Oh Shenandoah, My Shenandoah: Photography in Shenandoah National Park

West facing view of scenic Franklin Cliffs in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.
West facing view of scenic Franklin Cliffs in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.

Story & photos by Jerry Ginsberg

As I write this, the United States, like many other nations, is just beginning to stir after a long shutdown in a Herculean effort to slow the spread of the deadly corona virus pandemic. The great National Parks that I typically write about have been closed to visitors. As spring turns towards summer, some restrictions are easing and people are venturing out of their homes. In the meantime, we’ve spent a lot of time online. I have kept busy editing last winter’s images and re-playing webinars on You Tube while my wife is immersed in Words with Friends and ‘encourages’ me to clean out the garage. We look forward to returning to the gym and continue to diligently do what we can to avoid this horrendous plague.

In late May, Shenandoah National Park took the first steps towards reopening. Conditions vary from place to place, so please check with your park before heading out for a visit. In anticipation of better days ahead, then, it seems like a good time to share the information below.

In the meantime, above all, stay safe!

As I sit in my cozy century-old cabin perched atop the Blue Ridge in western Virginia, I gaze out through a huge picture window at the sprawling Shenandoah Valley below. From here it is easy to imagine the blue and gray clad armies of the Civil War riding to and fro across these lands, through the forests and the gaps as they each struggled for advantage.

This was the bread basket of the Confederacy. The Shenandoah Valley supplied a great deal of the food needed to keep the Army of Northern Virginia fed, while the Army of the Potomac worked daily to deny these crops to the rebels. With a little imagination, one can stroll the ridge line in the calm of evening and almost hear the hoofbeats of steely-eyed Stonewall Jackson, saber held high, as he spurred his horse forward. Old Stonewall led the Union armies on a merry chase for a while, but we know how the story ends.

Alas, we cannot photograph these ghosts. We can, however, make stirring and poetic images of today’s forests, mountains and waterfalls.

Imposing view of the Blue Ridge from Hawksbill Summit, at just over 4,000 feet, the highest point in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.
Imposing view of the Blue Ridge from Hawksbill Summit, at just over 4,000 feet, the highest point in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia.

Recently, I was honored once again by the National Park Service by being chosen as an Artist in Residence in another park unit. This time, the long, narrow and quintessentially scenic Shenandoah National Park.

It’s wonderful that the National Park Service offers Artist-in-Residence programs. These residencies are offered not only in National Parks, but in many different types of units managed by the NPS.

See also The NPS Artist-in-Residence Program: Are You Interested? Check the NPS website for a complete listing of residency opportunities available throughout the system.

Each park unit runs its own program. Most are offered to a variety of visual, literary and performance artists. Requirements are location specific and can vary widely from place to place. Application components and requirements are clearly spelled out on the website of each NPS unit choosing to offer a residency program. If you wish to apply, make sure to submit precisely the materials requested; no more and no less. Failure to comply will likely lead to your application being quickly rejected.

Acceptance to most of these programs is extremely competitive. Don’t be deterred if your first few applications are not successful. Keep trying. It can be more productive to apply to some of the lesser known NPS units rather than going for the brass ring early on.

At this writing, residency programs in Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain and Yosemite National Parks have been suspended until further notice, mostly due to a shortage of facilities. With the long-standing backlog of deferred NPS maintenance projects now at about $13 Billion that’s not surprising.

Photo of mountains receding in the distance at Buck Hollow.
Buck Hollow

Overview of the Park

Shenandoah National Park was established in 1935 at the height of the Great Depression as part of FDR’s New Deal. Much of the labor needed to build the facilities, cut and clear the trails was supplied by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The only road through this (almost) 200,000 acre park is 105 mile long famed and aptly named Skyline Drive. Since the park is just seventy-five miles long from Front Royal at its northern end to Route I-64 at its foot where it connects seamlessly with the Blue Ridge Parkway, it is not difficult to imagine the many twists and turns needed to make up that extra thirty miles of driving. Along the way are lots and lots of scenic overlooks and trailheads.

You will enjoy the many vistas here. The area is chock full of lush forests, shapely mountains and seemingly endless stacked ridges receding into the distance. Perhaps the prime time to be in Shenandoah is mid-October when the thick carpet of deciduous trees is lavishly painted with the brilliant hues of autumn. When that happens, walking through the quiet and ethereal forests feels much like being in a cathedral.

That is also when this park is the most crowded with folks from the many nearby population centers craving some much needed contact with Nature, so having patience with the traffic is a necessity.

