RV Livin' #19: Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Blue Ridge Parkways

November 05, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Lower_Falls_Fall_BRP_2016_2Lower_Falls_Fall_BRP_2016_2Lower Falls or Second Falls flows down through the vibrantly colored trees in Graveyard Fields along the Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina I took an unexpected trip back east to follow fall colors. Unfortunately this year turned out to be late on colors and the dry late summer caused the leaves to be very brown but it was still an amazing time and something that was on my Year in an RV List.

And when I found out that there are elk in Great Smoky Mountains National Park I was extra excited. This was going to be a nice change of scenery for a Rocky Mountain favorite. Elk_GSMNP_2016_45Elk_GSMNP_2016_45Two bull ek (Cervus elaphus) spar in Oconaluftee Valley in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina

I had never been to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It would be park #41 on my list of parks I have visited and what better time of year than peak fall color. 

Because of the size of the campgrounds - or what we thought would be limiting - we brought the smaller trailer rather than the class A RV. The campgrounds certainly could have handled the larger RV but the tunnels on the Blue Ridge Parkway may have been a different story. 

Turkey_GSMNP_2016_1Turkey_GSMNP_2016_1A wild turkey tom (Meleagris gallopavo) stands in the afternoon sun in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee The trip started off in Cades Cove. My research showed this to be an excellent place to see black bears, turkeys and white-tailed deer. What I had not anticipated were the crowds. I knew Great Smoky Mountains N.P. is the most visited park in the country - they topped 11 million visitors in 2015 and expect to have more this year - but I was not prepared for the lines of people through Cades Cove. The road into the cove opens at sunrise but the people line up as much as an hour earlier. Thankfully the exit from the campground dumps right into the line and I could get there about 30 minutes before sunrise and still be about tenth in line - a helpful tip if you plan a visit. 

The traffic moved slowly once the gate opened and because the gate doesn't open until sunrise, getting to one of the good landscape spots before the harsh light hits was next to impossible.  Mabry_Mill_BRP_2016_3Mabry_Mill_BRP_2016_3Morning light illuminates the trees in fall color around Mabry Mill along the Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia

But I was here for white-tailed deer and bears. 

Although I don't feel like I walked away with any super fantastic shots of either from Cades Cove, I still enjoyed the visit. It was difficult to photograph deer with 20 photographers chasing and surrounding them. It made me appreciate the patience photographers have in Colorado to work together for shots. And although I saw a few bears, most were busy enjoying the acorns in the mountains. 

Looking_Glass_Falls_BRP_2016_1Looking_Glass_Falls_BRP_2016_1Looking Glass Falls cascades down a rock just off of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Transylvania County, North Carolina Next we headed off to various destinations on the Blue Ridge Parkway. This too was a new place for me and it held up to all of the stories about its beauty in the fall. I photographed Mabry Mill, Linn Cove Viaduct, Looking Glass Falls, and many other iconic locations. This area actually has some of the highest concentrations of waterfalls in the country, most easily accessible from the road and all surrounded by beautiful fall colors. 

I even found a few chipmunks to photograph. They were busy gathering those plentiful acorns and storing them away for winter. And on our last night on the parkway we had an unexpected and rare animal cross our path - an eastern spotted skunk.  Chipmunk_BRP_2016_2Chipmunk_BRP_2016_2A chipmunk cleans her paws on a sunny morning along the Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina

If you have followed this blog for a while you know the skunk continues to be one of the animals I have never photographed. I have seen them numerous times in various places but have yet to capture them with my camera - mostly because they are almost exclusively nocturnal, and if they are out during the day, you don't see them long. Those short little legs are surprisingly quick. I managed a few photos under the illumination of the truck lights at a high ISO so I still don't have a great photo - but baby steps right? Elk_GSMNP_2016_16Elk_GSMNP_2016_16A bull elk (Cervus elaphus) walks through a farm field in Oconaluftee Valley on a foggy morning in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina

That little encounter made me miss photographing wildlife even more so after two weeks of working the landscape on the parkway, we headed back to Great Smoky Mountains National Park to find the elk. 

The fog, elk and beautiful landscape in fall colors made me happy but somber at the same time. Reality was setting in that this was going to be the last big trip and my last new destination for my year in an RV. 

But I put that aside for a few days as I focused on photographing the elk in Cattaloochee and Oconaluftee Valleys.  Red_squirrel_GSMNP_2016_1Red_squirrel_GSMNP_2016_1A red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) sits on a rock and looks forward along the Oconaluftee River in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina

It has taken me several weeks to correctly spell the names of those valleys. I have yet to be able to master the pronunciation of the second valley. 

These elk were introduced to the valley about 15 years ago. The elk native to the Smoky Mountains have been extinct since the 1700s and the new elk were brought in from Canada, is what I was told by a volunteer. They have also done pretty well and now number about 200 in the eastern Smokeys.  Simms_Pond_BRP_2016_1Simms_Pond_BRP_2016_1An incoming storm puts clouds in the sky over Simms Pond surrounded by fall color along the Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina

I also found several small mammals to photograph. Unexpectedly I seem to have developed a fascination for photographing the wide variety of squirrels I have seen on my travels. I grew up in New Jersey where eastern gray squirrels were abundant but I found I missed them once I moved to Colorado where we have a couple of different varieties. As one photographer told me, a great photo of a common animal is better than a bad photo of an uncommon animal. So I added shots of red squirrels and gray squirrels to my inventory while out east. I also found a cooperative woodchuck, another animal we don't have in Colorado, although we have their silly cousin the yellow-bellied marmot. 

But the calendar kept ticking away and it was time to leave this beautiful area. I have just a few weeks left to visit friends and family in New Jersey before heading back across the country for the last time on this adventure. There will be more adventures - I just don't yet know what they will look like.  Woodchuck_GSMNP_2016_1Woodchuck_GSMNP_2016_1A woodchuck (Marmota monax) sits in a grassy field in Oconaluftee Valley in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina


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