What will this photography trip really be like?
My husband Dan is a very good, and experienced, amateur photographer and has very good Nikon camera equipment. But, I am not at his level. I have a new Fujifilm Mirrorless camera with a moderate lens.
How demanding will the hiking be, and what will happen if I get partway and can’t continue? Dan enjoys hiking and has taken advice to train in advance. He’s been hiking a few miles on a road with an incline, and with a pack full of photography equipment.
Meanwhile, I have been recovering from a February foot operation that has taken much too long to mend. Will I slow everyone down? Would I miss most of the lunches and group comradery if I have to stay in the van or back at the hotel; and what about the days we are traveling from one location to the next with hikes and lunch along the way?
Overview of the Trip
I was quite nervous when we met as a group our first evening before dinner in Asheville. Russ and Russell listened carefully to each person’s description of their capabilities, their camera equipment, their goals for this trip, and all concerns. An overview of the trip was discussed and concerns were addressed, putting us all at ease. After a delicious dinner together we returned to our rooms to get ready for an early morning start of our tour.
Our days often started with early morning departures at about 5:30 am, and ended with an early dinner/late evening photoshoot or a very late dinner. Breakfast might be a brown bag of tasty food to eat along the road or restaurant breakfast if weather did not favor an early photoshoot; lunches were gourmet picnics, usually with one picnic table filled with an amazing array of good choices and another for us to sit and enjoy at a trailhead or at Cades Cove picnic areas and once a bag lunch at Grotto Falls; and dinners were at good restaurants at our lodging or local favorites. The lodging arrangements were excellent: the impressive Park Vista Doubletree Hotel in Gatlinburg is perched on a hill with commanding views of the mountains and the Dancing Bear Lodge in Townsend is a spacious resort of very comfortable cabins scattered among the trees and a very good restaurant on the property. Russell was the driver of the group’s van while all of the luggage and coolers of food and boxes of supplies went with Russ. Both vans had some snacks and drinks. Each day included an enjoyable variety of different photography opportunities including instruction and tips by Russ and Russell.
Hikes and waterfalls
In total we had the opportunity to hike and photograph six tree-covered trails along rocky cascading streams leading towards beautiful waterfalls in the mornings: Deep Creek Trail to three waterfalls before lunch the first day, the steep trail to Grotto Falls on the second morning, the breathtakingly beautiful Tremont Little River Trail, which leads in a gradual incline towards Little River Falls (my favorite) on the third morning, and a five-mile steep hike to a set of small but wide waterfalls the fourth morning.
Everyone opted out of that final five-mile hike to spend more time in Cades Cove photographing wildlife. Each hike was different from the others and each waterfall at the end of the trails was unique and fun to photograph with new techniques we’d received from Russ and Russell.
We had four opportunities to take photographs and videos of wildlife, mostly in the afternoons. Just before the entrance to Gatlinburg, TN we stopped for quite a while to photograph a young black bear who was perched high in a tree, eating. It was difficult to get a good clear shot of the dark bear but everyone tried and a few were quite successful. We left after the little guy fell asleep in a tree fork.
The next afternoon we headed to the Oconaluftee visitor area, a spot where a large herd of elk is known to be. The hope was to photograph the bull elks during the rut. Alas, the rut had occurred unseasonably a week earlier and what remained was one old battle-scarred huge bull elk that had lost his herd of cows to a younger bull during the rut battles. The females had left with the younger bull to establish another territory, leaving the old bull alone. His rack of antlers was enormous and gorgeous, still showing the magnificence of this bull elk that had maintained and defended his herd through many years of challenges. We photographed and videoed him for quite some time as he grazed and laid down to rest for the evening. The third afternoon we rode on the Cades Cove Loop Road looking for bears. We did not find any this time, however, the entire Cades Cove area was beautiful and definitely worth the time.
We spent our final full day in Cades Cove, where there are so many different areas to enjoy and photograph: a large field with a big whitetail buck with his does and yearling bucks, does feeding with their young, and a buck marking his territory by rubbing tree and shrub branches with his antlers and head, licking the leaves and urinating and defecating in the grass. Further along the Loop Road, wild turkeys were right by the road so we got out to photograph them.
