Take Me Home, Country Roads: Fall Photography in West Virginia

Spectacular autumn color in Babcock State Park near Fayetteville, WV.
Spectacular autumn color in Babcock State Park near Fayetteville, WV.

Story and photos by Jerry Ginsberg

The Mountain State of West Virginia was admitted to Union in 1863 at the height of the Civil War when the Unionists of the northern and western counties of secessionist Virginia themselves chose to secede from that Confederate state. It was a real public relations victory for President Lincoln and the Union. Don’t worry: That’s the end of the history lecture.

Even though I am primarily focused on our fabulous National Parks and other units of the National Park Service, once in a while I do get off that beaten path and explore a little farther afield. This was the case recently when I spent several days driving through the mountains of West Virginia in search of pastoral scenes painted with colorful fall foliage.

Until this trip, I had not set foot in the Mountain State for many years.

I suppose that’s because it does not have a National Park. As a result, I have been missing out on a lot of great natural beauty and historic interest. I’m going to try to not repeat that mistake.

Sandstone Falls in the New River Gorge National River.
Sandstone Falls in the New River Gorge National River.

A friend, fellow photographer and devoted Buckeye fan from Ohio encouraged me to visit a couple of the wonderful state parks in West Virginia. He even labeled one of them, Blackwater Falls State Park and the surrounding area as “national park worthy.” High praise coming from someone as discerning as he.

Yes, our nation contains an immense number of state parks. Some days, they seem to be everywhere. I have never gravitated toward them, partly because there are so many and partly because I have long harbored the idea that if they were that terrific, they would have risen to the lofty status of National Parks.

Perhaps among the exceptions is enormous Wood-Tikchik State Park in southwest Alaska, at 1.6 million acres the largest such unit in the nation. Wood-Tikchik has been exquisitely portrayed by master landscape photographer Robert Glenn Ketchum in a lovely large format book.

Alas, I digress from West Virginia. In addition to the state parks and other scenes mentioned below, just driving the many scenic and winding mountain by-ways of the state frequently brought to mind the lyrics of the once very popular John Denver song, “Country Roads.”

Believe me, the description is really accurate.

Spectacular autumn color in Babcock State Park near Fayetteville, WV.
Spectacular autumn color in Babcock State Park near Fayetteville, WV.

Timing

I planned to be in West Virginia during mid-October in an attempt to catch the peak of the fall color in the thick forests that cover most of the mountains, not to mention the countless glens and more intimate locations throughout the state.

As luck would have it, I had timed it just right. While conditions that affect the show of autumn color can vary widely from year to year, I heard several folks in the area comment that this year’s display was the best that they had seen in quite a while.

The varied palette of the forests and mountains was just beautiful and a wonderful show of Nature – with or without a camera.

Along the way, I met an older gent with his tripod set up on a rickety footbridge that shook with every footfall. When I suggested that the nearby creek bank would make a more stable platform, he replied simply, “It’s like moonshine. Whatever it is, it’s still pretty good.”

It’s hard to argue with such down home wisdom.

Spectacular autumn color surrounds the historic Glade Creek grist mill in Babcock State Park near Fayetteville, WV.
Spectacular autumn color surrounds the historic Glade Creek grist mill in Babcock State Park near Fayetteville, WV.

Babcock State Park

One of the great iconic scenes here is the 19th century Glade Creek Grist Mill with its orange water wheel at the very heart of 4,000 acre Babcock State Park near Fayetteville. Even though this small spot has been photographed perhaps a million times, it had to be high on my list.

This historic structure gets the early morning light. It’s best to be there well before sunrise because by the time breakfast for most folks is over, hordes of tourists begin to arrive, particularly on weekends.

Babcock State Park is a lovely place. In addition to the famous Glade Creek Grist Mill, it includes Boley Lake and a few easy trails that lead to high vantage points. Within this compact park are several basic, but cozy and pleasant little cabins that can serve as your headquarters for exploring the area. All in all, a must-see stop when in this part of the country.

Lovely and lacey Cathedral Falls drops within its own wide rock alcove right along Route 60 near Amsted, WV.
Lovely and lacey Cathedral Falls drops within its own wide rock alcove right along Route 60 near Amsted, WV.

Other Close locations

Nearby are several standalone features offering worthwhile compositions. 

Towering Cathedral Falls tumbles down several hundred feet through many smaller drops in its very own black rock alcove. Being there immediately after, or even during a rainy day can increase the water flow and certainly the look of your images. Like most waterfalls, this one is best photographed under cloudy-bright skies, but also works until late in the morning even on a sunny day, so a perfect second shot. Right along Route 60 just west of Amsted.

Low, but very wide Sandstone Falls in the New River Gorge National River. An easy stroll along a new boardwalk.
Low, but very wide Sandstone Falls in the New River Gorge National River. An easy stroll along a new boardwalk.

Sandstone Falls – a bit of a drive from Babcock to this fairly low, but sprawling waterfall near Hinton, WV. Sandstone Falls is remarkable for its innumerable cascades spanning the wide New River within New River Gorge National River. I’m told that the New River is badly mis-named, since it is actually one of the very oldest rivers in North America. These many small falls offer an endless choice of compositions easily viewed from a brand new boardwalk. Great late in the day.

Hawk’s Nest State Park is not far, but is not as interesting as Babcock and others mentioned.

Blackwater Falls thunders over a sharp precipice in Blackwater Falls State Park near Davis, WV.
Blackwater Falls thunders over a sharp precipice in Blackwater Falls State Park near Davis, WV.

Blackwater Falls State Park

Moving further east to Davis, WV will bring you to Blackwater Falls State Park. The calling card attraction here is this park’s namesake cascade. At just fifty-seven feet high, it doesn’t sound overly impressive. But the volume of water going over the precipice is just tremendous. The roar of the falls can be heard very clearly from quite a distance. Access is limited to boardwalks and observation platforms on both sides of the cascade, but they are more than adequate to frame several excellent compositions.

The sky on both sides of this thundering cataract can work both very early and very late in the day. The falls face mostly east so if you choose to shoot here in the morning, make sure to be done no later than 30-40 minutes after official sunrise.

The park also includes Pendleton Lake which I did not find to be of any real interest.

Outside of these parks, the short stretch of Rt. 32 going southbound from Davis to Harman can be quite lovely.

Spectacular autumn color in Babcock State Park near Fayetteville, WV.
Spectacular autumn color in Babcock State Park near Fayetteville, WV.

Logistics

Since it is unlikely that you will be driving on unpaved roads, driving any standard passenger vehicle should be perfectly adequate. With the current crop of small and mid-size SUVs and crossovers, it’s hard to resist the convenience of using a tailgate or hatch.

As mentioned above, the most convenient lodging choices are the cabins in Babcock State Park and the motels in Davis, WV. 

Jerry Ginsberg is a multi-award winning 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 National Parks with medium format cameras, has been awarded Artistic Residencies in several National Parks and has appeared on ABC TV advising on the 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 as well as UNESCO World Heritage many other fascinating sites around the world. More of Ginsberg’s images are on display at www.JerryGinsberg.com Or e mail him at jerry@jerryginsberg.com