Patagonia: The Land That [Far] Exceeds Expectations

Since I received my first “Patagonia” brand fleece as a little kid, I have been intrigued by the mountains on the clothing brand’s logo. However, I never dreamed I’d have the opportunity to visit this remote land.

Then, two years ago I started researching locations for my wife and me to travel on our next “big adventure” and I was instantly hooked when Patagonia popped up. I spent countless hours since then researching when, where, and how to go. So much so that I began to think, “Is there going to be much more to discover than what I’ve already seen on Google image search?” Luckily, I was wrong and I could not have prepared myself for the land that many say is a true “landscape photographer’s dream.” My wife fell in love with the landscape, too, and she expressed interest in returning before we even left, which certainly says something given the often “less than ideal” weather conditions and many challenges with traveling to and around this remote land.

For those who might be unfamiliar with the region, getting to/around there isn’t the easiest of tasks. It took no less than three flights  with 15+ hours of total flying time for us to arrive in Punta Arenas from Washington-Dulles International Airport. And, even after arriving at the airport, there were still hundreds of miles to drive between the individual destinations. To make matters more difficult, the wind is so great that it tests the skill of even the best drivers, blowing the car all over the road. The wind literally caused our Toyota Corolla to blow apart, causing me to do emergency roadside maintenance on the side of the road as local drivers whizzed by at 90+ mph (normal cruising speed on the straight Argentine roads). Since the next settlement, let alone gas station, may be more than 150 miles away, pre-planning is a must when visiting the region.

The same climatic engine that drives the “less than ideal” weather also creates unimaginable natural lighting. During our trip, we observed some of the most stunning lighting while 70km/hr winds were ripping across the landscape, and keeping a tripod steady, let alone hand-holding a camera, was often challenging in these conditions.

 

While most people (including me!) come to Patagonia for the landscapes, the wildlife certainly does not disappoint. My wife commented when driving through the Eastern entrance to Torres Del Paine that it felt like we were on a South American safari. The variety and number of animals in the area was a surprise since many of the animals–including flamingos, rheas, and armadillos–are animals normally associated with warmer climates. This coupled with cold weather animals, like penguins, creates an amazing biodiversity.

My wife and I have been blessed to travel often during our marriage. Our Patagonian adventure, coupled with the amazing experience we had the week prior in central Chile, certainly made this a trip of a lifetime.

High Allegheny National Park

That was the name of the proposed national park along the highest ridgelines of the Mid-Atlantic.  As I’ve previously noted, the area truly boasts “national park quality scenery.”  The National Park Service actually surveyed the proposed park in 2012 for entry into the system.  It’s a truly unique area that in addition to unique geological features boasts a microclimate that supports plants and animals found much further North in Canada.  During fall the area comes alive with brilliant colors.  Yellow aspen leaves shimmer in the wind, while red maple leaves dominate the slopes of the higher peaks.  Brilliant red blueberry bushes hug the ground in the meadows at Dolly Sods.

While the thought of the area being recognized as a national park excites me, I also have concerns.  Chiefly, I worry that increased promotion as a national park would draw hordes of crowds, putting pressure to build more visitor facilities, roads, and more trails in an already sensitive area.  Not to mention, there is still a lot of private land in the area, which could prove to be a problem if the area becomes overly popular.  “Come buy a condo with a national park view!”  I’m not the only one having second thoughts.  Local residents became so concerned that Senator Joe Manchin (WV) sent a letter to the National Park Service revoking his support of the park over concerns of access, hunting, and fishing restrictions.

West Virginians want to keep the WILD in “Wild and Wonderful”  and I think that that’s great.  Much of the land is already protected as congressionally designated wilderness and administered by the US Forest Service.  If anything, I’d say that the federally designated wilderness should be expanded to additional existing USFS land.  At the same time, existing private land owners will be able to keep their farms, which add to the area’s charm.  One of my favorite hikes involved hiking on a public Forest Service trail through a private farm leading to the Roaring Plains Wilderness.  The stark combination of the agrarian landscape with rugged wilderness is what makes this area of West Virginia so special.

Colorful Colorado

Arriving in Colorado from Kansas or at DIA (Denver International), the “Welcome to Colorful Colorado” signs seem like an oxymoron.  However, as soon as you leave the taupe colored plains, climbing into the Rockies the colors begin to emerge.  The mountains have many different shades, especially in Summer when wildflowers abound in the cool alpine air.

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Storm clouds loom over the grasslands of Park County

My wife and I were fortunate to be visiting during one of the wettest summers in memory, so even the “taupe colored plains” were bright spring green.  Between the bright colors of the vegetation and the beautiful lighting provided by the thunderstorms every afternoon, this might’ve been one of the most photogenic summers in Colorado.

