Blue Ridge Parkway: The Virginia Side

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Foggy Pair
I actually wasn't planning on going anywhere this weekend, so when circumstances prompted me to plan a trip I was a little unprepared.  I started looking at the weather on Friday afternoon and began thinking about where I could go.  The cloud cover was supposed to be a pretty consistent 70% coverage through the day with warm temperatures and a slight breeze.  This held across the state from home to the mountains.  Looking at the sunrise forecast, there was a slight chance of seeing some color in the morning in portions of the state.  The trick was planning a place to go where I could take advantage of the weather.

I have been wanting to get some grand landscapes lately, but with the colors of Spring just starting in the mountains I wasn't exactly sure how that would work out.  I knew I didn't want to stick close to home because that would put me in the same places I have been so often through the winter.  I wanted to go to the Blue Ridge Parkway, and felt that with a chance for a good sunrise I should try Rough Ridge.  It has been some time since I have been there.  I started looking at timing and seeing when I was going to need to get up and get moving.  It then occurred to me that with the repairs to the Lynn Cove Viaduct that there might be some road closures in place.

Receding Trunks
I posted the question on one of the Blue Ridge Parkway groups I belong to on Facebook to see if anyone knew exactly where the road was shut down.  While I was waiting for a response, I started to look at alternatives.  The first thing that came to mind was the area of Doughton Park.  As quick as I thought about that, I decided against it since I always seem to end up there.  The idea of going to Groundhog Mountain in Virginia popped into my head and got some pretty good traction early on.  I double checked the weather to see if anything would be different.  The forecast was pretty much exactly the same with a slightly better sunrise forecast.  I was sold on Groundhog Mountain even though I got confirmation that Rough Ridge was still accessible.

As an added benefit, the trip to Groundhog Mountain was only a hour, whereas Rough Ridge was right around two hours.  I was going to be getting an extra hour of sleep which excited me more than I can explain.  However, when my alarm rang at 4am, I was no longer excited.  My first thought was to roll over and go back to sleep.  If I did that, I would be giving up on the possibility of some early morning color over Groundhog Mountain.  I begrudgingly checked my phone to see if the weather or sunrise forecast had changed.  Nothing was different.....Sigh.....

Crossing the Barrier
I got up and started to get ready.  I took comfort at least knowing that I could have already been on the road headed to Rough Ridge.  The extra hour was feeling a little better at this point.  This is part of what it is to be a landscape photographer.  You have to work really funky hours in order to get the shots that stand out from the crowd.  This is the part I don't like, but the results are usually worth the effort.

I was on the road by 5am headed North for a change.  The trip went quick, and when I arrived on the Parkway, I could see some really interesting clouds moving around in the sky.  They were actually moving very fast so I was excited to be able to do some long exposure shots of them streaking overhead.  The hope was they were going to be carrying lots of color with them as them moved.  I was getting very excited about the prospects of this trek.

Mini Me
When I arrived at Groundhog Mountain I was all alone in the park.  That is my favorite way to be when photographing a sunrise.  I love the quiet and the ability to listen to nature to see how it wants to be photographed.  I moved through the parking lot and started to scope out my shooting positions for the watch tower that was going to be my visual anchor.  I found a great spot to set up, but decided to look around to see if there was anything else that might be better, or would make for a good secondary location depending on what the sky did.

I got a couple of shooting positions determined and went back to the original one.  I had about 30 minutes before sunrise at this point and I needed to get set up so that I could do some long exposure shots as the color developed in the sky.

Speaking of color in the sky....

I'm sure that you have noticed that all of the images that I've posted so far are black and white.  You are correct.  Let me explain.

When I started setting up the camera, I noticed that there was a bit of fog moving in.  This could actually be kind of fun to work with if the sky lights up with some nice color.  I was looking forward to a bit of diffusion on the watchtower which I had at the end of a long cross hatched fence.  However, I was starting to see a bit of a problem developing.  The fog was getting thicker, and the sky was getting brighter.  There was no color at all.

Repetitive Pickets
I was rather upset thinking that I had woken up for absolutely nothing.  I either should have slept in, or gone somewhere else.  But then again...I do like working with fog, and the light was low enough that I could get some pretty cool shots of trees.  There were quite a few trees that were visually interesting around the parking lot.  I went ahead and fitted my 70-200mm lens.  This would allow me to pick out the trees without a lot of extra visual clutter.

