4 Days Photographing Wildlife in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park
Who: Nature and Wildlife photographers & buffs
What: Hike, camp, canoe. The 3-mile Oconaluftee River Trail is relatively easy, but not accessible
When: Late April for wildflowers! June - August. October for fall folliage.
Where: Across the Tennessee and North Carolina boarders
How: 4 nearest airports Enter from the Oconaluftee River Trail Visitor's Center.
Tips: Book accommodations early.
There is a most magnificent creature standing across from me.
Her beauty is beyond my vocabulary. Her shapely muscular legs go on forever. We stand here, our eyes locked onto each other, the world around us vanishing. She is only about 30 feet away.
That encounter happened in early June about 11:30 in the morning, and I was standing on the Oconaluftee River Trail under the late spring canopy of the Great Smoky Mountains Forest. My Nikon D500 and Tamron 150-600mm G2 series lens cradled in my hands.
Within the depth of her big bold dark eyes, I saw a survivors’ intelligence: her innate ability to take care of herself, paired with weariness - of me.
I blinked first. Quickly realizing that we would both be better off if I put more distance between us, I retraced my steps back the way I came, never ever once turning my back on her. She never stopped watching me.
Finally, when we had enough distance between us (the law is 50 yards / 46 meters, or more), I felt the tension pass … and could no longer resist the temptation to snap a couple pictures. The Manitoban elk stayed motionless.
Sometimes "Bad Luck" is Great Luck!
If the start of my trip had gone as I’d carefully planned, this encounter would never have happened.
I had meant to start driving from my home in Georgia by 1:00 this morning, but last night a strong thunderstorm came blowing through my area. It lasted almost 4 hours longer than predicted. By midnight, all thought of leaving at 1 a.m. was blown away. I crashed, hoping that at least the last half of the day could be salvaged if I could get out by 5 a.m.... It was after 5:30 when my wheels finally hit the asphalt. I arrived at this spot hours after my plan - and so did the elk.
It always seems that rain the day before or on the day of my road trips brings me so much more to photograph.
Lessons Learned from An Elk
My unexpectedly close encounter with the lady Manitoban elk taught me a couple lessons.
One was that elk, despite their size, are masters of hiding in plain sight and two, at least here, they have very little fear when it comes to humans (usually, unhabituated wildlife run and hide.)
This latter point can make them dangerous. I consider myself very lucky that this girl didn’t decide to run me out of her territory. With female elk averaging around 500lbs (227kg) that could have been a serious hurt’n.
Photographing Wildlife in the Forest
Photographing these beautiful animals within the forest produces some challenges this time of year. Especially near noontime on a cloudless day. With the trees full of leaves and limbs overlapping, you can’t avoid the often-severe contrast of the shadows and the “hot” light spots produced by the bright sunlight slipping through the canopy above.
I took the image above of her standing behind a tree at ISO 2000 f/5.9 and 1/100th of a second. This is a crazy-slow shutter speed for a focal length of 400mm, but that shows how good the lens vibration control is, and at this speed you also need decent holding technique.
I could have set a higher ISO to increase my shutter speed, but I was also being cautious of the highlights coming out over exposed and making the photograph a “trash-bin” winner.
My Technique for Free Holding the Camera
It's all about keeping arms/elbows tucked tight to the body, turning your body into a brace.
1. Tuck elbows in nice and tight to your body.
2. Frame your subject.
3. Breath in and slowly release your breath.
4. Start taking pictures at the end of the breath.
Holding the camera with elbows sticking out allows for more camera shake and movement, your arms work to hold the camera weight. Use your torso to take pressure off your arms. This is what works best for me. let m know how it works for you.
After a few photos, I started back towards the trail entrance leaving the elk alone so she could go about her business. I never expected to come across a couple more elk crossing the Oconaluftee River.
To me, getting a chance to photograph any wildlife by a waters’ edge or in water is extra special and exciting. This new pair was moving quickly, so I had no time to worry about anything other than getting the camera up and the image composed - as far as the exposure was concerned, I just hoped for the best (same settings as above).
The Salvaged Day Had Turned Out Well
But it was time for me to go get checked in. The Great Smokies National Park straddles the states of North Carolina and Tennessee. Rather than camping like I do on some of my photography trips, I took to staying in a hotel in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. That put me about the same distance from the Oconaluftee River Trail’s Visitor Center on the North Carolina side as it did to the Cade’s Cove area, on the Tennessee side. Cade’s Cove is another of my favorite spots, and it was just too close not to go for another look.
