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High-Country Photography Along The Blue Ridge Parkway

High-Country Photography Along The Blue Ridge Parkway

By Nye Simmons

Spring starts early on the Southern Coast, and the blooms don’t culminate until they reach the high ridges of Tennessee and North Carolina in mid-June. The early color from maple and serviceberry will be mostly gone by the time you read this, but there is still much to enjoy in the high country. Even though I live in the shadows of the Great Smokies, I would choose the Blue Ridge Parkway and nearby Roan Mountain for the best opportunities after mid-May.

Driving the Blue Ridge Parkway in Western North Carolina can yield delightful images at any turn, and if the cloud deck is low (aka fog) the opportunities for intimate nature scenes are almost endless. A day in the clouds with something blooming is a gift that happens only a few times each season. So I watch the skies and adjust accordingly.

There are a few iconic locations that new visitors should investigate, and you can branch out from there. Here are great places to begin:

Graveyard Fields (Milepost 418.8): In early May the blooming maple and serviceberry make this a visual treat that gives way later in the month (and into June) to Catawba rhododendron and mountain laurel. Prime time for the latter is usually the end of May into first week of June. Lower Yellowstone Falls is a short hike and is a local icon. Nearby Tennent Mountain is an excellent place for sunrise, as is Pounding Mill Overlook (MP 413.2). If the cloud deck is low and you are in fog, then the entire area is a target for photographers. Good opportunities can be found by hiking down to the falls and then following some of the short connecting trails.

Rhododendrons at Yellowstone Falls

Rhododendrons at Yellowstone Falls

If the weather indicates there will be light at sunrise, two spots can provide some memorable shots. The Tennent Mountain summit, accessed from FR 816 near Graveyard, with its 20–30-minute hike from the road is one of them, along with the more convenient Pounding Mill Overlook. Though late light can be attractive, a ridge to the west blocks such light at this spot. But last light at Cowee Mountains Overlook (MP 430.7) can be spectacular, and a low sun will back-illuminate any foreground blooms and fresh leaves. This overlook is about a 20-minute drive and is a Blue Ridge Parkway icon.

Lodging is most convenient in Waynesville, N.C. This is a bit of a resort town, so there are multiple choices of hotels and restaurants. The Pisgah Inn is nearby, but usually fills up months in advance. Its restaurant is a dining option, regardless. Keep an eye on the clock so as not to miss last seating.

Those prepared to camp can find dispersed camping near the trailhead to the Shining Rock Wilderness at the end of the spur road (FS 816). You can access this from the Blue Ridge Parkway near Graveyard Fields, or find a spot in the Mount Pisgah Campground, which is open seasonally, across from the inn.

Above Craggy

Above Craggy

Craggy Gardens (MP 364): Regionally known for its Catawba rhododendrons, peak bloom has traditionally occurred around mid-month. Short hikes will take you to the best scenes. A low cloud deck (fog) is ideal here. Often the mountain laurel along the higher elevations nearby will be good as well, though there are few to be found at Craggy itself. For last light, the parkway just north of Craggy and Graybeard Overlook (MP 363.4) offers strong options. The beech grove at Graybeard, meanwhile, can be enchanting.

Mount Mitchell State Park (MP 355): The spur from the Blue Ridge Parkway leads to the highest point in North Carolina, and its bloom often lags lower areas by a few days. It is only a few minutes’ detour to investigate the opportunities there. False hellebore (corn lily) grows here, too.

Lodging for both locations is most convenient in nearby Asheville with many options. Limited camping (tent only) is available at Mount Mitchell State Park.

Roan rocks

Roan rocks

Roan Mountain: If you are on the Blue Ridge Parkway, this is most easily accessed from the MP 331 exit to Spruce Pine, NC, and map it from there. A recent fire at Carvers Gap near the road burned several acres but Round and Jane Bald were spared, according to reports. Look for these balds to peak around mid-June, sometimes as early as the 10th  of the month. It’s the middle of nowhere.

