Story and photography by Jerry Ginsberg
In addition to my usual narrative on a particular park, this month I would like to make a special mention of the centennial celebration of the National Park Service. (See https://www.nps.gov/subjects/centennial/index.htm.) There is no time like the present to get out and spend some time in one of America’s most special places. So pack your gear and visit a national park! Or, two.
Now let’s jump into Shenandoah National Park.
Among the premier drives located east of the Mississippi, the 105-mile-long Skyline Drive is certainly one of them. This great road runs across the top of the Blue Ridge above the Shenandoah Valley. The views along its route are so majestic that many folks would be drawn here just for the ride, even if this were not Shenandoah National Park.
The northern end of the drive begins at Front Royal, Virginia, near the junction of Interstates 66 and 81. Its southern terminus connects with the north end of the famed 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway. In between are several entrances to the park and many scenic stops and trailheads.
As photographers, we should be aware of three primary features of the topography of Shenandoah.
- First, almost all hikes begin on top of the ridge and head downward. This means that your return trip will be uphill, so plan accordingly.
- Next, since the valley below is developed and populated, be careful not to include too much of this civilization (lights, etc.) in your compositions.
- Lastly, the overall shape of the park is not only long, but very narrow. Since just the single road runs north and south, it is likely that you will be doing a fair bit of driving up and down Skyline Drive between shooting locations.
Many of the best landscapes seem to be bunched toward the middle of the drive, so let’s focus on this area. When entering the park via Route 211 you will come through the Thornton Gap entrance station. Begin by driving south from there.
Generally speaking, the overlooks are west-facing, so they are usually best in late daylight. The majority of the hikes, waterfalls and “hollers” (hollows and depressions in the topography) are along the east side of the drive.
The short walk down to Dark Hollow Falls is one of the most popular in the park, so it is often crowded. For a better photo experience, walk the nearby Rose River Loop Trail.
My favorite hike in Shenandoah is the trail to Upper and Lower Whiteoak Falls. The trail starts gently and eventually becomes steeper. The trick to shooting here is that many of the best compositions are on the way back up.
Some of the best shooting will be found at these and similar spots:
- Hike up to Hawksbill Mountain Summit for sunset.
- Naked Creek, Franklin Cliffs, Stony Man and Pinnacles overlooks.
- Hensley Hollow, Hazeltop Ridge, Timber Hollow.
With a little exploring, you are sure to find your own favorites.
My preferred time to visit Shenandoah is early to mid-October in order to catch the peak of the fall color. Naturally, the timing depends upon the rain and weather conditions in any particular year.
Lodging shouldn’t be a problem. The Skyland Resort and Big Meadows Lodge near the middle of the park are large facilities with a wide variety of accommodations and lots of capacity. Still, they can fill up. In the event that they are both full, the small town of Luray, Virginia, just a few miles west of the park (and home to Luray Caverns), has a few motels.
Jerry Ginsberg is a widely published freelance photographer whose images have graced the pages of hundreds of books and magazines. He has photographed all 59 U.S. national parks as well as most of South America with medium-format cameras. Jerry was a national park artist in residence for 2015 at Petrified Forest National Park. More of his work can be seen at www.JerryGinsberg.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.