West Virginia is an eastern mecca for adventure seekers no matter the season. Once the bikes and boats are stored in the shed, the focus turns to activities such as skiing, snowboarding, fat biking, and sledding. But when the flakes start flying, the Mountain State is also a winter photography haven for landscape photographers with several areas—including many of our spectacular state park and national parks—offering tremendous opportunities to capture images of this special winter wonderland.
The New River Gorge Region
Babcock State Park
While most photographers flock to Babcock State Park in the autumn season to capture postcard views of the Glade Creek Grist Mill surrounded by brilliant fall foliage, this classic West Virginia icon is my favorite winter photo subject. It photographs well at a variety of angles, and seasoned vets can challenge themselves to find a new view in the snow.
Sunrise from aptly named Grandview is hard to beat in any season, but I love seeing all the undulations in the distant snow-covered mountains. My favorite sunrise vantage point in the park is from the Main Overlook but be sure to check out the views from the North Overlook and the various outcrops along the Grandview Rim Trail. The road to the very popular Turkey Spur Overlook is typically gated in the winter, but you can still gain access by hiking along the road or following the Grandview Rim Trail.
Also aptly named, Beauty Mountain is my go-to spot for sunsets in the New River Gorge. Several overlooks conveniently located 50 yards or so from the car make this an easily accessible destination for winter photography.
The Potomac Highlands Region
Blackwater Falls State Park
With over a dozen waterfalls and several overlooks offering tremendous views of the Blackwater Canyon, you can’t go wrong in this popular state park. The namesake waterfall—the state’s highest at 62 feet—is a perfect place to start with a bird’s eye view of the falls from the Gentle Trail Overlook. From the park entrance, continue driving straight until reaching a stop sign, bear left, and cross the bridge spanning the Blackwater River—the parking area for the Gentle Trail is just up the hill on the right. To witness the crown jewel of Blackwater Falls State Park up close and personal take a walk down to the Lower Observation Deck. In deep snow, the park will often close the boardwalk down to the observation deck for obvious safety reasons, so try to time your visit before they do so.
Three spectacular waterfalls are just a stone’s throw from the Blackwater Falls Lodge. The Elakala Trail begins near the lodge parking area, and after a short stroll through a forest of evergreens and deciduous trees, you’ll reach a footbridge spanning Shays Run. Cross the footbridge and continue along the Elakala Trail for 15 yards or so. Begin looking to your right for an unofficial path down to Shays Run – if you’re unfamiliar with the descent, it may be tricky to locate and navigate under a deep blanket of snow. Carefully scramble down to the creek and make your way upstream a short distance to Elakala Falls #1.
To access the other waterfalls on Shays Run, continue to carefully follow the unofficial path along the stream and down into the canyon. Be sure to proceed with care due to the very steep scrambles.
If you want to stay close to the warmth of your vehicle, there are a couple nice options for scenic and snow-filled views. First, from the park entrance, turn left at the stop sign, then drive a few yards to an obvious pullout just before the bridge over the Blackwater River. Walk down the road and set up in the middle of the bridge for a spectacular view of the Blackwater River.
Lastly, from the park entrance, turn right at the stop sign and follow a short distance passing the campground area and stay straight when reaching the intersection for Pendleton Lake and the Nature Center. Continue up the hill to a large parking area on the right, park and walk out to the edge of the canyon. You’ll find the Pendleton Point Overlook near the parking area but bear to your right and look for a nice outcropping with unobstructed views of the Blackwater Canyon.
This feature waterfall on the North Fork of the Blackwater River is one of my favorites in the entire state, and I especially enjoy photographing it in the winter. From Thomas, turn onto Douglas Road and follow for one mile. Turn left onto Rail Falls Road and follow a rough road for 1.2 miles to an obvious parking area on the left. Walk down the road about 0.2 miles to a road gate, then scramble down the path to the falls. There are several good vantage points of the falls and the rapids below, and one spectacular reflection shot—if you can spot it.
Timing: Try to time your photoshoot just after a fresh snowfall. Dirty snow and/or trampled snow can ruin a beautiful scene.
Work from the Outside In: Speaking of trampled snow, make sure you are careful not to make your own tracks in the snow until you’re sure you have the images you want. Then work your way further into the scene.
Protect Your Gear: Brutally cold temperatures and falling snow can wreak havoc on your camera and lenses. Protect them by keeping your gear in a waterproof camera bag until you’re ready to shoot. If it’s snowing, consider investing in a good rain or snow cover. Today’s cameras have great weather sealing properties, but it’s best to be safe. When coming in from the cold, keep your camera in your pack so that it doesn’t get warm too quickly. This can cause condensation to build up on or in your camera and/or lenses. Some folks store their gear in large freezer bags to further protect from condensation.
Overexpose: Glare from the snow can trick your meter into thinking the scene is brighter than it actually is, resulting in images that are too dark. I typically overexpose a stop or two to achieve the correct exposure for the scene.
Randall Sanger is a professional photographer and publisher of several books covering photography in West Virginia. Check out more of his work: www.Randallsanger.com.