It is somewhat surprising that living in North Carolina my entire life, this would be my first trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. "It ranks as America's most visited National Park. It delights millions of annual visitors who come for its ancient mountains, lush forests, diverse flora and fauna, dozens of waterfalls, and engaging history," from the National Geographic Guide to National Parks of the United States.
Taking vacations to Cherokee, Maggie Valley, Boone, and Banner Elk when I was young were the seeds that grew my love for the Great Smoky's. Learning how to snowboard at Beech and Sugar Mountain or a train ride at Tweetsie, growing up in Raleigh I was just a few hours from enjoying all the mountains had to offer. I hope the pictures in this blog give some justice to this place's stunning beauty.
I decided to visit the Great Smoky Mountains on somewhat of a whim. It was about a 5-hour drive from Raleigh, NC, to the Park. After arriving at about 11 pm, I decided to drive around and scout a sunrise location. I had to decide: Do I try and capture wildlife at sunrise or go for a beautiful view? As I was scouting a sunrise location, I was fortunate enough to spot a herd of elk grazing near Cataloochee. It seemed like a sign that I should try and capture some wildlife at sunrise.
To assist in my decision, I turned to a Great Smoky Mountains National Park Facebook Group. The overarching recommendation that I received was to check out Clingmans Dome for an unbelievable sunrise. In my experience, finding wildlife can be pretty inconsistent, especially being my first time in the Park. Thus, I decided to drive to Clingmans Dome for a sunrise I would not soon forget.
Clingmans Dome is the highest point in Tennessee and the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi. The observation tower, which stands over the surrounding spruce-fir forest, provides expansive views of over 100 miles on clear days. According to the "Guide to National Parks of the United States", the highest point in the Smokies, Clingmans Dome sits at 6,643 feet in elevation with temperatures averaging 20º lower than the surrounding areas.
There is another notable aspect to Clingmans Dome as the Appalachian Trail crosses through it. The Appalachian Trail is a 2,000+ mile trail that spans from Maine to Georgia. With views like this, it's no wonder an estimated 3 million visitors attempt a section of the Appalachian Trail each year, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy.
After sunrise, I figured I still had some time to find some wildlife as they are typically most active during sunrise and sunset. So, my next destination would be Cades Cove, but as they say, sometimes the journey is the destination!
As I wound my way down some of the most inspiring views, I found myself pulling off to check out the Chimney Tops. The Cherokees called the mountain Duniskwalgunyi or Forked Antler. There is a 2-mile trail that climbs around 1,400 feet to get to the top. Of the Gatlinburg wildfires in 2016, the Chimney Tops 2 fire burned approximately 10,000 acres and closed the Chimney Tops trail. The trail has reopened since but remains closed during the winter months as one slip can and has caused death or severe injury.
Great Blue Heron
The drive to Cades Cove took me carving through the valley floor along the Little River. My eyes were searching for any wildlife along the river. My diligence paid off as I spotted this Great Blue Heron. Although these birds are typically found in lowland environments, it is not unusual to see them in rivers and streams in the high country as their diet consists of animals found in and around water.
These stately birds can range from 3 to 4.5 feet tall with wingspans close to 7 feet - the average NBA wingspan is about 8 feet. This GBH was sitting along the edge of the river patiently waiting for a fish or frog to come by, which it then would use its s-shaped neck to reach out and snatch it up. Great Blue Herons are known to live up to 24 years, and their numbers are stable and increased in the U.S. over roughly the last 60 years.
Continuing down Little River Road, I came across The Sinks. The Sinks is a 15-foot waterfall, which gets its name from the whirlpool it creates at its base. As you may infer from the bridge, this is one of the few waterfalls in Great Smoky Mountains National Park that you do not have to hike to. Although this spot did require some scrambling, it is one of my favorites pictures from the Park. The sun was still relatively low in the sky, which created plenty of soft light on the landscape.
Most of the information I have gathered about Cades Cove comes from "Cades Cove Tour," written by Carson Brewer. Cades Cove is a valley in Great Smoky Mountains National Park that was a farming community for more than a hundred years. Cades Cove was a fascinating ride through history, from centuries-old cabins and churches to a plethora of wildlife.
