Trip Report: Spring in the Great Smoky Mountains I -April 2022

Every now and then, the stars align, and magic happens. Be it pre-ordained or serendipitous, I’ll never know. 

That’s the thought I have as we roll through Cade’s Cove and come across a mother bear and her three cubs feeding beneath a broad walnut tree.

The fescue covering the meadow is a lush green that’s been ushered by spring rains and warming temperatures. In the distance, big hardwoods tipped with ever-greening buds line a creek bottom. Even further still, a rounded mountain rises from the cove and competes with low-hanging clouds for relevance in the sky. The scene is idyllic, and here we are. 

I’ve led trips to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park for several seasons. On every occasion, we see something remarkable and noteworthy. The pair of trips I took last April with guests from all over the country in tow was no different. 

To know the Smokies… I mean, to really know the Smokies is a lifelong endeavor. On our trips, we do our best to give people a crash course in the area, but the woods are big and the hollers are deep, and there’s plenty to take in. Therefore, there is always something new to see even if you’ve been before. Telling the story of the Smokies is an examination of stalwart story-telling.  

When you go to places like Katmai National Park, the bears are the star of the show. In the Tetons, it is the mountains that play the leading role. Everything photographically revolves around the central subjects of their respective locations. The Smoky Mountains are different. Telling the story about the oldest mountain range in the United States is akin to documenting a movie with an ensemble cast. It’s not the mountains that are the star of the show as they play a big part in this sweeping natural drama. The stars of this story are the mountains, the flowers, the water, the trees, the culture, the history, the wildlife, the geology, and the way it’s all thrown together in a chaotic yet divinely-designed fashion. The place is simply beautiful. 

Spring in the Smokies is when everything comes to life. While not classically cold like the Intermountain West, the Smokies have their share of winter weather. A few days before our arrival, snow dumped on the over-mountain passes, causing a forced road closure. This time of year sees a constant class of air masses. Winter still wants to hang on, but warm air from the Gulf South pushes on the cold, dry air mass. Therefore, the weather is unpredictable and unsettled – especially a mile above sea level. While the temperatures are comfortably in the 60s at the visitor’s center and the skies intermittently cloudy, up on top of Clingman’s Dome (the park’s highest point), unsettled air brings in thick clouds that can sometimes obscure the mountain tops. Throw in the wind and you have a meteorological situation that is as cold and uncomfortable as you’ll find anywhere.  

Therefore, daily plans are often altered based on what the weather brings at that moment. We have to rely on Plan’ B’ and, believe me, there is always a Plan ‘B .’Whether they are primary or secondary plans, the locations to which we are ultimately led are stunning nonetheless. It may be a cascade of water or an overlook of trees, but the places are spectacular. 

During each two-week span, we visit old mills whose still-functioning innards use the power harnessed from flumed water that’s been diverted from a nearby creek to grind corn and wheat into meal that was used to make a variety of bread products. While the order of our stops isn’t necessarily of any importance, we’ll eventually move on to water features that trickle and gurgle across moss-covered rocks.  

At one feature, I stare at it for perhaps the tenth time, and I still marvel at its creation. 

“You could pay professional landscapers thousands and thousands of dollars, and they couldn’t create what we see here,” I remind a few of the guests, enamored by the natural beauty of the basic elements (water and rocks) that form this park. Take away the park’s culture and wildlife, and you still have a remarkable landscape that will inspire artists and writers for eons. 

If you took the time to stop at every overlook, it would take you a month to get through the park. Every place to stop is a new seam of landscape to explore photographically. Photographing the Smokies is an exercise in using all of the photographic disciplines at your disposal.

On these trips, we shoot traditional landscapes, slow shutter speed water shots, waterfalls, big, mountainous overlooks, panoramic compositions, macro, wildlife via telephoto lenses – you name it, we did it.

And we did it in a quiet and respectful style that complimented everyone’s photographic style.  

Besides waterfalls and mountains, we take the time to explore old churches, cabins, and other manmade structures that complement well with the Southern mountain landscape. Along the way, we see black bears, Eastern wild turkeys, and a whole catalog of wildflowers and trees yearning to stretch their leaves to meet the glorious sunlight of spring. This trip is a lot of photography packed into a single week. Still, the results of aiming a camera at something beautiful and capturing a lifelong memory of it are unequivocally worth any lack of sleep you may endure. 

As trips inevitably do, this one ends. At the close of the journey, we stand making small-talk about our experiences and the magic of the mountains. Before everyone departed, someone mentioned how many miles we’d driven to pursue the perfect image. 

“You must be tired from all that driving,” one of the guests says. “A little,” I say. “But I’ve got the best commute in the world.” 

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 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 his 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 the 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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