Trip Report: Autumn in the Smoky Mountains

October 26, 2022  |  Gatlinburg, Tennessee

Great Smoky Mountains National Park offers a wide variety of subject matter for any landscape photographer. Grand vistas, flowing waterfalls, historic cabins, and expansive meadows with majestic trees are all on the menu. In the Fall, it becomes especially magical as the foliage becomes a riot of color that challenges even the largest box of Crayola crayons. I spent a week with my good friend Kristen Wilkinson, exploring different spots in the Smokies and photographing the foliage as best we could.

Mist hangs in the valleys of the Great Smoky Mountains at Newfound Gap on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee on an October morning.

Autumn Mist at Newfound Gap

Mist hangs in the valleys of the Great Smoky Mountains at Newfound Gap on the border of North Carolina and Tennessee on an October morning.

The first thing we realized as we got into Great Smoky Mountains National Park was that the foliage had peaked a little early. We planned our trip based on foliage predictions and past experience. I had visited in 2015 during the same week and found peak foliage, and this year's foliage predictions put peak at the same time. But Mother Nature does what she does on her own schedule, and peak foliage had occurred the week prior to our arrival. Thankfully, there were still plenty of trees holding their leaves, and lots of color, so all was not lost.

The Great Smoky Mountains lay before the setting sun on an autumn evening at Clingman's Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Appalachian Sunset II

The Great Smoky Mountains lay before the setting sun on an autumn evening at Clingman's Dome in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

One of the things I love about the Smokies are the numerous vistas available. The two most popular are Clingman's Dome and Newfound Gap Overlook, and for good reason. The lead image in this entry is from a morning at Newfound Gap, just after sunrise. It was a chilly morning with temperatures in the low 30's, which allowed a beautiful mist to hang in the valleys, creating the layered appearance of the mountains as you look into the distance.

The other most popular overlook is Clingman's Dome. Clingman's Dome is the highest point in Great Smoky Mountains National Park at 6,634 feet. Of course, at that elevation, the views will be incredible. There is an observation tower which is a half mile walk from the parking area. While the observation tower offers spectacular 360º views, the view from the parking area is no slouch, offering views from the northeast to the northwest. Appalachian Sunset II, above, was taken from the parking area at sunset.

An oak tree shows its full autumn color on a misty morning on Hyatt Lane in Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Autumn on Hyatt Lane

An oak tree shows its full autumn color on a misty morning on Hyatt Lane in Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

We'd set aside at least two days to visit Cades Cove, a broad valley surrounded by the mountains. It's one of the most popular spots in the park and with good reason. Europeans began settling in the cove in the early 1800s, and many of the early buildings remain. There is an 11-mile loop road to follow which will bring you to the old cabins, churches, and mills. While the old buildings are cool to see, my favorite part of Cades Cove is the meadows and trees. On cool early mornings, fog sometimes hangs in the valley, creating an ethereal mood. The image above was captured on our second morning in Cades Cove, as our first visit didn't have any fog and we decided to try again. That second visit was very lucky for us, because on our third visit two days later, the trees in the photo were barren, having dropped their leaves at some point over the previous two days.

A walnut tree on a misty morning in Cades Cove.

Autumn Glow

A walnut tree basks in the early morning mist and sunlight in Cades Cove, part of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee.

A lone oak tree stands in a misty meadow on an autumn morning in Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Red Oak in the Mist

A lone oak tree stands in a misty meadow on an autumn morning in Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Brightly colored autumn foliage adorns the trees around Carter Shields' cabin in Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee.

Autumn at Carter Shields Cabin

Brightly colored autumn foliage adorns the trees around Carter Shields' cabin in Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee.

Carter Shields' cabin is one of the most popular stops on the Cades Cove loop. While the cabin was built in 1830, Shields lived there in the early 1900s. Set back in a clearing, it's a simple one-room cabin with a loft that shows how different it was to live at that time. I made this image on my last visit to Cades Cove, thankful these trees still held some leaves.

I'll most likely spend the rest of 2022 closer to home, but there is the possibility of one more trip on the horizon. We'll have to see. This was a great trip to photograph some foliage and mountain scenes and I'm looking forward to 2023 now!