Early settlers into the Cove focused on farming and hunting as a way of providing food. There were schoolhouses for the kids and multiple churches of different denominations in Cades Cove. In fact, upon a community member's death, their respective church would ring their bell for each year of this person's life. The community was so close that they could have a good sense of who had passed based on how many rings of the bell there were. However, these early settlers were not the first humans on this land.
"Archeologists have learned that Cherokees and their ancestors have been in the Cove area for thousands of years... Various conflicts, epidemics, and treaties made it difficult for the Cherokee to remain in Tennessee lands." The Gypsy Guide stated that although many Cherokees were forced off the land, some hid in caves in the area Confederate soldiers tasked with hunting them down.
Horses in Cades Cove
After speaking to the Rangers at the Cades Cove entrance and buying a couple of maps, I spotted horses grazing in a pasture. When these horses are grazing and playing about in the field, they are hauling tourists around these historic grounds.
Whitetail Deer in Cades Cove
Next, I spotted a group of white-tailed deer grazing, followed by a single buck out in a field. White-tailed deer are common throughout the Park and are most frequently in its valleys, such as Cades Cove and Cataloochee Valley, according to the NPS. The Park provides deer with a variety of excellent food sources.
Cable Mill Area in Cades Cove
Roughly halfway through my drive around Cades Cove, I came across the Cable Mill Area. John P. Cable bought land in the Cove in the late 1860s and built this mill on here in about 1870. This particular mill powered two different operations on the farm. As a grist mill, it worked on grinding cereal into flour to then use or sell. Additionally, the waterwheel powered a sawmill, which was used for shaping trees into lumber. This gristmill was the beginning of industry here in the Cove. John's son James Cable inherited the mill and, as stated in "Cades Cove Tour," operated it well into the 20th century before the mill became outdated by more modern steam-powered mills.
As I walked around the Cable Mill Area, I came across a Blacksmith Shop. From creating new tools to melting down broken tools to build new ones, blacksmiths were an integral part of a farming community. Without a local blacksmith, it would likely take days of travel to purchase the tool(s) you needed.
The Gregg-Cable House was built in Cades Cove in 1879 and is believed to be the first all-frame house in the Cove. The house was built with lumber sawed from Cable's mill. This house doubled as a store on the first floor, which operated for about eight years. The Gregg-Cable house then functioned as both a boarding house and residence.
Dan Lawson Place in Cades Cove
Leaving the Cable Mill Historic Area, I began to get a sense of what life was like for the early settlers in this region. The next stop for me was Dan Lawson Place. From the book "Cades Cove Tour," I gathered that this house was built in 1856 on land bought from his father-in-law, Peter Cable. The brick chimney, although a staple now, was unusual for the time. But, as you may have guessed, it was built of bricks made on the site. Can you imagine waking up to this view every morning?
Tipton Place in Cades Cove
"Col. Hamp" Tipton, who served in the Mexican War owned property in Cades Cove [and] had this house built in the early 1870s." - Cades Cove Tour. Here are the blacksmith shop's remains, the house sheltering bee gums, the smokehouse, and the woodshed. Across the road, there contained a double-pen corn crib and a cantilever barn, a replica of the original built in the same place.
The tale of Cades Cove is one of trial and tribulation. Nearly everyone in the Cove farmed, even the blacksmiths, storekeepers, and distillers. Living in this valley required grit and determination as homesteaders faced harsh winter conditions and less sunlight than surrounding areas. However, these settler's ultimate demise came from the establishment of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Most were bought out of their land, yet some refused, which required the negotiation of lifelong leases. Now, Cades Cove is a tourist destination with over two million people visiting it annually.
Sunset in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
After napping and refueling, I made my way from Gatlinburg through the Park to an overlook to capture the fleeting sun. This one
As I crept down the windy mountain roads, I descended into the valley towards Cherokee. Upon arriving at my final stop in the Park, Oconaluftee Visitors Center, I saw a herd of elk. Now, if you have been following my journey, you know how much my blood rushes when I see any wildlife, let alone a herd of elk! The sun was no longer casting its warm radiant glow, so I was forced to compensate by boosting up the ISO on my camera, which is why the photo is so grainy. Nonetheless, it was incredible seeing a herd of elk in North Carolina! There was even a beautiful bull out there to cap off my trip.
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