Trip Report: Great Smoky Mountains in Autumn – October 2020 

I’ll admit. Every time I head to the Smoky Mountains, bluegrass music plays through the soundtrack in my head. Don’t misunderstand, though. That’s a good thing because I love bluegrass music and I love the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee. The culture and the scenery are distinctively Southern Appalachia and there may be no better time to visit than the fall. At this time of year, the air is crisp and the trees are in their full autumn glory. It is simply beautiful. 

Russell Graves

Backcountry Journeys’ Photo Guide, Ben Blankenship, and I greet the guests on the first day of the trip to Asheville, North Carolina. On this trip, most of the guests have been on BCJ trips before so the introductions are short. We do, however, dive into the trip itinerary by providing a presentation about the Smokies, as well as some photography instruction to get everyone started. One of our favorite things to ask guests to describe their “dream shot” from the trip. This bit of information helps us hone in specific places we’ll visit on the tour and aids greatly in our planning. 

The next morning we are out early from our hotel and head for the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. We enter the park near the Oconaluftee Visitor Center where a herd of elk was spotted just the day before. While the elk weren’t there that morning, we were treated with an ever-changing sky from a weak storm front that was moving through. While the skies were initially clear, clouds moved in quickly and filled the hollers between the mountain peaks.  

Ben Blankenship

As mountains go, the Smokies don’t have the monumentalism as the Rockies. Instead, the beauty is more subtle as the mountain range is the oldest on the continent having formed 480 million years ago. Owing to the erosional forces of wind and water over millions of years, the mountains are rounded and covered with vegetation. The Smokies is home to the latest stand of old-growth forest east of the Mississippi River. While the Great Smokies Mountain National Park doesn’t encompass the entire Smoky Mountain Range, a big chunk of it (more than half a million acres) is public land. 

Ben Blankenship

After a short stop at the visitor center, we head down the road to look for the elk but ultimately to no avail. So we stop at the Mingus Mill and marvel at the low-tech efficiency of how the pioneers used water power to mill corn. The area is adorned in fall color and with overcast skies and moving water, the scene is ripe for slow shutter speed images. 

Ben Blankenship

Soon, we are back on the road and shooting photos of one of the several beautiful creeks that traverse the park. Slow shutter speeds make the water silky smooth and each photographer works their way around the creek to get their best composition. After a picnic lunch, we head over the Newfound Gap Pass and work our way to Townsend, Tennessee, where we’ll spend the next two nights in the quaint cabins at the Dancing Bear Lodge. The cabins, nestled in the hills and amongst the trees, are the perfect place to immerse yourself in the area’s vibe and once everyone was settled in, we were back on the road in search of great photo opportunities of mountains and more fall color. 

After dinner in Townsend that night we head back to the lodge for a night of rest. The next morning we head to the fabled Cades Cove. As the sun peeked over the mountains the road to Cades Cove was packed. Although the area is a popular part of the park, this jam was a bit excessive. Turns out, there was a bear at the entrance to the area, and bears always elicit lookers. Although we tried to get pictures of it, he was in too thick of cover to be successful so we moved on.  

Ben Blankenship

The road winding through Cades Cove is a relaxing one. Wooded hills and a winding drive takes us through idyllic southern hardwoods scenery. The drive is punctuated by pioneer cabins and churches so in between looking for wildlife, we stop and shoot a few pictures of them. Soon, we are back on a backroad from the park to Townsend. The Flat Mountain Road winds its way through the hills above Cades Cove and we look out for scenery and wildlife shots on the jaunt. A picnic lunch and a short pause back in town and we are out again. This time in search of great water features like The Sinks – a deluge on the Little River just off the main park road. Here we find plenty of photo opportunities in which to photograph before we finish our evening shoot. The clouds are moving in and when the sun sinks below the mountains, dark falls fast.  

Tonight we dine at one of the finest eating establishments we visit on any of the BCJ trips. The Dancing Bear Bistro serves its take on Southern Appalachian cuisine and the menu is varied and savory. I dine on braised pork shank while others have beef tenderloin, grilled trout, or some other varied delicacy. It’s a perfect end to a busy day. 

