For photographers of all skill levels, the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the most beautiful and photogenic parks in the United States. Ridge upon ridge of natural beauty straddles the border between North Carolina and Tennessee and encompasses over 522,000 acres of forested wonderland.
You’ll find many stunning long-range mountain views, tranquil valleys and bubbling streams that make this park one of the best locations for Instagram worthy landscape photography.
Since moving to North Carolina recently, I’ve been able to find the best photo op spots for sunrise and sunset photography on the North Carolina side of the park, along with similarly great photo opportunities along Newfound Gap Road.
The locations are noted via odometer mileage distances from the Cherokee entrance of the park (US 441/Newfound Gap Road), using the Great Smoky Mountains entrance sign as a starting point.
The Best Instagrammable Photo Spots in NC
At 0.9 tenths of a mile, look to the right for the entrance to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center. There is a good chance you’ll see elk grazing in the large field during certain times of the day, typically around dusk and dawn. If you’re lucky, the elk will occasionally visit during mid to late afternoon as well.
At 1.6 miles, look for the left turn into Mingus Mill. There are some excellent photo opportunities here. Park near the bathroom building and pick up the short trail to the mill just to the right of the restrooms.
At 4.1 miles, turn right into the Smokemont area. If you have time, trails in the area will wind through very pretty terrain with streams, mountain laurel, rhododendron and other wild flowers. For those not hiking, park your car in the lot straight ahead from the right turn and tour the Smokemont Church. Spring and fall are great times to get photos of emerging and colorful foliage around the church and steeple.
At 7.9 miles, look for pull off parking along both sides of the road. Here you’ll find the trailhead for the Kephart Prong Trail, which starts out as a bridge over the Oconaluftee River. Capture a long view of the river from the bridge looking to the right. Or climb down the gentle embankment on the left side and photograph the bridge crossing the river.
US 441/Newfound Gap Road continues to climb to the higher elevations, where long-range views of mountain ridges are quite plentiful. Most of these overlooks and parking areas will be on the left side so stop and enjoy the views if you have time.
Long range views can be seen from the Webb Overlook at 13.4 miles. At the left end of the parking area, there are beautiful views of mountain ridges with a couple of distinct trees in the foreground.
The next two overlooks are at 14.0 and 14.2, both with equally beautiful views. The first overlook has space for just a couple of cars. Look for the walkway to the right that follows alongside the road and walk out to the end. This is one of the most photogenic spots in the park for long-range views. The next overlook is just a short distance away, has more parking, and offers the same view from a slightly different angle.
At 14.7 miles, this overlook has long-range views that are gorgeous in every season of the year. This is also the trailhead for the high elevation portion of the Deep Creek Trail with long-range views looking out to the left.
At 15.6 miles, you’ll arrive at the best spot for sunrise photos – Oconaluftee Valley Overlook. When you approach this overlook, a large parking lot is on the left, however the view will be to your right. There is plenty of parking here, but photographers will arrive long before daybreak to get prime spots for sunrise photography.
At 16.2 miles is the left turn onto Clingmans Dome Road. Follow the 7-mile-long road to the large parking area at the end. This is a great location for sunset photography, second only to Morton Overlook (see below). You don’t have to climb to the Clingmans Dome observation tower to get a great sunset photo since you can easily get marvelous views from the parking lot. The best vantage point will be at the farthest end of the parking lot where beautiful sunrise images can also be captured.
Bonus Instagrammable spot: Immediately after turning onto Clingmans Dome Road there will be a pull off large enough for a couple of cars. Park here and walk along the grassy shoulder for about 100 yards. Where the road becomes a bridge, walk down the hill for about 20 feet and you will come to the Hiker’s Tunnel. This is an old portion of the Appalachian Trail before it was rerouted some distance away. Photo ops of the tunnel can be taken from either side.
At 16.3 miles, not counting any of the miles on Clingmans Dome Road, make the right turn into the Newfound Gap parking area. This is usually crowded, especially during peak tourist season. Here you’ll find the NC/TN state line and see where the Appalachian Trail crosses. For the best photo opportunities, step to the furthest right side of the parking lot and look south along the ridges that define US 441/Newfound Gap Road.
Tennessee Side Photo Spots
At 17.1 miles, Morton Overlook is considered the best place in the park for sunset views. At certain times of year, the sun will align itself between the peaks as it goes down, including the month of May. Parking spots and prime viewing locations fill up fast so plan to arrive at least an hour ahead of time, especially on weekends or during peak tourist seasons. (See feature image for the sunset shot!)
If you continue north on Us 441/Newfound Gap Road, you’ll find the trailheads for Alum Cave and Chimney Tops, as well as several other low elevation overlooks as you approach the Gatlinburg, TN area.
Turn left on Little River Road to reach the Elkmont, Tremont, and Cades Cove areas. Or turn right in Gatlinburg and look for the Roaring Fork Nature Trail for beautiful streams and historic building photo ops. I’ll post more details about these particular spots in another blog post, so subscribe and be notified by email when new articles go live.
So Much To Do
This entire area of Western North Carolina offers a wealth of recreation and photo opportunities. For more information on many other things to see and do in Asheville, Maggie Valley, and surrounding areas in Tennessee, see these articles here.
For an excellent and detailed guide to the park, head to this guide to things to do in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Have you ever visited any of these spots? Or do you know of any other Instagrammable spots on the North Carolina side of the Park? Let us know in a comment below.
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