Best fall leaf viewing spots in the Smokies

ASHEVILLE - If a lifetime love affair could be adequately expressed, it would include endless fascination and respect, thousands of miles by air, by car and by foot, and a package of notes and photographs delivered directly from the heart (and seven years of exhaustive research).

Such is the affection Tim Barnwell has for the Smokies, wrapped up in his visually delicious book, “Great Smoky Mountains Vistas: A Guide with Mountain Peak Identifications, for What to See and Do In and Around the National Park.”

An Asheville photographer and author, Barnwell has just released the book in time for the centennial of the National Park Service, and serving as a companion to his “Blue Ridge Parkway Vistas,” released in 2014.

The timing is also perfect for the rush of fall leaf-peepers, already flooding the Smokies, the most visited national park, with 10.7 million visitors last year.

Great Smoky Mountains Association staff member Steve Kemp said with foliage color hunters comes the flood of questions. The most common, Kemp said, are where to go and what to do, and “What mountain is that?”

Just in time, Kemp said, he has a handy “cheat sheet,” which is actually 168 pages long.

The two books, painstakingly researched over several years, Barnwell answers the questions from visitors – and locals – in stunning photographs taken from key overlooks as well as from the air, especially, “What mountain is that?”

“It’s something we’ve needed for a long, long time here,” said Kemp, interpretive products and services director for the association, which runs nine bookstores in and near the park.

“People are always asking about the mountains, and Tim is the first one to accurately identify them,” Kemp said. “It’s much more difficult than anyone can imagine. It’s a tremendously valuable asset for the wayside exhibits. It’s nearly impossible to identify distant landmarks and ridges accurately.”

But Barnwell, who grew up in Bryson City, in the shadow of the half-million acre Great Smoky Mountains National Park straddling the North Carolina-Tennessee border, was up for the challenge.

He spent a childhood camping in the park, and spent his honeymoon camping in Cades Cove, where he and wife Kathryn return each anniversary.

The park has deep meaning for Barnwell, and he wanted to return the favor.

In writing the book, he used a laborious research system involving many photographs of the same vista, compass readings, GPS and computer topographic software.

“I was able to take maps and experiences from the Blue Ridge Parkway book, take photos and mark what I knew what was there from experience, and used computer topographic maps. I had a method, but it was a huge amount of views,” Barnwell said.

“It was one of the most difficult tasks I have ever undertaken.”

He took the core component of the “Parkway Vistas” book – mountain peak identification, but “wanted to make it different. I took Clingmans Dome (the highest point in the park at 6,643 feet) as center and then did quadrants – southeast, northeast, northwest and southwest,” Barnwell said.

In the Smokies book, he identifies peaks and landmarks from places within the park, such as Newfound Gap Road/U.S. 441, Cataloochee, and Clingmans Dome, from the ground and the air, but also identified places in the Smokies from outside the park, such as the Blue Ridge Parkway, Max Patch in Madison County, and the Foothills Parkway in Tennessee, that have views into the Smokies.

Barnwell also includes history, tips for photography and safe driving, places to camp and picnic, waterfalls and old homesteads, and other places of interest and things to do in the Smokies.

“When talking to my mother about the Smokies book project she reminded me that she and my father had taken my sister and me, when we were young, to many of the same places I was writing about - Smokemont, Cades Cove, Newfound Gap, Clingmans Dome, Deep Creek," Barnwell said.

"While I remember the experiences, I had not realized the locations. So I have been going to the Smokies my whole life and, as an adult have been taking my own family to those same places. My mother said, ‘you’ve been camping and picnicking in the Smokies since you were a baby,’” Barnwell said.

Best spots for fall viewing

“No matter when you go in October, you can travel Newfound Gap Road, which crosses the park for 34 miles from Gatlinburg, Tennessee, to Cherokee,” Barnwell said.

It ranges from 1,985 feet elevation in Cherokee to the 6,643-foot Clingmans Dome, the highest point in the park, and on the Appalachian Trail, which crosses Newfound Gap at 5,046 feet elevation.