I started to shoot different scenes in the area and found that the fog was getting thicker and thicker.  I was having to wait for a break in the fog before I could shoot most of the trees.  I would wait about 3 minutes before making a 10-25 second exposure.  As the light increased I decided to give the trees a break and start to work with the fences that surrounded the watch tower.  There were at least three different styles of fence that were used, but the one that really caught my eye was the one that looked like a row of jacks left behind.

Serrated Barricade
This fence was very interesting to look at, and possessed the repeating patterns that make for great photography.  I started to pick out compositions that struck me as unique.  I had made the decision many frames before that I was going to be shooting black and white shots this morning.  If I wasn't going to have any color in the sky, then I didn't want any color at all.  Everything that I shot was based on patterns, textures, contrasts, and light.  The fence added such a great element to the foggy morning and I was having a great time shooting it.

However, I was seeing some other possibilities that I had not considered earlier.  I could shoot the fence with the trees!  For this, I was going to need a slightly wider focal length to really make it work.  I swapped my 24-70mm lens and got in a bit closer to the fence.  I was able to rack the lens out to a moderately wide angle which really allowed me to make the fence stand out in the composition, as well as include the trees around the fence.

I was really getting in the groove of this, and was enjoying shooting monochrome.  For the most part it is the same as shooting color, but I find that I have to be a little bit more selective at the compositions that I choose.  Without color, all I am left to work with is light, shapes, and textures.  The grass, trees, and sharp lines of the fence were filling the bill for black and white photography.  The fog helped to eliminate the background and make everything stand out so much better.

I tried to get the watch tower, but the composition was just too mundane without some interest in the sky.  I decided fairly quickly to let that subject go and concentrate on what was working for me.  I found that with just slight changes in position, the composition would change significantly allowing me to shoot an almost infinite variety of images.

Keyhole Trunk
As much fun as I was having, the fog was starting to roll in once again with a vengeance.  I decided that it was probably best if I moved on from here and tried a different location.  I was hoping that if I changed altitude that I could get out of the fog.  With the sun well up at this point (nearing 8am), the sky was becoming too bright to work with.  That was ok, I was pretty sure that I had everything that I intended to get from Groundhog Mountain...except for a colorful sunrise that is.

When I got back to the truck, I decided to continue North on the Parkway to see what else I could see.  I did notice that the fog would vary wildly depending on the elevation I was at.  The lower I got, the clearer things became.  Since I had ridden this section on a bicycle several times, I knew that the Mabry Mill was a good bit lower in elevation and might provide some good compositions.  That was now my destination barring something jumping out at me while headed that way.

Silent Echo
When I arrived at the Mabry Mill I was thrilled on two counts.  First of all, I could see the mill clear as a bell, and the lighting was really good.  The second surprise was that there was nobody in the parking lot.  That meant that I wasn't going to have to worry with lots of folks walking around and getting in my shots.  I hated to get excited about the Mabry Mill since I had told myself a while ago that I wasn't going to photograph this any more.  But I was excited.

So, why did I decide not to shoot this mill again?  In a word (well sentence), it is the most photographed subject on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Everyone and their brother has shot this mill with everything from a Polaroid camera to a large format rig.  Honestly, there isn't much that I can do that hasn't been done before.  But, I was alone, and the conditions were great.  I went ahead and got the camera built with my 24-70mm lens with the Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer attached.  I started out by doing the standard compositions from the opposite shore.  I was focusing on reflections to start with, but had intentions of moving on to other things soon enough.

Mill Wheel
I worked my way along the path to the back side of the mill.  I took a little detour to the water wheel though.  I noted the sign that warned to not cross the fence to stay out of the way of other photographers, and for you own safety.  I looked around and saw no other photographers, and since the wheel wasn't in motion I decided to cross the fence.  I wanted to get some intimate shots of the wheel.  The water soaked wood was so richly colored, and there were streams of water leaking from the top of the wheel that I wanted to try to capture.

