Hiking

Exploring the Icefields Parkway, Part II, Jasper & Banff National Park

EXPLORING THE ICEFIELDS PARKWAY, PART II, JASPER & BANFF NATIONAL PARK

I drove into the Canadian Rockies last week in hopes of photographing a particular species: Rocky Mountain Big Horn Sheep. I grew up watching Marty Stauffer's Wild America, and big horns were sort of the trademark animal of the series, celebrated in various episodes. I always dreamed of visiting the rocky mountains and seeing large rams butt heads on high mountain meadows - or at least standing proudly on a cliff overlooking snow-capped peaks. Alas, no rams on the way into Jasper National Park, just a few ewes high up on craggy ledges. I stopped for a few shots and moved on, later exiting onto the Icefields Parkway on one of the hottest and haziest days of the summer. 

It must have been too hot for wildlife that day. I expected to see more elk, as I had photographed them each time I'd driven down the Icefields Parkway before, but no elk, no bears, not even a raven for miles. I stopped at the "Goat Overlook" (the sign reads "Goats and Glaciers", but I didn't see any goats or glaciers...) and walked the short trail to the edge of the cliff overlooking the Athabasca River with Mount Christie and Brussels Peak on the horizon. I saw the potential for an image there, so I decided that would be my sunset location. I was hoping for goats; the sign implies that they hang out there after all, but nothing was stirring but a few Canada Geese at the edge of the river. 

Mount Christie and Brussels Peak from the Banks of the Athabasca River, Jasper National Park

Mount Christie and Brussels Peak from the Banks of the Athabasca River, Jasper National Park

Happy Little Trees

As the sun got lower, I set up for a some exposures at "Goats and Glaciers." I framed the river and mountains and decided that wasn't enough, so I then added two wiggly spruce trees to the left of the frame (thinking, "let's put a happy little tree right over here and give him a little friend"), which added a much needed foreground element. The sunset didn't quite create the dramatic sky I was hoping for. After taking those shots, I drove down to the next overlook by the river bank, stepped out into the river on some stones and framed a simple shot of a few whispy pink clouds over the mountains with the cool glacial river flowing by. All campsites nearby were full, so I went back to "Goats and Glaciers" and set up camp in the back of my Jeep. I didn't sleep much. The park was so busy with folks trying to get campsites at nearby Honeymoon Lake, it was like sleeping next to a highway. Not quite the peaceful night I was hoping for after a day trekking around the mountains in the heat. 

Athabasca River and Rocky Mountains, Jasper National Park

Athabasca River and Rocky Mountains, Jasper National Park

Sunset over Athabasca River, Jasper National Park

Sunset over Athabasca River, Jasper National Park

Saskatchewan River Crossing & Peyto Lake

I awoke literally one minute before my alarm went off at 4:29 AM. My research suggested that it would take me 1 hour to drive to Peyto Lake in Banff National Park from my "campsite." I hit the road 1 1/2 hours before sunrise time, excited by the prospect of visiting Banff for the first time and capturing sunrise at iconic Peyto Lake. Things didn't quite go according to plan... When I arrived at the mid-point of my journey, Saskatchewan Crossing, sunrise was already in peak color. It was a great one, much better than last evening's sunset. I realized I wasn't going to make it to Peyto Lake, so I pulled over at the bridge and took a few shots just before the light faded away. It wasn't what I had planned, but it was a great location and all the elements came together in a few photographs I'm proud of. It would take another 45 minutes to arrive at Peyto Lake, plus the 10 minute hike into the woods to get to the best location. 

