National Parks in Appalachia

The Temple of Karnak is one of the more angular of the many limestone formations deep inside Mammoth Cave, Mammoth Cave National Park, KY.
The Temple of Karnak is one of the more angular of the many limestone formations deep inside Mammoth Cave, Mammoth Cave National Park, KY.

Story & photos by Jerry Ginsberg

The national park movement originally grew out of the 19th century recognition that it was important to protect the spectacular natural wonders of the American west. It took a few more decades for the eastern part of our country to gain some respect for its own scenic gems. Eventually, however, many national parks were established east of the Mississippi and now play host to scores of millions of visitors annually. Three of these, Mammoth Cave, Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains, form a line through the Appalachians and were created at the urging of FDR.

The story goes that during the Great Depression when President Franklin Roosevelt was constantly looking for projects through which to pump federal funds into the stricken economy, he formed a commission to identify somewhere in the eastern portion of the nation where a new National Park might be appropriately located. When the members of the commission reported back to the president, they gave him the unexpected news that, rather than struggling to find a spot for just a single park, they had found three!

As a result, here we are – close to a century later – enjoying this trio of national treasures more than ever as they provide a welcome sanctuary for a weary, over-stressed and highly over-communicated populace.

Since we have discussed the very popular Smokies in an earlier issue and will be re-visiting that very popular park soon, let’s focus on the other two today.

Ceiling of Drapery Room inside Mammoth Cave, Mammoth Cave National Park, KY. The varied ways in which these limestone caverns were formed over many millennia, this large chamber is very aptly named.
Ceiling of Drapery Room inside Mammoth Cave, Mammoth Cave National Park, KY. The varied ways in which these limestone caverns were formed over many millennia, this large chamber is very aptly named.

Mammoth Cave National Park (established 1941) just south of Louisville, KY protects the biggest cave system in the entire world. These limestone caverns burrow through the Kentucky hills for over 300 miles. Much of this vast system remains unexplored to this very day.

The visitor-friendly portion of the caves can be toured very easily. Tickets for various tour routes are sold at the visitor center just steps from the main cave entrance. Among the most intriguing formations for us as photographers are Frozen Niagara, the Drapery Room and the Ruins of Karnak, so make sure to choose tours that include those spots.

When stalactites and stalagmites meet, complete columns are the result. Inside Mammoth Cave, Mammoth Cave National Park, KY.
When stalactites and stalagmites meet, complete columns are the result. Inside Mammoth Cave, Mammoth Cave National Park, KY.

The bad news: Generally speaking, the use of tripods is not permitted on such group tours geared to the general public.

Now for the good news: With the newest generation of high end digital cameras able to handle high ISO shooting pretty well while holding noise to a minimum and image-stabilization technology now enabling better hand-held shooting every year, making good images in the really dim cave lighting is now more doable than ever. Make sure that you are set to shoot RAW files and that your camera’s particular flavor of shake reduction is fully engaged. That said, there are limits to even that very sophisticated function. I try to never go below 1/20 th of a second exposure and, even then, use best practices such as exhaling about halfway and gently squeezing the shutter release.

Once outside the caves, the park’s other scenery provides a lovely walk through untrammeled Nature, such as the Green River countryside.
Once outside the caves, the park’s other scenery provides a lovely walk through untrammeled Nature, such as the Green River countryside.

Your visit to Mammoth Cave National Park does not end when your cave tour does, since there is more to enjoy here. The Green River running through the park offers a short, but fun cruise on an old-fashioned boat.

Make sure to walk around Sloan’s Crossing Pond; great in the light of early evening. Stroll some of the calm and easy trails such as Sand Cave and Turnhole Bend. In soft light the forest environment and uneven limestone forms can yield some good images.

When combining cave and surface photography, it makes sense to tour the caves during mid-day when the outside light is usually unfavorable and save most of your landscape shooting for the ends of the day.

Since the limestone that forms the surface here is so very soft and porous, many dangerous sinkholes have been formed. Watch where you step!
Since the limestone that forms the surface here is so very soft and porous, many dangerous sinkholes have been formed. Watch where you step!

Mammoth Cave National Park has a small lodge which fills quickly during busy times of the year, so reserve early. Alternatively, several motels in nearby Cave City offer convenient accommodations. Dining choices lean toward the basic.

A single, but long day’s drive of about 570 miles can bring you to famed Shenandoah National Park (established 1935) in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Scenic Skyline Drive is the only road running 105 miles through this long and narrow national park from Front Royal, VA on the north end to the beginning of the Blue Ridge Parkway at the south end of Shenandoah. Several ‘gaps’ allow entrance at intermittent points along the length of the park.

Perched along a narrow ridge looking down upon the historic Shenandoah Valley, this park features many overlooks, scenic pullouts and trails to explore. Some of the best views to be had are in the centrally located Skylands and Big Meadows areas. Make sure to hike up to Hawksbill Summit to take in a sunset there. Then hike down to Dark Hollow Falls, Rose River Falls and Whiteoak Falls. Like most waterfalls, these are photographed best in the soft light of a cloudy or at least somewhat overcast day. This will help to avoid the harsh, contrasty light that is so often the bane of forest and waterfall images.

Brilliant autumn hues at Whiteoak Falls highlight a stroll through Shenandoah National Park in October.
Brilliant autumn hues at Whiteoak Falls highlight a stroll through Shenandoah National Park in October.

When setting off on a hike along the great trails of Shenandoah, it is important to remember that with the trailheads situated mostly along the road, you begin by walking downhill and must return by hiking uphill. Pace yourself accordingly!

Since the park is situated on a definite north-south axis, the scenic spots along its edges face both east and west. This offers us a multitude of lighting choices; sunrise and sunset, front/side lit and great backlighting. More than enough to keep you very busy for perhaps a week.

The park lodges in the areas mentioned above are quite comfortable and will be the most convenient accommodations for your visit to long and narrow Shenandoah. Motels along park edges, such as in Luray, VA are also good options offering very easy access in and out of the park.

Note: I have been honored by the National Park Service with an invitation to be the Artist-in-Residence in Shenandoah for the fall season. Happily, the timing should coincide with the peak of the autumn color. With the lush forests slightly staggered in elevation, this should provide for a good period of brilliant foliage. If you should find yourself in the area, please stop by and say Hello. I will be leading some activities such as a photo walk and slideshow which will be posted in the visitor center/s. Look for an updated report on this great park in the future once some of those forthcoming images are processed.

Jerry Ginsberg is a multi award-winning and widely published photographer and educator whose landscape and travel images have graced the pages and covers of hundreds of books, magazines and travel catalogs. He is the only person to have photographed each and every one of America’s National Parks with medium format cameras and has appeared on ABC TV as an expert on the parks. His works have been exhibited from coast to coast and have received numerous awards in competition. Jerry’s photographic archive spans virtually all of both North and South America, as well as fascinating places in Europe and the Middle East. More of Ginsberg’s images are on display at www.JerryGinsberg.com. Or e mail him at jerry@jerryginsberg.com.