Hiking in the Pisgah National Forest

July 9, 2014

Its been far too long since I have gone and done a long duration Trek in the mountains.  It seems that I have only been able to get out there for a few hours at a time.  While that has yielded some really good pictures, I have not had the time to work on any sunrises, or to hit multiple locations that require hikes.  There were several places in the Pisgah National Forest that I have been wanting to go for a while now, and I decided that today would be the day.  The first order of business would be a possible sunrise since the weather was calling for 45% cloud cover, and I wanted to get back to the Brown Mountain Overlook where I had done an impromptu sunrise shoot some years ago.

The problem with doing a sunrise set this time of year was that sunrise was happening shortly after 6am, which meant that I would need to be there no later than 5:45am.  Since the overlook is about 2.5 hours away, I started to do some math and realized that I was going to be waking up at 2:15 in the morning.  Hmmmm, that is more like a time to go to sleep than to wake up...but that is part of being a photographer I suppose.

I started the night before going to sleep while it was still light outside, and well before my 9 year old's bedtime.  There was just something wrong with that!  I didn't sleep all that great since I was preparing myself to need to wake up that early.  Somehow though, I did manage to get a fair amount of sleep and when the alarm rang at that unholy time, I was able to get up and start my day.  Of course, I did check the weather first before I got up.  It was holding steady with 45% cloud cover till about 8am, and then increasing to 70%.  My plan was to do the sunrise set, and then move on to work a couple of waterfalls, namely Roaring Fork Falls and Crabtree Falls.

Red Sky in Morn'
The drive out to the mountains was uneventful except for the fact that I remembered incorrectly that Hwy 181 intersected with I40.  Needless to say, I missed the exits I should have taken, and had to consult with my GPS to get back on track.  I ended up taking about a 50 mile detour because I didn't plan the way I should have.  Fortunately, I left early enough that I could handle a problem or two on the way.  I no longer had any extra time to play with so I was really hoping that the rest of the drive was smoother and more direct.  I guess my leaving a little early paid off because I arrived at the overlook at 5:30, right when I was wanting to.

I was a little disappointed though because while driving up Hwy 181 I was starting to get rained on a little bit.  It wasn't much, but it did indicate that the cloud cover would probably be too much for the sun to peak through.  Oh well, I was here, might as well pull off and rest until daylight when I could start working on the waterfalls.  As luck would have it though, shortly after pulling in, the clouds started to break over Chestnut Mountain and I saw an opportunity.  I quickly set the camera up, but with a very different composition in mind from what I was anticipating.  The weeds had overgrown the edge of the parking lot and obscured the valley below that I was looking forward to capturing.  Instead, I decided to fit my 70-200mm lens and use the tops of the mountains as my visual anchor and concentrate on the sky.

True Colors
As I started to dial in my compositions and exposures, the sky continued to open up, and I could see that the clouds were at several different altitudes.  This was really good news because that meant that there was a good chance I would get some color in the morning sky.  There was a lot of color to be had in the upper elevations, but there was a very thick bank of clouds that was looming on top of the mountains and continuing out to the horizon.  This effectively blocked most of the color that would appear close to the mountains, so I really had to be careful with my compositions in order to keep everything unified.

I probably shot nearly 60 frames of the sunrise since I wasn't sure how good it was going to get and I didn't want to miss the peak colors.  Surprisingly, I got a good bit more color than I was expecting from how I was watching the sunrise unfold.  It wasn't what I had in mind, but it was very much worth getting up early and making the drive to see this one.

With the sunrise over it was time to figure out my next step.  I had been planning on going to Roaring Fork Falls, but the way the sky was looking, I really hated to waste the textures by shooting waterfalls.  The clouds at various altitudes called for some grand landscapes.  I had an alternate plan in my back pocket and decided that I would move forward with that plan.  I was off to Hawksbill Mountain.

Its been a number of years since I have hiked Hawksbill.  The last time it was a mostly sunny day, and I did it after hiking Table Top so I was there at the middle of the day.  The weather conditions were far from favorable that time, and I have been wanting to try it again for some time.  The clouds I was seeing were setting the stage for what I thought was going to be a perfect opportunity for a return visit to Hawksbill.  I wasn't impressed enough with Table Top to want to go back today.