The closest lodging is Roan Mountain State Park, with some vacation rentals closer to the Gap. Dining options are limited in the little hamlet of Roan Mountain, TN, at least a 30-minute drive from the Gap. A vacation rental is likely the best choice for those seeking a measure of comfort and a place to nap during mid-day, and of course you can cook there. For those who are prepared, camping in the vehicle or tent at the trailhead saves a bit of sleep, as sunrise comes early in June.

How To Work It

The best way to approach these opportunities really depends on the weather and your personal vision. If this is your first trip, visiting the icons is not a bad start. After that, drive pilgrim. Most of my favorite photos from the Parkway are found images that were given up by light at the time. It’s about 70 miles from Mitchell to the Smokies, and each mile can offer up a great image in the right conditions.

I like fog, so a low cloud deck is my jam, and the thicker the better. If the skies will cooperate for first or last light, then consider the options above. Blue sky of death? Look for back-illuminated leaves and intimate settings in the shade. This is also a great time to look for images than work well in black and white. The white blooms of Rosebay rhododendron may be going at lower elevations, providing yet another option to investigate.

Editor’s Note: If you want more detailed information, Nye wrote Best of the Blue Ridge Parkway with photographers in mind. It’s available at Parkway visitor centers and from the Smokies Association. The e-book can be found on his website at



A retired emergency medicine physician, Nye Simmons is a photography educator who has been freelancing and self-publishing for many years. He’s the sole author of Best of the Blue Ridge Parkway, Blue Ridge Parkway Celebration, Tennessee Wonder and Light, and The Greater Smoky Mountains Photographer’s Guide, while co-authoring four other books. His upcoming photo workshops include the Smokies, Blue Ridge Parkway, Colorado fall color and Death Valley.

Photographing The Shirley Miller Wildflower Trail

Photographing The Shirley Miller Wildflower Trail

By Tom Wilson.

If you like to photograph wildflowers, March and April are prime time. One of my favorite places to go in the last week of March is a particularly easy boardwalk/trail in Northwest Georgia. The Shirley Miller Wildflower Trail, located at 299 Pocket Road in Chickamauga, is about a two-hour drive from my home in Woodstock. But no matter where you live, it’s worth a trip to the place called “the Pocket.”

The entire walk is just under a mile, including a portion at the end of the boardwalk that takes you to a waterfall at the end of the trail. There are approximately 50 species of wildflowers that can be seen and photographed from the boardwalk and the trail. In addition to the wildflowers, there are also many opportunities for intimate landscapes in this area.

Eastern Red Columbine. Photo by Tom Wilson

Eastern Red Columbine. Photo by Tom Wilson

The days that I typically target to visit this area are March 28-29. To help you plan your visit, you may want to check out this website – The Pocket/Pigeon Mountain | Journal – which includes a calendar of blooming dates for various wildflowers.

I tend to take a variety of camera gear with me to the Pocket, including my 70-180 micro Nikkor as well as my Sigma 150mm f2.8 Macro lens. One of the reasons I prefer longer focal length lenses at this location is because you are required to stay on the boardwalk, so sometimes you need a little more reach. I also take the lenses that I use for wide-angle close-up shots.

Dutchman’s Breeches. Photo by Tom Wilson

Dutchman’s Breeches. Photo by Tom Wilson

Additionally, I pack equipment for modifying the light, such as macro flash, reflectors and diffusers. A tripod and remote releases are always in my bag, too. It’s not a bad idea to carry a gardener’s kneepad, because even a boardwalk can start to feel pretty hard if you kneel on it long enough. I’ll also carry the lenses and filters that I use for making landscape photographs, since there are good opportunities in the area.

One of those opportunities isn’t on the property itself. It’s the “Blue Hole” in the Crockford Pigeon Mountain Wildlife Management Area. This natural spring, with its cold, clear water, marks a good starting point for those hiking to Ellison’s Cave, one of the deepest in the continental United States. It’s definitely worth a stop on your way to or from the Pocket. The address is 1399 Blue Hole Rd, #1025, LaFayette, GA 30728.

