As a landscape photographer, I enjoy capturing the visual “fruits” of every season. And as much as I love winter weather, I look forward to the annual “greening” that spring provides. While winter landscapes can be beautiful, they can be extremely difficult (and sometimes downright dangerous) to capture. For this reason, summer is one of the best seasons to capture visually appealing landscape photography.
See an interesting scene that you’d like to shoot, but don’t have time that day? – Come back in a week, or wait a month until the lighting conditions are just right, no problem! Unlike in Autumn, where if you come back 2 days later the leaves may be gone, there is a greater degree of flexibility. While fall is without a doubt my favorite season, one miscalculation could make the difference between getting a perfectly lit vibrant shot and something that just looks brown and downright “Meh.” As I had posted on my facebook page, the difference in foliage can affect an image greatly:
With the impending “brownout”, I plan to make the most of the next 2 months and look forward to shooting the vibrantly colored hillsides to come. One thing for sure though, I certainly won’t miss dripping sweat all over my camera equipment!
When I think back on many of the best moments of my life, several common denominators can be observed. One of the most typical of these is the type of places that these occurred.
My family has always seeked out places of natural beauty for our vacations and other recreational pursuits. I certainly continue this legacy, as I am always heading out to some beautiful place to pursue my latest photographic or hiking pursuit. Since meeting my wife, we have planned vacations that centered around places like this. Lucky for us, some of the most spectacular scenery to be found on terra firma is right here at home and it’s open to us all.
Whether it was combing the surf battered rocks of Oregon’s coast or craining our necks to see the canopy of a virgin redwood forest, most of these moments occured on American public lands. We are fortunate that our country was expanded and settled in a time when awareness and respect for the natural environment wasn’t far off in the future. Even more so that we had visionaries like Gifford Pinchot, Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir, Thomas Moran, and countless others influencing/creating national policy towards our wild treasures.
We hear a lot about what has made our country great in terms of our economy and our tenacious defense of liberty. Our beautiful (and plentiful) public lands are one of the things that sets us apart from other countries. Achievements like creating the world’s first national park and the Wilderness Act of 1964 have made us a worldwide leader in the preservation of earth’s natural treasures.
Below are some of my favorite memories created on our public lands:
View from the Iwa Jima Memorial – Netherlands Carillon
Siuslaw National Forest, Oregon
Looking north along the Allegheny Front
Isabelle Glacier – Roosevelt National Forest
Indian Peaks Wilderness – Roosevelt National Forest
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park
Monongahela National Forest
North Fork Mountain – Monongahela National Forest
Spruse Knob – Highest Point in the Mountain State – Monongahela National Forest
Milky Way over Spruce Knob Lake. Located deep in the mountains, the Allegheny Highlands boast some of the darkest skies in the Eastern US
Shenandoah National Park
Shenandoah National Park
Tidal Basin – National Mall & Memorial Parks
Ft. Moultrie – Ft. Sumter National Monument
Charles Pickney National Historical Site, South Carolina
Congaree National Park, South Carolina
C&O Canal National Historical Park
View from the Lincoln Memorial
At the top of Mt. St. Helens – National Volcanic Monument – Gifford Pinchot National Forest
Trail up the South slope of Mt. St. Helens. On my way to the summit, below the treeline
Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge
Moonrise over Crater Lake National Park
Blue Ridge Parkway, Virginia
South Umpqua River – Umpqua National Forest, Oregon
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.
Blueberry bushes show their autumn colors at Bear Rocks
Looking north along the Allegheny Front
Vast meadows of blueberry bushes at Dolly Sods
View from atop Chimney Rock on North Fork Mountain
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.
A second-growth maple forest beneath Dolly Sods is enveloped in fog.
A combination Nor-easter and Hurricane Joaquin created less than ideal conditions atop one of the Eastern US’s highest plateaus
Misty trail in Dolly Sods Wilderness
Forest Service Road 19 adjacent to the Roaring Plains Wilderness
Unbeknownst to me at the time that I took this picture, I hiked the trail in the center of the meadow on my way up to the Roaring plains Wilderness…the trail passes through a farm inbetween the barn and the storage shed
Glowing tree in Canaan Valley
Pase Point on Blackwater Canyon
Hi there! A young fawn at Blackwater Falls State Park
A colorful canopy of maple leaves hangs above a trail in Blackwater Canyon
Scurrying caterpillar…this little guy was hurrying around the forest floor, trying to do what he needed to do before the first freeze
Cinammon Ferns turn their namesake color in Blackwater Falls State Park
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.
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.
The sun’s early morning rays illuminate the “Indian Peaks” in the Roosevelt National Forest
Isabelle Glacier in the Indian Peaks Wilderness
The pond at the base of the Isabelle Glacier glows blue from glacial ice
Even ponds in the high Rockies are colorful
Wildflowers abound in the high meadows
Lupine grows freely at 11,000′ in elevation in the Arapaho National Forest
A storm brews over the skeleton of a bristcone pine in Pike National Forest.
Bristlecone below Mount Bross. The bristlecone is a remoarkable tree: they endure some of the most inhospitable conditions on earth (low rainfall, temperatures to -50F, high winds). Their toughness has made them the oldest living organisms on earth, with some trees well over 3000 years in age.
Alpenglow on Pawnee Peak above Blue Lake in the Indian Peaks Wilderness
Falls on South St. Vrain Creek in the Roosevelt National Forest
A mother mountain goat and her kid atop Mount Evans
US 40 Descending from the Berthoud Pass in the Arapaho National Forest
“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.”
Spruse Knob – Highest Point in the Mountain State – Monongahela National Forest
A garden in the sky, plant species here are more common to Canada due to the extremely cold climate. This weekend, while temperatures exceeded 95deg in Washington, DC, it never got above 72 here.
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.
“Socked in Road” – National Forest Road 104 climbs into the fog bank blanketing Spruce Knob
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.
Spruce Mountain Lake Sunset
The clouds breaking just in time
Tools of the trade
Lightning bugs abounded in the meadow next to the lake
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.
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.
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.
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.
A stunted red pine clings to the rock 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.