Peeling Away the Layers
I was less than 10 miles away from Hawksbill, so the drive over there took no time at all.  The only delay came from the slow speeds needed for the forest service road I had to drive down to get to the trailhead.  Even so, I was ready to start my hike around 7:30 or so.  It was hard to tell what the sky was doing from beneath the canopy, but I was convinced the clouds were going to remain as I had seen them, at least for a little while.  I set off with a purpose and started the mile hike.  While a mile isn't that hard to cover, this is a rather strenuous trail and it represents about 1000 feet of climbing in that mile.  There are also no markers for the trail and several places that you just kind of guess at which direction to turn.  Somehow though, I managed to make it to the top without getting lost.

I was very happy to see that the clouds were still overhead, but they quickly became a secondary concern for me.  The minute I left the shelter of the trail, I was assaulted by winds that could only be described as tornadic!  To the best of estimation, I would say that the sustained winds were around 20mph, with gusts nearing 30mph.  This presents so many problems for a photographer I was starting to wonder if it would be worth staying or not.

On the plus side, I had some amazing skies to work with.  I was in a place that I haven't had much of an opportunity to shoot before, so it was new.  I was also alone, which is always a nice thing for a landscape photographer who doesn't want a bunch of people in his pictures.  On the negative side, trees, grass, and bushes were going to be very blurred unless I timed my exposure just right.  I was going to have a hard time keeping dust off of the front element of the camera.  I was going to have a hard time keeping the camera steady on the tripod to ensure sharp images, and in fact I was going to have a hard time keeping the camera upright.  I've been through gusty conditions before, and have damaged a lens when the tripod toppled over.  Lastly, with the gusts, I was actually worried about keeping my own balance.  My hat was already trying to blow off of my head!

Pisgah National Forest
I decided to go down to the lower section and hope that the wind was blocked a little bit so I could get the camera built and on the tripod.  Knowing that I wanted to include sweeping views of the sky where I could, I opted to work with my 16-35mm wide angle lens along with my Lee Filter Holder.  I used several of my ND Grad filters to keep the exposures under control and make the most out of the beautiful sky above.  I managed to get everything put together, but I could tell that the camera wasn't going to be very stable.  Where I could, I kept the legs spread out very wide for a bit of extra stability.  I kept one hand for the camera, and one hand for my hat.  The exposures became waiting games for when the winds would die down for a brief time and allow my to press the shutter release.

I found myself rattling off a bunch of exposures trying to make sure that I got usable images without a lot of motion blur in them.  I would check in the LCD, but it is very hard to determine if a bush is blowing in the wind by looking at a 3" screen.  All I could really do was hope that I was capturing images at the right time.  In addition to the vegetation blowing, I could tell that the wind was causing all sorts of vibrations in the camera.  I ended up having to apply pressure on the tripod to help keep it stable.  Of course, this is not a great way of doing business, but it was a lot better than the alternative today.

Linville Gorge
As I realized that I had reached the end of my options in the lower section, I grabbed by bag and carried the camera up to the upper section.  It didn't seem as windy up there as it did before.  I decided to give it a go and see what I could find to work with.  Because of the sky conditions on my last visit, I had not done any photography on this section, so it was all new to me today.  I found all sorts of compositions, and kept putting my anti-wind techniques to use in order to execute my ideas.  There were a few compositions that I wanted that would have put me close to the edge.  Under normal circumstances, I would not have thought twice about doing that.  However, with the wind the way it was today, I stayed clear from the edges.  I'm sure this was a very good idea since more than once, I was knocked off balance by a particularly strong gust of wind.

My compositions were a game of cat and mouse.  I kept looking for that moment when the sun was providing the right light and the wind was calm.  These moments came very far between, and only occasionally was I able to take advantage of those times.  Most of what I did was sit and wait...and wait....and wait.

Taking in the View
Waiting wasn't so bad though.  The scenery was beautiful, and visibility was much better than my last visit here so I was able to really enjoy being here.  The Linville Gorge has been called the Grand Canyon of the East, and I can honestly see that when looking down from Hawksbill Mountain.  The rugged terrain below is amplified with the rock outcroppings at the top of the mountain.  It all just fit together so nicely.  everywhere I looked I saw a sight worth capturing with the camera...except for one.  Looking toward Table Rock the sky was totally washed out with clouds.  While the mountain ranges looked awesome, the sky took away that wow factor and kept me from photographing it.