Blue Hole spring. Photo by Tom Wilson

Blue Hole spring. Photo by Tom Wilson

When I visit the Shirley Miller Wildflower Trail, I like to get there early and bring a lunch with me, even if I leave it in the car. As with all nature photography it’s good to have water, raingear, sun protection, bug repellent and any other gear that you carry on outdoor activities. To legally access this area, you need a valid Georgia fishing or hunting license, or the Lands Pass that provides access to state wildlife management areas.

Miterwort. Photo by Tom Wilson

Miterwort. Photo by Tom Wilson

When planning a trip, remember to consider the weather. Overcast conditions can be very good for photographing wildflowers, and those are the kind of days that I tend to favor when picking a time to visit the Pocket. The other element I consider is the wind. If the forecast calls for windy conditions, I will usually try to select a different day to visit there. Photographing wildflowers in windy conditions can be very frustrating, so it’s best to target calmer days. But whenever you go, have fun and enjoy this beautiful place.



Tom Wilson head shot

Tom Wilson is a nature photographer working primarily in Georgia and the Southeast. He is Vice President of GNPA, is past chair of the Conservation Committee and is current chair of the Communications Committee.

Exploring The Okefenokee

Exploring The Okefenokee

By Tom Wilson.

If you’re looking for a great spot for your next photography trip, you may want to point your vehicle south toward the Okefenokee Swamp.

Why Go
South Georgia’s Okefenokee National Refuge is worthy of every superlative in the dictionary. It is one of the world’s largest intact freshwater ecosystems and the biggest “blackwater swamp” in all of North America. At over 400,000 acres, this legendary location is unique in Georgia, and should be on the bucket list for any photographer in the state.

female Pileated PortraitIn the fall, when the Cypress trees are transforming into otherworldly colors, the display is like nothing else on earth. But there are special opportunities there every month of the year. Plus, in 2022, you have another reason to visit. This is the “Year of the Okefenokee,” sponsored by GNPA and the Georgia Sierra Club. You will have two opportunities to enter photo contests for images made in the Okefenokee, as well as workshop and tour opportunities associated with the 2022 Expo. See the “Year of the Okefenokee” article on the GNPA website (here) and stay tuned to the website for updates all year long.





If you are a bird photographer, or if you prefer to focus on landscapes, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, dragonflies, flowers, plants or any other kind of nature photography, you will find more subjects in the Okefenokee than you could photograph in a lifetime.

Gator Pile Pano

Best time to go
My favorite time to visit the Okefenokee is in the shoulder seasons of March to May, and then in October to December. Fall is an especially good season, since the crowds that tend to increase visitation during school spring breaks are absent. Plus, autumn offers a good chance of seeing Sandhill Cranes.

Trails are well marked

Plan Your Trip
What’s the best starting point for planning a visit? Go to the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge website, and click on “Plan Your Visit” Plan Your Visit – Okefenokee – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ( The information here covers all the access points to the swamp and gives a good overview of your options, regardless of where and how you will access the Okefenokee.

Campsites and cabins are available at Stephen C. Foster State Park, where you can also rent powerboats. Canoes and kayaks are also available at several locations. Many photographic opportunities can be enjoyed, however, without ever getting into a boat. There are plenty of boardwalks and trails, as well as an auto trail called Swamp Island Drive on the east side. All of this information is available at the site listed above. Also, make sure to check out the “Visitor Activities” tab on the same website.

Black-crowned Night Heron

Photo Gear
This really depends on your subject. I usually try to carry everything from wide-angle lenses to zoom lenses covering the super-telephoto range. I always have a polarizer for all my lenses. And while much of my photography is from a canoe or boat, I also carry a tripod for when I’m on land.

Drybags to keep your gear dryIf you do plan to use some sort of watercraft, I would highly recommend using gear that has image stabilization capabilities, since much of your photography is likely to be handheld. I carry all the gear I take with me in a boat or canoe in a “dry bag” made specifically to keep your gear dry even if it gets dunked in the water. But I’d also suggest that even if your gear is in a dry bag, don’t let it sit for a long time in water, like that which often collects in the bottom of a canoe from dropping paddles or rainfall. And of course you also need to take appropriate safety gear for your activities.


