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Located along the border of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited national park in the U.S. park system. Don't let this claim to fame deter you, for you can still lose yourself in the serenity of this magical place. One of the most popular destinations within the park, Cades Cove is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors can enjoy an 11-mile, one-way loop road that circles the valley, offering an abundance of photographic opportunities, from scenic mountain views to well-preserved homesteads. A variety of wildlife, including deer, turkey, coyotes and black bear, often can be found in the area, as well as hogs, skunks, raccoons and other animals. Numerous trails are accessible from the Cades Cove loop, with destination highlights including Abrams Falls and Bull Cave, while rare wildflowers, creeks and grassy fields comprise the landscape. The trails range in difficulty from flat and easy to strenuous with significant altitude change—there's something for everyone.
The Smoky Mountains are a temperate rain forest. Warm valley air collides with cooler mountain air to produce water vapor, which condenses and causes rain. Plentiful valley fog often occurs during the spring and fall months—perfect for soft, moody imagery. In the spring, trees display bright greens, and fields come alive with variegated hues of orange and gold grasses. Temperatures linger between the 60s to mid-70s. Summer brings heat and afternoon thunderstorms, with deeper greens and an abundance of wildflowers. Brilliant displays of sugar maples provide a colorful palette during autumn, while winter can be harsh with crisp temps and snow. With four distinct seasons, each brings a new backdrop to the Cove.
Cades Cove offers a wide variety of photo opportunities, so I bring an arsenal of equipment, a spare battery and extra memory cards. Because black bear can regularly be spotted, I like to keep my distance to avoid stressing them—the best photos capture wildlife in their natural habitat, performing normal activities. For this reason, I use either my Nikon 200-400mm or 70-200mm VR telephoto lenses. Numerous historical structures are located in the Cove, so I bring along the versatile 70-300mm lens (a must for long hikes) and the 12-24mm wide-angle for creative, structural shots. I also use the wide-angle for sprawling valley views, as depicted in this image, and expansive mountain views as seen from numerous trails.
During peak summer months, Cades Cove can be crowded, so I like to photograph early morning or early evening when the mood and lighting is peaceful. This also is the best time to see wildlife. During foggy mornings or after a rain, water vapor droplets act as thousands of little fill-flashes, creating the perfect time to capture the Cove's magical light. Early-autumn frost coats the valley in a shimmering layer of light, so if you're looking for that surreal landscape, September and October would be a good time to plan your visit.
Contact: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, (865) 436-1200, www.nps.gov/grsm.