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Great Smoky Mountains, North Carolina

The Great Smoky Mountains are located in the heart of the southern Appalachians along the border between western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. World famous for its scenic mountain ranges, diverse plant and animal species, and wide-ranging atmospheric conditions, the region is a target-rich environment for outdoor photographers and should be on any landscape or wildlife shooter’s short list of locations to visit.

Weather in the mountains can be unpredictable, and a wide variety of conditions are always possible. With elevations ranging from 875 to over 6,600 feet, altitude can have a large effect on the weather. It’s possible to experience a high of 80º F in the valley and a low of 35º F in the mountains on the same day. Average temperatures range from highs in the 40s during the winter to highs in the 90s during the summer. Being in close proximity to the only temperate rain forest east of the Rocky Mountains means wet weather is fairly common, with annual rainfall ranging from 55 to 85 inches. I always make sure to bring adequate rain protection for both myself and my gear, and a warm jacket is useful in the mountains after sunset, even during the summer months.

Photo Experience
When shooting in the Great Smoky Mountains, it’s necessary to be prepared for the full range of photographic opportunities the area offers. Depending on your preference, you could find yourself shooting vast mountain ranges under dramatic skies, the region’s numerous waterfalls and mountain streams or wildlife such as elk and black bears. With such a wide array of possible subjects, you’ll find good use for lenses from both ends of the spectrum. I frequently find myself shooting a small waterfall with a 15mm ultrawide-angle lens and wildlife with a 300mm telephoto on the same day. If you’re traveling light or planning to hike to more remote locations, a wide-angle zoom lens such as a 17-35mm and a telephoto zoom like a 70-200mm will give you the greatest flexibility in a reasonably small package. There are a few other items I also find necessary for successful shoots in the area. With an abundance of waterfalls and mountain streams, a tripod is essential for the longer exposures, and a circular polarizer will be helpful in getting those rich, saturated colors in the water and lush foliage. If big mountain landscapes are your thing, you’ll find a graduated ND filter useful for controlling exposures between the bright sunset skies and dark valley foregrounds.

Best Times
The Great Smoky Mountains and surrounding areas offer scenic opportunities in all seasons. From dogwoods blooming along scenic country lanes in the spring, to snow-covered mountain ridges under stunning sunsets in the winter, you’ll find great things to shoot at anytime of the year. My favorite times in the southern Appalachians are in the spring during the explosion of flowering trees such as the dogwood and serviceberry, and during the fall color change when the mountains are painted in the vibrant red and yellow colors of autumn.

Contact: Great Smoky Mountains National Park, You can see more of Dave Allen’s work at

Essential Gear
In an area like the Great Smoky Mountains, a grad ND filter is invaluable. You can do wonders with a high-contrast image in the computer, but the closer your capture is to the final image, the better. The LEE Filters Seven5 system gives you the freedom of fully adjustable rectangular filters in a lightweight, portable system. Contact: LEE Filters,