Blue Ridge Photo Hotspots

I've been posting a lot on travel destinations lately and I'll continue to do so. Travel is a big part of my work and I'll always have a desire to visit new places and make photographs. I thought it was about time, however, for me to write a post dedicated to my backyard. I live in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. My home is pretty secluded and tucked away in a wooded "holler" in the most Northwest corner of the state - no neighbors aside from the shy and allusive kind. I've lived in the area for about 8 years total now. I graduated from Appalachian State University, then moved to D.C. for a bit, then came right back to the forested hills of Appalachia to make my home and photograph the wonders this area holds.

Travelers from all over the world visit the Blue Ridge in droves during the Summer and Fall, many of them come specifically to take pictures of the amazing scenery. Great Smokey Mountain National Park (a couple hours drive south of my home) is the most visited National Park in the country. The Blue Ridge Parkway, the vein that snakes around the ridges and through the valleys of the Southern Appalachians from the Smokies to Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, attracts so many tourists during the Fall (we call them "leafers") that traffic can be bumper to bumper for miles. Obviously there is something very special here. In this post I'd like to let you in on a few secret (and some not so secret) "photo hotspots" in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and Virginia. This list is in no way comprehensive. In the years I've been photographing here I feel that I have barely scratched the surface and have visited only a handful of areas despite having hiked miles upon uncountable miles. The spots listed here are a few of my favorites which I frequently visit to find inspiration and images. If you choose to visit these places, please tread lightly, respect nature, and leave no trace.

Cascade Falls, Milepost 272, Blue Ridge Parkway

Cascade Falls, North Carolina

Cascade Falls, North Carolina

Cascade Falls is pretty easily located just off the Blue Ridge Parkway at milepost 272 north of Boone. An easy to moderate looped trail of only 1 mile will take you down to the falls through dense forest. It is usually muddy and there are wooden steps and railings along the trail that are usually wet. Be careful and, as always, wear sturdy waterproof hiking shoes. Do not jump the stone wall to get closer to the falls. It is temping to do so to try and get a different composition if you're photographing, but don't do it. It is very dangerous and many people have died trying. Admire the large waterfall from the stone platform. I usually set up my tripod on or close to the ledge of the stone wall (the wall is just out of the frame at the bottom of the picture above) and use a slow shutter-speed to soften the cascading water and a polarizer to cut reflections and saturate colors. (Be sure to use a remote shutter release or your camera's self timer.) I think the best time of year to shoot the cascade is mid-summer when the jewel-weed is a lush green and covers up any litter on the forest floor. Cloudy days are best for waterfall photography (which is great because there is no shortage of cloudy days in Appalachia). Take it slow while hiking the short trail. There are often little photographic gems along the way that most people over look (like trillium, salamanders, or owls hiding in the trees).

Price Lake, Milepost 297.2, Blue Ridge Parkway

Sunset and view of Grandfather Mountain from Price Lake, North Carolina

Sunset and view of Grandfather Mountain from Price Lake, North Carolina

Price Lake is located at milepost 297.2 on the Blue Ridge Parkway just south of Boone, North Carolina. It's a popular spot for canoeing, fishing, camping, and hiking. The trail follows the rim of the lake and loops back around to the parking area just off the parkway. It's a 2.5 mile hike, but it is easy and level all the way. This is one of the best locations in the Blue Ridge for sunset photography, in my opinion. The shot above was made on the bank of the lake a few minutes before the sun completely set and the stars came out. That's Grandfather Mountain on the horizon just a few miles away. When the wind is calm (and by using a slow shutter-speed) the reflections of color become more distinct and are often a perfect mirror image of the sky. I've been going there and shooting this scene for years and it never gets old. Each sunset is different, sometimes it is subtle pinks and blues, sometimes bright orange and deep reds. Often there is fog weaving through the forest and as it settles on the lake surface it provides atmosphere and depth to the scene. A tripod is essential. For the image above I used no filters at all. I simply composed at 35mm, exposed for the sky, and let the shadows fall where they may.

