And the sky was ablaze with light…

Last night almost didn’t happen. The park was pretty crazy yesterday. I’m pretty sure I’m not allowed to discuss the radio chatter I hear in my NPS vehicle, so let’s just say everyone in the world was in the park yesterday and everything possible went wrong. That’s an exaggeration, of course. In fact, considering the situation yesterday, park staff did an amazing job keeping up with everything.

I know I’ve probably mentioned this before, but Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited park in the country, with 9-10 million visitors each year. Now, considering some of the absolute best views are during a 2-3 week window in October, a very decent chunk of that 9-10 million descends upon the Smokies in a very short period of time, hoping to see some of the wonderful fall foliage in peak color.

The road to Clingmans Dome (the highest point in the park) isn’t all that long. Less than thirty miles, I think. But when you consider that it’s all mountain roads (with some very creative routing through, around, over, and in between mountains), it takes almost an hour to travel those thirty miles. That is, unless everyone and their grandmas (literally, old people can’t get enough of the fall colors) is also heading up and down the mountains.

You can imagine how much that would increase my drive up, I think it ended up being just under two hours. But that wasn’t nearly the worst of it. You see, as I drove up to Clingmans to hopefully catch sunset, I encountered the greatest and most astonishing traffic… “phenomena” that I had ever seen. Thanks to the combination of heavily increased visitation and the difficulty of mountains roads (what I’m getting at is that most visitors become absolutely terrible drivers as soon as they enter park boundaries), there was a line of cars literally bumper to bumper, waiting to get down the mountain and out of the park, for the first twenty miles of my drive.

I couldn’t believe it. Every time I rounded a corner, crested a hilltop, or emerged through a tunnel, I expected the line of vehicles to be over… but it wasn’t. Now, the first thought a person has in my situation is obviously, “Wow, that really blows for them,” but there is an even more important thought that took awhile to hit me. “Wait. If I keep going up, I eventually need to come down. That means… I’ll be in that line, too!”

So as I continued up the mountain, I was grappling with the option to surrender, turn around, and begin the long, long trip down sooner rather than later. I could only imagine how bad these drivers would be in the darkness of the mountains. I almost did it, about three or four times, but I had a feeling. It sounds completely cliché, but I had a feeling the sunset was going to be a good one. The sky was completely clear - which is actually bad, because a good sunset needs clouds, just like a good movie needs Bill Murray. Still, when I walked out of my apartment, I had a strong feeling. So I kept going.

And, boy, was it worth it. It was crowded at the top, but I found a good spot and was blessed to witness a wonderful show.

The sun looked marvelous as it descended towards the horizon, and it lit the mountains in a subtle way that you can really only see here in the Smokies. It’s even difficult to capture it on camera (but I’ve been trying my best!).

It’s amazing how quickly – and foolishly – that crowds clear out. As soon as the sun ducks out of sight, everyone seems to think the show is over. But if you’ve ever truly watched sunsets before, you know that that’s just when the show is about to begin.

And sure enough, it wasn’t long until the sky looked like it was on fire. The faint reds and yellows from several minutes before burst onto the clouds and painted them with most vibrant hues.

It’s easy to accuse someone of over saturating their sunset and sunrise photographs, and most of the time people do it as much as they can get away with. But these photos have truthfully seen very minimal editing, none of which altered the colors.

The sunset was really a blessing, and I was so happy I decided to make the drive all the way up. While I’ve had well over my fair share of beautiful sunsets and sunrises, the Smokies never cease to leave me in awe.

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The rest of the night was a completely spontaneous choice, but again, one that I was glad to have made.

Many of the photographers that come to Clingmans Dome of sunset have fairly large rigs. But I’ve only seen someone else with a professional camcorder once while I’ve been here. So I guess we’re a rare sight and immediately make visitors think we’re an even higher level of professional, because I had a strange amount of people come up to me on this particular day and ask me if Clingmans was a good place to watch the stars.

My answer, though not backed up with experience, was obviously yes. “It’s the highest point in the park,” I’d say to them, “and if the sky is clear, I can’t imagine a better place to see the stars.” “And the bears rarely bother anyone up here. In fact, they’re fairly small and don’t typically go after humans at all,” I added to one particular visitor who seemed worried about safety.

And as I was donning my (not)Ranger Mike personality as I spoke to all these people, I thought, “Wait, I actually haven’t spent a night watching the stars the entire time I’ve been here!” I was shocked, and honestly quite a bit disappointed in myself. So there was only one choice.

I went back to where I had parked, which was pretty far from the heavily trafficked area and got enough distance between me and any potential headlights, and just laid down on the ground.

Slowly, as if each was cautiously revealing itself for the first time, millions if not billions of stars began to populate the night. There were so many that in some instances it was difficult to discern between individuals and clusters. The Milky Way washed across the sky, from horizon to horizon. Shooting stars appeared in an instant, but seemed to hang for hours in my heightened state of perception. It had been far too long since the last time I gazed up at the sky, yet just like each time before, I was simultaneously overwhelmed and reassured by how minuscule I felt in the grand presence of the cosmos.

I still have a lot to learn about photographing the stars, and these certainly don’t do justice to what I saw. But I thought I’d share these anyway.