We are deep in the mountains by the time the sun rises. As the landscape lightens, we see the white clouds wisp in and out of the mountain valleys at a speed that’s mesmerizing.
The Smoky Mountains are geologic wonders. Formed some 300 million years ago before the Pangaea split, these mountains were once higher than the Rocky Mountains are today. Through crustal shifting on a global scale, the Smokies heaved from the bowels of the earth and exposed ancient granite, rich gneiss deposits, and antediluvian fossil beds whose age is thought to be nearing half a trillion years old.
The minute mountains are born, the elemental forces of wind and water constantly and incessantly conspire to wear down what tectonic forces steadily built. As a result, the mountains are shorter and less sharp than newer eminences – their peaks rounded by the passage of time as well as all the natural forces that have carved a sliver here and cleaved a sliver there. What’s left is nature’s indiscriminate best: an intersection of woods, water, and rock put together in a way that’s inspired artists, song makers, and photographers alike. These are the Smoky Mountains and this place is magical.
Bringing photographers here is always a treat. This past fall, we had both a ‘hiker’ and ‘standard’ version of our Great Smoky Mountains in Autumn trip and on both rotations, guests are eager to see these Southern forests cloaked in their autumnal splendor.
When we first arrive, the color is spotty. At lower elevations greens still dominate but as we climb in elevation through the mountain passes, yellow, red, and orange hues began to dominate. During our time here, we’ll see the leaves morph through their various color phases. Each kind of tree has its timetable for sipping rich chlorophyll from its leaves and as a result, the leaves slowly turn varying shades of autumn colors based on their species. Typically, oaks turn brown and orange, maples turn red, and various other species like sycamore or walnut turn yellow. The pallets of colors are breathtaking.
The trees are a conduit to the heavens. They connect the terrestrial to the blue sky Empyreal above. Rooted in Mother Earth, the arboreal denizens of the largest stand of old-growth forests east of the Mississippi River shine at the subliminal behest of those who carry cameras afield.
From our excursions around the area like Cades Cove, Little River, and Grotto Falls, the nuances of the trees and the woods are subtle. In some places, rhododendrons dominate and don’t provide much color other than green while in other areas like Elkmont, the trees are at their showy best in more ways than merely visual.
The fall woods have a distinct smell about them. Falling leaves and damp conditions initiate the decompositional forces that perpetually feed the soil and all the living creatures therein. Part musky and part sweet, the scent of autumn timber is an earthy, olfactory delight.
Nearby, the Little River lies beneath a canopy of yellow. The water spills over moss-laden rocks and provides a soothing ambient sound that meshes with the rustling of leaves overhead. As springs flow into streams, streams into creeks, and creeks into rivers in the park, the hydrological complex of the Smokies is a complicated one that’s compromised over ever-repeating fractal patterns. Water is a dominant feature of the park and every time you look at a stretch of water, it looks as if it’d make a great picture. Slow exposures are often the rule and the photographic technique makes for soft scenes that border on surreal.
Where water exists, wildlife thrives and that rudimentary rule of the natural world applies in the Smokies. Every time we move from one location to another, the group is encouraged to have a telephoto lens ready in case wildlife is spotted. Thought the park, Eastern wild turkeys and whitetail deer are common. Although I lose count, we see a score of black bears during our two weeks in the park.
Most notably, an immense bruin hanging out by a creek and a mother and her triplet cubs traversing across a meadow from a draw to a stand of mature hardwoods. In the valleys, the elk rut is winding down but mature bulls can still be seen and heard as they try to breed any receptive cows. A barred owl even delighted one group with its extended presence in a hemlock tree.
It’s the abundance of game that made the woods so desirable for people from modernity to antiquity. Abundant water and trees rich with hickory nuts, acorns, and walnuts provide food for both man and beast, and for centuries, the Cherokees made these mountains their home. Once settled by those of European descent, the early stage pioneers began to build permeant structures from the latent timber of the area.
In areas like Cades Cove and the nearby Cataloochee settlements, cabins and barns still stand over one hundred years after the logs were first felled, notched, and chinked into weather-tite abodes that gave rise to the settlements of the area. While each cabin is similar in construction, each is nuanced enough to make them an interesting study in pioneer-era architecture and we stop and make pictures of many of them.
In the area, the pioneer spirit is still alive and it’s the Appalachian Mountain culture that exudes from each of the towns we visit. Bryson City and Cherokee in North Carolina and Gatlinburg and Townsend in Tennessee are autonomous burghs with their own local flair but each is connected by the spirit of the Smokies. That spirit is one of a welcoming and friendly nature. A locale is often defined by its culinary traditions and the Smokies is no different. At the local restaurants in which we dine, guests find a taste that’s to their liking. Whether it’s seared pork belly and Brussel sprouts at the Dancing Bear Bistro or biscuits and gravy at Peter’s Pancakes and Waffles in Cherokee.
While the weather is predictably fickle in the park, for the most part, the rain holds. As such, most mornings or evenings are topped off with a visit to a scenic overlook. When the weather at Clingman’s Dome cooperates, we manage a shot or two at the highest peak in the park. Other times we find places at lower elevations where the mountains stack on top of one another for what seems like infinity. At one such overlook, I hear a church bell ringing from down in the holler. Music has always been a part of these hills and it’s here that an American form of music arose. Taking traditional folk music from Ireland and Scotland, blending hymns, and fusing it all with an African instrument – the banjo – country music was born in this melodic melting pot. Some scholars contend that with country music and jazz as a provenance, the two influences ultimately blend to create rock and roll.
As the sun sets over the Smokies, it is fun to imagine the early days and what life was like here. In a way, it’s easy to imagine because of the pristine nature of the park. The presentity of the place is why I am eager to return again and again. It’s that same natural solace that’ll keep others coming back as well.
This Just In: NEW AUTUMN DATES!
A Brand-New set of dates is now available for our Great Smoky Mountains in Autumn photography tour in 2022! Now you can choose from two different departures that will put you in a position to have your own experiences similar to Russell’s above account. Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of Backcountry Journeys’ favorite parks for autumn foliage, big mountain views, wildlife, and cultural history.
- October 16th – 21st, 2022 (hiker)
- October 23rd – 28th, 2022 (standard) NEW DATES!
Click here for more, or to join us in 2022!
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 www.russellgraves.com