Bill Robertson is happiest on the trail, in the Great Smokies’ backcountry, when there’s no one else around. He has hiked every trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, exploring its interior over the course of nearly two decades since moving back to Greenville, S.C., where he grew up, after years in California and Lake Tahoe.
He bought a trail map, he says, and “I’d take my green highlighter” and highlight all the trails he hiked with the Natural History Hiking Club or with his significant other, hiking/photography partner Lynne Scoggins. As time passed, he noticed he was highlighting a lot of trails, and so he decided to see if he could cover all of them. About four years ago, he did.
“It took me about 2,200 miles to do them,” he says, “and there’s only about 900 miles” in the park, many of which he had to retrace time and time again to reach trails deeper in the park. “It’s really a maze of trails.”
While the last stretch of trail he completed was about a mile long, out to the old schoolhouse, accompanied by friends with a picnic and party favors, most are more strenuous.
“I think the longest day hike we did was about 25 miles,” he remembers, describing early mornings and late nights, getting back to the car past dark, home past midnight. “Once you get several miles back in on a trail, you don’t see a soul. You kind of imagine yourself as one of the old pioneers.”
Robertson loves and photographs the waterfalls, the wildlife, “the flowers, the trees, the rocky trails, the streams… I’ve run into, I don’t know, 12, 15 bears over time.”
But “the beauty of the park,” he says is also in “the remnants of the past, the settlers, how they must have struggled.”
Two favorite hikes for photography are places where human history and the natural world coexist. First, Porters Creek at Greenbrier Day Use Area: “That’s loaded with flowers, and remnants of old logging steam engines [along Grapeyard Ridge Trail]...
“Tremont is also a beautiful photography hike,” he says. “All kinds of trails that lead you up to the Appalachian Trail; there’s a roaring creek, there’s waterfalls, there’s flowers, there’s old cars” and more logging remnants.Ramsey Cascade he loves to photograph too, “a very beautiful waterfall along a tumbling creek.”
But many of the hikes Robertson takes are too long and too difficult to take along camera, tripod and a bag of lenses, so those he enjoys without the click of the shutter (and it’s a real shutter, too – “I’m still 100 percent film”).
“I have two favorite [nonphotographic] hikes,” he says. “One of them was over by Fontana Lake, where we had to charter a boat.” The hike was along Eagle Creek Trail to the Spence Field Shelter, continuing a loop to Jenkins Ridge Trail and back by the Lakeshore Trail. The spring they trekked it, the water was high and he estimates they had more than 20 stream crossings. “It’s a steep, kick-your-butt trail, too.”