Mountain Trek

Take a road trip through the Rockies and the Smokies with two pros who map the most dramatic spots in these American icons

The Rocky Mountains and the Smoky Mountains are two of the most dramatic ranges in North America, where one can capture a fusion of geologic and scenic images. The Rockies run for 3,000 miles from British Columbia, Canada, to the lower portion of New Mexico. Straddling Tennessee and North Carolina, the Smokies are a smaller chain of mountains named for the haze that engulfs them most of the year.

Just getting there is half the fun. The Rockies and the Smokies are both accessible by vehicle—the San Juan Skyway in southwestern Colorado links you to the 14,000-foot peaks of the San Juan Mountain range, and the many one-way loop road trails in Tennessee and North Carolina connect you to the rolling peaks and valleys of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

The Rocky Mountains
James Kay knows all the back roads and trails to reach the most spectacular spots in the Rockies. He particularly loves shooting in the San Juan Mountains, a portion of the Rockies that covers 12,000 square miles with peaks that rise up to 14,000 feet. One of the best ways to capture these snowcapped mountains is to jump on the San Juan Skyway, a 236-mile loop that connects cities like Ouray, Silverton and Telluride via a narrow two-lane highway. The skyway runs through rugged terrain, with windy sections and steep curves that put you right in the thick of the San Juan Mountains.

mountain trek The Golden Horn

1 The Golden Horn
A mountain representative of the Matterhorn peaks of Europe can be found sandwiched in the Weminuche Wilderness: The Golden Horn. It can only be accessed by hiking about three miles in from the Ice Lake Basin trailhead. About a 20-minute drive northwest of the town of Silverton, Ice Lake Basin is filled with 10 photogenic lakes in an upper and lower basin. The upper basin contains the Golden Horn and other 13,000-foot peaks, while the lower basin features lakes, waterfalls and waist-high wildflowers.

The Golden Horn is a glacial cirque, says Kay, which has been scoured on all three sides, making it a pointy pyramid shape. With its many bodies of water and wildflowers like columbines, larkspur, paintbrush and chiming bells, the area’s photographic opportunities are ample if you’re willing to get out and hike to this amazing location.

mountain trek
Last Dollar Road/Mount Wilson Park

2 Last Dollar Road/Mount Wilson Peak
Telluride is known for its skiing these days, but for Kay, it has more dramatic photo ops than any other place in the Rockies. Just west of Telluride, you’ll find Last Dollar Road, a small gravel and dirt road off Highway 62 (the San Juan Skyway) that offers spectacular vantage points as it winds up the mountainside until you reach Wilson Mesa and Mount Wilson, the highest peak in the San Juan Range.

The Wilson Mesa/Mount Wilson area is where the Colorado Plateau runs into these “fourteeners” (14,000-foot peaks). This is another spot that Kay suggests photographing because of its aspen groves, which are densely scattered along the mountains, as well as big ravines and scenic vistas.

mountain trek
Weminuche Wilderness

3 Weminuche Wilderness
East of Telluride and south of Silverton, the Weminuche Wilderness is nearly 500,000 acres of undeveloped land filled with nature trails and steep mountains. One of the best access points is Elk Creek Canyon, a trailhead that winds right into the Weminuche Wilderness five miles south of Silverton.

If roughing it is your photographic disposition, then entering the trailhead from Elk Creek Canyon will provide you with grand peaks and open vistas, eventually taking you to the Continental Divide. Elk Creek is also a great destination if you’re looking for a backcountry shooting experience because of its big, deep, glacier-carved canyons. When Kay shoots here, he usually hikes in eight to 10 miles to seek out the best areas. Kay has photographed subjects like summer wildflowers, as well as various lakes and water systems. You also can find alpine meadows and high spruce stands to serve as your backdrop.

mountain trek Yankee Boy Bas

4 Yankee Boy Basin
North of Ouray on the San Juan Skyway, Yankee Boy Basin Road intersects Highway 62; this dirt road gets rougher and more rugged as you drive along. The road winds into a high basin called Yankee Boy Basin, famous for its wildflowers during the spring and summer months. Kay says the basin is known for its profusion of Colorado columbines and paintbrush flowers as well as a stream with several snowcapped mountains in the background.

mountain trek
Mount Sneffels Wilderness

5 Mount Sneffels Wilderness
If you hike up the creek bed at Yankee Boy Basin, you’ll run into the Mount Sneffels Wilderness, which is located about five miles west of Ouray. At 14,150 feet, Mount Sneffels is one of the most photographed peaks in the San Juan Range, and it’s the first peak you see upon your arrival. Mount Sneffels lies in the northern edge of the range, and Yankee Boy Basin is just below the peak, facing east.

Streams, turquoise-colored lakes and various wildflowers characterize the area surrounding Mount Sneffels. It’s also accessible via the Blue Lakes Basin trailhead, which is located just off the San Juan Skyway. Kay suggests exploring this trailhead, which leads into a hike where you’ll find three lakes filled with ancient glacial rock silt that turns the lakes into a beautiful turquoise color.
The Great Smoky Mountains
Bill Campbell photographs extensively in both the Tennessee and North Carolina portions of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. To access this range and reach the best spots for photography, enter the park on the southeastern Tennessee side.

Cades Cove - Deer and Dogwoods Cades Cove

1 Cades Cove
The biggest tourist attraction in the southeastern Tennessee portion of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is Cades Cove, near the North Carolina border, where nearly two million people descend upon the valley every year. Located near Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Cades Cove is accessible through various local highways. Campbell says that it’s the biggest destination for photographers to shoot in the Smokies because it’s a fertile valley surrounded by mountains, with many attractions and a wide variety of subjects to shoot.

