buildings, waterfalls, rolling hills, lush valleys, trickling streams, flowing rivers, scenic overlooks, peaceful trails, and winding country roads.

Gatlinburg and the Smoky Mountains are wonderful places to practice your photography year-round, as they’ve captivated the hearts, minds, and lenses of people for centuries. The Smoky Mountains combine incredible scenery with a rich history and interesting cultural background. All of these aspects simply add to the appeal for photographers. If you want nature photography at its best, visit the Smoky Mountains during each of the area’s four definitive seasons. Because of its location and climate, Gatlinburg boasts a wide range in weather throughout the year. Spring brings beautiful blooms, summer is lush and green, fall boasts the changing leaves, and winter most often ushers in glittering snow and ice. It’s a luxury not afforded to many areas of the nation.

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Not sure where to start? Here are some of our favorite spots and subjects for fantastic photography in the Smoky Mountains.

Scenic overlooks
Along the winding roads in and around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, scenic overlooks serve as precious little gems – beautiful surprises around each corner that transform in new light. From these points, photographers will find truly incredible views of the valleys and peaks of the Smoky Mountains. Some of the most scenic roadways and overlooks include:

  • Newfound Gap Road (33 miles) – connects Cherokee, NC to Gatlinburg, TN; overlooks, exhibits, and the Rockefeller Memorial
  • Clingmans Dome Road (7 miles) – leads to a paved trail up to the park’s highest peak
  • Cataloochee Overlook – looks over Cataloochee Valley; surrounded by 6,000-foot peaks; was the largest settlement in what is now the national park
  • Little River Road (18 miles) – runs alongside the Little River; views of river and mountains, wildlife, waterfalls, Elkmont, Metcalf Bottoms, and The Sinks
  • The Foothills Parkway – runs along Chilhowee Mountain and Chilhowee Lake; views of the Tennessee River Valley and Cumberland Mountains plateau
  • Cades Cove Loop Road (11 miles) – driving, walking, and bicycling tours; up-close views of historic buildings (churches, homes, an old mill, and more), cemeteries, wildlife, creeks, and fields

Waterworks
The Smoky Mountains are replete with opportunities for nature photography, particularly by the water. Waterfalls, streams, and rivers are everywhere, so photographers looking to snap a few shots of fish, rushing waters, river rocks, and flowing falls will have their pick. Some of the most popular waterfalls are:

  • Abrams Falls – 20 feet high with large volumes of water
  • Grotto Falls – 25 feet high with old-growth hemlock forest growing behind
  • Hen Wallow Falls – 90 feet high; at the end of an easy walk through a hemlock and rhododendron forest
  • Indian Creek and Toms Branch Falls – 25 feet and 60 feet high, respectively
  • Laurel Falls – 80 feet high; surrounded by lush mountain laurel
  • Mingo Falls – 120 feet high; at the end of a 0.4 mile moderate-difficult hike; just outside of the national park
  • Rainbow Falls – 80 feet high; produces a rainbow in its mist on sunny days
  • Ramsey Cascades – 100 feet high; tallest waterfall in the park

The park is also home to more than 2,000 miles of streams and one of the last wild trout habitats in the eastern U.S. If you’re looking for a shot of anglers in action, you can check almost any stream in the park. Fishing is allowed in all streams in the park, except Tennessee and Lynn Camp Prong, upstream from where it meets Thunderhead Prong. Of course, there are many quiet days where you may be the only one along the water, so you can play around with shots of trees, water, river rocks, fish, and more.

Where the wild things are
While park rangers remind us not to disturb the wildlife, photographers can still get plenty of great shots of bears, deer, turkeys, elk, birds, and other creatures. Some of the best places to find and photograph wildlife are Cades Cove and Cataloochee. These open spaces provide great viewing of black bears, raccoons, turkeys, woodchucks, squirrels, and white-tailed deer. The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail also features wildlife viewing, particularly in winter when the deciduous trees have shed their leaves.

Season to season
Each season in the Great Smoky Mountains brings something new. Spring brings new life to the area with blooming wildflowers and shrubs, thawing streams and waterfalls, and emerging wildlife. Summer continues the new growth, and the hills are lush and green. Fall, one of the most popular times to visit, features the changing of the leaves. The hillsides transform, with leaves changing from shades of green to vivid oranges, shimmering golds, and rich reds. When winter arrives, the landscape begins to freeze as snow and ice blanket the city. It is truly a winter wonderland!

City lights
The natural surroundings aren’t the only photo-worthy subjects in the area. Downtown Gatlinburg comes alive at night, with bright lights lining the charming streets. It’s a great city for catching all the little details, from blinking arcade games and sharks overhead (at Ripley’s Aquarium of the Smokies) to mounds of fresh fudge and hand-pulled taffy. There’s so much going on in the city, it’s a veritable playground for photographers. Places like Ober Gatlinburg and the Gatlinburg Space Needle offer even more opportunities, providing stunning views of the Smoky Mountains. Need some ideas? Some city subjects may include:

  • Tourists strolling the Parkway
  • The fountain in The Village
  • Mounds of candy and fudge in shop windows
  • Taffy makers at work
  • Carved wood furniture and décor outside of shops
  • Miniature golf courses at night
  • A stack of pancakes in a local restaurant
  • Live performances in the Ole Smoky Moonshine Holler
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Finding a great spot for a photograph isn’t the only element in the equation. Below we’ve outlined a few tips for photographers, both beginner and seasoned, who want to test their skills and challenge themselves in one of the most scenic places in the country. We hope these tips will help you get that shot you’ve been after!

Tips for photography in the Smokies

  • Try different locations to get panoramic views of the mountains.
  • Don’t limit yourself to just one season – visit in spring, summer, fall, and winter!
  • Be ready for anything. While you may have come for still photos of nature, you might come across a bear or rushing waterfall that you want to capture in action. Bring along whatever tools you need so you won’t miss a thing!
  • Some businesses may have rules about photographers snapping away within their walls. Be sure to check the rules if you’re a professional photographer and not just using the pictures for your scrapbook at home.
  • Be prepared to hike. Many of the waterfalls, wildlife viewing areas, and scenic overlooks are accessible by car, but some require an easy, moderate, or challenging hike. Bring along your hiking boots just in case!