A Rainy Saturday in Harpers Ferry

Who said rainy days had to be all stormy any grey? - A "sunny" bunch of Maryland's State Flower, found right across the state line in West Virginia
Who said rainy days had to be all stormy any grey? – A “sunny” bunch of Maryland’s State Flower(s), found right across the state line in West Virginia

 

As I’ve said before, just because it’s raining, doesn’t mean that you can’t shoot good pictures.  You just have to change your subject matter/techniques.  Rainy days are like challenges to me, pushing me to think of new ways to create unique images within the confines of trying not to get the camera wet.

This past weekend, my wife’s family was in town and they asked to go to Harpers Ferry…what a great idea, go to a normally PACKED summer destination on a day when the weather drove almost all the visitors away.  All of the shops/sights/attractions were open and we had the whole place to ourselves.  It also allowed us to closely interact with some of the period reenacters and get great pictures (in the nice even lighting) with few distractions.

Having someone to drive me around is an opportunity that I rarely have these days.  I decided to make use of the time by trying to create some images of the damp Blue Ridge valley countryside whizzing by my window:

 

The Crown of The Mid Atlantic

“Almost Heaven,” as immortalized by John Denver, is an accurate description of the mountains and forests of the Allegheny Highlands of West Virginia.  Yes, the area is that beautiful/special.  Yet, for the life of me I can’t understand why the area doesn’t attract more visitors.  Even on a “busy” summer weekend it’s easy to find a spectacular mountain vista where you’re the only one there…not complaining, after all the remoteness is part of the area’s charm. Last weekend I had the opportunity to spend the whole weekend taking pictures of some of the most fantastic scenery on the East Coast.  Spruce Knob – Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area, basically a national park administered by the US Forest Service, encompasses some of the “crown jewels” of the Mid Atlantic: Spruce Knob (WV’s highest point), Seneca Rocks (a large out cropping), and North Fork Mountain.  Each of these places on there own are easily “national park quality” scenery. I arrived to my campsite early on Friday evening, then after setting up drove up to the top of Spruce Knob to catch the last of the sun’s rays highlighting the highest point in “The Mountain State.”

The following morning, I awoke early to shoot some sunrise pics from the other side of the mountain.  However, I noticed part way up the mountain that the sky was cloudy and thought, “How great would that be if the mountain was socked in with fog?”  To my delight, the mountain was covered with such dense fog that I had to turn off my headlights in order to see better.  For months, I had been wanting to photograph a mountain forest in fog, and the spruce forests here are some of the prettiest this side of the Pacific Coast.

After spending all morning shooting, it was time to descend back to camp, which is located right next to another gem of the Mid Atlantic: Spruce Mountain Lake.  A sparkling clear lake, surrounded by dark spruce forests and mountain meadows.  The lake was busy with families and fishermen, but never felt crowded.  As an added bonus, the sun was finally out.  I strolled around the lake, scouting out locations tonight’s shots and photographed the many wildflowers and butterflies I spotted along the way.

Later that night, I came back to Spruce Knob Lake to catch the sunset, which I wasn’t sure was going to happen due to the clouds that had come back to cover the sky.  As soon as I arrived, the clouds broke to the West, creating an opening for the perfect sunset.

The clouds eventually cleared out completely after sunset, creating the perfect environment for astrophotography.  Did I mention that the area is sparsely populated?  – Situated deep within the Monongahela National Forest, this area of West Virginia enjoys some of the darkest skies in the Mid Atlantic.

Milky Way - Spruce Knob Lake
Milky Way – Spruce Knob Lake

After a late night up shooting the dark skies, I really needed some sleep, so I slept in.  After all, it would be really hard to top the spectacular sunset of last night.  The previous day had been one of the best/most dynamic days for photography that I’d ever experienced. I broke camp to head home, but wasn’t done yet, there was one more stop that I wanted to make.  North Fork Mountain, is equally as unique as nearby Spruce Knob.  Sitting in the rain shadow of the higher mountains (Spruce Mountain, Allegheny Front, Mount Porte Crayon), North Fork Mountain has one of the driest and most unique forests of the East Coast.  That and it also boasts steep rock outcroppings that are a rock climber’s and hiker’s delight.  My quest for the morning was to reach the top of Chimney Top, which is one of the largest rock outcroppings on the mountain’s long rocky spine.