I often spot wildlife on and around Price Lake. When I go out to shoot, I always have a wide lens mounted on one camera body for landscapes and a long lens mounted on another in case there is an opportunity to photograph a wild animal. Deer graze near Price Lake and if you walk quietly, you may spot one through the trees along the trail. Other commonly seen species include beaver, woodpeckers, kingfishers, wood ducks, grouse, fox, and the occasional black bear.

Young whitetail deer near Price Lake, North Carolina.

Young whitetail deer near Price Lake, North Carolina.

Rough Ridge Overlook, Milepost 302.8, Blue Ridge Parkway

Scraggly spruce and stone at the summit of Rough Ridge, North Carolina.

Scraggly spruce and stone at the summit of Rough Ridge, North Carolina.

The Rough Ridge Overlook is located at milepost 302.8 on the Blue Ridge Parkway just south of Price Lake. From the parking area, take the 1.2 mile (moderate sometimes steep) section of the Tanawha Trail up to the summit through dense rhododendron. About a third of the way up there is a boardwalk with sweeping views. Stay on the boardwalk or you may disturb the delicate alpine plants carpeting the ground (many are unique to this area). Continue another third of a mile or so to reach the summit of Rough Ridge. It lives up to its name with its craggy terrain and huge boulders. I love the alpine environment and enjoy photographing the scraggly spruce trees against the vista in the background. From the top you can see far and wide. I'm not one for sweeping panoramas usually; I tend to concentrate more on the forests and the neat stuff within them. If you're into the grand scene, however, this is your place! The Linn Cove Viaduct can be seen below the summit and Grandfather Mountain towers above. Sunset and sunrise are spectacular from Rough Ridge. If you want more than a 1.2 mile hike, continue along the Tanawha trail, which is a 13.5 mile hike from Beacon Heights to Price Park. Rough Ridge is somewhere in the middle, so just pick a direction and go!

View of the boardwalk along the Tanawha Trail to Rough Ridge, Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina.

View of the boardwalk along the Tanawha Trail to Rough Ridge, Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina.

Linn Cove Viaduct, Milepost 304, Blue Ridge Parkway

Linn Cove Viaduct, Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina

Linn Cove Viaduct, Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina

The Linn Cove Viaduct is a 1,243 foot long bridge completed in 1987 that winds around a mountain rather than cutting through it. It's a heavily photographed feature along the parkway, but if you're in the area, you might as well get this "trophy shot" out of the way. There is a "secret" spot that photographers know about and I'm going to let you in on it. Park at the overlook just before the Viaduct if heading south on the parkway. If you drive over the Viaduct, you've gone too far. Walk along the parkway on the narrow foot path on the left shoulder until it ends, step over the safety barrier and cross the parkway (*be careful and look both ways* it is not recommended that people walk along or on the parkway). You'll notice a faint and short trail up the side of the steep hill. Walk up it (this links to the Tanawha Trail eventually). You'll notice a rock ledge/boulder above you. That's where you need to be. Be careful climbing it. I usually toss (gently of course) my bag and tripod up first and then climb up. It is not very high up- just steep and awkward. You'll see the famous view of the Viaduct once on the boulder. It can be a pain leveling a tripod on the uneven surface of the rocks and there is little room to sit or stand. For maximum depth of field, I typically shoot this scene at f13-f16 to get the mountains in the distance sharp. A graduated ND filter is recommended because the sky can be much brighter than the trees and bushes in the foreground and under the Viaduct. Compose, shoot, then congratulate yourself on being the 100 billionth photographer to capture this scene.

Glen Burney Falls, Blowing Rock, North Carolina

Glen Burney Falls in Autumn, Blowing Rock, North Carolina.

Glen Burney Falls in Autumn, Blowing Rock, North Carolina.