The highest elevations will have fall colors now, and the color will dribble down the mountainsides as October progresses. Mid-October is peak color, he said.

Even at Clingmans Dome, dominated by coniferous evergreens, Barnwell said it’s a great viewing point.

“You get a nice mix looking out at the mountains – the contrast of the evergreen with the bright colors of deciduous trees – it’s a really neat landscape,” he said.

He suggests driving Newfound Gap Road and cutting out the spur road that leads to Clingmans Dome for a drive of constant color. Or get out of the car at Newfound Gap (Milepost 14.7 on Newfound Gap Road), hop on the Appalachian Trail on the North Carolina-Tennessee line and hike along the ridgelines.

“In exploring the park while writing the book I found a few areas, like Greenbrier Cove between Gatlinburg and Cosby, that I don’t remember ever going to. When discussing these, and other of my favorite spots with well-traveled friends who love the Smokies, I realized many of them had only visited a few of the more popular attractions, and were thrilled to get some ideas about new places to explore," Barnwell said. "This guidebook allows me to share my lifetime of exploration and discoveries, in and around the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with others in hopes it will inspire them to visit these areas and create memorable experiences."

Following are some of his picks from “Smoky Mountains Vistas” for enjoying a color-draped outing this fall:

Smokemont Campground. Barnwell calls this his favorite place. The campground is on Newfound Gap Road (Milepost 27.2 coming from Gatlinburg, or Milepost 4.4 coming from Cherokee) on the North Carolina side. There are hiking trails that start from the campground. It was the site of a former logging community with school, church, store and lodging. Some remnants of the town can be found in the woods.

Greenbrier Cove. A secluded and less visited area of the park, accessed on the northern boundary from Highway 321, about 6 miles east of Gatlinburg. There is a 3.9-mile drive through the woods along the Little Pigeon River. There is a strenuous, 8-mile trail to the 100-foot Ramsey Cascades waterfall.

Cataloochee. “When I was growing up, nobody went there,” Barnwell said, “until the elk, now it’s a really popular destination, a really beautiful area to go in and explore.” Elk were reintroduced in the Cataloochee Valley, after being exterminated through over-hunting centuries before. From Asheville, take I-40 West to Exit 20 onto Jonathan Creek Road/U.S. 276. After 0.2 miles, turn onto Cove Creek Road and go 1.2 miles. Stay right at the Smoky Mountains Park sign. Stay right. After 5 miles the road turns to gravel. The road is steep and narrow. Watch for elk in the valley and hiking trails.

Bryson City. This Smokies gateway town in Swain County (where Barnwell was born) is a perfect jumping off point to the national park. Catch a leaf-peeping tour on the Great Smoky Mountains Railroad, visit shops and restaurants. Drive north 3 miles to Deep Creek in the Smokies, where there is a campground, picnic area, ranger station and three waterfalls – Juney Whank, Toms Branch and Indian Creek falls – all through the brightly colored woods and along the creek.

Max Patch. One of the best places to view fall colors in the Smokies is from outside the park, at Max Patch. Looking west from the mountain bald you can see such Smokies landmarks (on a clear day) as Mount Sterling, 11 miles away, Mount Guyot, 18 miles in the distance, and Mount Cammerer, 12 miles away. The 360-degree panoramic view is depicted in a six-page spread, with all the visible peaks pointed out.

Meet the author:

1-5 p.m. Oct. 21 and 22. Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Sponsored by Great Smoky Mountains Association. Oconaluftee Visitor Center near Cherokee on Oct. 21 and Sugarlands Visitor Center near Gatlinburg, Tennessee on Oct. 22.  Book signings for Great Smoky Mountains Vistas and Blue Ridge Parkway Vistas books.

3 p.m. Oct. 23. Book signing at Malaprops Bookstore, 54 Haywood St. in downtown Asheville. Free and open to the public.

Copyright 2016 WCNC


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