In late April I found myself alone atop the third highest mountain east of the Mississippi. It was 4am, and I had just gotten out of my car in the freezing parking lot at Clingman’s Dome. It had been about an hour and a half since my iPhone alarm had roused me from my toasty room in Cherokee, NC and I was having second thoughts.
So, why would I want to be there…and at THAT hour? Well, I had my heart set on photographing the Milky Way from the top of the mountain, but according to my Sky Safari app, it wouldn’t rise high enough above the horizon for a decent photo until 3:30am. I had just driven up from Florida the evening before and my 50+ year old body was cranky and sleep-deprived as I hiked up the path to the Observation Tower. About halfway up the trail, I stopped and looked up. My fatigue was instantly forgotten as I glimpsed the Milky Way with my bare eyes for the first time in nearly six months:
At the end of the short but steep trail, I reached the observation tower. The Milky Way was pretty high in the sky and I set up my tripod almost directly below the tower. From this perspective, the ramp seemed to lead all the way to the band of starts:
I used my headlamp to briefly illuminate the tower for a few seconds during the 30 second exposures. It took quite a bit of trial and error to avoid having one section overexposed and the other dark, but eventually I got the hang of it.
After a while, I moved further away from the tower which allowed the Milky Way to wind over the serpentine tower:
After about an hour and a half, I noticed that the Milky Way was starting to fade as dawn approached. That gave me just enough time to try something new. I had been reading about time-lapse photography and thought this would be a great venue to give it a first shot. So I set my Nikon up to automatically take a series of 30 second exposures…one after another. I started it up and sat back as the camera started snapping away. Well, I only had about ten minutes to spare before I had to hit the trail and since it takes 30 frames to make one second of a time-lapse, that means that I ended up with less than one second of actual ‘film.’ See the clip below if you have a free moment (literally) to spare:).
Did you miss it? Yup…that is what you call a short video! Not a terrible first effort…but it was clear that next time I would need to shoot for a few hours. Plus I would bring warmer gloves, a folding stool and a book so I could stick it out long enough to make a real video.
I hiked back to the Subaru and then joined the other photographers setting up for the sunrise on the edge of the parking lot. The lack of clouds eliminated any chance of a ‘National Geographic’ shot, but even an average dawn at Clingman’s is wonderful. There is nothing like the view of the dancing orange sky behind those blue mountain ridges receding off into infinity:
Well, as it turns out, there wasn’t another clear night the whole week I was there, so I didn’t get another shot at my time-lapse. But I’m not whining…I learned a lot and besides, now I have something to look forward to on my next trip to the Smokies!
Milky Way Tips for Photographers:
Check out my Milky Way how-to Blog to learn about the basics for this type of photography
Specific Tips for Milky Way Photography at Clingman’s Dome:
- Most photographers set up right on the edge of the parking lot at the top of Clingman’s. It is a good location facing south with unobstructed views stretching from east to west. But, there is quite a bit of light pollution on the horizon with nothing to block it out. Sometimes that can work to your advantage like it did for me in the shot shown to the right:
- The trail to the Observation Tower can work out well. Keep looking over your shoulder as you walk up the trail and look for views in which the Milky Way is framed by the trees (like the first shot shown in this blog).
- Shots that include the Observation Tower are my personal favorite. The design is so “Jetsons” and futuristic that it just cries out to be silhouetted against the cosmos in a Milky Way shot.
- The paved trail from the parking lot is only a half mile but it isn’t lighted and it is steep…plus you will be carrying a tripod and the rest of your equipment. Give yourself at least a half hour.
- Also, if you aren’t used to the lack of oxygen at 6643′, you might find yourself out of breath. I’m from Florida and our highest point is only 345′, and trust me, there is a difference!
- Dress warm. It is often 20 degrees cooler at Clingman’s than it is in Gatlinburg or Cherokee.
- Dress dry. I swear that I get wet at least half the time I’m on Clingman’s even if the rest of the park is dry. That might be a slight exaggeration, but pack your rain gear for you and your equipment.
- Like any isolated spot, you should consider your safety at Clingman’s, especially if you are there for a night shoot. I’ve never personally had a bit of trouble but leaving valuables in plain sight in your car would be tempting fate.
- Yes, there are bears in the Smokies, lots of them, but unless you try to kidnap a cub from it’s mother or have a pork chop hanging around your neck, you should be fine.
- Time of year
- Spring thru Fall is the best time of the year to observe the Milky Way in the Smokies. However, it is most visible during the summer. Also, it isn’t visible early in the evening during the spring but by late fall you can see it right after sunset. Use the internet or a smartphone app so you know exactly when it will rise…that way you can plan when you should be at Clingman’s.
- The Milky Way also shifts where it appears in the sky during the course of the year. During the spring it appears more in the southeastern sky but by the fall it will shift to the southwest. Again, apps like Sky Safari will let you know where to expect it.
Enjoy your Milky Way Photography at Clingman’s and best of luck!