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Backpacker Magazine – June 2011

National Parks: Great Smoky Mountains

For guaranteed solitude in the park's southwest reaches, explore this quiet loop during the off-season.

by: Charles Bethea

Crystal Clear Twenty Mile Creek (Photo by Brett Siminson)
Crystal Clear Twenty Mile Creek (Photo by Brett Siminson)
An illuminated firefly (Photo by Rick Lieder)
An illuminated firefly (Photo by Rick Lieder)

Adding a Smoky Mountain sunset to your shot list is a no-brainer. But, actually capturing the rose- and amber-colored rays that filter across the layered ridgelines can be tricky. If you expose for the darkening landscape, you’ll likely blow out the colors of the sunset, and if you meter for the sky, the rest of the scene may be underexposed. To nail the shot, keep these tips in mind.

» Use a wide-angle lens, like a 20-35mm zoom, to capture the hills in the foreground and the setting sun in the background.

» If possible, shoot RAW files. This format works the best with photo-editing software when you want to darken skies and open up shadows. Remember: It’s easier to recover details in the highlights (the sky) than the shadows (mountains), so overexpose by a stop or two to keep landscape detail.

» Don’t own Photoshop? Then attach a graduated neutral density filter to your lens (it darkens the exposure of the sky by a few stops) to properly expose for the sky and the landscape.

» Shoot at an aperture of f16 or higher to hold sharpness throughout the image.

Next step: Practice your sunset shots on these trails.

1. Follow the Appalachian Trail 3.6 miles north from Fontana Dam to Shuckstack fire tower, a 1930s lookout with views across the entire park. Trip ID 1077016

2. Climb two steep miles up Chimney Tops Trail, 10 miles south of Gatlinburg, to rocky outcrops overlooking Mt. Le Conte, Mt. Mingus, and Sugarland Mountain. Trip ID 1077065

3. It’s paved, but the half-mile trail to Clingmans Dome ends with 100-mile views (on clear days) from the highest point in the park and Tennessee. Trip ID 1077037

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