The Glen Burney Trail is not all that well known to tourists because it is not located along the Blue Ridge Parkway. I've probably been there at least a dozen times and have only come across other hikers three or four times and only one other serious photographer. The trail is located near downtown Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Turn off Main Street and onto Laurel Lane, then go through the next stop sign and immediately turn left into the Cannon Gardens parking lot. The trail head is marked and there is a sign with a map for hikers. There are actually three notable waterfalls along the trail; the Cascades, Glen Burney, and Glen Marie falls. The trail is not a loop and is 1.6 miles to the end at Glen Marie Falls. It can be steep in places and is typically muddy. I usually stop at Glen Burney Falls, which is the largest waterfall on the trail, at 1.2 miles. Follow the signs to Glen Burney Falls. It is not on the main trail but down a short offshoot. Be careful and don't do anything stupid. People are swept away and occasionally die here when they try to climb the cliffs and slippery boulders or walk out into the water.

Glen Burney Falls is awesome. It is a rock wall about 18 feet high with streams of water cascading down it. The water pools below it, flows over rocks creating several smaller waterfalls, then travels down the mountain through thick hardwood and hemlock forests. This is a great spot to shoot Autumn color. I use a polarizer when shooting waterfalls and as long as it is early morning, late evening, or overcast, I don't use an ND filter. Make sure you have a few good clean towels for wiping your lens and gear. Glen Burney spits out a lot of mist and over spray that can carry several yards and fog up your glass and make your gear wet.

Grayson Highlands State Park, Virginia

View of Grayson Highlands State Park, Virginia from the Appalachian Trail.

View of Grayson Highlands State Park, Virginia from the Appalachian Trail.

I'd always wanted to go to Grayson Highlands when I was a student at App State but the drive was a bit too far and no one seemed to ever want to go all the way out there with me. Once I moved to Ashe County (several years later) and closer to the North Carolina/Virginia state line, I had no more excuses. It's about 45 minutes from my house and a simple and easy drive. Grayson Highlands is famous for the wild (feral) ponies that graze the mountain balds year 'round. I like it because it is very different from the North Carolina mountains in that it seems more alpine and untouched. The Appalachian Trail runs through the park and that's the trail I usually take. There are waterfalls on another trail near the park office, but I haven't been there yet. It's on the list. There are so many trails and places to roam in the area that you can't fit it all into one day hike. I like the highlands. Even though I'm not crazy about vistas, I love photographing the high, open country. Since there are so many different terrains and various subjects to shoot, from wild ponies and birds, to sweeping views and wildflowers, I carry all the equipment I have. The park opens at 8am, which is not ideal for landscape photography in the morning. By 8am the sun is becoming harsh on clear summer days. The park doesn't close until 10pm. That's perfect. In summer, the sun sets around 8:30-8:45pm so there's plenty of time to scout locations and set up for landscape shots of the sunset or the golden light that precedes it.

Wild/Feral Pony grazing in Grayson Highlands State Park, Virginia

Wild/Feral Pony grazing in Grayson Highlands State Park, Virginia

The signs all over Grayson Highlands state not to feed or pet the horses, but if you sit down near them, they typically walk right over to you. I had a foal nibble on my shoes and then it became so friendly that it stuck its lips right onto my lens! The glass was a slobbery mess, but easy to clean. Even when I get this kind of attention, I don't pet the ponies. I let them try and figure me out while I snap some shots. Don't get between a mother and her foal. Just as you should with native wild animals, respect their space and don't harass them to get a picture.

Sunburst near sunset in Grayson Highlands State Park, Virginia.

Sunburst near sunset in Grayson Highlands State Park, Virginia.

Cataloochee Valley, Great Smokey Mountains National Park

Bull Elk wearing a radio collar in the Cataloochee Valley during the rut, Great Smokey Mountains National Park, North Carolina.