Saskatchewan River Crossing at Sunrise, Banff National Park

Saskatchewan River Crossing at Sunrise, Banff National Park

There was no color left in the sky when I arrived at Peyto Lake. I wasn't that disappointed; this was one of the best vistas I've ever seen anywhere! Other than one artist sitting on the wooden deck painting the scene, I had the place to myself. It was early enough no one else was out. I took a few shots. The sky had some puffy white clouds rolling across the blue sky, but the mountains were dark as the sun had not yet emerged from behind one of the eastern mountains. I went back to the car for breakfast and waited until the the sun's rays began to light the peaks of the mountains to the west. I grabbed my gear and ran out through the woods to the overlook to find a couple dozen people crowding the edge (and a drone buzzing overhead sounding like a pissed-off honey bee). I wedged my way through and shot several images from different locations all along the sandy bank high above the emerald colored lake. Golden light hit the mountains and clouds rolled quickly across the sky. I shot away, then opted to go for a time-lapse video. I would've liked to have been there for the colorful sunrise earlier, but I'm not disappointed in the images I did get. It's a magical place. I won't stay away long. 

Peyto Lake Time-lapse, Banff National Park, Canada

Return to Goats & Glaciers

I made two stops on my way back north along the Icefields Parkway at Rampart Creek and Tangle Falls. I had Rampart Creek all to myself. It was a peaceful location. I made several long exposures of water rushing over colorful stones with a glorious mountain in the background using a 6 stop neutral density filter. I sat at the edge watching a golden mantled ground squirrel gather seeds for about a half hour. 

Tangle Falls was a different experience all together. It's a famous waterfall that cascades dramatically down a few cliffside steps around 100-150 feet in all. I arrived to find several others climbing around the falls. I took two long exposures with the 6 stop ND to try and blur the people out of the scene with no luck. The sun came out and dappled the scene in harsh flat light. I decided to save Tangle Falls for another time. 

Rampart Creek, Banff National Park

Rampart Creek, Banff National Park

I arrived at "Goats and Glaciers" around mid-day to find a family of Mountain Goats grazing by the road. They lumbered off into the woods toward the overlook where I had been the evening before as a few tourists approached them for selfies (this drives me insane - please do not approach wildlife). I parked and went into the woods behind them indirectly and from a generous distance with nothing but my Nikon D7100 and 70-200 f2.8 lens. I followed their fresh tracks in the sand until I reached the steep banks of the Athabasca. I looked over the cliff and scanned the river's edge, but saw no goats. They had a hiding spot. A few minutes of scanning, and a goat popped up, then another. I took a few shots. They saw me and went back into hiding. I knew they would have to come back up sooner or later. I sat in the woods in between some juniper bushes for only a few moments when they emerged. If I remember correctly, there were six total. One billy, a few nannies, and two kids, all fluffy and white. I did the "looking for my wallet" routine so they didn't think I was out to get them. When they relaxed, they came closer, and I fired off several shots as they meandered through the bush only feet away from me at a slow pace, eventually disappearing into the woods. Though I saw no big horn rams this trip, I'm happy to have a had a few peaceful moments with this family of mountain goats! 

Go. Do. See.

I'm lucky to live near so much amazing nature and wildlife here in western Canada. I'm getting to spend time with animals I'd dreamed of seeing my whole life. Every time I go out into the rockies, it's harder to leave. I encourage all to visit the amazing natural places in North America, just do so with respect. Don't approach wildlife directly, give them plenty of space. Take time to observe and learn things instead of snapping a quick cell phone pic and moving on. The wonders of the natural world are delicate and fleeting, so are we, enjoy it while it lasts. 

To read Part I of Exploring the Icefields Parkway, click here! To find out what's in my camera bag, click here!

The Real Iceland Experience

Kirkjufell at Sunrise, Snaefellsnes Peninsula

Kirkjufell at Sunrise, Snaefellsnes Peninsula

I was fortunate to visit Iceland for the third time last week. It’s hard to stay away with Wow Airlines making fares to the small and uniquely beautiful North Atlantic Island so cheap. What made the trip even more affordable was that my wife’s expenses were paid. She designed an alternative spring break course for 12 university students to visit Iceland and study sustainable business practices. Iceland, being one of the more sustainable and energy independent nations on earth, was the perfect place for it. I, of course, had to tag along.