The rugged spine of cliffs runs the length of North Fork Mountain
Rugged cliffs run down the  spine of North Fork Mountain

Arguably this is one of the best hikes in the Eastern US.  However, no one seems to know about it… the route/scenery is like an “Eastern Version” of Angels Landing in Zion National Park, but with 1/100,000 of the hikers.  The climb is steep (1800’ elev. gain in 3.0 miles) and the breeze less East side of the Mountain is stifling in the summer heat (bring lots of water!).  Just when you think that you’re near the top, the trail gets steeper for the next 1 mile.  Then when you get to the summit trail (denoted by a small rock cairn), the “trail” (more like a bushwhack through the undergrowth) gets even steeper for the last 200’ climb to the summit.

One of the large rock outcroppings of Chimney Rock -
One of the large rock outcroppings of Chimney Top – “Angels Landing of the East”

All your efforts are paid off by one of the most amazing views East of the Mississippi.  You can see the cliff face running down the spine of North Fork Mountain, along with the massive rock out cropping known as Chimney Top.  If you’re not afraid of heights, you can climb to the top of one of the Chimneys without climbing gear.  Sure its not as high as Dolly Sods, Spruce Knob, or the Roaring Plains, but you’ll  feel like you’re on top of West Virginia.  If you’re lucky, you’ll see Peregrine Falcons, as they like to nest on the cliff faces.  Be careful, Timber Rattle Snakes also like the dry rocky outcroppings.

In conclusion, if you’re looking for a beautiful “National Park like” setting on the East Coast and you want solitude, come to the Spruce Knob Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area in Monongahela National Forest.  For an even more unique experience, come here when the mountains are cloaked in the white of winter, you can hike all day without seeing anyone.

Steaming Through History

Growing up in a family that loves trains, I would often be dragged along to see various trains and locomotives at home and abroad. Fortunately for my dad/uncles, they didn’t have to do much dragging because I find the “iron horses” of old to be fascinating. It had been a while since I had seen a steam engine in action, so I was excited about the prospect of seeing one of the greatest (and last) steam locomotives ever built.

I set out on the morning of June 7th and picked up the 611 at The Plains, followed by Delaplane, Markham, and Front Royal (all made possible by the line’s close proximity to a 70mph interstate).

While at one of the stops I had heard that it was possible  to view the bridge over the Shenandoah that the train would use while turning around at the Wye (my previous research had shown that this was impossible due to it all being private land/active rock quarry/NS land surrounding the bridge).  So, I decided to take my chances and head straight down there…

My research was correct, I arrived at a private campground, and immediately tried to find the owner to ask permission (he wasn’t around).  But, in the meantime I met a few friendly campers who were also interested in trying to see a “steam locomotive” cross the bridge.  We were climbing around the banks of the S. Fork of the Shenandoah River and attracted the attention of a curious fisherman, who navigated his boat over to the shore to strike up a conversation.  Not long afterwards, came “I can take you out to see the bridge, I’d like to see the train myself.”  And the rest is history…aside from 2 other fishing boats, we were the only ones out there.

On the way back, I was able to pick up the 611 at two stops: historic Rectortown (the former train depot was used as a prison for POWs during the civil war) and sharply contrasting Gainesville, which is more of just a large modern freeway interchange these days.

Chasing the Light

I am constantly trying to improve on my methods.  As I do so, I find myself trying to find the best and most interesting lighting conditions.

One of those moments where you just have to stop the car and take a picture.  Late day post storm light pierces through the canopy in the George Washington National Forest
One of those moments where you just have to stop the car and take a picture. Late day post storm light pierces through the canopy in the George Washington National Forest

Proper lighting has been a key component of my photographs for as long as I’ve owned a camera.  However, it’s become even more important as my skills have evolved.  Our summer has been off to a stormy start in the Mid-Atlantic, so unique lighting conditions have been easy to find.  Below is a compilation of some of my work over the past couple of weeks.

A Damp Morning in Shenandoah

I had originally been planning a hike to one of the top sights in the George Washington National Forest to take sunrise pictures.  So, when the weather forecast began to call for clouds, I began to make alternative plans.  I awoke on Sunday morning and made a quick check of current satellite observations of cloud cover, they confirmed the weather forecasts: 100% cloud cover = no sunrise.  I almost went back to bed, but decided to get out anyways and head up to Shenandoah National Park. As much as photographers love early morning lighting, cloudy days are also nice due to their “even” lighting.  I arrived at the top of the mountains, greeted with off and on drizzle, which helped ensure that I was the only one out that early.  Most notably, there were low hanging wispy clouds in the valley, which always makes for interesting photography.  It was a great morning: hiking to mountain tops, waterfalls, and fern forests.  Yet another instance that I was glad I got out of bed at 3:00.

Happy Memorial Day!

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It has been a while since my last blog post, and given the theme of the weekend, I thought that I’d use the time post some pics of the VE day celebrations in Washington from earlier this month.  Because after all, it’s only because of the sacrifice of so many brave men that I am able to enjoy such a relaxing weekend with family and friends!