A beautiful sunset from the Chimney Tops in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.
A beautiful sunset from the Chimney Tops in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

Recently I planned a shoot in the Smoky Mountains at that North Carolina / Tennessee boarder with a fellow photographer.  Our plan was to meet up for a sunset shoot and then go have a beer to catch up on things. When an issue arose for him, a destructive puppy at his home, he had to cancel. This gave me a great opportunity to scrap the 3 hour trip and hang out for the afternoon watching sports. I decided I would check the weather radar to see what the afternoon would hold. This is when I was given my second opportunity to call off the excursion as a thin line of heavy storms was heading toward the Smokies. Now any photographer worth his salt knows that a stormy day has a better chance of producing good images than a blue bird sky, but the thought of hiking straight up a mountain in a thunderstorm in hopes of getting a good shot is not number one on my list of things to do.  This was compounded by the fact that there was no way of knowing if the storms would clear before sunset to give even an opportunity of some light sneaking through.  I decided to bypass opportunity number 2, grabbed my gear and headed for the car.

Two reintroduced elk flourish in the Smoky Mountains.
Two reintroduced elk flourish in the Smoky Mountains.

By the time I reached the Smokies, it was still relatively nice out as the storms had not arrived but were obviously fast approaching. I was lucky enough to happen upon a small herd of Elk which were recently re-introduced into the National Park.  I pulled over and got a couple of nice shots and checked my watch. Still 20 minutes of driving left, the rain hadn’t even started which lead me to believe it wouldn’t clear in time and to make matters worse, I would be running short on time to make the hour hike before sunset even occurred, if it visually occurred at all. With a few nice images in the bag, opportunity number three was very tempting. I decided to at least start the drive to the trail head to see if the line of storms was going to hit. After five minutes, I said to no one in particular, “if it doesn’t start raining very soon, it will never clear in time for sunset”.  Not 30 seconds later, the first drop hit my windshield and then the bottom dropped out…bad.

I continued past excuse number four to the trail head where normally there would be a large number of cars who had emptied out their children to play at the nearby stream or to brave the nearly vertical hike that awaits. This is the only time I have ever been at this location where there was not one car. I checked my watch and knowing I wouldn’t have a minute to spare, got out in the downpour and grabbed my gear and hit the trail. 15 minutes in, the first lightning bolt hit a nearby peak rattling the hillside. By this point the trip was becoming laughable and I was hell-bent to reach the top, with or without a sunset.

As I neared the top, the rain tapered off. The trail finishes with a difficult scramble up rock which was sure to be slick. Upon approaching the base of the outcrop, the clouds began to break and I realized there was only a matter of a couple of minutes for things to get interesting, and it did. When the light started to fire up the sky, I was only about two thirds of the way up the scramble and had to shoot from a nearly vertical perch. One leg of my tripod was fully collapsed with the other two fully extended. Not the safest place for a shoot, but still worth it.

As the sunset over the Smoky Mountains lit up the west with a bright sky, the east yielded a fabulous rainbow at the trail end of a passing storm.
As the sunset over the Smoky Mountains lit up the west with a bright sky, the east yielded a fabulous rainbow at the trail end of a passing storm.

After grabbing what I thought to be a great sunset, I looked over my shoulder in the opposite direction and was treated to a completely different hue and a spectacular rainbow. These may not be my best images, but the satisfaction gained by the effort it took to get them makes them some of my favorites.
People often ask how I get lucky enough to see these scenes in nature. Part of it is luck, but part of it is avoiding the many obstacles and excuses that would keep you at home taking the easy way. Next time you are thinking about taking a trip or making that four hour hike up a mountain by headlamp, don’t take the easy way out. Grab the opportunity to see something no one else will probably see. It won’t always work out, but when it does, it’s very gratifying.

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