After another fun and tasty picnic lunch at the Cades Cove Visitor Center, we concentrated on landscape and macro photography with Russ and Russell providing many tips for layering and macro techniques.
We then spent time taking pictures of the historic John Oliver Cabin in a field beside the Visitor Center and other preserved rustic buildings along the Cades Cove Loop Road. Reaching the same open field that we had enjoyed earlier in the day, many more deer were feeding further back in the field and the light was fading, making it hard to take quality pictures so it was time to leave. This was definitely a day we all hated to see come to an end.
Sunrise, sunset and a full moon rising
The sunrise at Clingmans Dome was spectacular and enjoyed by all as Russ and Russell gave us tips on sunrise photography. That evening we headed to an overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway overlooking Maggie Valley and the Cherokee reservation to photograph the sunset. What a grand location with magnificent views of layers of mountain ridges to try out layering techniques. The next evening at dusk we went to an overlook on the Foothills Parkway to photograph sunset’s afterglow and the full moon rising against the black sky. Russ and Russell gave us valuable tips on various techniques to photograph a full moon. Very few other photographers were at this location. Yet another benefit of going with BCJ guides is that they know the locations that have fewer tourists at a particular time of day and these overlooks were definite proof of that.
Photography options on our final morning
We woke up to rain our last morning so we had a leisurely breakfast at the Dancing Bear’s restaurant. Today was departure day but first Russell held a Lightroom techniques discussion while Russ took others on a macro photography walk of the wet leaves and plants. Not being knowledgeable enough for a Lightroom discussion and not wanting to be wet for the drive back to Asheville, I opted to relax in our cabin for the last couple hours. We left Dancing Bear Resort at 11 am, stopped by the Asheville airport and said goodbye to those of our group that had flights home then drove the rest of us to our original hotel for final goodbyes and to pick up our cars. Dan and I knew right then it would not be the last time we would see Russ and Russell!
Thoughts following our trip
Russ Nordstrand, BCJ owner, photographer, and wilderness guide along with Russell Graves, wilderness guide, published photographer and author, were our excellent guides for only six photographers. The group consisted of people of a variety of ages and photography knowledge, all traveling solo except for Dan and myself.
Having two guides provided us such an advantage. Russ guided the better hikers, at a faster pace, while Russell took those of us who were less experienced, or had health issues, at a slower pace. We only separated into separate groups on one occasion when there was a challenging hike involved. Russ led hikers up a steeper trail to a waterfall while Russell led our slower hikers on a shorter less steep trail to the same waterfall. Otherwise, our small group of six had the full attention of both Russ and Russell at every photoshoot!
They dealt with a variety of experience levels and camera equipment with ease, helping set camera settings on the various cameras and instructing each person in a helpful manner. It was obvious to all of us that the quality of the photographs and videos we would take home were a high priority for both of our guides.
Dan and I just couldn’t have planned and enjoyed a comparable trip. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most heavily visited national park in the United States, and to do it right you need to have some ‘insider information.’ We could not have known the things they had sorted out in advance, such as: the hidden spots, the best times to find and photograph animals, the best times and places to miss the throngs of tourists, the hikes I would be capable of enjoying as well as the best lodging choices. We both learned photography tips that were appropriate for our respective skillsets. And finally, it is our experience that whoever is driving the car while on vacation never is really fully able to enjoy the scenery. With Backcountry Journeys at the wheel we were both able to fully enjoy the trip and came away with great photos and videos. We also left with the utmost respect for Russ and Russell.
Would we take another photography tour with Backcountry Journeys?
Absolutely! We were so impressed that we immediately signed up for BCJ’s Spring 2019 Yellowstone Wildlife Safari photography trip. Upon the completion of that indescribably awesome trip, we immediately signed up for two additional tours! We highly recommend Backcountry Journeys for any of their photography trips, ‘hiker’ or ‘standard,’ whatever fits you best.
Judy and Dan Ewart