My Newest Love - The Smokies & The Blue Ridge Mountains

Big Witch Overlook - Swain County, NC
It has been over a month since I returned from my trek to the Smokies and the Blue Ridge Mountains. My only regret is that a week is simply not enough time to really enjoy and explore Appalachia.  After four days in the Smokies,  I decided to explore the Blue Ridge Parkway from the Southernmost Point in Cherokee, NC up north to Mabry Mill, Virginia, approx. 283 miles.  I figured the best location for base camp would be Blowing Rock, North Carolina, which was a good midpoint for the locations I wanted to see and photograph.
Waterrock Knob Overlook 
Linville Ridge -  Banner Elk, NC

Heading north on the BRP from Cherokee,  is one of the most beautiful drives you'll ever experience. You're essentially driving through some of the highest peaks in North Carolina with amazing views everywhere you look.   The first set of views are of the Smokies and as you head further north,  you start seeing the views of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  You have to drive slow on this road, not just for safety, but to truly enjoy the scenery. Because it was the middle of summer, the scenes and lighting really lent themselves to B&W and infrared photography as well especially during those non-golden hours. There are so many overlooks along the highway, it is hard to decide sometimes, if you're gonna stop to take pics or simply enjoy the views, or if you're gonna skip the stop to head to the main stops on your agenda.  Of course, my plan was to try to see as many waterfalls as I could along the way.
Graveyard Fields - NC

Of course when seeing waterfalls, you're also talking about hiking some steep trails. I love it. It's quite an exhilarating feeling after hiking the trails to get to the cool refreshing waterfalls.  Two of the falls along the route were Graveyard Falls, seen above, and the real big daddy on the Parkway, Linville Falls.
Upper Linville Falls - Linville, NC
 Linville Falls is a multi-tiered waterfall, The Upper falls, seen above, are about a mile or so from the visitor center.  It's a fantastic hike, mostly in shade. Lots of birds under the tree canopies too.  Painted Buntings, pileated woodpeckers, bluebirds, and birds I had no clue what they were. Of course, when I got to the Upper Falls, it was not prime waterfall photography conditions. It was a bright, sun shiny day. Even with a polarizer and my camera on ISO 50, and lens at f/22, still getting shutter speeds way to fast to get blurred water effect.  So, out comes my 8x neutral density filter. Pop that on, even in bright sunny weather, and I got my 4 second exposures.  The lower falls is quite large.  To get the view from above, you have to hike about another half mile or so.  A 70-200 comes in handy here.

Lower Linville Falls

Grandfather Mountain is kind of a tourist trap, but it was worth it. (Make sure you ask for your AAA discount).  The drive up that steep road with those hairpin turns was scary, but at least the road was paved. Much better than those steep muddy mountain dirt roads I drove back in Cataloochee. Some nice views and gardens, and animals up there, but too many people. One of the things I enjoy the most about being out there in the mountains, is being away from people; especially those who don't appreciate nature.  Nothing worse than having the sounds of a mountain stream drowned out by the sound of loud motorcycle pipes. But I digress.  And, while I am digressing, I can tell you about my hellish trip to Blowing Rock.  After I had shot about as much as I could along the southern end of the BRP,  I decided to head on the interstate to make up some time and make it to Blowing Rock so I could eat some find North Carolina BBQ at the Woodlands, BBQ; which to my good fortune, was across the street from my hotel.  I made great time up there, but where I was only 15 miles from the hotel, I ran into a detour.  Seems that they closed the southern route into Blowing Rock as a result of a new road construction project being paid for by Stimulus Funds.  Gee, I think fixing the roads is great, but this detour forced me to drive over 2 hours and come in through Boone on the North, and even worse, I was forced to eat BK food. Oh, the humanity.  I got into Blowing Rock at 11pm instead of 8:30. Of course, the damn GPS didn't help since it kept wanting me to make a friggin U-turn toward the closed road. But I'm done digressing.

Cascade Waterfall - MP 271.9
The Cascade waterfalls were quite a site. Really huge falls, unfortunately, you cannot hike to the bottom; no safe trails.  You have to hike to the middle of the falls.  Unfortunately again, I had really harsh lighting, but got some usable shots using the ND filter once again. As you continue north along the BRP,  the scenery changes a bit and you start driving through lots of farmlands and get to see a lot of rustic looking historic cabins as well.
West Jefferson, NC
As you head further north along the BRP,  you can't help but stop and smell the wildflowers and photograph the mountains. They call to me as they called to John Muir. Even in harsh light, I got some cool shots by simply going in black and white, as I did in the selected images below.

Pucket Cabin- Hillsville, Va
I had originally wanted to drive up to the James River in Virginia, but time would not have it. So, I made Mabry Mill my final northern destination on my trek through the Blue Ridge Mountains.  What really made the drive so special to me was my cranking up my bluegrass collection on the stereo (via my ipod). Nothing compares like listening to Ralph Stanley along the parkway.  Really gives you the full sensory feel of Appalachia.  Just before I made it to Mabry Mill, I stopped at the Blue Ridge Music Center near Galaxa, Virginia.  This place is really cool.  I arrived on open jam day. All the banjo pickers, guitar pickers, fiddlers, dobro and dulcimer players, mandolin players; they would come on in; pull out their instruments and jam to old blue grass and folk songs. I was really taking to this old time banjo picker. When he hang, you could hear the Appalachian Mountains calling. What a treat. I sat myself in a rocking chair with my little girl in my lap and spent a relaxing hour listening to the mountain songs.

Blue Ridge Music Center
Banjo Picker
So I made it to Mabry Mill. This is an amazing photogenic location. I've seen photos there in fall and winter which are exploding with color. I arrive in the middle of summer, even after 6:30 p.m., and the light is harsh and contrasty. Terrible light for color photography.  So I pull out the infrared camera again, and take one of my favorite photos on this trip.

Mabry Mill - Va
The scene looked ethereal. I even got a goose in the shot. Imagine that. This photo made the trip worth it. So after the park closed, I started the drive back south towards Blowing Rock. After a while, the sun starts to set. I wanted to get a sunset shot, but did not know where to go. None of the books I had tell you the prime locations. But as fate would have it,  as I approached Obids, NC,  I see a bunch of folks pulled off the road, in beach chairs, simply staring at the sky waiting for the sunset. I too pull over and stand there in awe of the view. I took my last shots of the day, and the last shots from the Blue Ridge Parkway: The sun faded away, the folks packed up their chairs and drove away along the winding mountain road.

Blue Ridge Sunset - Obids, NC
It was time to head back to Blowing Rock. Time to pack, and get ready for the trip back to Hialeah, via Savannah. Time to Roll. A lasting memory and now a place I must return to in fall and winter. These mountains are truly my newest love.

All Images © 2010 by Michael Pancier Photography
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