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The Magic of the Smokies - Notes from the Field

Craning my neck, I see the water spilling over the precipice 120 feet above me. Mingo Falls is a big cascade. Flowing out of Pigeon Creek, the waterfall sits within the Qualla Boundary - a territory held as a land trust by the United States government for the federally recognized Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. It’s mesmerizing to watch the waterfall across the rocks. The falling water is magic when translated onto a digital medium through a camera. Individual drops of water stretch into a soft ribbon of flowing liquid that borders surrealism when viewed by a discerning eye.

Summer in the Smokies - A Hackberry Farm Photography Workshop
The Great Smoky Mountains

Canon R5 camera, Canon 70-200mm lens, 1/8000 sec. @ f5.6, ISO 1000


The water falls from the rocks above and spills into the broad basin, where it collects and runs through moss-laden rocks and fallen stumps before heading downhill into the creek. It is an easy and accessible location. A short drive through Cherokee and then up a few steps to a bridge that crosses the creek. The bridge makes a fine platform from which to photograph the water, the waterfall, and all the intricacies therein. I want to call this place my favorite in all of the Smokies, but that would be a bit of a fib. All of the Smokies is my favorite, and I can’t pick a spot I’d consider over another. The place is just that rich in photography and natural opportunities.

Summer in the Smokies - A Hackberry Farm Photography Workshop
Rhododendron in Bloom

Canon R5 camera, Canon 70-200mm lens with extension tubes, 1/3200 sec. @ f3.5, ISO 1000


Day after day, I visited several colorfully named waterfalls: Tom Branch, Looking Glass, Indian Creek, and a host of other named and unnamed cascades. Inside the park, water flows from the mountain tops through small streams and into the rivers, which are among the oldest watercourses on the planet. When water ripples over the rocks, it is an opportunity for a memorable photo.

In my opinion, the most photogenic piece of water in the entire park is along the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. Everywhere you look, there is the potential for an amazing photograph. Green moss grows thick on rounded river rocks, and as the water babbles through the cracks, serenity abounds, cameras click, and I smile.

It’s hard to imagine a prettier place on Earth.  

Summer in the Smokies - A Hackberry Farm Photography Workshop
Cascade in the Smokies

Canon R5 camera, Tokina 24-105mm lens, 1.6 sec. @ f22, ISO 1600


Throughout the trip, I alternate between chasing waterfalls and looking for other notable landscape spots that help define the Great Smokey Mountains. Among those is Clingman’s Dome. Atop the highest point in the park, mountains stack upon mountains for what seems like an eternity. It’s a quintessential view of the oldest mountain range in North America. Valleys and hollers stretch out in all directions between the mountains and take the water down the mountains to the rivers below. At each rock crevice and each place where a tree is rooted, life abounds.

Upon a single rock face about the size of a small refrigerator, a dozen salamanders look out at me as I walk past. The rock is damp, and water flows across it and, in turn, creates a perfect mix of habitat for the small amphibian. I could spend hours in this spot, but I move on.

Summer in the Smokies - A Hackberry Farm Photography Workshop
Salamander in the Rocks

Canon R5 camera, Tokina 24-105mm lens, 1/80 sec. @ f4, ISO 6400


Just down the road from that, Mingus Mill still operates. The mill, built in 1886, receives its power from a flume of water running down a nearby creek. The water turns the machinery in the mill’s innards. It causes two massive millstones to rub together and grind wheat and corn into flour. At this one spot are a hundred different photo compositions, and each one tells a rich story of the people who once lived here and the commercial enterprises in which they embarked.

The real show at this time of year is not the water and the mountains, however. The real show begins when the sun goes down.

One of the most unusual sights in the park each June is the synchronous fireflies. According to the National Parks Service, “…Synchronous fireflies ( Photinus carolinus ) are one of at least 19 species of fireflies that live in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and one of only a few species in the world known to synchronize their flash patterns. This insect’s reproductive display occurs for a couple of weeks every year throughout its range (southern Appalachians). It is typically in late May or early June in the Elkmont area of the park. Synchronous fireflies occur throughout the southern Appalachian region, and large populations of synchronous fireflies occur in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. 

Summer in the Smokies - A Hackberry Farm Photography Workshop
Synchronous fireflies pepper the hills with light.

Canon R5 camera, Tokina 24-105mm lens, 30 sec. @ f4, ISO 1600


While most people view the fireflies near the Elkmont Campground via a lottery, I find a secret spot where thousands of fireflies light up the woods. That night, my traveling companions and I were the only ones around to watch one of nature’s most fascinating light shows.  

“I haven’t seen these since I was a kid,” says one of my guests with a huge smile. People alternate between watching the fireflies and taking pictures of them. It’s an unexpected and enchanting moment.

I travel around the park for the rest of the trip, searching for photo-worthy locations. Each stop is a practiced attempt at taking a memorable photo to memorialize the journey.

I head to the old Smokies settlement called Millionaires’ Row on the last morning. It’s a collection of ruins and restored buildings that harken back to a livelier time in the park when this was still private land and the timber was exploited for commercial gain. The Middle Prong of the Little River runs next to an old logging road, and along the road, stone chimneys still stand where cabins once existed. The most unusual structure is a small stone bridge that crosses a brook. I call it the “Troll Bridge” because it looks like something out of a fairy tale. This spot is always enchanting.

Summer in the Smokies - A Hackberry Farm Photography Workshop
The Smokies at Sunrise

Canon R5 camera, Tokina 24-105mm lens, 1/500 sec. @ f16, ISO 640


Of all the places I’ve been, the Smokies have to be one of the most immersive and beautiful. It is a wonderful place to learn and practice all disciplines of photography. Perhaps the place resonates with me so much because some of my family migrated from England to Texas, and some of us settled in the Smokies.  

Blood memories indeed run deep.


If you'd like to travel to the Smokies and experience the incredible nature and culture of the area, check out our upcoming trip, Summer in the Smokies.


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