Back road tour: East Tennessee foothills

Stinging Fork Falls

This is just one of the gorgeous waterfalls found throughout the Smoky Mountains foothills of East Tennessee.
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Waterfalls, old barns everywhere

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most-visited national park in the United States, with more than 14 million people flocking to that amazing piece of the Appalachian range. And for good reason.

I'm one of those who can't get enough of the Smokies. Time there reminds me of my childhood, when I spent pretty much every summer vacation there.

However, I learned this week that we Smoky Mountain junkies who drive in from the Tennessee side of the park are passing up so many natural treasures when we pass through the foothills.

I had a few free days between East Tennessee Bassmaster events, and I was tempted to drive to the park. But forest fires around Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge and the fact that the spring bloom-out of trees had yet to happen combined to make me look around the foothills for likely photographic targets.

What I found was a natural wonderland filled with amazing beauty.

Old barns abound

I love old barns because they are such strong connections to our past. So I'm always on the lookout for these old farmsteads, and East Tennessee is absolutely filled with barns.

Many are still in use, which is always cool. It's awesome to see small family farms still operate, and many of these structures remain in pretty good shape.

Morning on the Farm

The rising sun casts golden light in the treetops over this old, working farm near Jefferson city, Tennessee.
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I passed the old farm above several times while working a Bassmaster Opens event at Lake Cherokee, and finally I just had to stop. I jumped out and set up as the rising sun threw golden light through the treetops above the two barns.

It was just a great example of family farms still being worked in the East Tennessee foothills.

But that was just one of the cool old barns. I even ran across one of the old "See Rock City" barns that once dotted the area as advertisement for the popular Rock City attraction on Lookout Mountain.

barn at the top of the Hill

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Old Rock City Barn

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Waterfalls, waterfalls and more waterfalls

What really amazed me about the Tennessee foothills was just how many waterfalls are tucked into the landscape. They are everywhere!

A quick search for "waterfalls near me" revealed a number of named falls from just north of Knoxville to just north of Chattanooga. My first waterfall of the trip, however, was an unnamed beauty along Flat Creek near the tiny hamlet of Chestnut Hill.

I had seen Blowing Cave Mill marked on the map when I left Dandridge, and was disappointed to find that it wasn't set up very well for a photograph. It's an 1880s grist mill, and it's definitely a cool old place. But I just couldn't figure out how to make a photo work because of it's positioning near the road.

So I drove on up the winding road and spotted a small cascade in the beautiful creek. I quickly pulled off the road, grabbed my gear and got to work. While it wasn't the tallest waterfall by any means, it had so much character. I titled the final print "Flat Creek Cascade," and I think it illustrates the beauty of even small falls.

Flat Creek Cascade

The Tennessee foothills are absolutely filled with beautiful waterfalls, big and small.
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I went on to photograph three more waterfalls that day: two at Lily Bluff in the gorgeous Obed Wild and Scenic River gorge, and Middle Fork Falls right off the Nashville Highway.

The following morning I drove to the grand dame of Tennessee foothills waterfalls: the 110-foot-tall Ozone Falls.

This gorgeous waterfall is formed by Flat Creek (not sure if it's the same creek as my first waterfall of the trip) as its water slips over the towering bluff to form a turquoise pool below. Even better, I found a tree with spidering roots that looked as if they were reaching out for the waters below the falls.

The final photo, "Reaching for Ozone Falls," is stunningly beautiful.

Reaching for Ozone Falls

The roots of a tree seem to be reaching out to the turquoise waters below Tennessee's Ozone Falls.
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I wrapped up my tour of the back roads of the Tennessee foothills by hiking in to Stinging Fork Falls, a 30-foot-tall Stinging Fork Falls. I saw photos on Google, but nothing prepared me for the beauty of the setting.

The hike was, for the most part easy, but then the trail descended deep into the chasm formed by Little Soak Creek. This oasis is truly a natural treasure!

There are actually two waterfalls at the end of the trail. The first is just above Stinging Fork Falls and is, as far as I can tell unnamed. But it's beautiful nonetheless, and I took time to put on my boot spikes and carefully work on the 45-degree bluff to photograph the creek sweeping around a corner before descending down the waterfall.

I then eased farther down the creek to see the main attraction β€” and I was blown away!

