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.