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A photographer's road trip guide to the North Carolina mountains

See the Western North Carolina mountains through the lens of a local photographer.

By: Mallory Fountain + Save to a List

I spend every free moment I can find capturing sunrises, sunsets and the night sky. Follow my road trip guide of the North Carolina mountains to see some of my favorite places through my camera lens.  

Sunrise - Waterrock Knob

Waterrock Knob isn't known as the place to be for sunrise, which is exactly why you should go! While the view to the East may be slightly obscured, often, the best direction to shoot is opposite of the sun.

Views aside, you are also much more likely to have this trail all to yourself if you put on your headlamp and venture up in the dark. Places like Waterrock are popular, but you can avoid the crowds and see these views with a morning glow many don't experience. 

Mid-morning - Oconaluftee Visitor Center

Want to see some wildlife? Pack breakfast and a zoom lens and head to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Often you can see an elk herd grazing in the field beside the center. Elk were reintroduced to the Smoky Mountains in 2001 and 2002 and are thriving.

However, elk and their admirers do not always get along. These creatures may seem docile but can become aggressive when they feel threatened. It may be tempting to get close or offer them some of your breakfast to get the best shot, but feeding park wildlife is illegal. It endangers park visitors and often leads to the animal being euthanized because it becomes habituated to human presence. Respect their space and keep your distance...that's what zoom lenses are for!

Afternoon - Set up camp at Black Balsam Knob

Jump back on the Blue Ridge Parkway and enjoy the hour-long drive to Black Balsam Knob. Give yourself enough time to get there and set up camp before sunset. Check the National Park Service website for road closures if you're adventuring in the off-season between November and April.

While this is the best time to visit places that can be overrun during the spring and summer, in certain severe circumstances, sections may be closed to all traffic – including hikers, bicyclists and skiers. It is important to observe all signs and information posted on the NPS website. I recommend searching for access points to the Mountains-to-Sea trail at lower elevations.

Sunset in Pisgah National Forest can be breathtaking, and you wouldn't want to miss it. If possible, camp on a weeknight during the off season. It's a popular place, but there are times you can find peace and solitude. And of course, one of those times is in the middle of the night.

After dark - Look up at the night sky

Light pollution is minimal at Black Balsam, and stargazing is a must once the sun has gone down! Camping on the bald is not always the best choice, as the wind can make for a cold, sleepless night. Luckily, the balsam trees below the summit offer perfect shelter in those less-than-perfect conditions and are only a short hike away. 

Campfires are allowed in Pisgah National Forest unless a fire restriction is in effect. If fires are allowed, use an existing fire ring (there are plenty in the area, even on the bald). Burn your fire completely to ash and extinguish every last spark with water before turning in for the night. 

Sunrise - Tennent Mountain

If you were lucky (or brave) enough to set up camp at the summit, wake up with the sun and start your day with a beautiful view.

I love taking my time in the morning to snap photos during golden hour, make my coffee and breathe in the fresh mountain air. It's also best to be awake and energized before packing up camp to ensure I don't leave anything behind. Pack out what you pack in and leave this place as good, if not better, than you found it by removing all trash and signs that you were there.

Mid-morning - Fryingpan Tower

One thing I know from spending so much time on the Blue Ridge Parkway is that the weather can be completely different from one elevation to the next. It can be a crisp, clear morning on Black Balsam, and then you can drive through the clouds and find yourself in the middle of an overcast day. Always be prepared for changing weather and varying temperatures!

The hike to Fryingpan Tower is short and sweet, but if you're afraid of heights, you should probably skip it, especially on a windy day. While deemed safe to climb, the tower can feel shaky, and the stairs are narrow. If you are up for the challenge, you will be rewarded with a unique view of the Blue Ridge mountains through the tower's frame.

Afternoon - The North Carolina Arboretum

After spending so much time in upper elevations, your North Carolina road trip will wind down the mountain to explore the NC Arboretum. With 10 miles of hiking trails and 65 acres of gardens, you can take as long or short of a walk as you want.

The gardens are beautiful no matter the season, and the hiking trails offer a place for a peaceful stroll through the woods. Be sure to also walk through the bonsai exhibit if it is open during your visit.   

Evening - Wedge Studios 

Two days exploring in the NC Mountains will work up a thirst, so the final stop on this road trip is Wedge Studios. Grab one of their infamous IPAs and a tasty dinner from the food truck parked out front. Depending on the day and truck schedule, I recommend a pizza from Smokee's or anything from The Scarlet Bee!

Sit back, rest your tired feet and enjoy! 

Learn more about Outdoor NC Leave No Trace guidelines to be a responsible traveler and outdoor recreator. Follow the photography-specific Leave No Trace recommendations here.

Head to Visit NC for more North Carolina road trip information and inspiration on where to eat, places to go, and things to do!

Follow along with Mallory's photography and adventures on Instagram.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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