My itinerary broke away from the group for a couple days as I traveled by car from Reykjavik to Stokksnes way out in east Iceland – a 6 hour drive total. I stopped along the way to photograph some places I’d been to before, as well as some new locations. I slept in the back of the rental car at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, as a cold wind roared over Iceland’s largest glacier and snow pounded the car windows. It was a frigid and restless night, but the following morning revealed some spectacular sights and excellent photo opportunities. 

Challenges: Bad Weather and Tourists

Winter in Iceland is harsh (though, ironically, it was colder and snowier back home that week). I experienced about every type of rough weather that Iceland could throw at me during my two-day south coast road trip. Day one, alone, included rain, sleet, heavy snow, light hail, high winds in excess of 40 MPH, and temperatures well below freezing. Low hanging clouds covered most of the landscape and whole mountain ranges were not visible for almost the entire day. Photography was challenging in these conditions.

While shooting the view over the Reynisfjara sea stacks from Dyrhólaey, I was perched high on a cliff where winds were strongest. I had to hold my tripod with both hands while shooting. I was using a polarizer and 6-stop neutral density filter for long exposures. I needed to blur the waves as they fanned out across the shoreline in just the right curve. It was raining very hard, and sideways. Using a cloth to wipe my lens between shots, I was finally able to capture the wave I was hoping for. Most of the shots show water spots on the lens, but I was lucky to get two or three out of a dozen that were spot free. The method was to wipe, press the shutter, pray, and review the image on the LCD with my gloved fingers crossed. That was the second shoot of day one (after a short hike around the Solheim Glacier, which produced few pictures), and I was already damp and tired with several hundred kilometers to go. If there is anywhere you will have to work extremely hard for your images in challenging conditions, it’s Iceland.

Dyrhólaey

Dyrhólaey

The long drive from Vik to Jökulsárlón provided zero photo opportunities. Rain, sleet, then snow, obscured my views of the moss-covered lava fields that I was hoping to capture. I arrived at Jökulsárlón and the glacial lagoon to find no change in the conditions. I took a walk around the lagoon, and later the famous “Diamond Beach,” in the rain without any camera gear simply to get a sense of the place I had come so far to photograph. My original plan was to shoot the icebergs at Jökulsárlón and scoot on down Route 1 to Höfn an hour east to photograph sunset at the mountains of Stokksnes. I wanted to sleep in Höfn and return to Jökulsárlón for sunrise. That didn’t happen. Nature has little empathy for a photographer’s plans. The weather was obviously not going to let up as heavy snow began to fall and the winds became dangerous. Realizing that it had taken me much longer to get to Jökulsárlón than anticipated and that the clouds were going to snuff out any possible sunset, I decided to hunker down at Jokulsarlon and get some much needed sleep (I had not slept for 3 full days…long story).

After a long, cold, and uncomfortable night in the back of a RAV4 with nothing but a 30 degree sleeping bag (thinking, “why do I do this to myself?”), and having eaten nothing the day before other than an energy bar and gas station muffin, I arose at 5AM to find the beach and lagoon already swarmed with buses, tourists, and photo workshops. It was amazing. I had seen more-than-average crowds at popular spots the day before, but why were so many people way out in east Iceland at 5AM? (See my article: Is Iceland Overcrowded?) Noticing the precipitation had stopped and the sun was peaking under the dark clouds on the far horizon, I made a split decision. I would relieve myself of the crowds and book it over to Stokksnes for sunrise. It was risky. I had an hour and a half until sunrise and it was an hour and ten minutes from where I was, but I decided it was worth a try. Stokksness was at the top of my shot list, and I was going to shoot it come hell or high water…and high water there was.

Along the gorgeous drive to Höfn in decent weather I saw reindeer, fields of grazing horses, and glacier carved mountains. The light was coming through the dark clouds, which no longer covered the snow-capped mountain peaks. It was nothing short of magical. I quickly realized in my sleepy underfed daze that the light wouldn’t last. I had to make another decision, either continue to Stokksnes and hope I don’t miss the light, or stop at one of the designated pull-offs along the way to shoot the pink alpenglow that was forming on the mountaintops. I decided to shoot what was in front of me.

