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If You Had Just One Day in the Great Smoky Mountains

Making the most out of your time in the Smokies

By: Joshua Moore + Save to a List

Editor's note: Be sure to check for the latest closures and restrictions before you visit Great Smoky National Park. Get up-to-date information here.

I have been a photographer for the National park Service as a volunteer for about 3 years. I generally cover the southern region of the United States and GSMNP is just one of the parks I cover for the NPS. I live about an hour and a half from the park, so I am always here it seems and one of my favorite things I like to do along my travels, whether it be hiking or taking in the views, is to talk to new people. I like to find out where they are from and how long they planned on staying. I am amazed at some of the responses. I would say a good 50% of the people are only spending a day in the park and for the most part it is their first time at the park. Most of my answers have been "we were just passing through and decided to come see it" and most of these people spend a lot of time waiting, because they don't know where to go.

If you go to Cade's Cove, especially in the summer you are going to spend 4-6 hours of your day making your way around the loop. Traffic is heavy and everybody has to slow down and stop to take a selfie with every deer they see. God forbid a bear pops out (plan on not moving). While that's great and all, you are not making the most of your time. If you are a photographer that was "just passing through" you have waisted much valuable time.

So let's say you knew you were going to be in the area, you have one free day and you want to take in the views. Newfound Gap Road is going to be your best bet. Newfound Gap Road offers up views for sunrises and sunsets, vast open mountain ranges with traffic moving at a nice pace. I would start early in the morning at the Newfound Gap Overlook. The sun rises on this particular overlook and some of the overlooks along Newfound Gap Road just below it heading towards Cherokee, N.C. This gives you a couple of hours to work along 2-4 really nice overlooks. The earlier you get there the better, because there will more than likely be a bunch of other photographers with the same idea.

After you have spent some time checking out the sunrise you can head back to the main parking lot at the Newfound Gap Overlook. Hopefully you keep your hiking boots and supplies in your car, because this is a great place to jump on the Appalachian Trail for a little bit. The Appalachian Trail will give you the best feel of the Smokies and will provide you with some terrific nature scenes along the way. If you go in the summer, the heavy foliage will provide some nice shade from the sun and allow you to capture some really great nature scenes in the forest. I can't stress enough to bring enough water and PLEASE pack out what you pack in, I would like to not pack out other people's trash.

After a nice bit of hiking it's time to unwind and enjoy a sunset. For this, you are going to head back towards Gatlinburg, TN, but not too far. You are now going to the Morton Overlook or at least that would be my choice. The view here is wider than the others going down the road and has the best viewing spot for the sunset. It can get crowded here, but I have never not been able to find room. Pay attention to the sides as well, sometimes you get some really nice light along the ranges. This is also a great spot to do some night photography as well since stars are very prominent here. In the summer you can go up to Clingman's Dome as well, it will be to the right heading in the direction of Cherokee, NC. It is overwhelmingly crowded here as well, but it also has a nice view of the sunset.

For those of you just passing through I hope this helps, especially if you are wanting to take advantage of the time you have. There are many views along Newfound Gap Road and many opportunities to explore, these are just a few of my recommended stops. No matter what you choose to do, I hope you enjoy the park. It is a very special place.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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