Wildlife Photography Guide to the Great Smoky Mountains

elk photography great smoky national park

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is a haven for wildlife photography, and home to incredible and diverse flora and fauna. There is something for every nature photographer here; it’s easy to get absorbed into the magic of the park.

Twilight illuminates the fog-covered valley before the shimmer of sunrise dances across the landscape. A bear cub stirs within the fallen leaves on the forest floor as the unmistakable sounds of elk bugles echo through the mountainous range.

With a range crossing the two eastern states of North Carolina and Tennessee, this national park is home to an incredible diversity of habitats. From mountains, waterfalls, forests, and the wildlife that lives within, this gem of Appalachia brings in millions of visitors a year who marvel at its wonders.

Through the decades, specific locations within the park have emerged as the go-to spots for wildlife photographers and enthusiasts alike!

bear cub photograph

1. Cades Cove

One of the most popular valleys to visit within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is Cades Cove in Tennessee.

Known for its 11-mile drivable loop around a lush landscape filled with an abundance of wildlife viewing opportunities, black bears are almost certain to be seen here.

Look out for them as they forage in open fields or peek out of the tree lines where fields meet forests during the late spring, summer, and fall (autumn) months.

wildlife photography great smoky national park bear photograph

A chance to spot white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, coyotes, and other animals are also reasons to have your camera at the ready when driving around or hiking throughout the valley.

Some of the more active times for wildlife here are during sunrise and sunset hours, which also gives you the best lighting for photographic moments in the wild.

wildlife photography great smoky national park deer photograph

Having the flexibility in your camera gear to take landscape shots of the open fields surrounded by mountain vistas along with portraits of larger mammals sure to show themselves within this habitat is key to going home happy with the photos you take here.

For use alongside my Nikon D850, I prefer 35mm and 50mm lenses for landscape photography. For larger mammals, my go-to lenses are the Nikon AF-S Nikkor 300mm400mm f/2.8, and the Nikon AF-S 600mm f/4.

Read more: How to Master Exposure in Your Wildlife Photography

2. Cataloochee Valley

In the neighbouring state of North Carolina, the Great Smoky Mountains continue with their range of peaks and valleys, leading us down into one of the most remote places in the park: Cataloochee Valley.

Rich in history, this area was first discovered by the Cherokee and later established as homesteads among the earliest settlers in the 1800s.

Historic buildings like the Palmer House and Chapel, the Caldwell Barn, Beech Grove School, and more make for iconic landscape photography in this storied setting.

wildlife photography great smoky national park

The fall season in Cataloochee Valley is a hot spot for viewing elk during the rut, a time when the peak of the mating season is observed.

With mountain streams winding around open fields, there are many areas for stunning images to unfold as bull elk compete for dominance over their harem.

Choosing the first few hours after sunrise and before sunset to photograph elk will give you the right lighting to capture the contrast of these animals to the rich background hues of the Smokies.

As this season brings increased elk activity, adding a lens such as a 70-200mm to your lineup will give you the opportunity for iconic landscape photos of the mountain vistas while keeping elk in the field as your main subject.

elk photography great smoky national park

If you are having a hard time locating the elk, listen for the high-pitched bugles of the males, look for the movement of elk cows and elk calves, or continue watching the tree lines surrounding the open fields for elk beginning to make their way out into the open.

Using a 150mm-400mm lens range will give you the flexibility to capture these animals in close-up once they begin moving through the landscape.

Of course, having a super telephoto lens of 600mm will provide ample opportunities to capture elk across the fields near the tree lines that edge along the forests as observers are not allowed to enter into these fields.

Positioning yourself at lower angles, focusing on the eye of the elk and monitoring their movements will increase your likelihood of capturing powerful behavioural images.

Look for opportunities to capture the foggy breath of a bull elk in the first light of morning, the intensity of an elk bugle, interactions between bull and cow, sparring between two bulls, or the endearing affections of elk calves and their mothers.

Read more: How to Improve Your Wildlife Action Shots

3. Cherokee

During the rut, the open fields, valleys, and rivers through Cherokee are prime spots to observe elk herds resting, foraging, and making their way through the open pastures.

One of my favourite photographic opportunities in this area is the iconic river crossing undertaken by these majestic animals.

Hiking the Oconaluftee River Trail, which runs along the edge of the mountain base, around twilight is a great way to start your day while waiting for elk to cross the rushing creeks.

elk crossing a stream photography tipsThe park requires a minimum of 50 yards of distance between you and wildlife, so keeping an eye on the woods near the river will give you plenty of time to plan for distance while capturing the river crossing image you desire.

Using a tripod, set up near the edge of the water at a low position and use the light behind you to highlight the king of the harem as he crosses the creek.

When he stops to have a drink, open up your aperture to its widest setting and drop your shutter speed to 1/250th of a second to try for a smooth and silky foreground of the river while you focus in on his eye.

Planning your approach and using these tactics will give you the best chance for a stunning image!

Read more: Backlighting in Wildlife Photography – Creative Use of Light

4. Mingo and Soco Falls

When it’s time to switch gears, you can find nearby waterfall inspiration less than half an hour’s drive from Cherokee at both Mingo and Soco Falls.

After parking near the trailhead of Mingo Falls, enjoy a short hike up the fairytale-like, wooden staircase that brings you across 120 feet of captivating cascades.

After you have immersed yourself in the midst of Mingo Falls, plan for a morning to take in the sights and sounds of Soco Falls.