Mountains in East Iceland

Mountains in East Iceland

I pulled over at the next available pull-off (one that tourists are allowed to stop at), jerked my camera out of the bag, selected a lens, popped it on my tripod and shot three or four images of the pink sunrise kissing the snowy mountains. I expected this glorious light to bathe the majority of the mountains from top to bottom, but instead, it only grazed the peaks and vanished within maybe 60 seconds. The resulting images are among my favorites from the trip, so I’m glad I stopped.

By the time I arrived at Stokksnes, parked, paid my entrance fee (unexpected), and drove out along the beach access road for the best view, clouds had formed and completely snuffed out the morning light. It became so dark and overcast that the color images I shot actually look like black and whites at first glance. The mountains at Stokksnes are made of black rock and sand. The peaks and folds were sprinkled with snow. Only the tall grass along the shores gave any color. It’s a barren and ominous place when the clouds take over. 

It All Comes Crashing Down

Despite it being just after sunrise, tourists and other photographers had already trampled the beach. Getting the classic composition of the rolling black sand dunes in the foreground was not possible due the scattered footprints. There were several vanloads of photographers on workshops and two camper vans (one camper van was stuck in the sand and some of the photographers were helping to dig it out). I counted 40 people on the beach that morning. I am still amazed at how many people were out on that beach in the middle of nowhere in Iceland in March. Luckily, about the time I found some good spots to shoot from the crowds had all but moved on entirely. I almost had the place to myself. I set up on a rocky bit of coastline, examining the height of the waves. I wanted a long exposure of the waves crashing and flowing through the rocks in my foreground, the beach in the middle, and the craggy mountains of Stokksnes in the back. I set up in what I thought was a safe and dry spot. Just before I pressed the shutter for my first shot, a large and unexpected wave crashed into me, soaking me from the chest down and drenching my camera gear! The next wave didn’t even come close. It was a strange fluke. No other wave came crashing up the rocks that high. I was wet, cold, hungry, and pissed. I clambered back up to the sandy dunes, dried my gear with a towel, and sat in the car for a few minutes, trying to gather my composure and warm up in the air conditioning.

Stokksnes

Stokksnes

After I had cooled down in temperament and warmed up in body temperature, I headed back out to the beach and pulled off a few decent exposures of Stokksnes. Then it was back to Jökulsárlón, stopping once to photograph a herd of Reindeer running along a beach (another magical moment). I arrived around 9AM to find hardly any parking. I expected more crowds around this time, but was still shocked at just how many people were there. It seemed that every automobile sized iceberg at Jökulsárlón had 10 photographers pointing lenses at it. Regular tourists flocked from iceberg to iceberg taking selfie after selfie. It was a nightmare for a working travel photographer with a shot list. Getting an image without anyone else in it was a big challenge. I joined the swarm after finding a parking spot on the beach. I knew the shot I wanted, so I set up my equipment in advance. This time I didn’t want to get wet, so I slipped on the rubber rain boots I packed. I walked up and down the beach looking for the least populated spot and settled on a big blue iceberg sitting in the black sand about the size of a small car. I wanted the waves to encircle it so I could capture the action of the sea foam swirling around the iceberg. Gaging the waves, I determined that I would probably only get my knee-high boots wet up to my ankles. I composed my image and just as I was about to press the shutter release, noticed a wave coming closer, it seemed to quadruple in height by the millisecond – crashing over the iceberg and enveloping me from the waist down. Foiled again! The following swell brought the water, which had been barely touching my toes minutes earlier, over the tops of my boots – filling them with frigid salt water. I stood in amazement. I could not believe this happened to me twice in one morning!