Female Needhams Skimmer Dragonfly


If you’ve never explored the Okefenokee, perhaps this is the year you should discover its amazing opportunities. And if you have visited it before, perhaps it’s time to make a return trip.



Tom Wilson head shotTom Wilson is a nature photographer working primarily in Georgia and the Southeast. He is Vice President of GNPA, is past chair of the Conservation Committee and is current chair of the Communications Committee.

Now’s The Time for Hiawassee Sandhills

Now’s The Time for Hiawassee Sandhills

By Jerry Black

If you’re intrigued by the prospect of photographing thousands of Sandhill Cranes just a few hours from Atlanta, now is the time. Beginning in mid-November, the Hiawassee Wildlife Refuge in Tennessee is home to huge flocks of wintering cranes that provide plenty of opportunities for wildlife photographers.

The cranes nest there throughout the winter, and after arriving at Hiawassee this month, will typically stay around the refuge until mid to late January. There will be thousands of them, up and down the river and in the fields of adjoining farms. My understanding is the refuge has the largest winter flock of Sandhill Cranes in the southeast other than Florida. I can say I’ve been to many locations in Florida and have never seen as many cranes in one place as I see in Hiwassee.


Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge spans about 6,000 acres, comprised of roughly 2,500 acres of land and 3,500 acres of water. At the refuge location on Priddy Road (545 Priddy Road, Birchwood, TN) there is an observation platform and gazebo. From this location you can observe a large area, but it’s still only a small portion of the total refuge. If you are a bit more adventurous and have a few dollars to spend, you can book a tour with a friend of GNPA who occasionally takes people out on the river to see the back side of the refuge, where you will find thousands of cranes along the shorelines and islands. Or, you can rent a boat at the marina in Dayton, TN. But because the refuge has certain locations that are protected for the cranes, check ahead of time to see where you’re allowed to venture by boat.

If you live in north Georgia and you’re an early riser, you can be there by sunrise for early light, stay the whole day, photograph during late light into the sunset, and then drive back home. Some may prefer to drive up around noon on day one, shoot the late light, spend the night nearby, shoot the next morning early light and depart for home around 9-10 a.m. depending upon light conditions.

I have photographed at the refuge many times in all kinds of weather conditions, from sunny fall days to cold and blustery conditions. Personally, my favorites are when the temps are in the 40- to 60-degree range with good light, or on foggy days when you can create magical images of the cranes flying through the mist. If I had to choose between morning and evening conditions as my only option for a day trip, I’d choose evening. At that time of day, you can shoot one direction toward the lake and river and capture the cranes in flight as the sun illuminates their beautiful mating plumage. Then, as the sun sets, you can shoot the birds flying by from the opposite side of the gazebo and capture silhouettes against the sunset skies, which are especially striking if you are fortunate enough to have a sky full of reds, yellows, pinks and oranges.

What To Expect

The refuge is closed from Nov 15 through the last day in February. This means you cannot travel down into the refuge itself, as this a protected habitat for the cranes. But the gazebo and platform are open year round, and are great places to set up. The cranes roost in the field at night, but as the morning sun rises they begin to fly out to nearby fields to feed for the day. Then, as the evening approaches, they will fly back into this field across from the platform. These are the two best times to photograph them in flight.

These fly-in and fly-out times will vary depending upon weather and light conditions. You may have about 90 minutes to two hours of ideal shooting time in both the morning and the evening. If it’s a very windy day, don’t expect a lot of flying.

On some days there can be lots of people there. The overall area to shoot from is rather small, all things considered. In the accompanying photo, you’ll see the gazebo and to the right of it is a ramp where many photographers choose to set up. The main open field area is to the right of this gazebo. Try to go during the week if possible, to avoid the larger weekend crowds. Your field of view can seem a bit restricted depending upon where you position yourself. Getting there early to “claim” your spot is a good idea. The 2022 Sandhill Crane Festival is currently scheduled for January 15-16, and there will likely be more visitors then. Once you leave the main entrance road, access to the parking area is via a dirt road that’s usually in decent condition and is almost always quite passable by car. The parking area can handle about 30 or so cars.



