Nature Photography at Cades Cove, Tennesee: It’s a Love/Hate Thing

A doe stands alert in a Cades Cove pasture near Townsend, Tennesee. Mention the words “National Park” and the mind drifts to examples like Yellowstone, Yosemite and Glacier National Parks. But did you know that the Great Smoky Mountains National park hosts the greatest number of visitors of the 58 National Parks each year? With an area of 521,085.66 acres, roughly half in Tennesee and half in North Carolina, over 9 million people visit the GSMNP each year. While that’s an impressive number, consider that the Cades Cove portion of the park consists of a scant 11 mile scenic loop road yet attracts over 2 million visitors each year. That equates to a heck of a lot of passenger vehicles navigating the one-way loop through the lush mountain valley. It is the almost ever present traffic jams, affectionally known as “bear jams,” that brings the “hate” element to the equation. It can easily take two or three hours to make the 11 mile trip! Now add to the mix the level of rudeness and the lack of knowledge about properly viewing and approaching wildlife many of these visitors posess and you have a receipe for frustration. Fortunately most professional photographers have learned to tolerate it with class.

But what about the “love” part of the story? Simply put, the Cove is a magical place for anyone with a love of wildlife. There are few places where the odds of viewing Black Bear, Whitetail Deer, Wild Turkey, Wild Boar, Coyotes, Foxes, Racoons and other animals are so high. Combine that with the shear natural beauty of the valley and it’s no wonder so many nature photographers tolerate the huge crowds to visit Cades Cove.

During a recent trip to the Great Smoky Mountains I spent two nights camping at Cades Cove. I planned the trip so my stay would be during the week, choosing to avoid the weekend for obvious reasons, and after Labor day in hopes of enjoying a reduction in traffic. Of course off-setting the timing was the arrival of peak fall color in the park. True to it’s reputation, the Cove presented many wonderful photographic opportunities during my short stay. Below are a few of my favorites from the visit.


The Carter Shields log cabin reminds one of times past in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A small waterfall in the stream along Cades Cove Road creates a swirl of water.

A dead tree is framed by autumn foliage in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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