Great Smoky Mountains in the Fall

As late August approaches and summer winds down in many parts of country – fall starts to appear in the higher elevations and mountains ranges. I run several trips to photograph the fall colors in order of appearance – starting with the Brown Bears of Katmai in September (Alaska) and then moving on to Yellowstone, Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite and Southern Utah in that order.

Generally many of my photographic journeys take place in the western United States and Alaska – however one of the most incredible spectacles in the Autumn months is the transition of colors in the hills of North Carolina and Tennessee – the Great Smoky Mountains. The colors in the Smokies are bewilderingly beautiful during late October with hazy ranges stretching off into infinity and lush waterfalls cascading through brilliant red, orange, yellow and green deciduous forests.

Great Smoky Mountain National Park was established in 1934 and is situated in both North Carolina and Tennessee. Many visitors come to this part of the country during the fall to capture its natural beauty. Typically starting in August the leaves begin their gradual change from summer to fall colors which usually peak in late October – make reservations early because it gets BUST during this time of year with photographers! The park’s forests are generally subdivided into 3 sections each having its own kind of foliage. The Cove hardwood forests are located in the stream valleys, coves or sheltered valleys with deep rich soils and lower mountain slopes while the northern hardwood forests are on the higher slopes and the spruce-fir or boreal forest are on the highest elevations. We like to explore and photograph them all!

The park is located on 276,000 acres in North Carolina and 244,000 acres within Tennessee or to put it another way that’s over 800 square miles. In addition the park has been recognized as a International Biosphere reserve because there are over 4000 different plant species and 140 different tree species in 5 distinct forest types. There are also 65 species of fauna that call the reserve home including a black bear population of 1500 as of last count – we typically see MANY bears on this trip.

The Cove Hardwood forests of the lower mountain slopes, coves and stream valleys during the fall are awe inspiring. They are also some of the most diverse forest types in North America. Because of this they are also the most botanically diverse of the forests within the park having 130 different tree and shrub species that grow in the coves. There you can see a wide variety of flora with the most common being the Carolina Silver-bell, Basswood, Dogwood and Magnolia to just name a few. The coves are located at the lowest part of the park and the tree species are mainly second growth although they do have over 72,000 acres of old growth forests within the cove hardwood forests. If you are interested in seeing old growth forests within the boundaries of the cove hardwood forests take a trip out to the Albright Grove (between Gatlinburg and Cosby) once you are there you will see an accessible old growth forest with some of the oldest and tallest trees in the entire range.


The Northern Hardwood forests are more akin to the Northern United States due to their altitude and temperature. The most common flora within the Northern Hardwood canopy are Yellow Birch, American Beech in addition to White Basswood, Mountain and Striped Maple as well as several species of grasses and ferns.

As people get further north and up into the higher elevations they run into the Boreal or Canadian forest which is largely coniferous. The Red Spruce & Fraser Fir are the two main residents up here.

Another excellent aspect to photographing the Great Smoky Mountains in Autumn is the wildlife. We typically have great opportunities for Black Bear & Elk in the meadows and woodlands of the smokies – areas like Cade’s Cove are excellent to break out that super telephoto!

Fall is a beautiful time in the Smokies and we always leave with excellent imagery! If you are interested in joining us checkout this link to the Great Smoky Mountains in Autumn Photography Tour & Workshop.

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