Recommended Camera Gear

Since you’ll want to capture birds in flight, you will benefit from using a good camera and lens with fast, reliable autofocus and continuous autofocusing capability. Ideally, you’ll want to have a lens with a focal length of at least 300mm. Many people will use a Nikon 80-400 or 200-500, Tamron 150-600, Canon 100-400, or any variety of 300mm-plus prime lenses. In my opinion, a tripod is optional. I like the flexibility to move around quickly and be able to follow the birds’ flight patterns.

Hiawassee Refuge is a great place to see lots of cranes and to test your birds-in-flight skills. But there is more to the refuge than just cranes. You may see eagles, herons, ducks, hawks, assorted small birds in and around the platform and white pelicans flying overhead. Even whooping cranes have been photographed there on occasion, as well as a golden eagle. In the evening and early morning, you may also spot deer in the refuge area.


Jerry Black is an avid amateur photographer who is well known for his wildlife and nature photography, having won numerous local, national and international competitions. Jerry has received first-place awards at GNPA EXPO in both the wildlife and landscape competitions, first place in the Ansel Adams B&W Photo Contest, and for six years running has had one or more images selected for the Booth Museum Photography Annual Exhibition and other curated exhibits.

Don’t Miss Amicalola Falls

Don’t Miss Amicalola Falls

Top of Amicalola Falls shot from below.

Don’t Miss Amicalola Falls

By Tom Wilson

As a photographer, one of my favorite waterfalls is Amicalola Falls in North Georgia. Technically a cascade, Amicalola Falls tumbles a dramatic 729 feet, making it the highest in Georgia and the third highest east of the Mississippi River.

Located within Amicalola Falls State Park, an 829-acre gem between Ellijay and Dahlonega, this cascade offers remarkable accessibility. There is trail access to the base of the falls, the top of the falls and to the mid-point of the falls, with a level path that is ADA-accessible (see the park website for a trail map). All of the accesses have parking areas. These multiple access points make it possible to photograph the falls from different perspectives, and all of the access points are connected so you can utilize one or all of them.


Waterfall detail shot in winter from bridge midway up the falls. Photo by Tom Wilson

This ease of access also has a downside, however, which is the fact that the park attracts lots of visitors. I would recommend getting there early in the morning, or during weekdays, for the best photographic opportunities. Many of your photos can be made from the boardwalks and the stairs that climb up the falls, but bear in mind that lots of foot traffic can mean lots of vibration on those boardwalks, which can result in blurry photographs.

Because the cascade is inside a state park, there are plenty of amenities available, including a visitor center, restrooms, camping, lodging and even a restaurant at the lodge. The visitor center is open from 8:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., and there is a $5 fee to park in any of the lots all day. You can instead use your Georgia State Parks Pass if you have one.

View from the lower platform in early fall.

Waterfalls can be difficult subjects to photograph due to their high-contrast environments. One solution for this problem is to plan your trip for cloudy days. Another option is to visit the falls early in the morning, before the sun is shining directly on the water (as mentioned, this also helps you avoid the foot traffic you’ll experience at busier times of the day). The park is open during daylight hours so you should be able to enter even before the visitor center opens. I have photographed the falls in all kinds of light, and each trip has yielded good, if different, images.

Be sure to visit the Georgia State Park website before you go. Check the weather and do some research about water levels in North Georgia; when levels are really high, the water can be brown and unattractive for photographs. Take all of your hiking essentials with you, including water, sunscreen, rain gear, seasonally appropriate clothing, first aid kit, etc.

Near-peak fall colors at Amicalola Falls.

The photographic equipment I take with me is my camera body/bodies, sturdy tripod, remote release, lenses with hoods (from very wide angle to telephoto), polarizer, neutral density filter, a small towel for drying the camera due to spray from the falls, and a microfiber cloth for the lens.

View from the top of Amicalola Falls.