Wednesday morning finds us back in Cades Cove making a wildlife drive and exploring locations that we didn’t adequately explore the day before. Before we left this morning we packed our bags in the vehicles and made early preparations to change hotels. After the morning shoot, we head to our headquarters for the next couple of days.  

Gatlinburg is a typical tourist town that you’d expect to see on the doorstep of a busy national park. Our hotel is a high-rise that overlooks the town proper and provides scenic views of the Smokies that surround us. 

Ben Blankenship

When we arrive in Gatlinburg, our first order of business is a catered lunch and Lightroom Workshop. We spend a couple of hours in the middle of the day diving deeply into the image manipulation and image management features found in the iconic software. Ben focused on color correction while I focused on image management. It was a well-rounded presentation. 

By the evening time, we are back in the park in search of fall color and scenic overlooks. However, we are now paying attention to a new challenge – Hurricane Zeta. 

Russell Graves

According to all the forecast models, the remnants of the hurricane are slated to move over Gatlinburg and the Smokies. Every weather forecast we looked at showed the possibilities of torrential rains and tropical-storm-force winds – the latter of which could cause a hazard due to downed trees. That evening at dinner we shared the forecast and our contingency for the day. At this point, we waited out the storm. 

When the sun rose on Thursday morning, the storm ended up sliding east of us. Therefore, our area was spared the worst of the post-tropical cyclone. While we did experience a good amount of rain we dodged the wind. We knew the rain was coming so we pushed back the morning shoot by an hour. While the rain fell, we enjoyed a pancake breakfast at one of Gatlinburg’s iconic pancake houses.  

Ben Blankenship

Soon we are back in the park. Upon entering, we spotted some wildlife that I’d been telling the group about. Near the Sugarlands Visitor Center, I spot a small flock of eastern wild turkey hens feeding in the open. Among them is a leucistic turkey. Leucism is a loss of pigment in areas that should be darkly colored. While not a true albino, a leucistic animal is rare nonetheless. Therefore, we stop and shoot images of her before moving up into the mountains.  

The rain overnight filled the mountainside streams and rivers and made for plenty of photogenic deluges. The moisture also made the fall color pop with color so the hills along which we traversed opened with new opportunities.  

After lunch, on our own, we headed back to the high country to Clingmans Dome: the highest peak in the Smoky Mountains National Park. By now, the hurricane had moved on and the clouds began to break. What we were left with was a spectacular sunset with beams of sunlight that danced across the North Carolinian mountains.  

Ben Blankenship

Come Friday morning we were out again. This time we took the historic driving nature trail from Gatlinburg to explore the woods one last morning. It didn’t take long for the trail to pay off. Fifty yards off the road a black bear feeds in the understory. He’s a little obscured but we watch him nonetheless. He climbs a tree and we get our best opportunity to photograph him. 

As the morning winds on we stop at one last pioneer cabin before heading back to Asheville. The mountains are engrained in all of us now and the banter turns from photography to people’s future plans. But two miles from being out of the park, the Smokies provides us one last gift – the elk at Oconaluftee.







If you’ve read any Texas-based magazines over the past twenty-five years chances are you’ve seen some of Russell’s photos or read some of his words.  Since 1989, he has been traveling the state telling authentic Texas stories with his camera and his words – both written and spoken.

A graduate of Dodd City High School and East Texas State University, Russell was an ag science teacher in Childress, Texas for 16 years where he was named Texas Agriscience Teacher of the Year on three occasions.

After leaving that career in 2009, he continued to photograph, write, and speak about his experiences and the people he meets and in 2010, he began delving into television production.  His first documentary film, Bois d’Arc Goodbye was filmed entirely in Fannin County and chronicled he and his brother Bubba’s canoe journey as they traversed the creek before a lake forever changes the landscape.  The film aired three times to a prime-time, national audience.

Recently he’s worked with such celebrities as the Robertson Family from Duck Dynasty television show, T. Boone Pickens, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Pat Green, and Tracy Lawrence,  but he insists that regular people are his favorite subjects.

Currently, Russell lives in the country north of Childress, Texas with his wife Kristy and their two children Bailee and Ryan but still manages to spend a considerable amount of time near his boyhood home north of Dodd City.

You can see Russell’s work and portfolio on his webpage at

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