Trip Report: Great Smoky Mountains in Autumn

Day One

The first night the group met in Asheville, North Carolina. It’s a great southern city with lots of charm and the first night we took in a local restaurant called Tupelo Honey.   On each of these trips we try to visit local eateries so people can get a taste of the local culture.  As such, Tupelo Honey’s southern fare didn’t disappoint.  After an orientation meeting and spending a little time getting to know each other we headed back to the hotel and prepared for the next few days.

Day Two

Like all trips with Backcountry Journeys, we were off to an early start. Loading up the van, we head to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park in order to hike and photograph landscapes. After a short drive we arrived at the Deep Creek Trail Head where we spend the morning photographing three different waterfalls, hiking through the Rhododendron and hardwood forest, and taking in the serenity the Smoky Mountains provided us.

For the most part slow shutter speeds ruled. Using slow shutter speeds on falling water allows you to take cool and creative photos.  While the rocks and other static landscape elements remain tack sharp, the water around it moves and creates a silky effect in the photograph.  After the hike and photo session, we stopped for a picnic lunch in the park. On Backcountry Journey trips, picnic lunches are always a hit.

After the morning image making session we headed over to Gatlinburg, Tennessee to check into a new hotel and spend a little downtime working on images getting to know each other.  Before we could get there, however, we saw a young black bear in a tree.  Parking nearby, we hiked back to the bear and watched him as he climbs up and down the tall hardwood and eats leaves and nuts from the hickory tree.  The group got some great shots of the bear and before long, he bored of our presence and fell asleep in the tree.

Day Three

found us in the van before sunrise heading over to another waterfall in the park named Grotto Falls.  The falls gets its name from the small cavern behind the waterfall that creates the grotto. This twenty-something-foot waterfall provides a remarkable foreground against an intimate and rugged Smoky Mountain backdrop. Perhaps thousands of years was needed for the erosional forces of the water to form the pool beneath the falls.

The great thing about photographing waterfalls in the Smoky Mountains is even though the day was clear, the mountains shade the waterfall most of the day.  Therefore, most of the morning the falls were shaded so the group was able to capture images with slow shutter speeds to get the desired photographic effect. Since the hike in the falls was fairly significant we packed our lunch in and ate stream side.

The hike back was purposely slow. There’s a lot to learn about nature if you slow down and study. While some took pictures, most learned about the native tree species, the history of the area, and lamented about how people, both native and pioneers, were able to settle such a hard and uncompromising land.

That afternoon we were back on the road. Winding our way through the hills and hollers of the great Smoky Mountains provided more time for the group to get to know each other. While “windshield” time on these trips is necessary to get to the best photographic spots, it’s also a perfect time for mobile classroom work. Often, we’ll have round robin discussions about Lightroom work, the business of photography, what camera works best for various scenarios and why as well as other photography related topics.  It’s a great free-flowing share of information in which everyone benefits.

Soon we were at Oconaluftee visitors area where we see several elk back in the woods. We spotted an open meadow where we found a solitary bull feeding in an open field. The bull was an old monarch. His limp and the battle scars on his body told a story of the battles he must have fought during the rut.   Undoubtedly he had to battle for dominance.  Unfortunately another, probably younger bull, took his cows and left him alone for the first time in several seasons. Talking to one of the rangers they told us the old bull was the dominate male in the herd for several years and only a couple days earlier, he lost a battle for breeding the cows.  So there he was (just a few yards before us) scarred, battle tested and adjusting to life as a solitary animal in an immense landscape.

The last thing on the docket that evening was to get a vista photograph of the Smoky Mountains. So we headed up to Blue Ridge Parkway to an overlook that gave us a great westerly view of the beautiful mountain landscape that you could see for miles. A slight bit of overcast granted just enough drama to the clouds that made the sunset look exquisite.

Although it seems counterintuitive we photographed landscapes with a telephoto lens. These lenses create a great and compressed image that makes the mountains look like they are stacked in layers on top of one another. Here, group members shot in a variety of techniques like HDR panorama and slow shutter speed to get movement in the clouds.

Day Four

After another night in Gatlinburg we woke early and headed to the Little River region of the park. Here, we hiked and explored the classic Smoky Mountain river : wide, rugged, with pristine water flowing over crags, ripple rapids, and waterfalls.

In these landscapes there’s plenty to photograph: use the telephoto to photograph a subtle waterfall or a wide-angle taking in the beautiful symmetry of the rocks the river and the trees that dominate this area.  The views were so special, members of the group didn’t want to leave the stream side locations. They’d take a few pictures, walk the river a bit, and find another stunning landscape to photograph. This hunt and shoot scenario proved to be a favorite amongst group members. They loved the freedom to do a photograph of their own composition while the sounds of the river drowned out the world’s stresses.

After a sack lunch we relocated over to Townsend, Tennessee and checked into the Dancing Bear cabins. This local lodging option is tucked back into the woods and features beautifully equipped cabins.

After a couple of hours rest we headed out for another evening. This time we were at the Foothills Parkway and found a great overlook that allowed us to shoot pictures of the full moon rising over the mountains. After heading back into town we dined on southern food at the Dancing Bear Bistro – a high end restaurant with locally inspired dishes made from locally grown ingredients.

Day Five

On Thursday morning we took to the road and headed over to the legendary area of the park called Cades Cove. Cades Cove was one of the first settlements in this area and is a remnant of what life would be like for the early pioneers in the Great Smoky Mountains. Right when we pulled into the park we are met with some fantastic wildlife photography opportunities.

White-tailed deer were all around. We spent the next couple of hours getting intimate portraits of deer and their behavior in their habitat. Soon we had eastern wild turkeys stroll past and were able to witness the charismatic species up close. After lunch and over the course of the rest of the day we spent our time in Cades Cove hiking, exploring the cabins, and getting a cultural understanding of the area and a natural understanding of the autumn landscapes and the native wildlife.

Day Six

All week we had fantastic weather. One the last day of our stay however a heavy rain-storm moved in. On the last morning of the trip we had to change up the schedule a bit but it worked out magically. After breakfast, part of the group stayed indoors for a Lightroom workshop on image management and workflow processes while the other half walked around the cabins and practiced macro photography on flowers and recently created raindrops!

Like all trips, this one had come to an end. So after packing we headed back to Asheville where we started and bid everyone a grateful goodbye.

Russell Graves







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’sbeen 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