My favorite aspect of this waterfall is the variety of images that you can make. I have included some of them with this article. For instance, you can get images from the top of the falls that show the surrounding countryside. Because of the boardwalk, you can position yourself close to the main cascades for some really imposing shots of the falls or finer details. Further down the trail you can access shots that include more of the creek tumbling on down the mountain after it has gone over the main falls. The photos I have included range in seasons from early fall before the leaves have started to turn, to the peak of the fall color and into winter. No matter when you choose to go, you’ll find some great opportunities for photography!

Tom Wilson is a nature photographer working primarily in Georgia and the Southeast. He is Vice President of GNPA, is past chair of the Conservation Committee and is current chair of the Communications Committee.

Photographing Elk in the Smokies

Photographing Elk in the Smokies

Big Bull in the River. Photo by Horace Hamilton

Photographing Elk in the Smokies

By Horace Hamilton

Few big-game animals are as awe-inspiring and majestic as wild elk. And while many photographers head to national parks in the West to find them, we are fortunate to have large herds a short drive from Georgia.

Let’s take a look at this remarkable herd in western North Carolina, as well as tips on the best places, times and strategies for photographing them.

But first, photographers need to understand that elk are the largest animals found in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park area. And while normally peaceful, they can be quite dangerous in certain situations. A cow elk weighs up to 500 pounds, and if she thinks her calf is in danger, she will defend it aggressively. A big bull, meanwhile, can tip the scales at 700 pounds. Amped up on hormones during the rut, he will use his massive antlers to drive intruders (including people) away from his harem of cows. These elk don’t perceive us as predators, so they won’t run from people like a bear or coyote might. In fact, they commonly approach humans so closely that the burden is on us to move out of their way.

Consequently, it’s critical that we maintain a minimum of 50 yards distance from all elk. Do not enter any field where elk are present, and be very alert when walking the trails around the Oconaluftee Visitors Center or other places where elk are common. Remember to watch for elk approaching from behind as well. Even if you are beyond the 50-yard yard limit, if an elk changes its behavior because of you, you are too close! Listen to the rangers and volunteers; their job is to keep you safe.

Photo by Horace Hamilton

Elk in the Smokies

At one time, elk were prolific in East Tennessee and Western North Carolina. But they were eradicated in the 1800s by overhunting and loss of habitat.

In 2001, the National Park Service began a restoration program by introducing 25 elk from the Land Between the Lakes area (on the Tennessee/Kentucky border) into Cataloochee Valley. After the success of this first group, another 27 elk were added in 2003.

This original herd has flourished and now numbers 200-plus animals (estimates vary widely), spread across western North Carolina both inside and outside the National Park.

Life Cycle
Calves (usually only one per cow) are born in June, normally in a secluded area away from the main herd. But within days of birth, the cows return to the herd with their calves. Those calves will nurse for six to seven months, but from shortly after birth they also forage for other food, mostly grass. They are able to walk within minutes of birth.

Bulls lose their antlers in late winter. New antlers begin growing back immediately, reaching full size by summer.

Mating season (the rut) occurs in September and October (best observed from mid-September to mid-October). Bulls battle each other for dominion over their harems—groups of cows that can grow to 20 or more. Photographing the rut is so addicting that I have done so with a group of friends every fall for the past eight or nine years!

A dominant bull may lose up to 200 pounds during rut, as he spends his time and energy defending his harem rather than eating. As the dominant bull weakens toward the end of rut, younger bulls may have an opportunity to breed with any as-yet unimpregnated cows, thus increasing the herd’s genetic diversity. Elk have a life span of about 15 years.

Photo by Horace Hamilton

Where Can Elk Be Found?
There are two large herds of elk in the Smokies.

Cherokee, NC
The most easily accessible area to find elk is in and around the town of Cherokee, at the entrance to the park on Highway 441.

Watch for them in the fields along Hwy 441, from the entrance to the Blue Ridge Parkway and north to the Smokemont Campground. If you don’t see them there, look in the fields in the Job Corps Center, which can be accessed via a bridge over the river, about 100 yards north of the exit from the visitor center parking lot. There is limited public access in this area, so pay attention to the signs.