Bull Elk wearing a radio collar in the Cataloochee Valley during the rut, Great Smokey Mountains National Park, North Carolina.

The Great Smokey mountains attract more visitors each year than any other National Park in the U.S. I learned that fact the hard way when I was in the Cataloochee Valley a few years ago documenting the elk rut. There were so many people and cars in the valley that the only dirt road (only way in or out) was completely clogged up with cars and people trying to get snap shots of the elk. I had never been before and naively thought that I would have the place mostly to myself on a random September day before the leafers showed up in October. People were doing insanely dangerous things just to get close enough to a bull elk to get a shot with their cellphones. I could see the huge bull elk getting more and more agitated at all the people approaching them for pictures. In fact, I got so nervous myself that this one group of people were going to get charged by a humongous bull that I decided it was time to go. I was doing some filming and the animals were not acting 100% normal because of all the commotion around them. The sound of all people chattering and children yelling at the elk was not only interfering with my recordings of the bugling sound the bulls make, it was flat out driving me nuts!

Regardless of the stupidity and disrespect of the masses, the Cataloochee Valley is a beautiful place. Elk were wiped out of the Blue Ridge decades ago, but were successfully reintroduced in the Smokies. Their numbers have grown, and the rut (mating season from September to November) is interesting to watch and fun to photograph. Elk congregate in open fields during the rut where big bulls fight each other for control of females. I wasn't able to get any of these sparing matches on camera because the elk were distracted by the crowds that came to watch them. I hope to return this fall to try again. Cataloochee is located just west of Asheville by about 30 minutes via I-40. I recommend a long lens, but anything in the 200-400mm range will be fine. The photo above was shot at 200mm from the window of my car while I was waiting for traffic to move. My recommendation is to find a spot in the margins of the meadows, set up your long lens and tripod, and wait for the elk to wander closer by on their own accord. Do not approach an unpredictable bull elk. They are beefed up for mating, throbbing with hormones, and ready to use their massive antlers when necessary. Respect their space.

Valle Crucis Park, North Carolina

Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk in winter poplar, Valle Crucis Park, North Carolina.

Juvenile Red-tailed Hawk in winter poplar, Valle Crucis Park, North Carolina.

Valle Crucis is famous among visitors as the town where the original Mast General Store is located. Behind the store, more specifically the Annex, is a community park where locals and tourists gather to enjoy the valley scenery and fish for trout in the Watauga River. I go to Valle Crucis Park for one reason: bird photography. In fact, about 90 percent of the blue ridge mountain bird species I have photographed were found either in my backyard or Valle Crucis Park. Swifts and swallows, mountain blue birds, cardinals, bohemian waxwings, indigo buntings, great blue herons, red winged black birds, Canada geese, and several raptor species can all be found at Valley Crucis Park at various times of the year. That's just a few of the bird species I've spotted there over the years.

My favorite image from Valle Crucis Park was made while my wife and I were strolling through the park on a winter's day a few years back. I had a 300mm f4 lens on that day in hopes of getting a shot of a cardinal against the light snow that had accumulated the night before. I think Alison spotted it first. It was a young red-tailed hawk. It was flying back and forth from one side of a field to the other trying to catch the small sparrows that were hiding in the tall brown grass. It soon gave up and perched itself on a low-hanging branch and we slowly walked over to it. I fired a couple shots and then it flew right over to me, landing on a branch so close to my head that my lens wouldn't focus (minimum focus distance on that lens was about 5 feet). As I backed up, the hawk decided that I wasn't very exciting and it took off again and landed in a dead poplar at the edge of the river. I walked over to the bank and made several exposures. The hawk was in no hurry to leave again. It was watching (like a hawk, I might add) some people who were fly fishing as if it knew what they were doing and thought it might steal a fish. That never happened and I'm not sure that was actually the hawks intention, but I'd like to think so. It would have been really neat to see it dive bomb a fisherman for his hard earned trout!