Known for its close proximity to the Cherokee Reservation, it is widely considered a hidden gem that is easily missed if you don’t look closely for the marked parking spot just off of the US-19 highway.

Walk through the opening in the guardrail to follow the trail downward. If you are up for a little adventure, hold onto the rope where the trail ends, and climb slowly down to the base to set up for breathtaking images of the double falls.

Heron photograph perching on a log

Using a 24-70mm lens, choose an overcast day along with a sturdy tripod and set your ISO starting at around 100 while slowing your shutter down to 1/125 second to start.

Make sure your aperture is narrowed in (f/8 or f/16) to maintain a balanced white scale. Having a Neutral Density filter in your lineup can be a great backup in case your whites appear too bright as you photograph Mingo and Soco Falls.

Have fun playing with different focus points, including fall foliage, or wildlife that you may observe within these environments.

After you’ve spent time enjoying the waterfalls, it’s time to take a drive on one of the most scenic highways in America, just minutes from Cherokee!

Read more: How to Create Texture in Waterfall Photos Using Photoshop

5. Blue Ridge Parkway

This 469-mile-long highway winds visitors through the panoramic views of peaks and valleys, from The Great Smoky Mountains, and beyond.

Spend an entire day stopping at overlooks to photograph the spectacular sunrise and sunset view of summer, or capture the iconic fall foliage of the mountain ranges.

You can take an adventurous hike towards open meadows overlooking dramatic landscapes, or pack a picnic lunch to take with you as you find a place to relax and soak in the stunning scenery.

Here are just a few of the places you can explore while driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Waterrock Knob

With a peak of over 6,000 ft in elevation, the opportunity to combine landscape photography, hiking, and the enjoyment of a relaxing picnic lunch all into one location makes this a worthy place to stop along the parkway.

Waterrock knob trail photograph sunset

After you park near the top, you can set up anywhere on the fringes to enjoy the stunning, 360-degree views.

Shooting with a wide-angle lens in this area is key to capturing the sweeping vistas that surround you here.

If you plan to photograph during sunrise or sunset, use a tripod to steady your camera while focusing on a low ISO (100-300) and a narrowed aperture value (starting at f/8) to achieve a balance of colours and depth of field.

Bracketing your exposure in this setting is a technique you can use to give yourself a variety of images to choose from to find a well-balanced landscape image.

To photograph the bold colours of sunset, make sure you stay a little longer after the sun dips below the horizon to capture the bold hues of orange, pink, and red that are sure to shine during this time!

Read more: Bracketing & HDR – Photographing Landscapes Without Filters

Waterrock Knob Trail

If you want to take a challenging hike to Waterrock Knob’s highest elevation of 6,292 ft, walk from the parking lot to the Waterrock Knob Trail to begin a 0.6-mile journey to the highest point of the Plott Balsam mountain range.

bird of prey photography wildlife photography great smoky national park

The beginning of the hike will seem like an easy stroll until the terrain changes to a rugged, steep trail that is sure to test your endurance the rest of the way to the summit.

Enjoy incredible views and a sense of accomplishment once you reach the top!

Richland Balsam Nature Loop Trail

This 1.5-mile round trip trail begins at the Haywood-Jackson Overlook and is one of my favourite short, high-elevation hikes off the parkway.

When you’ve hiked your way through the fir forest and up to the top, you will be standing at the Blue Ridge Parkway’s highest point at over 6,400 ft in elevation.

Not only does this trail give you a chance to avoid the crowds, but it also gives you ample opportunities to take breaks with beautiful outlooks, benches for sitting, and the opportunity to stop to take photos of the bounty of birds who call this trail home.

owl photograph wildlife photography great smoky national park

If you want to photograph birds on this hike, pack up the tripod in your hiking pack and set up for some bird action during periods of rest.

Because birds move quickly, set your shutter speed to a minimum of 1/1600 to help freeze those feathers in flight. Stay focused on the eye when they are perched, and keep the light behind you to beautifully contrast the bird in its natural habitat!

Read more: 4 Essential Tips for Photographing Birds in Flight

Balsam Mountain

At milepost 458.2 on the parkway, you can take a turn towards Balsam Mountain via Heintooga Ridge Rd, which turns into Heintooga Round Bottom Rd.

The early fall season is the right time to travel off this beaten path of unpaved road where you can photograph fall leaf colours of gold, yellow, red, and orange hues.

bear and cub photograph great smoky national park

Anticipate capturing the rushing streams of the Smokies while simultaneously keeping your eyes open for bears and elk on this journey.

As you circle your way back to Cherokee on this idyllic one-way drive, you are sure to make photographic memories that will last a lifetime.

In conclusion

Visiting the Great Smoky Mountains on a photographic adventure is one of the most rewarding experiences.

Whether it is to capture the wildflower-covered fields and bear cubs of the spring, the dramatic sunrises and sunsets of peaks and valleys during the summer, or the awe-inspiring elk herds and fall leaf colours, there is something for everyone to photograph here.

No matter the season, the opportunity to capture inspirational moments presents itself every day in this beautiful location!

Visit Cassia's website

Cassia Rivera is a wildlife photographer, conservationist, and producer who is passionate about telling the stories of wildlife with compelling visuals. Through the power of storytelling, she connects her wildlife imagery to the hearts of people. Her recent body of work, Right of Passage, highlights the need for increased habitat connectivity related to the plight of the critically endangered red wolf.

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