Colors and Motion: Great Smoky Mountains 2013 Trip Report

By David Boston on Sep 06, 2013

“Colors and Motion.”

To me, that phrase best describes Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The colors of early morning vistas, flowers, and twilight reflections. The motion of bears climbing trees, the flowing streams and rivers, the cascading waterfalls, the water flowing through water wheels, and the kayakers shooting the rapids at “the Sinks.”

In April 2013, my wife and I drove to Tennessee where I participated in the Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris Great Smoky Mountains photo tour led by Len Rue, Jr. This was to be my eighth Van Os tour.

About The Park
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is America’s most visited national park. Not as remote as most other national parks, it’s easy to see why it is so popular. In addition to the natural beauty that graces the landscape, it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and throughout the park are many remnants of Southern Appalachian mountain culture.

Situated immediately adjacent to Gatlinburg, the park is the town’s polar opposite. Gatlinburg is gaudy, crowded, noisy—the embodiment of “tourist trap.” That’s not to say that Gatlinburg is bad or undesirable—hey, it’s fun. On the flip side, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is quiet and serene; a soft palette of colors to renew the soul.

Encompassing parts of Tennessee and North Carolina, the park has something for every photographer: ridges and valleys filtered through subtle mists, mountain tops peaking out from clouds, flowers, rivers and streams, waterfalls, bears, deer, turkeys, elk, old churches, old gristmills, settlers’ cabins and a one-room school house. It’s truly a photographer’s paradise with ample opportunities for landscape, wildlife, historical, close-up and macro photography.

About The People
A photo tour, such as this offering from Van Os, is as much about the people as it is about the photographic opportunities. These tours put people with common interests and varying levels of expertise together in one place with one thing in mind—photography. It’s been my experience that Van Os participants tend to be open and willing to share concepts and techniques with each other. The tours are also a good opportunity to get to know people from different places and different walks of life. While some are professional photographers, the groups often include enthusiastic hobbyists (like me) and photographic beginners who work in non-photographic related occupations. All are looking for opportunities to experience something new, to improve their photographic skills, and, often, to build their portfolios.

On this trip, the group was a little different because I already knew half of the people from previous Van Os tours: Andy (from Katmai 2012), Toby (from Denali 2011), Cheryl (from Glacier 2008), and our leader Len (Yellowstone 2009, Acadia 2010, Denali 2011, and Katmai 2012). We were from California, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Texas.

A photo tour is about opportunities. With each one, we start with an itinerary in mind, but that often changes as opportunities of the moment arise. We have to work with the light, the weather, subject availability (this wasn’t a particularly good wildflower year), road conditions (one road was closed the first day of our tour, but opened later), interests of the group, and so forth.

We were active in the park for 5 days:

Day 1: We covered approximately 80 miles within the park We worked the area along Little River Road and Laurel Creek Road between the Sugarlands Visitor Center and Cades Cove. Photo opportunities included Laurel Falls, kayakers shooting the rapids at “the Sinks,” and historic buildings in Cades Cove. We were treated to a special opportunity early in the day. After spending an enjoyable morning photographing Laurel Falls and as we were hiking back down the trail and we came upon a sow black bear and her three young cubs up in a tree. Such fun!

Day 2: An early day and a long one. We were up and out the door around 4 AM for the drive up to Newfound Gap for sunrise. At that elevation and that early in the morning, it was near freezing and we were happy we had winter gear along. After spending a couple of hours setting up and photographing a beautiful dawn and sunrise, we set out for the rest of the day. We covered nearly 115 miles as we traveled to Tremont, stopping along the way to photograph streams, waterfalls and flowers. During a stop in the Chimney Tops Picnic Area, Len led a discussion and demonstration on the use of macro equipment such as macro lenses, bellows, focusing rails, macro filters and the like.

