West Virginia Autumn Hotspots (Published this month on Mountain Trail Photo)
West Virginia holds a secret. Its mountains rival New England in tapestries of red, orange, gold, green and blue. And there is no other finer spot in all of West Virginia in the fall than the Monongahela National Forest. The Monongahela National Forest contains over 910,155 acres of mountains, streams, waterfalls, bogs, windswept ridges, Appalachian hollows, rustic farms, an abundance of wildlife, 510 miles of roads, 78,000 acres of designated wilderness, three designated scenic areas, 825 miles of trails and 10 wildlife management units. Are you beginning to get the picture? This is an amazing place for nature and landscape photography in any season, but in autumn it is truly awesome. From the fiery red covered heath barrens of Bear Rocks and Dolly Sods to swirling leaves in plunge pools of mighty waterfalls, this area is by far the mid-Atlantic’s best kept autumn secret. Let me take you on a journey to some of the best spots in the Monongahela for classic autumn color hot spots.
Let’s start in the Potomac Highlands. The Potomac Highlands are located in the Eastern Panhandle of the state and border western Maryland and Virginia. The area boasts some of the most dramatic and scenic areas in all of West Virginia. Here are a few of my favorite spots in the Potomac Highlands.
The Dolly Sods Wilderness is the highest plateau of its type east of the Mississippi River with elevations ranging from 4,000 feet to 2,700 feet. Because of the high elevation and extreme weather this is one of the first areas in the state to change color and it usually reaches its peak in the last week of September to the first week of October. If you visit Dolly Sods you need to spend some time in the Bear Rocks Preserve which is located off of forest road 75 in the northeast section of the wilderness. This area is much more reminiscent of the Canadian Tundra with sweeping vistas and is nearly treeless. The area is covered by an extensive network of heath barrens and bogs that turn a fiery red in autumn. From the parking lot, hike out across the rock formations with grand vistas of the Alleghany Mountains for breathtaking scenic views. Bear Rocks is best at sunrise and sunset. Make sure to bring your circular polarizer to darken skies and remove any glare from wet foliage. Because you will probably be shooting many wide angle scenics, a set of graduated split neutral density filters will help in balancing the exposure. But even after the sun has set it’s not quite time to pack up your equipment and head for camp. This area is far enough removed from civilization and can be a great place for nightscapes. The extremely graphic spruce trees and interesting rock formations will serve as a perfect silhouette for star trails.
The next area in the Potomac Highlands that needs to be mentioned is Canaan Valley and Blackwater Falls State Park. Canaan Valley holds yet another one-of-a-kind claim to fame that it is the highest valley east of the Mississippi River. This area is phenomenal in the fall and the color usually begins to change the first week of October and will usually peak around the second week. While in the area be sure to visit Canaan Valley State Park on a wet and overcast day. The park has some of the finest stands of woods in the area with wide open fields and meadows perfect for intimate fall color compositions.
While you’re in Canaan Valley you won’t want to miss out on Blackwater Falls State Park. The Blackwater River leaves its leisurely course in Canaan Valley as it plummets 62 feet into the rugged Blackwater Canyon. Blackwater Falls is probably the most photographed waterfall in West Virginia, and for good reason. There are essentially two locations from which you can shoot the falls. You can either walk down the boardwalk from the east side of the river to a platform at the base of the falls or access a platform on the west side of the river for arial views of the waterfall. Both are great shooting locations and offer very different views. In autumn, I prefer the western viewpoint from above the canyon as you can frame fall foliage in the shot. It’s best to shoot the waterfall on a wet and overcast day, although at sunrise and sunset you can still make some very dramatic images. Make sure to use a circular polarizer to cut glare from the wet rocks and water. While in Blackwater Falls State Park you’ll want to visit a few other places in the park. Don’t pass up shooting Shays Run. You can access Shays Run from the trailhead to the left of the lodge. Hike just a few hundred feet and then climb down off trail to the base of Elakala Falls for some great waterfall shots. Approach the base of the falls were there are several plunge pools and line up swirling leaves in the lower half of the frame with Elakala spilling over in the background.
For sunrise or sunset try shooting from the Pendleton overlook. This great view looks down Blackwater Canyon and has great color in the autumn. Pendleton Overlook can also be very rewarding on an overcast day. You can line up some great long lens landscapes, picking out interesting patterns of colors and shapes in the canyon ridges.
