Blue Ridge Mountains

Behind the Image: Autumn on Grandfather Mountain

BEHIND THE IMAGE:
Autumn on Grandfather Mountain,
Blue Ridge Mountains, NC

As we near the first official days of the fall season, it seems that winter may have come early here in Alberta. It’s already below freezing and snowing out! In the spirit of Autumn, I thought I’d share an experience from 2 years ago in the Blue Ridge Mountains…

Autumn is a fleeting time of year. One day the humid forest is thick and green, and seemingly the next day, it is chilly and blanketed in vibrant shades of red, yellow, and orange. This "peak" in color usually comes in mid-October and lasts only a day or two before the leaves turn brown or are blown off the trees by heavy winds, leaving a forest of grey skeletons. Those winds, along with a sharp drop in temperatures, signal the coming of winter. Autumn triggers a hurried response from wildlife and humans alike to prepare for the long cold months ahead.

I was buried in images from my October 2016 trip to Iceland when I realized I only had a couple days left to photograph the fall colors in the Blue Ridge. I decided to take a break and drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway and hike up the steep and craggy trail at Rough Ridge just before sunset. I knew it would be crowded with visitors even though it was a random weekday evening. I envisioned an image of the golden light of sunset blanketing the lower mountains below Rough Ridge to the east, but every possibly decent spot to set up had several selfie-taking tourists already hunkered down for what was clearly going to be an amazing sunset. I suppressed my irritation. I have no more right to be there than them, and who could blame anyone for wanting to see this spectacular Fall foliage at sunset?

Autumn colors on Grandfather Mountain from Rough Ridge Trail, Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina. (Nikon D600, Nikkor 18-35G Lens, Gitzo Tripod, Circular Polarizer, 3-stop ND filter) © Jon Reaves Photography

Autumn colors on Grandfather Mountain from Rough Ridge Trail, Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina. (Nikon D600, Nikkor 18-35G Lens, Gitzo Tripod, Circular Polarizer, 3-stop ND filter) © Jon Reaves Photography

I abandoned my original plan and set up on the only rocky outcrop that was vacant. It pointed toward the eastern face of Grandfather Mountain- opposite of where I had planned to point my camera. The sun was about to set behind the mountain. I set up, composed, and waited for a few minutes for the sunset colors to intensify. It was a tricky scene to meter; high contrast scenes always are. I used a polarizer to help intensify the colors and darken the sky a bit and used the lightest edge of my graduated neutral density filter to balance out the sky with the dark mountain.

I usually shoot with my white balance set to "daylight", but chose to shoot this scene in "cloudy" to further intensify the warm colors in both the sky and forest (though, because I shoot in RAW format this is easily changeable in post). I bracketed several exposures to make sure my histogram was balanced and I hadn't plunged the shadows and blown the highlights. A tripod was completely necessary for stability. This shot required a narrow aperture for increased depth of field, a low ISO for decreased noise, and so a long shutter speed was the result. No hand-holding this shot! I used the camera's two-second timer to reduce the likelihood of blur. Only a slight levels and contrast adjustment was required in post to bring this image back to life the way I remembered it.

I'm glad I took that evening off and hiked up Rough Ridge for this shot during peak Autumn color. Only a few days later, the trees on Grandfather Mountain became brown and nearly bare. Soon after, the landscape was virtually colorless for 6 months until spring.

“I stand for what I stand on.” - Edward Abbey

Blue Ridge Day Hikes - Grayson Highlands State Park, VA

View of Grayson Highlands from the Appalachian Trail, Virginia.

View of Grayson Highlands from the Appalachian Trail, Virginia.

Grayson Highlands State Park, Virginia is one of my favorite areas of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I'm lucky in that it is less than an hour's drive from my home. Though I've listed this post under Blue Ridge Day Hikes, you should spend more time than that at Grayson Highlands if possible. Grayson Highlands offers excellent camping opportunities. If you're into panoramic views, waterfalls, wild ponies, and primeval spruce forests, this is your place! 

Geography & Location:

Grayson Highlands State Park, established in 1965, is located in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia. It's an easy drive from the Boone, North Carolina area, northeastern Tennessee, and, of course, western Virginia via U.S. 58 (aka Highlands Parkway). Two of Virginia's highest peaks, Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain, are at the park's borders and the famous Appalachian Trail runs right through the park and continues up all the way to Maine and down all the way into Georgia. The park itself is 4,502 acres of pristine mountain balds and spruce forests. The highest peak within park boundaries, Little Pinnacle, is 5,089 feet above sea level. For more information on entrance fees, park rules, and trail maps, visit Virginia State Park's official website

Hiking Trails & Camping:

There are thirteen hiking trails in Grayson Highlands providing recreational opportunities for every age and fitness level. Some are designated as horseback riding trails. I generally keep to one specific trail that leads through all the rocky peaks of Wilburn Ridge and connects with the A.T., called the Appalachian Spur Trail. I need to branch out because there is so much more to the park, but I just can't get enough of those awesome views along the A.T.! To access my favorite trail, which winds through rocky outcrops, cow pastures, and is guaranteed to take you to ponies, park at the Overnight Backpacker's Lot and follow the trail through the open meadow. In spring and summer, the fields are full of wildflowers, hummingbirds, and butterflies. 