Days 3 & 4: We spent these two days photographing waterfalls, streams, flowers in the Roaring Fork area and along Little River Road. On one of the days, we did a moderately strenuous 3-mile round trip hike to photograph Grotto Falls. It was warm on the way up and rainy on the way down—you never know what kind of weather you will run into on a tour such as this. Len demonstrated the use of a tilt-shift lens and gave us all an opportunity for some hands-on experience with his. At one stop along the Middle Prong Little River, Andy showed me how he selects and places foreground elements to be emphasized in his wide-angle photography.

Day 5: Another early (4 AM) and long (120 miles) day. We were up early to get in position at Clingmans Dome to photograph moonset and sunrise. Clingmans Dome is along the Appalachian Trail and the highest point in the Smoky Mountains. The lookout tower we worked from offered stunning views of mountains and ridges shrouded in the clouds that remind one why the park is named “Great Smoky Mountains.” After a drive to Cherokee, North Carolina for a great breakfast, we headed over to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center and its Mountain Farm Museum, for a look at how people lived in the region when it was first settled. We also visited Mingus Mill, an historic, operating grist mill that uses a water-powered turbine instead of a water wheel to produce cornmeal and wheat flour (for sale, of course). Finally, after a visit to the Deep Creek area, we traveled back to Gatlinburg for our final dinner together.

I’m probably not the least-biased reviewer when it comes to Len Rue. I’ve been on four tours with Len (he leads tours in the places that I want to go) and we’ve become good friends. That aside, I’ll echo some of my comments about Len from the Katmai 2012 trip. Len is well-versed in wildlife and landscape photography, having grown up working for many years with his father, well-known naturalist and wildlife photographer, Leonard Lee Rue III. Len has spent most of his life as a professional photographer and is many times published. He takes these tours seriously and wants everyone to get the most they can out of the experience. On the tour, he always made sure that we knew what the schedule was, what to look for at a particular photo spot/opportunity, and how to best shoot under the conditions at the time. He spent time getting to know each of the photographers and offered assistance whenever he detected uncertainty or lack of confidence. For some of us, including me, macro photography is a new specialty. Len prepared notes for all of us on the subject and, as noted above, led an impromptu demonstration and discussion about macro photography concepts and equipment.

Photo Safaris
This was my 8th tour with Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris. That pretty much says it all. Photo Safaris excels in what they do. The staff is friendly, professional and very well organized. Everything flows smoothly from initial registration all the way through to the end of the tour. Photo Safaris secures convenient lodging, provides excellent meals, and wonderful photographic opportunities.

Other than the obvious (a camera, plenty of batteries and media), the following equipment is crucial to maximizing the experience at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park:

  • A good sturdy tripod—if nothing else, it slows you down and makes you be more deliberate about your photography.
  • A polarizer—I used one all of the time. Besides the obvious control of reflections on water, polarizers also reduce annoying reflections on leaves and help in improving color saturation.
  • A variety of lenses—I took a 17–40mm, a 24–105mm, and a 100–400mm zoom lens with me. I expected to be using the first two the most; however, I was surprised how often I used the 100–400mm.
  • Macro equipment. Some of us had macro lenses and others used extension tubes. Even though the wildflowers weren’t at their very best, there were plenty of opportunities to spend some time getting in and capturing close details of some of those beauties.

My wife accompanied me on this tour as a non-participant. She did her own thing during the days while our group was out doing ours. She joined us each evening for dinner and really enjoyed that time with the group. She explored Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge and Sevierville, as well as the park. She used to say that Glacier National Park was her favorite place, but after a couple of days in the park, she now says her favorite is the Smokies. The park is, as she described it to me, how she imagines the Garden of Eden.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a wonderful place to relax, to experience nature, and to experience the early pioneering history of our country. Couple that with Joseph Van Os Photo Safaris and the photographers who take their tours and you have the formula for a wonderful photographic experience.

About the Author. David Boston is a serious hobbyist who shoots for his own enjoyment, relaxation, and to share with others. His favorite subjects are landscapes and wildlife and this was his 8th tour with Van Os Photo Safaris. See photos from the other Van Os safaris that David has enjoyed, as well as more of David’s Smoky Mountain photos at:

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