Story and image by Don McGowan
Before the autumn escapes completely into winter and the light begins slowly to turn into spring, I want to speak about one of my favorite locations for fall color. In this place you will not find the perspective of a great vista; there are no waves of mountain ridges receding into the distance as far as one’s eye can see. No deepening valleys or broad coves will spread before you filled with the flora for which these fecund hills are justly famous. In fact, this place is not technically located within Great Smoky Mountains National Park, yet it is part of the park.
In 1944 the Congress of the United States authorized the construction of a national parkway to cross the foothills of the northern edges of the Great Smoky Mountains, the Tennessee side of the national park. In the west the route begins where the western edge of Chilhowee Mountain dips to meet the Little Tennessee River impoundment of Chilhowee Lake along US Highway 129. The opposing end of the road sits where the northern face of Green Mountain slopes to I-40 along the Pigeon River in Cocke County near the community of Hartford. Over the course of 76 years the eastern and western portions of the road were completed, while funding issues and conservationists’ resistance stalled the center portion between Wears Valley and Cosby. The entire project is under the management of the National Park Service as part of GSMNP.
In particular, it is the 5.6 mile stretch of the Eastern Foothills Parkway between Cosby and I-40 to which I would direct your attention, and more precisely, from the road summit of Green Mountain to its juncture with the interstate. Since moving to the “North Carolina side” in 2001, the most direct route for me to access the park in Tennessee has been by way of I-40 and Cosby via the Foothills Parkway. What I have learned in those years is that for sheer color the parkway’s trace offers unsurpassed opportunities for intimacy and creativity. The reds of dogwood (Cornus florida), black gum (Nyssa sylvatica), sourwood (Oxydendrum arboretum), and a surprising number of red maples (Acer rubrum) are common along the road, with the ever-present share of poplar (Liriodendron) and beech (Fagus) to add the majority yellows with which we are familiar.
Opportunities for experimenting with ideas like intentional camera movement (ICM), such as the image shared here, and multiple exposures are found at every turn. You don’t have to fight the crowds to find beautiful fall color in the Smokies—just head for the foothills.
Don McGowan owns and operates EarthSong Photography. For five years he was the staff photographer for Friends of the Smokies. He offers workshops and photography instruction in beautiful locations around the country, including the Smokies.