As I was setting the shot up, I knew that I was going to be doing some long exposures since the area I was shoot was well in the shadows, and the wood was dark to begin with.  The long exposures started to cause problems with light sneaking past the lens hood.  I ended up having to use my hat to provide shade for the lens in order to keep the contrast good throughout the entire image.  It took some doing to resolve a composition that I felt worked and captured the spirit of the wheel.  I ended up with several strong diagonals, framing elements that were parallel to the side and bottom, along with an arch for visual tension.  Blending together with the textures I knew I had something special with this one.

Into the Woods
Feeling pretty satisfied with my composition of the water wheel, I continued on the path to see what else was in store for me.  This is the benefit of being here all along.  I can take my time and set up shots that I really like without having to maneuver around people.  I even took the time to photograph the trail itself.  There was one of the buildings which had some interesting aging on the wood that I wanted to shoot, but I wasn't able to get a good composition of the building.  The trail was interesting going into the woods, but needed something else to anchor it.  I figured that the two elements might help each other out so I started working on a composition.  I found that using a portion of the building satisfied my want to capture the textures, and by using about half of that building, I now had a great visual anchor for the trail that I wanted to photograph.

I was on a roll at this point.  It might be time to reconsider my no Mabry Mill rule when it comes to photography.  I was actually having more fun shooting this than ever before.  Granted, I think it was because I was all alone and able to really connect with what I was photographing.  Speaking of connecting, as I was working my way around the historic sections I started to really notice the trees.  More specifically the bark and textures of the trees.

Converging Textures
Wooded Locks
There were a couple of great trees by one of the old buildings set up well behind the mill.  I forgot about everything else and started shooting some intimate captures of the trunks.  I went back to my original mindset from Groundhog Mountain and started to shoot black and white images.  I looked for how the textures interacted and where the compositional flow was.  In all of the times that I have been here, I've never paid attention to the trees like this before.  I don't know what grabbed my attention, but I'm glad my eyes found these trees.

Of course while I was working on the trees I was starting to hear voices coming near me.  There were now two families walking the trails.  Still better than how this usually goes so I couldn't complain.  They also were just stopping to check things out as nothing was open.  They were gone almost as quick as they had appeared.  I was solo once again, and was still feeling creative.

Since I was still feeling motivated here, I decided to swap out my lens for the 70-200mm so I could get some different compositions.  I went back to the water wheel and got in a different position right on the edge of the bank.  I had seen the drive gear before but had been unable to get a decent composition including it.  I figured that the best answer was to make a composition around the gear and see how that would go.  I used the reach of the long lens to isolate the drive gear as the teeth meshed with the wheel.  The whole thing started to take on an abstract quality with the shapes and lines.  I thought about doing this as a monochrome image, but decided that I really liked the warm tones of the wood much better in color.

Mabry Wheel
Speaking of the wheel, I wanted to try an isolation of the wheel from the opposite bank now that I had the long lens on the camera.  At 200mm, I was able to make an entire composition out of the wheel. I loved the bonus textures of the stone wall with the grasses laying over the side.  You might be interested to know, that ledge was where I had been standing for the shot of the gear drive.  I was feeling pretty good having full access to the mill today.  I was able to go just about everywhere I wanted to go.  In the process, I was making images that I had not even considered before.

Venerable Mill
While I was on the opposite shore, I figured I would go for another standard shot of the mill with the long lens.  I was able to crop in tight to the mill this way and really focus on the textures of the wood and stonework.  Despite the fact that countless photographs have been shot of this old mill, it is still quite beautiful.  I may not be doing much different than has been done before, but I can say that the images that I was capturing were better than images that I had shot before.  Improvement is always a good thing for a photographer.

I tried some other compositions around the area and across the Parkway, but the rest of them didn't really feel all that great to me.  That was usually the sign that it was time to move on.  I had shot all the goody here I was going to find.  My creativity was now bored with Mabry Mill.  After about an hour and a half, I would expect nothing different.  I loaded the truck back up and continued on my Northern march through Virginia.

After leaving the mill I noticed that I was starting to see a bit of blue in the sky.  This was exciting as I was really wanting to shoot some grand landscapes.  The problem with this section of the Parkway though, there are very few overlooks.  The ones that I passed were all on the Eastern side of the mountain and provided too much contrast under the rising sun.  The good light was to the West, but there were no overlooks facing that direction.  I also noted that the Virginia section has a lot more residential areas on the mountains compared with the North Carolina side.  The areas that I could shoot had houses and farms and such which didn't go with the look I was after.