In addition to hiking trails, there are loads of backcountry campsites (96 total) located all over the park area. There are even a few covered shelters for those who need walls and a roof. Along the Appalachian Trail, just outside the park boundaries, you don't need to worry about where you can and can't camp for the night. You can simply set up in whichever spot provides you with the best morning view! Certain rules, including food storage regulations for bears, must be followed inside Grayson Highland's boundaries. For the details on camping in Grayson Highlands State Park, visit the official website

My wife and I hiking with Jack at Grayson Highlands, Virginia.

My wife and I hiking with Jack at Grayson Highlands, Virginia.

Wild Ponies:

Grayson Highlands State Park is famous for its wild ponies, which are actually feral ponies released by the U.S. Forest Service in the 1970s. The ponies are said to be descendants of breeds owned by local, Native American tribes. Their purpose is weed control, but I'd assume the cattle that freely graze the balds at Grayson Highlands do a good enough job at that (watch out for huge cow-pies). Whatever their true purpose, or origin, they attract droves of people to the highlands year-round. They are generally friendly and fun to photograph, but don't come between a mother and her foal and never directly approach a male pony head on. Give them space and you should be able to get some great photos. Feeding the ponies is strictly forbidden. My approach is to let animals come to me. I simply take a seat in the grass and mind my own business for a minute or two, and, sure enough, curiosity gets the best of them (especially the youngsters) and they hobble right on over to me. 

A few-week-old foal noodles on my shoe straps, Grayson Highlands State Park.

A few-week-old foal noodles on my shoe straps, Grayson Highlands State Park.

Feral Ponies Graze in a Mountain Bald in Grayson Highlands State Park.

Feral Ponies Graze in a Mountain Bald in Grayson Highlands State Park.

When to Go & What to Photograph:

Grayson Highlands is open year round from early morning until well after sunset, so this is one of the few pristine wild places you can go in the Blue Ridge to photograph sunrise and sunset without staying overnight. It can be very difficult to access during winter when snows cover the winding mountains roads in the area. The best seasons in general are summer and fall. In summer, temperatures are pleasant and the long daylight hours allow plenty of time to explore if you only have a day to spend. Sunsets are spectacular, but bring a headlamp so you can hike your way out without falling into a gorge or slipping into a rhododendron thicket after a shoot.

Summer is great for wildflowers, birds, butterflies, and lush-green balds. Autumn is always a great time to be in Appalachians, but ironically there isn't that much autumn color at Grayson Highlands because it's mostly balds and evergreens. Autumn would be the best time to see larger wildlife, like black bears and whitetail deer. Both summer and fall are great times to see ponies and newborn foals. There is one notable and sizable waterfall in Grayson Highlands located on the Cabin Creek Trail. I haven't been to it yet, but it's on my short list. No matter when you go, Grayson Highlands will not disappoint when it comes to photography and recreational opportunities. 

Sunset at Grayson Highlands State Park, Virginia.

Sunset at Grayson Highlands State Park, Virginia.

All images (c) 2017 Jon Reaves. All rights reserved. 

Blue Ridge Day Hikes - Elk Knob State Park, NC

Blue Ridge Day Hikes - Elk Knob State Park, NC

The north facing view from the Elk Knob summit trail. 

The north facing view from the Elk Knob summit trail. 

I'm lucky to live in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. I have my own place tucked away deep in the forest with no neighbors aside from the furry and elusive kind. I'm also lucky to live near so many amazingly beautiful and protected natural areas. Elk Knob State Park is just a 10 minute drive from my house. I go there often in all four seasons, not only for photography, but for peace and quiet as well.

Elk Knob History

Elk Knob State Park is the newest state park in North Carolina. It was founded in 2003 after conservationists and concerned citizens swooped in to save it from developers who were planning to build housing developments on it; that would have been a sad fate for one of Southern Appalachian's highest peaks and most unique natural areas. The tallest peak at Elk Knob is 5,520 feet above sea level. The views from the summit are spectacular. From the top one can see far into the mountains of Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina. These sweeping panoramic vistas attract lots of hikers year-round, but it's never too crowded. Many people don't know about this state park and so they cluster onto better-known trails along the Blue Ridge Parkway, but Elk Knob is definitely one of the N.C. High Country's best natural areas. 

