Posted by: kerryl29 | February 13, 2023

The Smokies in Springtime: The Back Story

Long-time readers of this blog may recall a chronicling of my experiences of time spent in and around Great Smoky Mountains National Park. But we’re talking long-time readers only. Even though I’ve spent more time in the Smokies than any other location outside of my immediate home area(s) (excluding the Upper Peninsula of Michigan), prior to last spring, I hadn’t visited the region since 2013.

River’s Flow, Middle Prong of the Little River, Tremont, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

There were a variety of reasons why I was leaning in favor of a long-deferred return trip last year, but the most significant of those was the opportunity to, finally, meet and photograph with Nye Simmons. I had been communicating with Nye in a variety of forms–photography message board forums, email and phone calls–for approximately two decades, but we’d never met face-to-face. As a long-time admirer of Nye’s photography and a devotee of Nye’s photo guides to the Smokies and the Blue Ridge Parkway, I’d always regretted that we’d never been able to exchange direct pleasantries. But Nye had told me, a number of times, to let him know if I was ever able to make it back to the area. So when I first started considering making a spring trip–this would have been in late February of 2022–I sent Nye a note and he told me that he’d be around during the spring bloom and he’d be happy to spend some time with me in the field, if I’d like the company. That bit of news is what solidified my plans and, indeed, we met up a half-dozen times or so while I was on the ground in the area. It was a tremendous experience, and one I’ll relate in some detail, bit by bit, as I cover the trip.

White Trillium, Whiteoak Sink, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

Home Base

I greatly prefer to stay in the small village of Townsend, Tennessee when I’m based in the Smokies. It’s a much quieter, less-populated base than better known tourist locations such as Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge. But on this occasion, partly because of my relatively late decision to make the trip and partly because a Ford Bronco gathering had booked up every available room in Townsend, I found myself facing the prospect of staying in Gatlinburg. Much to my chagrin.

Foggy Sunrise, Oconaluftee Valley Overlook, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina

If you haven’t been to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and you simply looked at a map, you’d undoubtedly wonder why it wouldn’t be my first choice. With a bullet. In terms of sheer proximity to many of the most interesting and photogenic locations in the park, Gatlinburg is the ideal spot. It’s the closest jumping off point for the Newfound Gap Road, which provides access to countless great photographic opportunities. It’s by far the closest spot to the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. It provides the closest access to Greenbrier, another excellent photo area. It’s the best location for the eastern end of the Little River Road. Townsend, by contrast, is closer only to Tremont and Cades Cove.

Little River Evening, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

But Gatlinburg is perhaps the quintessential tourist trap town in North America. (And if it isn’t, Pigeon Forge–just a few miles up the road–is.) Particularly on weekends (but weekdays are not exempt), tourists descend on Gatlinburg like plagues of locusts. This is not a snooty commentary on the amenities. Many of the attractions in Gatlinburg (and Pigeon Forge) are not my cup of tea, but that’s entirely beside the point. My problem with these locations is the traffic. During the height of the tourist hours–and in a place like this, that extends from mid-morning until well into the evening (particularly on weekends)–the entire town is a perpetual snarl of vehicles and pedestrians. There is no way to avoid this other than to avoid the town, either entirely or during the many hours of the day where the traffic resembles something like midtown Manhattan. This can be….inconvenient, to put it mildly. But, given the circumstances outlined above, it was Gatlinburg or forget the trip entirely. So, I braced myself and booked a place to stay and, given my familiarity with the drill, I made plans to avoid the worst the town had to offer. I was mostly successful in that regard.

Confluence, Kephart Prong, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina


I have said, many times in the past, that I think the Smokies may be the single best spot for nature photography in the United States east of the Mississippi River, due to the sheer variety of photographic options and opportunities the regions holds. (This is particularly true, in my opinion, for landscape photographers, but there is some excellent wildlife photography to he had as well.) Misty layered mountain;, the opportunity for epic sunrises and sunsets from a seemingly endless number of overlooks; rushing streams endowed with moss-filled rocks; waterfalls and cascades; carpets of wildflowers, flowering trees, magnificent new spring buds; character-filled rustic buildings; and more good reflection locations than I’ve seen anywhere else. What more could you ask for?

Dogwood Spring, Little River Road, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee


The only caveat to my above statement–and the answer to the rhetorical question at the end of the above paragraph–is one I would have tattooed on my body (if I were into tattoos): if the conditions are amenable. When the conditions are, in fact, good, the Smokies is a landscape photographic nirvana. What does the term “good conditions” entail when applied to the Smokies? Well, in springtime, it means a good bloom–wildflowers in general, but flowering trees (especially dogwoods) in particular. It also means a dearth of wind and minimal blue sky days. Good water flow in creeks, streams and rivers during springtime is a given.

Pastels, Newfound Gap Overlook, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

What does the ideal photography weather day in the Smokies look like? No wind, partly cloudy at sunrise (with valley fog), clouding up about an hour after sunrise, staying overcast all day until about an hour before sunset when it becomes partly cloudy again. Low clouds (producing the chimera of fog at higher elevations) is always welcome. Rinse and repeat. Give me a week of days like that and you’ll probably never hear from me again. But I’d settle for one or two days that even vaguely resemble the above description.

Black Bear, Whiteoak Sink, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

If you’re guessing that the conditions when I was in the Smokies last spring didn’t exactly resemble the platonic ideal…you would be correct. As I mentioned in an entry that I posted some weeks ago:

During the week or so that I was on the ground in the region, all but two days were filled, end-to-end, with blue skies, and even the two days that didn’t fit that description featured clear skies half the time. There was also a fair amount of wind. And, to top things off, due to a late-in-the-season hard freeze that covered two consecutive nights, the bloom was stunted. As I stated, less than ideal.

Mind Bender, Little River, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

But I made the best of the situation and I think I did just fine in the end. This is partly because I’ve photographed in the Smokies a number of times before and have learned a thing or two about how to make the proverbial lemonade out of lemons when there. It’s also because Nye was with me on several occasions and he’s turned the making-of-photographic-lemonade in the Smokies into a true art form. And it didn’t hurt, psychologically, that given my numerous previous excursions to the region, I wasn’t beset by the “woe is me, I may never have this opportunity again” syndrome that can rise up in once-in-a-lifetime scenarios.

Trail of Phlox, Whiteoak Sink, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

You’ve now seen a bit of what the trip yielded in the accompanying photos. The day-to-day chronicle will commence in the coming weeks…perhaps as soon as next week.

Morton Overlook at Sunset, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee


  1. I went to Shenandoah last fall. The Smokies are on my short list to visit in the next couple of years. Look forward to reading more

    • Thanks!

      I haven’t been to Shenandoah in almost 25 years. Hoping to rectify that soon, maybe as soon as later this year.

  2. These images are a great “trailer” for the main attraction. I am very much looking forward to the full trip report and accompanying images.

    • Thanks, Ellen!

  3. Nice preview of what’s to come! Cool that you were able to see a bear close enough to capture a shot. I haven’t seen much wildlife in the Park during two brief visits. Perhaps next time, when I’ll be there longer. Looking forward to your next posts…

    • Thanks, Steve.

      I think I had four bear sightings on this trip, which as many or more than I’ve had in all my previous visits combined. And the *quality* of those sightings was unprecedented.

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