Great Smoky Mountains National Park

VISITED: NOVEMBER 2016

I traveled to Gatlinburg, Tennessee in November 2016 with my brother in order for hiking, photography, and taking in the fall splendor of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. During our trip we visited many of the popular overlooks and stops such as Clingmans Dome, Newfound Gap, Oconaluftee Valley Overlook, and more. Below is a collection of our recommendations for photography sunrise and sunset, highlights of the park, and favorite hikes.

SUNRISE: Oconaluftee Valley Overlook - The Oconaluftee Valley Overlook was an ideal place to capture a beautiful sunrise that depicted the essence of the park. The Oconaluftee Valley Overlook is about a half mile from the Newfound Gap Overlook (towards Cherokee) and will be on the right side of the road. The overlook faces east and has a walkway along the road that allows you to choose the vantage point that is best for you.

SUNSET: Clingmans Dome - For sunset, Clingmans Dome is a park favorite since it gives visitors a 360 degree view of the entire park. On our first day we made the steady half mile hike to the overlook only to be met with a thick blanket of clouds. Although it made for an interesting photography, it wasn't until the next day that we made our second attempt and were treated to the full view of the park on an unusually clear day.

HIGHLIGHT OF THE PARK: Cades Cove - The highlight of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park had to be our trip into Cades Cove. Cades Cove can be accessed by Little River Road to Laurel Creek Road from the town of Gatlinburg. Along the way you will be treated to beautiful scenery and pullouts along the river. Once such pullout is called "The Sinks" and is a popular, small waterfall where some visitors have been known to jump off and swim in during the summer months. The drive to Cades Cove takes a little over an hour, but once you arrive you will not be disappointed. Upon entry to this part of the park, you will embark on an 11-mile round-trip journey around Cades Cove. Be sure to take your time and pull out at the stops that interest you since circling back would be a nightmare! We also recommend arriving early to catch the low-hanging fog and wildlife (deer and black bear), but more importantly to avoid the traffic. Believe me, traffic can get insane. It is not unusual to be stuck in bumper to bumper traffic since this is a popular destination and tends to become quite congested by the afternoon.

For hikers, the Great Smoky Mountains have many great trailheads with varying difficulty: easy, moderate, and strenuous.

EASY: Sugarlands Valley Trail - For beginners, an easy trail would be the Sugarlands Valley Trail, which can be found near the Sugarlands Valley Visitor Center. The trail is only a half mile in distance and can take about 45minutes to complete if you take your time. This trail is a wonderful starting off point, as it gives visitors information about the park and its history.

MODERATE: Alum Cave Bluff Trail or Chimney Tops Trail - The Alum Cave Bluff Trail is an 11-mile roundtrip hike that takes hikers and photographers up a steady 5.5-mile climb up to the summit of Mount LeConte. Mount LeConte is the park's third highest peak and offers some breathtaking views. Along the trail you will witness many geological marvels and classic sights like Arch Rock, Inspiration Point, and the Eye of the Needle.

Chimney Tops is a 4-mile roundtrip hike and one of the most popular. It is 2-miles to the top, but a steady climb so be prepared! Once you reach the top of this hike there is a section of rocks that will require climbing and are not for the feint of heart! Be sure to take your time and not feel rushed, since this is the most dangerous part of the hike. Once you reach the pinnacle of the Chimney Tops, then be sure to take in the sights around you. It is truly a rewarding and spectacular hike.

STRENUOUS: Charlies Bunion Hike - The Charlies Bunion Hike begins at the Newfound Overlook Parking Lot and is an 8.1-mile round-trip hike. This hike coincides with the Appalachian Trail and starts with a steady climb over the first 2-miles. Be sure to look around you along the way, as you will be treated to great views of the North Carolina Smokies that can be seen off to the south. Depending on the season, you may see the wildflowers in bloom (spring and summer) or the vast trees chasing colors (fall).

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