Thick forest and a well-maintained trail at Elk Knob State Park, North Carolina.

Thick forest and a well-maintained trail at Elk Knob State Park, North Carolina.

Wildlife

Unfortunately, there are no actual elk on Elk Knob. The last one was supposedly killed in the late 1700s according to the NC Parks Service website. The nearest wild, North Carolina elk are a couple hundred miles away. Loads of wildlife still inhabit Elk Knob, including white-tail deer, black bear, owls, woodpeckers, weasels, fox, coyote and many other species. If you're a birder, this is an excellent spot to see bohemian waxwings, nuthatches, and large pileated woodpeckers. I've had several good encounters with deer, owls, and many other species at Elk Knob, but as much as I've hiked there, I've yet to see a bear. Nevertheless, the park service has several signs warning campers to handle and store food properly and even provides "bear boxes" to secure supplies. 

White-tail doe in the misty forest at Elk Knob State Park. (Image captured using a Nikon F100 and 70-300mm VR on Fuji Superia 400 35mm film)

White-tail doe in the misty forest at Elk Knob State Park. (Image captured using a Nikon F100 and 70-300mm VR on Fuji Superia 400 35mm film)

Hiking Trails at Elk Knob

There are four trails at Elk Knob varying in difficulty from easy to strenuous. They are accessible year-round as the park is open all year from morning until dusk (check the NC Park Service site for official hours). Getting there in the winter can be difficult even with four wheel drive, but if you can make it, the opportunities for snowshoeing and backcountry skiing are excellent. Always be prepared for snow in the winter. Even if you don't see any on the drive to Elk Knob, there may be up to a few feet near the summit and ice can cover the trails underneath the snow. Crampons are recommended during winter months. 

The Beech Tree Trail is the easiest. It's pretty level and short and is designed as a light walk for families with young kids to enjoy. As the name implies, it winds through a thicket of Beech on a well-maintained level trail only 1 mile long. It loops back around to the parking lot/trail head. The Maple Run Trail is the next easiest. It's another loop, but designed to appeal more to cross-country skiers as well as hikers. It's the shortest at only 1/2 mile.

The Backcountry Trail is a moderate hike that I have done several times. It descends from the parking area through thick forest via a wide, gradually sloping path. In 2 miles it leads to the backcountry camp sites (which are available with reservations) and mountain streams with a few cascading waterfalls. These streams start at the headwaters of the north-fork of the New River - one of the world's oldest rivers, if not the oldest, according to geologists. In spring, the forest floor is covered with native Appalachian wildflowers, like trillium and trout lily, which are both perfect photo subjects!

The head waters of the New River, Elk Knob State Park's Backcountry Trail.

The head waters of the New River, Elk Knob State Park's Backcountry Trail.

My wife and our dog Jack at the summit of Elk Knob in summer.

My wife and our dog Jack at the summit of Elk Knob in summer.

Last, but definitely not least, is the Summit Trail. This is by far the most popular trail year-round because of the spectacular views the summit of Elk Knob offers. It's a strenuous 1.9 mile hike straight up the mountain with lots of switchbacks. For a healthy person in moderately good shape, it's really not that big a deal, however. I've even seen couples in their 70s hike it in winter! It's worth the trek, not only for the views at the top, but for the opportunities for seeing wildlife and the peace of the beautiful forest along the way. From the top you can see Grandfather Mountain and Mount Mitchell in the distance to the south and Peak Mountain (my home base) and Mount Jefferson to the north. Unfortunately for photographers, the park opens after sunrise and closes before sunset most of the year, so there is little chance of shooting during magic hours, but opportunities for great nature photography are still available within the forest. 

View near the summit of Elk Knob on a winter's day.

View near the summit of Elk Knob on a winter's day.

Near the summit of Elk Knob, the trees become scraggly and twisted as the trail narrows at 5,500 feet.

Near the summit of Elk Knob, the trees become scraggly and twisted as the trail narrows at 5,500 feet.

If you've grown tired of the crowds and traffic on the Blue Ridge Parkway, consider Elk Knob State Park. You won't be disappointed. It's the perfect spot for connecting with nature and renewing your relationship with the Appalachian Mountain's wonders. Take the dogs, the kids, and the grandparents, too! There is lots to do at Elk Knob from hiking, to camping, to snow shoeing, so don't miss this fun and ecologically diverse gem of the Blue Ridge.