An 11-mile, one-way loop road allows you to drive around the cove, where you can take pictures of historic buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, such as a gristmill, barns, churches and log cabins. There’s also an abundance of wildlife that sometimes can be spotted, such as deer, bears, wild turkey and foxes. When Campbell is in the cove, he likes to photograph the flora and fauna, the cabins, several streams in the trails around the cove and a patch of flame azaleas that can be reached via a short hike.

mountain trek
Roaring Fork Motor Nature Tree

2 Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail
The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is just one mile outside of Gatlinburg, Tenn., a narrow, windy, five-mile road that connects visitors to mountain streams, preserved log cabins, gristmills and a stream and waterfall called Grotto Falls, one of Campbell’s hot spots for shooting the Smokies. This one-way stretch of road is closed during the winter and only allows small pickup trucks and cars to pass through The road also features two overlooks and passes many chestnut tree blowdowns.

“The best spot for spring wildflowers is probably Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail,” says Campbell. “There’s more density of flowers, water streams, waterfalls and cabins combined than any other area.”

mountain trek
Campbell Overlook/Chimney Tops Picnic Area

3 Campbell Overlook/Chimney Tops Picnic Area
Also near Gatlinburg, you’ll find an amazing mountain view called Campbell Overlook, located off Newfound Gap Road. It offers vistas of mountain landscapes and Mount LeConte, with a 6,593-foot elevation, the third highest peak in the Smokies. Campbell says this place is gorgeous during the fall because of the huge spread of hemlocks and hardwoods. As you continue down the road on U.S. 441, you’ll find the Chimney Tops Picnic Area, which is a beautiful place to shoot, according to Campbell.

“The Chimney Tops Picnic Area is a great place for fall color,” he says. “It has a lot of hardwoods in there, and the color can be spectacular. It has a good mile-and-a-half loop trail, and there’s a creek near the picnic area where you can combine fall colors and water.”

mountain trek Clingma

4 Clingmans Dome
The largest peak in the Smokies is Clingmans Dome, with an elevation of 6,643 feet; it rests on the border of Tennessee and North Carolina. Clingmans Dome is accessible by car by driving on Clingmans Dome Road off of U.S. 441 and then hiking up a steep half-mile trail to overlook the mountain. Campbell says there are some stunning overlooks here to take dramatic pictures. At the top of the trail is a 54-foot observation tower with 360-degree views, which allows you to see more than 100 miles on a clear day, but that doesn’t happen often because of the haze the Smokies are known for. The road leading to Clingmans Dome is closed December 1st through April 1st.

mountain trek
The Little River, Greenbrier/Tremont

5 The Little River, Greenbrier/Tremont
Along Little River Road, a section of State Route 73, you’ll run into the Little River, where outdoor photographers can sink their teeth into exceptional wildflower and water shots. The towns of Tremont and Greenbrier in this area are located just east of Cades Cove, and there are ample photographic opportunities throughout the seasons, depending on whether you want to photograph scenics or wildlife. From cascading rocks painted with fall foliage to the meandering water that swirls around the Little River, this is one of Campbell’s favorite spots in which to photograph.

“Sometimes you can get beautiful fall color doing reflections,” Campbell says, “reflections of brightly lit colors and the water up at Greenbrier and along the Little River Road. There also are several areas through there where you can just concentrate on the water and get a lot of interesting reflections.”

Tooling Up For A Road Trip
The road trip is an American endeavor as old as the automobile itself. Who among us hasn’t yearned for the freedom of an open road, with no set deadlines and no final destination but where your whims take you? Some of the best photographs were taken by photographers who took a left when they hit a fork and suddenly found themselves on a remote dirt road that led up to a magnificent vista or a secluded mountain brook.

SubaruAnsel Adams was the prototypical road-trekking adventure photographer. With his old station wagon loaded full of view cameras, holders, film, provisions, camping supplies and spare axles, Adams explored the ins and outs of Yosemite Valley among other regions and returned home with photographs that came to define the grandeur and drama of the American landscape.

Exploring the backroads and byways remains one of an outdoor photographer’s best ways of getting rare and inspiring images. Unlike Adams, today’s photography adventurer is less likely to be worried about snapped axles, getting lost or stranded and having to wait days to see the product of their labors. Outfitting a photo vehicle for our photo needs is easy and, thanks to technology, much of the guesswork of reaching our destination is a thing of the past.

The most important component is the vehicle itself. Adams’ station wagon has been replaced by vehicles that are comfortable and capable, and they don’t have to be huge SUVs. The Subaru Outback is a prime example of a car that’s manageable as a daily driver and displays considerable offroad prowess. All-wheel drive, a strong engine and ample cargo space for the modern digital photo studio are hallmarks of the Outback.

Then there are the little tools that Adams could only have dreamed about. GPS units that not only tell you the coordinates of where you are, but can give you turn-by-turn directions from highways to secluded fire roads are affordable and easy to use. You can add photo tools like a printer and power inverter and make prints on the fly, and the largest and most heavy-duty tripods are made of lightweight high-tech materials like carbon fiber and basalt.

The photography road trip is better than ever, and outdoor shooters can take advantage of more tools than ever to return home with inspiring photographs.

To see more of Bill Campbell‘s photography, visit; to see more of James Kay’s photography, visit