Rainy Days in the Great Smoky Mountains

It seems hard to believe, but it was exactly one year ago this week that I spent a couple of days in America’s most visited national park. I don’t live that far from The Great Smoky Mountains, but I rarely seem to be able to find the time to get there. I had a couple of open days last February, so I thought I would head over and see if I could be lucky enough to get some snow-filled landscape photography.

That was not to be. In fact, heavy rains and flooding cut my trip a bit short. Particularly after a ranger strongly advised me to abandon my plans to spend a second night in my tent. The rain, however, did create some nice photographic opportunities, even if I didn’t fully recognize them at the time.

I began over in the Tremont area. If you have never been to the park, or are just looking for a fairly easy walk that will take you along a beautiful stream, then I would recommend that you begin in that area. Just follow the hard road till it ends, park in the parking lot and head across the bridge. The trail, I believe, is an old road, so it is wide and reasonably flat.

Before I even made it to the parking lot, I spied a rushing cascade powering down the mountain slope right next to the road.

Cascade at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Mossy cascade in the Tremont area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Nikon D7100 | 24mm | f/14 | 1/2 sec | ISO 100

Looking at the vibrant green moss, it’s difficult to believe that this shot was taken in the winter time. I was back at this same spot in September of last year, at the end of a very wet summer and was more than a little surprised to see that there was absolutely no water at all here!

There were other pleasant surprises farther up the trail. Like these two separate streams of water running off the hill, crossing one another as they spilled to the rocks below.

Cascading Water at Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Falling water along the Lynn Prong Camp Trail of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Nikon D7100 | 24mm | f/16 | 1/2 sec | ISO 100

Not all the scenery was about the water. The sun broke through for a moment and illuminated this small, wooden footbridge. Had I tried to light this scene, I couldn’t possible have improved on what nature provided for me – but only for an instant. And then it was gone!

Footbridge along the Lynn Prong Camp Trail at Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Footbridge – Lynn Prong Camp Trail – Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Nikon D7100 | 62mm | f/8.0 | 1/60 sec | ISO 320

This photograph reminds me of the importance of keeping my camera available, even as I hike. Of course, here that’s easy. The trail is wide, and flat, and easy to manage. Often, however, when the trail requires more concentration or demands that we move over obstacles or on narrow footpaths, the camera goes back in the bag. That’s reasonable, of course, but it means that we miss those unexpected moments of dramatic light, or some passing wildlife. (I’m still looking for a chance to get a shot of a bear on along the trail!)

I spent my second morning over near Cades Cove. After a (fairly) quick trip around the loop, without sighting a single animal, I parked and hiked my way over to the Crooked Arm Cascades. I stopped at the lower section first.

Lower Crooked Arm Cascades. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Lower Crooked Arm Cascade – Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Nikon D7100 | 38mm | f/18 | 1/2 sec | ISO 100

Non-photographers frequently ask about that smooth water in waterfall pictures. No, that’s not a photoshop “trick.” It’s simply the result of using a longer shutter speed. In this case, the shutter was open for a half second. So all of the water that was moving is really just blurry in the image. Everything else is sharp because the camera was on a tripod, allowing it to be completely still.

The same technique was used in the images below. Yes, images. The picture you see is actually made up of three separate images, stitched together into one final picture. All of those fallen trees were a part of the scene in front of me, and I wanted to use them to form a bit of a frame around the waterfall.

Crooked Arm Falls
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Crooked Arm Cascade – Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Nikon D7100 | 12mm | f/16 | 1/2 sec | ISO 100

This shot is another reminder of the fact that every moment is distinct. I have seen other pictures of this waterfall. None of them have that large tree jutting out the front. And I have yet to see one with nearly this much water. Apparently, Crooked Arm Cascade usually just trickles over the edge behind the rock formation in the front, and then flows gently around those rocks. That certainly wasn’t the case last February!

Sometimes, it’s good to slow down and look for the tiny things, even in a place as dramatic as the Smokys. I often look for flowers, or fungus or some other detail in the woods. On this particular trip, however, I was more fascinated by all that water. So I spent some time just photographing details of tiny cascades.

Currents – Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Nikon D7100 | 165mm | f/8.0 | 1/15 sec | ISO 100

The result is an image that has more of an abstract quality, and one that I find peaceful, in spite of the hurried motion of the water.

Currents – Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Nikon D7100 | 165mm | f/8.0 | 1/15 sec | ISO 100

I’ll end my retrospective with one final waterfall. This is one one of better known falls in the park, and one that – I believe – normally flows fairly well. In fact, you’ll notice that it only took an eighth of a second to capture that soft, blurred water.

Spruce Flat Falls – Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Nikon D7100 | 24mm | f/8.0 | 1/8 sec | ISO 100

As I mentioned, I returned to the park last fall. I’ve shared a number of those images on my Instagram feed over the last few months. So it appears to be time for me to consider another trip soon! Perhaps in time for spring wildflowers?

All images are available as prints.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Inspiring work as always, Robert. Waterfalls always impress, but my favorites are the more abstract current images. You are right that the dynamic rush of the curves creates a Zen-like stillness much in the same way as the rushing sounds of the watercourse.

    1. Thank you, Tom. Apologies for the delay in responding. Somehow I overlooked this.

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