Spruce Knob/Seneca Rocks
Heading a little further south along Rt.32 will bring you to the Spruce Knob/Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area. This is a great place to spend a few days exploring and hiking. Spruce Knob is a great sunset location as Seneca Rocks rises 900 feet above the North Fork South Branch of the Potomac River. At sunset it is possible to shoot the profile of Seneca Rock with the Potomac River in the foreground. Another great shot is a close up of the notch in Seneca Rocks with late evening light striking the Tuscarora quartzite as its turns a rust orange.
A little to the east of Seneca rocks is the trailhead for North Fork Mountain. North Fork Mountain is without a doubt one of the most scenic hikes in all of the state. Described by Backpacker Magazine as some of the “best mountain scenery in the east”, North Fork is a scenic hotspot for sure. The North Fork Mountain Trail covers 24 miles of rough terrain from Judy Gap to Rt.33 on the north end of the ridge. For the best scenic views I recommend access at the northern trailhead off of Smoketown Road near Rt.33. After about a 2.5 mile hike and very steep climb you will reach the Tuscarora Cliffs with excellent views north and south. Sunset is the best time for scenic photography and you will want to bring a head lamp, topo map and extra food and water as you will be hiking back to the trailhead in the dark.
Heading deeper into the Monongahela National Forest south of Seneca Rocks is Spruce Knob, the highest point in West Virginia at 4,836 feet. A rough and grated forest road, Forest road 112, will land you near the summit of Spruce Knob. Once on the top a hiking trail leads to spectacular scenic overlooks. Sunrise and sunset are the best times for capturing the drama on this mountain summit. After hiking past the lookout tower, head down the trail to an open rock field and stunning views to the west at sunset.
Spruce Knob Lake is manmade but should not be overlooked for its photographic potential. Its is definitely best at sunrise when cool mornings often produce a blanket of fog over the lake and surrounding meadows at first light. There is a great nature trail that walks around the lake and offers countless compositions of the autumn draped hillsides reflecting in the still waters of the lake. Don’t forget to explore and photograph the open meadows around the lake as well. They are bordered by a beautiful stand of Appalachian forest and contain hundreds of spider webs perfect for macro work.
Highland Scenic Highway
Heading down into the southern portion of the Monongahela National Forest, there is the Highland Scenic Area and Falls of Hills Creek. The Highland Scenic Highway departs from Highway 219 and travels 22.5 miles to WV55. Along the route you will encounter scenic overlooks, the Tea Creek Wilderness and Cranberry Glades. Just about 2 miles from the intersection with Highway 219 is a great view looking northeast over the mountain ridges. This is a perfect spot for sunrise and the valley bottoms often fill with fog in the late summer and autumn.
Heading further south on WV 150 (the Highland Scenic Highway) puts you into the Tea Creek watershed. This is a great spot in the early morning and late afternoon for shooting reflections and abstracts. All along the Highland Scenic Highway are pullouts and great shots of autumn foliage on overcast days.
Keep going a little further towards the southern terminus of the highway and you will reach WV55/39. At the intersection turn right and head over to Cranberry Glades. Cranberry Glades is over 750 acres of peat bogs that are reminiscent of those areas found in Canada. The bog is home to some truly unique specimens including carnivorous plants like the Pitcher Plant and Sundew. The plants in the bog turn a crimson gold in autumn and many macro opportunities await the nature photographer. Black Bears also frequent the area and can occasionally be photographed.
A bit further down the way on WV55/39 is the Falls of Hills Creek Scenic Area. Tucked away in a narrow gorge lies three waterfalls ranging from 25 feet to 65 feet. This area is a perfect day hike and the falls are best photographed either early in the morning or on a wet overcast day. Be sure to bring a telephoto lens for picking out sections of the falls and a wide angle for sweeping views of the waterfalls and surrounding forest.
West Virginia’s Monongahela National Forest is too big to cover in this article and there are countless wilderness trails, hundreds of back roads and windswept mountain ridges that beckon the adventurous photographer. Be sure to pick up a DeLorme Atlas and Gazetteer which has waterfall locations, back roads, wilderness areas, covered bridges, state parks and much, much more to guide you through the Appalachian backcountry.