Finally, elk can be found along Big Cove Road, which is accessible from Hwy 441, between the Blue Ridge Parkway and the town of Cherokee. Watch for directional signs. Elk also frequent the Cherokee Trail, behind the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. Patience is required, but this is a wonderful place to photograph them as they cross the stream in the afternoon.

Cataloochee Valley
The second great location is in Cataloochee Valley, also in GSMNP.

You can access Cataloochee from Hwy 276 at the intersection with I-40 (Exit 20). Turn on Jonathan Creek Road, which is immediately before the I-40 intersection and only goes west. In 0.3 miles keep right and follow this road into Cataloochee. After about 10 miles, turn left at the stop sign and continue straight from there into the valley. The drive from Hwy 276 into Cataloochee may take up to 45 minutes on a narrow, winding mountain road that turns to gravel before entering the park. There are no visitor amenities in Cataloochee, other than bathrooms. There is no cell service.

Photo by Horace Hamilton

While the Cherokee herd tends to stick pretty close together, the Cataloochee herd can be spread throughout the two-mile-long valley, in smaller groups of 10-15 animals. Beautiful landscape scenes – including elk – can be found in the Cataloochee Valley at sunrise.

Other Locations
In addition to these primary locations, elk occasionally can be found in downtown Cherokee, along the Blue Ridge Parkway, in Maggie Valley, Bryson City or most anywhere else in the area. Be on the lookout when driving in these areas, but remember that these are not the most reliable locations for finding elk.

Is There a Best Time of Day?
In early summer, in the fields along Hwy 441, cows and calves are often seen throughout the day. But early morning and late afternoon are always the best times to view the herd.

During the September and October rut, elk are most active at sunrise and shortly thereafter, or in the late afternoon. The rest of the day, they tend to be found grazing in the fields. During mid-day, they are often in the woods and difficult to find.

Photo by Horace Hamilton

The Photography Experience
Finding elk in the Smokies is one of the most exciting photographic experiences that I have enjoyed anywhere. From the loving relationship between a cow and her calf, to the testosterone-fueled battles between big bulls, to the magnificence of a bull crossing a stream in Cherokee, to the incredible beauty of wispy fog in the yellow walnut leaves in Cataloochee, you can find endless possibilities for photography.

Landscape opportunities also abound in the area. Cataloochee Valley is great for foggy landscapes at sunrise. The Blue Ridge Parkway has many beautiful places to view sunrise and sunset, and you’ll discover streams and waterfalls. Black bears are often seen too (although not nearly as often as in Cades Cove).

Photo by Horace Hamilton

In most cases you will want to use a long telephoto lens, 400mm or more, mounted on a tripod. You can also use your widest angle or mid-range lenses to capture landscape images at Cataloochee. Another useful item to bring is a collapsible seat to help you stay near eye level with the elk while waiting for action in the fields. Bug spray, sunscreen and rain gear are also important.


Mid-day temperatures during rut are usually mild, but mornings and evenings can require a jacket or sweater. Precipitation is common, so bring rain gear for you and your equipment. If you plan to go to nearby places like Clingman’s Dome or Blue Ridge Parkway for sunrise or sunset photos, plan on much cooler temperatures and windy conditions. Summertime temperatures are warm; winter is cold with a risk of snow.

Getting Help
Rangers can be found at the visitor center at Cataloochee during all open hours and are very helpful. They can possibly help you locate elk, if you are having difficulty. Volunteers (look for their bright yellow vests) are another great resource, but they are most often found where the elk are present. You will find them to be very knowledgeable about elk. Most have worked as volunteers for several years and know a lot about individual animals and their habits.

I’d encourage everyone to make plans to witness this wonderful treat in North Carolina, just a few hours from Atlanta. This not an experience that requires stealth or hours of sitting in a blind; you can go with friends and make it a social event. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.

A past president of GNPA, Horace is also a former board member and the founding coordinator of the Gwinnett Chapter. He’s been photographing nature for more than 40 years, and has served as a jurist for numerous photo exhibits. He has also conducted training classes for GNPA and camera clubs across Georgia. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of his favorite destinations, where he enjoys photographing its animals, landscapes, streams and flowers.