Jökulsárlón

Jökulsárlón

I hobbled back to the car with squishy boots to find that someone had parked so close to the driver side that I could not open the door. I was so mad the water in my boots started to boil (seemed that way anyway). I emptied my boots on the passenger side and climbed over to the driver’s seat to park elsewhere. After repeating the same drying off ritual as I had at Stokksnes, I returned to the beach and to the same iceberg – this time getting my shot. I then went over the to glacier lagoon to shoot the icebergs floating in the calm water. I forgot how cold and damp I still was once I started examining the various shapes, sizes, colors, textures, and patterns of each iceberg. I got into my “zone” and forgot the crowd buzzing around me. By noon, I had a much better outlook (tons of images and much dryer clothes). The sky was clear and the light became harsh, so instead of making any stops on the way back to Reykjavik, I simply enjoyed the ride through natural scenes that were too cloudy to see the day before. I joined back up with my wife and her tour group, had some excellent Indian food (my first real meal in two days), and enjoyed the comfort of a warm bed.

Jökulsárlón

Jökulsárlón

Things Are Looking Up

The remainder of the trip went rather smoothly compared to the first few days. The weather was generally more cooperative and I enjoyed tagging along with my wife’s group of students as we toured the Golden Circle and ate amazing burgers and ice cream at Efsti Dalur – an organic dairy farm near Geysir. The next day, I got to have an experience I had never had before. I rode an Icelandic horse (rather nervously, but I got use to it) across the snowy fields of Hveragerði surrounded by mountains. This was my first horseback riding experience, and though it was a bumpy ride, it was as majestic as you might expect. The day ended with a great dinner at Icelandic Fish & Chips.

Riding Icelandic horses in Hveragerði

Riding Icelandic horses in Hveragerði

My wife built a free day into her itinerary so we could go to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula alone. Waking at 4AM, we drove to Kirkjufellsfoss on icy roads. This day, there were very few others out and about. A few photographers were already at Kirkjufell when we arrived just before sunrise, but not nearly as many as I was expecting based on my experiences earlier in the week. Sunrise was spectacular, and I made images of both Kirkjufellsfoss and Kirkjufell Mountain in the bright and colorful morning light. It was by far the most photographically productive morning of the whole week. We even saw a few seals in the bay!

Kirkjufell at Sunrise, Snaefellsnes Peninsula

Kirkjufell at Sunrise, Snaefellsnes Peninsula

We continued around the peninsula and through the national park, stopping occasionally until we had visited every spot on our list. We finished early and decided to head over to a waterfall that we had never been to, Hraunfossar. Despite it being sunny, it was the coldest day of the trip and very windy. Because we arrived at the falls in the afternoon, the light was harsh and made for less than ideal conditions for photographing waterfalls. I employed my polarizer and 6-stop neutral density filter yet again and came away with several images that I was initially happy with. Back at the apartment later, I noticed I had made a critical mistake while reviewing my images. I didn’t cover my viewfinder while taking long exposures at Hraunfossar; so light leakage from the bright sun at my back caused awful purple streaks across my images. Rookie mistake…I should know better! For some reason I didn’t notice this on the LCD while I was shooting the images. At first I was devastated, then realized if nothing else, I could edit them as black and whites and the purple streaks would probably not be an issue. The winter moss was brown and drab in the afternoon sun, so black and white ended up being best anyway. I can’t believe I made such a novice mistake…lesson learned!

Hraunfossar

Hraunfossar

Still No Northern Lights

I know better than to plan a trip around a celestial event as unpredictable as the Northern Lights, but I was still really hoping to at least see, if not photograph, the aurora this time. Alas, the storm clouds never parted at night while I was out in the boonies where I could most likely see them in the right conditions….maybe next time. I am happy with the images that I was able to get overall, despite the harsh winter conditions and crowded locations. As popular as Iceland has become it is still a challenging place to photograph well.

For my packing list including camera gear I used on this trip, click here. To see more images from this trip visit jonreaves.com.

( Click the pins on the map above to see every location I visited on my recent trip to Iceland. )

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.