One of my favorite days of our recent vacation to Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was the day we hiked the Trillium Gap Trail. Accessed via the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail, the Trillium Gap Trail is not a terribly long hike, or at least the part of it we enjoyed was not terribly long. Round-trip from the parking lot was about three miles. My best advice for anyone wishing to hike it in the summer, as we did, would be to start early. One of the guys we met on the trail started earlier than we did and he was rewarded by a black bear encounter as he was driving in. All we got was a rabbit. ;-) Another reason to start early, though, is that the later into the day you get, the more people are on the trail. The Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail is only a stone's throw from downtown Gatlinburg, and actually it's astonishing that there aren't more people on the trail than there are. But I think if you were to hit the trail around dawn you'd almost have it to yourself.
Most people hike this part of the trail for the payoff at the end - Grotto Falls, which is what you see in the image at the top of this post. Although the hike is uphill most of the way in, it's not a terribly steep hike. "Easy" is the word the guidebooks use, and as trails in the Smokies go, that's about right, I'd say. We were tired when we got back to the car at the end, but not anywhere near spent.
Even if there weren't a gorgeous waterfall waiting at the end of the trail, the hike in takes you through an old-growth hemlock forest that's worth seeing on its own.
While we weren't on the trail at daybreak (one sunrise outing for mi familia was enough on this trip), we were out early enough that the light was still pretty good all the way in.
The image above was taken fairly early into the hike as the sun streamed down through the forest canopy into the understory. I like backlighting for the way it helps highlight the texture in an image. This image, to me, has kind of a Forest Moon of Endor feel to it (you're welcome, Star Wars fans).
One of the things I loved about the walk in (and which I'm sure others hated) is the texture of the trail itself. There are a lot of exposed roots on the trail. This means it's best to wear sturdy footwear and watch where you're walking so as to avoid ankle-twisting missteps. But it also means that the trail is exceedingly interesting in places. You can catch a glimpse of the sticky-uppy roots in the image above, but a bit further up the trail, I found a spot where the trail was positively leprous with roots. Needless to say, we took a break there.
I set up the Iron Maiden (which is what I call my prehistoric Bogen Professional Tripod) low to the ground and used a wide angle lens to accentuate the roots and give the image an interesting foreground. This is the resulting image showing the roots as the veins of the forest.
At one point we noticed a cottontail rabbit sitting off to the left of the trail enjoying his breakfast. He was deep in the shadows and I was afraid to set up the Iron Maiden for fear of spooking him, so I took a few shots hand-held. To give me a usable shutter speed, I had to bump the ISO up to 800, which works okay on the D7100 I was using. After a few minutes, I could see that I wasn't really going to get anything exciting from the bunny so we moved on. After all, a bunny eating breakfast was not really what we came for.
Soon we arrived at Grotto Falls and I made a few photographs. The trail slithers behind the falls and continues on, and while this was as far in as we intended to go, I did make some images from both sides of the falls. I imagined I'd clearly like one perspective more than the other, but I like them both. I ended up with three favorites. My mostest favorite is at the top of the post. Here are my other two, one horizontal and one vertical:
We lingered a few more minutes, enjoying the falls and the cool air from the spray, then turned around and headed back out. On the way back, I stopped to make an image and realized I'd never reset the ISO from the bunny shot. Stupid, stupid, novice mistake. Honestly, I was mad. We'd come too far now to turn around and go back to the falls, and by now, there were a lot of people moving in and out behind the falls so someone could take their picture. No, what I had was all I was going to get.
What I discovered, though, to my utter and absolute delight, was that the D7100 handles noise even a bit better than my beloved D7000. I had to spend a bit more time in post-processing to deal with the little bit of noise there was, but I am very pleased with the final images.
I made a few more images on the way out, but none that I liked as well as what I've already shared. The sun was well up into the sky by now and the highlights were just too intense. So we just enjoyed the walk out and the quiet, which was absolutely enough. The trail had already given me enough for the day and I didn't really have a right to ask for more.
More to come . . . .