View From Hawksbill
While I was eating my snack, I got excited to see that the clouds were clearing from the other end of the mountain top.  I was going to be able to capture the distant mountain range.  Typically, I would want to get a little bit of a longer lens to capture distant mountains, but in this situation, there was plenty of definition in the individual mountains, and I had the opportunity to include some of the vegetation and rock floor as a foreground.  the 2-Stop ND Grad was the perfect addition to the sky and the blues popped out as if I was using a polarizer.  I was thrilled to have gotten this view after thinking the sky wouldn't cooperate with me.

Taking Hold
As with my other favorite rocky mountain, Stone Mountain, I was fascinated with the ability of the vegetation to latch on and grow in some of the strangest areas.  I had the chance to photograph just such a setting when I noticed that the clouds were starting to make some interesting shapes above some of the vegetation.  It was almost a pastel crescent moon, when the rest of the clouds seemed to be in a uniform, horizontal fashion.  I just loved how this picture seems to go on for miles and miles and miles.

This is a magical place, despite the winds.  I could see just laying on my back staring up at the sky and pondering the meanings of the universe.  While I didn't do just that, I did find myself thinking a lot.  It felt good to let my mind wander a little bit.

As it turned out, I saw a group of cloud formations that just seemed to sum up what I was just talking about.  There were the normal puffy clouds, but even more interesting was the swirl  that was spinning off to the right.  I went ahead and framed up a quick composition before the moment was passed.  As it turned out, I was facing North, and even though I wasn't using a polarizer, the ND-Grad added enough density to the blue sky to really make it pop against the lighter tones of the clouds.

Shortly after capturing this image the winds started up again, only this time it was so strong, I didn't want to let the tripod go for fear that the wind would knock it over.  To illustrate the point, I had my camera bag (35lbs) laying on its back against a rock.  A gust of wind came along and stood it up like it was nothing.  That was my clue to hide out from the wind and pack it all up to head back to the truck.

The hike back was a little more interesting than the hike up.  Remember, the trails are not marked, and there are quite a few places where you have to guess at which turn to take?  Well, I chose wrong on a number of turns, and got myself very turned around at the beginning of the return hike.  Fortunately, I was able to locate the trail make my way back to the truck.  When I got back, the clouds were moving in again, and the lighting was looking pretty good for working a waterfall or two.

I opted to go to Crabtree Falls which was closer than the Roaring Fork Falls.  My intention was to ultimately do both, but I wanted to get the larger one first.  When I arrived at the parking lot, there were more cars there than I recall ever seeing before.  This was not a good sign since I don't really like putting people in my pictures.  I decided to give it a try anyway since I was here, and here was a long way from home.

Crabtree Falls
The hike was not bad, but it was about 1.2 miles which was a lot after doing the hike to Hawksbill just a little earlier.  At least this was downhill, so it wasn't wearing me out too bad.  However, I knew that the hike back would not be fun at all.  When I arrived at the falls, there were people in the water, lining the bridge, and off on the shoulders of the water.  This wasn't good at all.  I was hoping that they were all there for a short time.  With that hope, I went ahead and started to set up my shot.  I kept my 16-35mm lens on, and added my polarizer as well as the vario-ND filter.  It took some time to set the first shot up, and even longer for the people to clear the area.  This is the main reason I don't care for photographing waterfalls in the summer.

The Aftermath
Crabtree Falls in one of the more impressive cascades in the area.  Its a very large waterfall, and seems to always have a good deal of water flowing over the rocks.  Unfortunately, the constant forceful flow tends to sweep a lot of debris down to the bottom of the falls.  This clutter isn't my favorite aspect, but it does help to tell the story of the waterfall.

Deep Within the Forest
One of the neat things about this waterfall is that it can easily be photographed from either side.  With the delicate cascades, it just about begs for the postcard shot where it fills the frame.  I could get lost looking at the designs that the water makes as it slides down the face of the falls.

When I was finished with Crabtree Falls, I started my hike back to the truck.  The return hike was all uphill, and really made me realize just how tired I was getting.  I had to make several stops to catch my breath before continuing.  Despite that, I opted to continue on to Roaring Fork Falls and get some new images of that cascade.  It was only about 10 miles away so I wasn't driving long before I got there and found a half dozen cars in the parking area.  Knowing this waterfall as I do, I could tell that there would be no sense in trying to hike out there for pictures.  This is one of those waterfalls where people swim, climb, and just hang out for hours.  I decided it would be better to come back at a later time.  That was fine, I had 175 images that I needed to get processed, and I needed to get home.

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