Cades Cove, Smokey Mountain National Forest
Day 2. It rained continuously the last time I was in Cade's Cove. This morning was forecast to be a phenomenal day. The temperature was in the mid-80’s. I was loaded with extra energy!
The Cade’s Cove section of the Park is a broad, lush valley surrounded by mountains. With the winds light and just a few puffy clouds hanging above, it would have been a great landscape shooting day, but I had other things on my mind. Wild things.
A Great Way to Spot Wildlife in the Open is by Driving the 11-mile Loop around Cade's Cove.
First thing in the morning you are nearly guaranteed to see a few deer grazing, so I was surprised that it took a couple trips around the loop before I did.
You will notice on some of the pictures of deer just how high the vegetation was. That could have been why I hadn’t spotted any at first. Finally, a small traffic back-up alerted me that something worth photographing was just ahead.
The rule for driving Cade’s Cove loop is “do not stop on the road. Use the pull-offs” that is what I did and then walked up to the small group of oglers. Their eyes (and lenses) were pointed at a young male black bear who did not seem to care very much about the clicks and clacks of cameras shooting.
Setting My Camera for Bear
My setting for the bears on this trip ran from ISO 110 (sun facing subject or noontime position) to ISO 6400 (early morning, late evening or if the subject is backlit by the sun). I never went below 1/250th of a second. In fact, photographing the bears here, I try not to shoot below 1/500th of a second because they are constantly moving and I’m once again handholding my gear.
I kept my f/stop at either at f/5.6 or f/7.1 depending on how much the subject was lit or what zoom range my lens was at. Most of my bear photographs only required a metering compensation increase of one-third stop to half-a-stop.
I Just Missed The Peak of Cuteness
My Cade’s Cove day produced some really fun sightings including two stand-out moments.
The first was a black bear mother with her two big cubs. Black bear cubs stay with their mother until they are 16-17 months old. These looked to be nearly yearlings, but still vulnerable and looking to momma for protection from bigger male bears.
My second favorite moment came with some deer grazing by one of the historic log cabins. The deer were females, does, and by the look of their extended bellies, would soon be giving birth.
Man, just my luck. Nearly a month too late for bear cubs at their peak of cuteness and maybe a month too early for seeing and photographing fawns.
Setting the Camera for Deer in Diffuse Lighting
When I began photographing the deer, a single cloud decided to block the sun. It was thick enough to really diffuse the lighting, so again I was forced to shoot at a high ISO of 4000. I could have gone down to a shutter speed of 1/100th of a second to allow for a lower ISO, but the deer were moving too much, and I needed make sure I could get them sharp enough, so I used a shutter speed of 1/500th of a second and an f/stop of f/6.3.
The Cataloochie Valley
Day 3. As a new day dawned to greet the creatures of the park and myself, I wasted no time in getting ready and on the road. This day is all about elk. I had two places in mind. The first was back to Oconaluftee Visitor Center where I had previously seen them.
The other was a hidden area called Cataloochee Valley, a two-hour drive (according to the GPS) - that turned out to be 3. What the GPS and my research failed to mention was how some of that driving would be on narrow unpaved dirt and rocky roads that serpentine through the mountains.
When I say narrow, I mean that two medium-sized vehicles can barely get by each other, and then you add in blind hairpin turns… well, it turned into an exhausting and hair-raising drive.
To make a long story short, this “Big Day for Elk” was a dry day for wildlife photography. The next time (maybe) I brave a drive into the Cataloochee Valley, I think I’ll do a sleepover at the campground and see what comes out to visit.
The lack of 4-legged subjects was more surprising at the visitor center, but after talking with park staff, the chances for spotting elk here go up significantly in the evening compared to the morning time. Meaning, I was lucky the first day.
Hunted to Extinction ... then Reintroduced
The fact that the elk are here at all is a reintroduction story. Did you know that vast herds of Eastern elk once roamed all across North America but were wiped out of the Great Smoky Mountains and most of the rest of the continental US by the late 1800’s? The last recorded elk in Carolina was killed in the 1700’s and in Tennessee, about 50 years later. In Kentucky, the once plentiful elk were rare by 1810, and Pennsylvania’s final elk was shot in 1870.