After a good bit of driving, I found one of my beloved Parkway Fences with a couple of bare trees at the ridge of the field.  I could make use of this without a doubt.  I pulled off to the side of the road and grabbed the camera.  I opted to use my 24-70mm lens with the Color Combo Polarizer attached to bring out the color in the sky.  I had a hard time working a composition that would make sense with this.  I had cows to contend with to the left (just outside of the frame), which were too far away to make a meaningful addition to the composition.  I had the road to the right which restricted too much in that direction as well.

A Beautiful Day
I worked my way up and down the fence, and moved side to side, as well as changing the elevation of the camera.  I eventually found a few compositions that would work to tell the story I was trying to share.  After all of that was over, I was walking back to the truck and saw yet another tree that was looking pretty good under the cloudy sky.  I set the camera up once again and found that this shot happened much easier that the previous composition.  With that, I was done here and ready to continue onward.

Bus Stop
A few more miles up the road I saw a nice little farm off to the side that showed some promise.  As I was thinking about turning around, I saw this interesting house which had an old school bus as an entryway.  It was painted red white and blue so it really caught my eye.  Now I was thinking about two different locations to shoot as I passed a large Forsythia bush in front of a red barn.  Now I had three locations that I wanted to shoot.  I got turned around and pulled off the road.  I wasn't sure what was occupied and what wasn't so I decided to play it safe and used my 70-200mm lens for the extra reach it provided.

I started out with the little red barn behind the Forsythia.  It was interesting to look at, but sadly the photographs did not do it justice.  I shot a handful here, and even some just of the bush.  When I got home, I didn't like a single one of them.  I went ahead and walked down to the next sight, the bus attached to the home.  I shot a couple from the street, but I wasn't all that pleased with them since there was a power pole behind the house and power lines that ran along the top of it.  I continued on to the little farm with high hopes of getting something there.

Well, I was foiled by power lines and power poles once again.  There was also a barbed wire fence in front of the split rail fence which kind of ruined the look for me.  I tried several compositions but none of them really worked.  In the end I trashed all of those as well.  On the way back, however, I went in closer to the school bus and started shooting some different close in compositions.  Oddly enough, out of the three locations, I had the least hope for the bus.  That was the subject that actually worked out thanks to being able to get in close.

Tobacco Barn
It was getting very close to the middle of the day at this point and I decided that it was time to start heading home.  The clouds were leaving me and the light was getting a little harsh for my tastes.  I keyed in home to the GPS and started that way.  Of course, based on where I was, the route took me a completely different way home by way of Route 8.  I actually saw quite a bit of great subject matter along the way, but the lighting was not good enough to bother asking the property owners if I could go and photograph them.  I did add these to my wish list for later treks though.

Shortly after I got into Stokes County I found a nice little tobacco barn sitting up on a ridge under some really great clouds.  It was worth a shot or two so I turned around and pulled off to the side of the road.  Again, not wanting to bother the owner, I opted to use my 70-200mm lens with the Singh-Ray Color Combo Filter attached.  I was able to get a variety of compositions with this lens at the distance I was next to the road.  In the end, I found that the closer shot was the better one, and it really highlighted the barn quilt on the side as well as the banner hung from the awning.  The warm colors of the barn contrasted nicely with the blue sky above.

The tobacco barn turned into my last photographs of the day.  The clouds cleared and the sun became much too harsh to continue.  I did see quite a few subjects that I wanted to come back to with different conditions so stay tuned for those.

When it was all said and done, I had shot nearly 180 frames.  That was the most I have shot in a single day in a long time.  I was able to find 20 of them that I really liked and wanted to share.  Now comes the hard part where I find places to put a few of them in the gallery.


  1. Boy I hear ya, about getting up in the morning for a sunrise Lots of good stuff here. Great job on the mill, I've seen countless shots of it and all basically the same. The close work was a welcome change.

    1. Thanks Kevin! I am not really a fan of mornings, but they do pay off for a photographer, so I guess I'm stuck with them. Thanks, and I really tried to get some different shots of the mill. Just entirely too many photos running around of that place to have anything really stand out from the crowd. The intimate captures were actually quite a bit of fun to work with though.