Stinging Fork Falls cascades over the ledge to create a fanned veil of water that dumps into the pool below. I set up just below the pool to show the rocky rapids as Little Soak Creek exits the basin, also including a tree and some deadfalls that lead the eye straight to the base of the cascade.

The final print (seen at the top of this blog) is actually my favorite photo from the trip!

A little known Tennessee Landmark

I even tripped across a little-known East Tennesee landmark: the old Harrisburg covered bridge.

This was an unexpected bonus to my drive through the foothills of the Smokies. I found it only because I saw a little sign on the side of Highway 339 as I entered Sevierville.

I immediately turned off to see the bridge, that was constructed in 1875 and restored in 1972.

The architecture of these old bridges is amazing. In fact, the Harrisburg bridge is so sturdy that it continues to allow cars to pass over the Little Pigeon River's East Fork. I shot the image below as cars clattered over the old structure!

Harrisburg Covered Bridge

The Harrisburg Covered Bridge was an unexpected bonus as I toured the East Tennessee foothills.

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Tennessee's hidden eden

I thought my tour of the foothills was over, as I had another Bassmaster tournament starting. That meant my Wednesday morning would be taken up working with anglers β€” and I really planned on just chilling out that afternoon in preparation for four days on the water.

However, after turning in my final fishing-related photo, I didn't want to lay around a hotel room. So I pulled out my phone, opened Google Maps and saw a little green blob just out of Dayton, where I was staying.

Zooming in revealed the area was known as Laurel-Snow State Natural Area. Never heard of it, but I quickly learned there were a couple of waterfalls on the property. They were located more than 2 miles from the trailhead, but I figured I could use a nice walk so I turned the truck down the road and was soon shouldering my backpack of camera gear.

I told myself I had to ignore everything to get to the falls, and I set out at a brisk pace. I was determined not to let anything stop me from reaching at least Laurel Falls, 2.5 miles away.

The problem with that plan was that Richland Creek was roaring just to my left β€” and it was stunningly beautiful. The creek (really more a river, but whatever) tumbled through massive boulders to create rapids and small waterfalls.

But I kept my focus.

And then I couldn't stand it anymore.

Into Eden

This idyllic scene along Laurel-Snow State Natural Area's Richland Creek turned out to be my favorite photo of my recent tour of East Tennessee's foothills.
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The banks of Richland Creek are steep, rocky and slick with water and lichen, so I slipped on my boot spikes and carefully picked my way down to the edge of the creek. I kept thinking that I must have walked into the biblical Eden. It was just that beautiful.

The photo above, which I titled "Into Eden," wasn't my first composition, but it's the best. And it turned out to be my absolute favorite print of my time in the foothills.

I saw the calm, turquoise pool from the trail above, and thought it was perfect. A fog hung in the trees to create dramatic lighting farther up the creek, and the rocky banks provided the perfect framing for the pool itself.

I set up and knew I wanted to use a long exposure to ensure the pool's surface was completely smooth. My first step was to tamp down the exposure in the background, where the creek swept into the frame. The light through the fog was a good bit brighter than at the pool, so I slipped a Lee Filters .6 soft grad neutral density filter behind my polarizer, positioning the ND filter so it just darkened that rapid seen in the far background.

I took a photo with that setup, just to ensure I had a good exposure in the background β€” and to provide a sharp frame of the trees, which were moving slightly in the breeze produced by the rushing water.

Next, I added a Little Stopper filter, which is a solid 6-stop neutral density filter. That cut the light significantly and allowed me to keep the shutter open for 1 minute. That smoothed the water out perfectly, but there were some bubbles moving slightly in the bottom right area of the pool and I didn't like the way the slow shutter created lines in that part of the frame.

So I switched my solid ND filter to a Big Stopper, which added another 4 stops to the exposure. The conversion app showed I would have to keep the shutter open for 16 minutes β€” and I'm not nearly that patient. So I upped my ISO until I reached an 8-minute exposure.

Still a long time, but much better than 16 minutes.

I opened the shutter, and then I stood waiting impatiently.

When the shutter closed and the camera completed the noise reduction (which took another 8 minutes), I could only smile when the preview image popped onto the screen.

Yeah, it was much better than hanging around a hotel room.

I never made it to the waterfalls, but that's OK. I have a good reason to return to Laurel-Snow. And I'll enjoy every minute of my time there.