Concerns that elk could become extinct in the entire region spurred efforts to reintroduce them to the Smoky Mountains. In 2001, twenty-five collard and tagged elk were brought in from Kentucky's Land Between the Lakes Recreation Area and released in Cataloochee Valley. Another twenty-seven elk from Elk Island in Manitoba, Canada were introduced to the park in 2002. As of 2014, it was estimated that at least 120 elk populated the Cataloochee Valley area. These elk are a smaller subspecies than the ones that were extirpated, but still, I’m thinking that their efforts were successful.
Back to Cades Cove, Hiking the Trails
Day 4. It’s a warm Thursday morning and my last full day here was to be spent once again in Cade’s Cove. This time, I had my mind set to hit a couple of hiking trails.
Gearing up for Hiking Comfort and Safety
I geared up with long pants to protect against potential poison ivy and a long sleeve summer boating shirt to ward off pesky insects. My first hike was on the Wet Bottom Trail, a one-mile route that links Cooper’s Road Trail and Abram’s Fall Trail. It is a relatively easy hike, but you will need good hiking shoes with good ankle support for some of the rockier areas.
Some days are for the Birds – And Some are Bear days!
The great thing about hiking here is you never know what you might see. Then there are times where it’s just you, the birds and squirrels, but it is not uncommon in the Great Smoky Mountains to see a black bear while hiking.
Most of the time the black bear will pay you no heed as long as you do not approach them. Here are some ideas from the rangers:
How to Protect Yourself From Black Bears
If a black bear approaches you, most times these ranger approved tips will scare it away:
1. Stand Tall and BIG.
2. Wave your hands over your head and
3. Speak loudly to it.
4. Carry bear spray which is often sold at park visitor centers.
5. Carry a small air horn. It’s loud enough to scare anything but could also help someone to locate you if you ever get lost on the trails.
My second hike was the John Oliver Cabin Access trail. This trail leading up to the cabin is an easy and beautiful hike, despite not coming across any bear or deer and one that I think pretty much anyone could hand
Neither, this trial nor the Wet Bottom trail are accessible, so wheelchairs and walkers could be a challenge. So be careful - know your limits. Don’t forget to take water and some kind of protein snack. Your snack should have enough good carbs and salt to replenish what you lose from hiking. Even on short 1-mile hikes.
Since the morning hikes turned out to be about exercise and fresh air and not big wildlife photography, I figured it was time to give driving the loop a go.
I was in for another surprise.
Two side roads cut through the park. On that first side road, in the shadows of the tree line, I spotted a bear. I quickly found a place to pull off and park, and I ran back. Standing at the top of the road’s entrance, a safe distance from where I had spotted it, I began to search. This bear was no longer in sight, and with a wide-open field behind the narrow tree line it seemed most likely it moved on that way. Of course, this was just a guess.
I kept a close eye on the shadows as I slowly made my way back.
Just around the bend, two other photographers stood on the roadside chatting away with each other.
They had a view of the field behind the trees but, not of the part of the road I had just come down. I enquired as to whether they had seen the bear. Believe it or not, they were unaware of the bear. Funny thing about wildlife, it’s so unpredictable.
While I stood chatting with the two photographers, the hair inexplicably started standing on my arms. My fellow shutterbugs couldn’t see (or just were not paying attention) behind me, but something was warning me to turn. Boy am I glad I did.
Hazel, one of the most massive bears in the park was casually strolling my way. I turned to fully face her - and slowly walked backward. The other two photographers took notice and joined me, one of them managed to put his car between her and us.
Hazel walked on by, stopping a couple of times to look over at us, before heading into another stand of trees. Shortly after she disappeared, her three cubs sauntered out and followed her path. It was cool and breathtaking, and I’m super thankful that we are not on their menu!
It's Addictive Out here!
If you haven’t made the trip yet, what are you waiting for? If you can dedicate a couple of days to Cade’s Cove as well as a couple of evenings to the area of the Oconaluftee Visitor Center you will get your fill of wildlife pictures and will still want more. It’s addictive here. To me, photographing wildlife in the Great Smoky Mountains is on par with shooting them in the Olympic Mountains of Washington State (another place I love).
Let me know if you have experienced The Great Smokey Mountains! I’d love to hear about it. Until Next time!
More From Robert Wallace
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Cades Cove, Tennessee
Arctic Angles on the Dunes. How to Photograph Snowy Owl
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