In my experience, it takes about three or four hours to make the drive. I'll stop at the overlooks and sit for a few minutes—enjoying the deep mountain view. The wind is invariably blowing and provides a respite from summer heat. My favorite time to travel the Cherohala Skyway is in Autumn since the colors are often spectacular.
I've shot images on the Skyway over the years with a Nikon D100, D70, D2x, D300, and for this year a D300s. I am going to add the additional dimension of video in 2010. Our Nikon cameras are giving us more ways to capture the beauty we find around us. Still and video on demand. I'm really enjoying it.
When shooting on the Cherohala Skyway, plan to have a tripod with you since it can be a bit windy. It might be good to bring some hooks so that you can hang your camera bag from the bottom of your tripod for extra stability. Learn how to use High Dynamic Range (HDR) techniques in order to capture the sometimes high contrast you'll find. Shady roads and bright skies, like the picture above, can be hard to capture without using advanced techniques like HDR, or by using a graduated neutral density filter. I am beginning to prefer HDR, since I bought the low-cost Photomatix Pro software for my computer. It makes the combination of HDR images much easier to accomplish.
It's always much more fun to have a companion or two with you on the Skyway. I often take photographer buddies with me. We'll set up our tripods and see who can take the best pictures. Later it's a lot of fun to compare the images and see who got that coveted masterpiece for their blog, album, or wall. The Cherohala Skyway is like a short version of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Instead of the hundreds of miles on the Blue Ridge Parkway, the 50 miles of the Cherohala Skyway is about a half-day's trip; when time is allowed for stopping at the most impressive overlooks. If you are on the parkway with a bunch of fanatical Nikonians—like I often am—you might even wring a full day out of it.
The only "problem" I can detect on the Skyway is that it ends in the middle of nowhere in North Carolina. To get back to civilization one has to either reverse course back down the Skyway, or travel toward Maryville Tennessee on a road called the Dragon. This road is highway 129 from Robbins NC to Maryville TN. The Dragon has an enormous number of deep curves that allow a biker to lay their cycle over on its side in a sweeping turn. For this reason the Skyway is frequented by sometimes hundreds of motorcyclists and sport's car drivers as they travel toward the twisty Dragon road at the end of the Skyway. Plan on allowing a couple of hours travel time into Maryville due to the heavy cycle, sport traffic, and endless curves of the Dragon.
When you're driving along the Dragon, there are now many pulloffs that allow you to get out of the way of the enthusiastic bikers as they lean into the curves with gusto. Please do let the bikes and sport's cars get by since many of them have traveled a long distance to get to the famous road and want to enjoy themselves. There have been many many accidents due to the disparity between the speed of the bikes and cars. Also, be prepared to have your picture taken as you drive along the Dragon. There are a number of websites that station photographers along the Dragon and take your picture as you drive by. They even photograph the family van on the move. You can then go to one of the websites and buy your photo as you drive along avoiding bikers.
I'm not one to complain often, but I do have one complaint I'd like to put in front of the "open-pipe" bikers of the world. Many cyclists use Cherohala Skyway to get to the Dragon. You can imagine how irritating it is when one is enjoying nature's beauty with one's family to have a group of extremely loud Harleys shaking the leaves off the trees. You can hear the bikes for several miles before they arrive, as they roar through the otherwise silent beauty of the mountains. I know that this is a touchy subject with many bikers, however, it is an equally touchy subject to people who enjoy the quiet beauty of nature. I'm afraid this is an unfortunate stand off. Were I a regular biker, I think I'd use a quiet motorcycle out of respect for the beautiful natural areas like Cherohala Skyway and the people who want to get away to a quiet place. Many bikers do drive quiet motorcycles! However, there are always a few who don't seem to care about others and proudly achieve decibel levels that are harmful to the hearing of humans and animals and make it difficult for non-bikers to enjoy their surroundings. Why?
But I digress...
When you are traveling the Skyway, you can pull off on the wide shoulders of the road and at overlooks for some really spectacular images. Bring large memory cards for your camera and prepare to come home with some of the most beautiful images you've ever taken. Also bring lots of food and gasoline, you'll not want to leave soon.
I've been shooting on the Cherohala Skyway for many years, and I never tire of it. My Nikon camera and I are often seen peering into the distance with a zoom lens. Speaking of lenses—in my experience I find that a short to medium telephoto zoom is what you'll most often use. If you are a prime lens user, you'll need a 24mm and 35mm lens for the majority of your images. If you want to isolate beautiful parts of the mountains scene, like the whitened dead trees in the image above, you'll need a longer lens. I used a Nikkor 200mm f/4 to get the shot just above.
Do a Google search on Cherohala Skyway and you'll find a plethora of maps and guides to the area. The Skyway is near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, with all the scenic wonder of the Smokies. If you see a white Jeep Wrangler parked alongside the road, and a few guys with Nikons and tripods, stop and say hello. I'm sure it'll be me and my Nikonian buddies. See you in the mountains!
Keep on capturing time...