Last month’s visit to Mt LeConte was my first hike on the Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountains. It had also been a long time since previously experiencing Southern Appalachia at 5,000 ft. above sea level. This post includes notable scenery from the Alum Cave Trail.
In the last mile or so of our hike to Mt LeConte Lodge, we reached an elevation of 6,000 ft. This is about the time we started noticing the Mountain Ash trees, which were full of large clusters of reddish orange berries. Veterans I was hiking with mentioned it was rare to see the Ash berries so profusely displayed. We also began side-stepping ash berry laden bear scat on the trail. The ash berries appeared to be quite the bear treat. I heard later local mountaineers will gather ash berries, sweetened just after the first frost, to make pie filling.
After dinner Friday evening, I hiked up to the Cliff Top area to stakeout a spot to capture the pending sunset. In addition to the polarizer I used for the Alum Cave shots, this was the next opportunity for me to try my new 150mm hard graduated ND filter. I was hoping for a little more cloud drama, but was pleased with how the filter brought the sky portion down 3 stops to closer match the landscape.
Saturday morning I hiked up to Myrtle Point to catch the sun rise. I hit a soft spot on the outward edge of the trail and immediately dropped about 4.5 ft., landing on the ball of my right foot, facing the trail. Luckily, I didn’t break my foot or damage my camera. After breakfast though, it was a long and painful hike back down the mountain; 2,500 ft. over 5.5 miles! The last two miles were relatively flat, but also the most difficult; my foot and knees were about worn-out. Along this stretch, I did stop to rest, and capture a very interesting root structure just above the Styx Branch creek bed.
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The greatest anticipation about my visit to Mt LeConte was capturing starscape compositions of the Milky Way. And so, that evening, after hiking up to Cliff Top to catch the sunset, I joined two other photographers along with my friend Rick. We all eagerly awaited for the sky to darken and the stars to reveal themselves. The sky was clear and there is little to no light pollution in the Smoky Mountains. One of the other photographers had a tracking app, which showed the Milk Way to arrive in the southwest and run overhead to the east.
After about an hour and a half after sunset, we were ready. I took several test exposures between 20 & 25 seconds, at f2.8 (on my new Tamron super-wide) and an ISO setting of 2400. Zooming in on my test exposures, I could definitely see star trailing, were the starts become elongated from the earth’s rotation. I ended up with shorter exposures between 10 and 15 seconds at ISO 2400. In post-production, I lightly darkened and bumped the contrast around the horizon in the first composition. I also processed both images to emulate Ektachrome slide film; this added a little saturation and contrast punch.
Last weekend some friends and I hiked up the Alum Cave Trail to the scenic Mt LeConte Lodge in the Tennessee Smoky Mountains. Compared to extreme mountain expeditions such as Mt Rainer, the Mt LeConte trip may not qualify as an expedition. However, the 2,56o ft. climb over 5.5 miles is quite strenuous. Especially for an occasionally backpacker in his mid-50s with 12 lbs of camera gear! My first post in this series is from the approximate halfway point – Alum Cave.
The cave is actually a large rock bluff or overhang. The area was the site of a salt deposits mine in the 1830s and was depleted and abandoned by the mid 1840s. Minerals from the mine included alum, Epson salt, saltpeter, magnesia and copperas. During the Civil War, the Confederates mined saltpeter here, a key component of gun powder. I’ve included a color photo further below to illustrate the scale of Alum Cave.
This hike was the first field use of my new Tamron 15 – 30mm lens, Naida filter holder and 150 polarizer filter. I was very pleased with the lens, but need more experience using the filters. Because of the bulbous front element on the Tamron, a large filter holder adaptor system is required. In my next several posts, I’ll include more scenes from the trail and also my first starscape/milky way composition.
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