When night falls in the Smokies, the National Park seems to empty. The people vanish, the cars vanish and most of the animals seem to disappear. There are few times that the drive from Gatlinburg to Cherokee is a lonesome drive but after the sun goes down you can find yourself going for half an hour at a time without seeing a car. The thought is that since the sun has set, there is nothing to see in the Smokies. Nothing could be further from the truth. Stargazing in the Smokies is a wonderful way to spend an evening of your Smoky Mountain vacation.
After sunset a whole vista of celestial ‘wildlife’ pops out. Stars that you never knew existed hangout among familiar constellations. Extra stars seem to accessorize Orion’s belt. Ursa Major and Ursa Minor seem to fill out more and you can see why ancient people may have named them what they named them, instead of looking like a dipper it might actually resemble a bear. Our view of the sky, usually inhibited by city lights, is opened up as you leave the vestiges of civilization and climb higher into the mountain. Newfound Gap Trailhead, the parking area for one of the most hiked portions of the Appalachian Trail, is one of the best places to stargaze in the Smokies.
Due to the fact that there are no street lights at Newfound Gap Trailhead, there are no cities close enough to see and the fact that at night most of the cars in the parking lot are left by overnight hikers. This leaves the parking lot vacant and the passing cars don’t add enough light to affect your night vision. Once you get to the parking area, go to the furthest end of the parking lot, turn off all the lights in your car and wait for your eyes to adjust. Once your eyes are used to the dark you will start to see some amazing sights in the night sky. Remember that you are above 6,000 feet in this parking lot, so you may want to bring a coat in the spring or fall because it ill be cooler then it is in the valley areas. If it is 60 in Pigeon Forge, it will be at least 10 degrees cooler on the mountain.
Another thing to keep in mind is the moon. If the stars are brighter in the Smokies, then the moon is ten times brighter. A full moon on top of the mountain is a glorious thing to behold but if your planning on seeing stars keep the phase of the moon in mind. The perfect time to view stars by the millions is during the new moon. With the moon out of the way, you will have an unobstructed view of the stars and your stargazing trip to the Smokies will be complete. If you want to see an amazing moonrise, then get to the summit early during a full moon and it will bright enough to read by.
Because of the lack of lights on the mountain it is possible to take pictures of this starry expanse. You will need to turn the flash off on your camera and you will have to use fairly long exposures. Long exposures (one and half to two minutes minimum) will produce star lines on the exposure. The Earth’s constant movement in relation to the unmovable positions of the stars causes the star lines. This is what you want. Lots of light into the camera and giving the camera enough time to absorb the light you are letting it will make the outline of the trees hazy and the stars will be small streaks in the sky. You’ll need to use a tripod to eliminate movement of the camera.
If you are looking for an after-hours opportunity for your family to enjoy something they may not get to see anywhere else, get out of the cabin or hotel room, pack up the cool weather gear and head to the top of the Smokies, or a place like Cades Cove. Put a sleeping bag on the hood of your car, lean back and enjoy the view. Instead of looking at the gorgeous mountains below the heavens, turn your eyes upward and look at the stars.