The prime thing to remember when hiking in Shenandoah is something that will sound rather counter-intuitive. The ascent, often steep, comes at the end, rather than the beginning of most hikes. That is because Skyline Drive runs along a narrow ridge. With many trailheads being along the east side of the road, most hikes, especially those to the great waterfalls, first descend from there. Your return hike, whether looping or retracing your steps, will be uphill. As a general rule of thumb, after dropping down to your chosen spot, allow about twice as long for the uphill return. The exceptions to this pattern are a few of the hikes along the west side of the Drive that ascend to the summits listed below.

Another caveat: When shooting big scenic compositions, primarily those looking westward from Skyline Drive, be careful to note the lights of civilization below. In many cases, it will be unavoidable. Be prepared for some serious retouching.

View at sunset from Hawksbill Summit
Hawksbill Summit

Best Photo Spots: Hiking

Among the hikes that will likely prove most productive for us as photographers are:

  • Rose River Falls – An easy walk of about 2.5 miles round trip. Like most waterfalls, you will have the best light on a cloudy day. The falls run more full the day after a rain. If you’re up for more of a workout, try the entire Rose River Loop, a longer trail that will take you to additional cascades. Bring some moleskin and a snack.
  • Whiteoak Canyon – with three waterfalls in a row. About 4.5 – 5 miles round trip. One of my all-time favorite spots in Shenandoah National Park. Hiking on the fire road is easier than via the trail and brings you to the very same spot. Best in the shade of very early morning. By late morning, shot-killing hot spots can hit the falls.
  • Doyle’s River Falls – A lovely double fall. A fairly moderate hike of 3.2 miles round trip with a markedly steep ascent.
  • Dark Hollow Falls – Just 1.75 miles roundtrip. A fairly easy walk. Best in early morning before the sun – and the crowds – arrive.
  • Hawksbill Summit – The perfect sunset spot. Bring a snack and arrive early for the best camera position in a fairly tight place. This is an easy hike offering a choice of two routes. Going out one and returning by the other will require either shuttling two vehicles or a boring walk along the road.
  • Stony Man – An easy stroll of under a mile with an elevation gain of less than 200 feet. Well worth doing in late day light.

Best Photo Spots: Overlooks

  • Hazeltop – South of Big Meadows. A great place for a real pano. Either early or late light.
  • Hazel Mountain – Just south of the Thornton Gap entrance from Luray. Great rocks right in the center of the overlook often glow warmly in early light shortly before dawn.
  • Franklin Cliffs – Best in the early morning, but can work for afternoon as well. Note the one large rock right at the south end of the parking area.
  • Jewell Hollow – Best in late light. The rocks at the very south end of the parking lot can make a useful foreground.
  • Naked Creek – Great spot for late light. Natural pano composition. Absent a strong foreground, relies on autumn color for an interesting scene.

You will note that these locations are in the center one-third of the Skyline Drive between the Thornton Gap and Swift Run Gap entrances. In my opinion, the north and south ends, while very nice in their own rights, cannot compete with the middle of the park for the best photo spots.

When searching for the ultimate grand scenic composition, don’t forget to look for the small things in Nature that will round out your portfolio. Images of colorful leaves, frosty edges, reflections, patterns and intimate close-ups are all important elements in painting a complete portrait of any location. Of course, no matter how dramatic the view, the main ingredients for successful photography here in Shenandoah national park are colorful foliage in autumn or the glorious wildflower

Trees in fall color reflect in still pool at Upper Whiteoak Falls in Shenandoah National Park, VA.
Trees in fall color reflect in still pool at Upper Whiteoak Falls.

Logistics

The Skyline Drive is a very smooth road easily drivable with any vehicle. It has many twists and turns. Wildlife is always present so always observe the posted speed limits. Big quadrupeds in Shenandoah include lots of white tail deer and the occasional black bear. Hitting an animal is a tragedy that will put dents in both your vehicle and your trip. Nothing can ruin an otherwise great photo trip as quickly as an accident or a traffic ticket. The road can get busy in October when lots of folks flock here to enjoy the fall color – so patience is the watch word.

Two great lodges in the park offer very convenient accommodations and dining options. The Skylands Resort and Big Meadows Lodge are strategically located near many of the photo spots mentioned above. If you prefer roughing it, there are several sizable campgrounds in the park, but they tend to fill up quickly, especially on weekends and holidays. Just outside the park, the small town of Luray, VA has a few motels that are not quite as well situated, but still fairly convenient.

Jerry Ginsberg is an award winning and widely published photographer 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 62 National Parks with medium format cameras and has appeared on ABC TV discussing our national 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.

More of Ginsberg’s images are on display at www.JerryGinsberg.com or e-mail him at jerry@jerryginsberg.com.