Shenandoah: Bear Country...Kinda...

Before I start this, I wanna say that this park is incredible, especially if you aren't the hiking type for whatever reason. It's a beautiful drive, with 70+ overlooks, along 100 miles of road, through the mountains, with very accessible and beautiful views, from very short and easy hikes. 100% worth your time. However, if you're like me and visit these places to take photos or video or whatever, Shenandoah can be incredibly stressful, but still well worth your time, if you can dodge all the people and get past the fairly bland trails. Either way, this place is amazing, so go find out for yourself, if you can. If you can't, don't worry, I gotchu.

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I arrived at Shenandoah National Park on a dreary, rainy, fall day, but all of that was planned. Unlike most nature and landscape photographers, I embrace poor weather like this and the photo above is exactly why I love it. The mountain was enveloped by clouds, which made for a mystical drive through the leaf ridden road and an awesome hike along the first trail of the trip. I was hoping to find a peak to shoot from, before it got too dark, but the "beware of aggressive bears in this area" sign made me chicken out. Instead, I decided to head back to the car and get ready for the next morning, which was a good call, since the rain started to pick up as the light faded.

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That night, I slept in my car at the trailhead for Blackrock Summit and it snowed. I also knew this would happen, because I incessantly watched the weather for Shenandoah, and was eager to experience snow on a mountain for the first time. That morning was incredible. The hike was pretty intense, given the temperature was in the mid 20s and it was a little winy, but the views were amazing. I was able to catch the sun, just as it peeked over the horizon to paint the mountain tops with its warm glow.

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The hike down was just as magical. The autumn leaves shining warmth through the blanket of white that covered the mountain tops. Before this trip, I was questioning whether it was a good idea to go when they were calling for snow, but now, I'm SO glad I went. 

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After getting back to the car, I hungout for a bit and relaxed, while things warmed up. I also bumped into a Park Ranger that seemed fairly impressed that I decided to camp out in my car during a snow storm. However, he also informed me that they're technically not allowed to let me sleep in my car, which is a bummer, but whatever. After chatting for a few, we split up and I hiked down to Jones River Falls. By the time I got there, almost all the snow had melted, which was pretty surprising. Unfortunately, this was one of those hikes were there wasn't a TON to see, so I didn't get many photos. It was a nice walk though and gave me time to take in the scenery and appreciate being in the woods.

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That evening was dedicated to seeing the sunset from the top of Frazier Mountain. The hike was fairly short and provided a couple different lookout spots. I settled on this one, sat, and waited for the sun to set. Most the trails leading to the peaks were pretty short, since the main road winds up and around the range. At first, this was awesome, because it made my job significantly easier. However, this scene was the last one I had to myself, due to how heavily the Park's population grew that day.

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Bearfence was the location for the next morning's sunrise and was probably the most difficult trail to traverse, mostly because it wound around a couple areas made of big rocks that you had to climb around. The view at the top was gorgeous though, even though I had to share it with a couple college kids that were already there and had claimed the best spot. You would assume it would be easy to avoid them, but given the tiny space there was for this view, I was within about 5-10 ft from them, snapping away, as they attempted to carry on a casual conversation about their lives. It was SUPER awkward and I left pretty quick, which ended up in me missing some pretty awesome shots, but I couldn't take it anymore. Little did I know, this was going to be the theme of the trip...

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After that awkward exchange, I decided to get some rest, eat, and ready up for my hike down to Dark Hollow Falls. The first 2/3 of this trail was pretty uninteresting and almost sent me back to the car, because there just wasn't much to see. The hike definitely paid off though, once you FINALLY made it down to where the falls were. I actually bumped into another photographer that was taking lang exposures of the falls. Kinda made me jealous, because I don't have the gear to do that yet, but it was super cool to see! I actually loved this area so much that I found myself taking the same photos over and over and over, just to have an excuse to stay. For me, it's rare to find waterfalls like these. Usually, they're the short chunky ones that are difficult to shoot, but this was just too good. I was amazed.

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The sunset spot for this day was Upper Hawksbill Summit and it was gorgeous. Even though there were a ton of people constantly up there (I even saw a couple having their engagement photos taken while I was there), it was incredible. The colors, the mountains, the sky, it was all too good. Some of the people I ran into were pretty cool too; there was an older man that was big into cameras, but not on a professional level. We chatted about cameras, the different between Canon and Nikon, lenses, mirrorless, full frames, everything. I also bumped into a couple that was there to checkout the peak, one of which was a photographer that was shooting film. She was too busy running everywhere, but I talked to her significant other for a while and joked about the engaged couple a bit. Around the time the sun hit the horizon, everyone else had left and I was stuck with two groups that didn't speak english; one Russian and one Asian. Seeing as how I couldn't communicate with any of them and didn't know what to do, I just left. Halfway down the mountain I got a peek of the sky. It was absolutely gorgeous and I was missing it. Oh well. It's the price you pay, I guess.

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The next and last morning was a complete bust. I planned to shoot the sunrise from a lookout right next to the only tunnel on the road, but the clouds ruined everything. Even though I was bummed, I couldn't be too upset, because I had been shooting the night sky from the lookouts and getting awesome results. Although this park is surrounded by cities, you can still get a gorgeous view of the night sky. Like I mentioned earlier, there are 70+ overlooks along this road, so most of the views are pretty much the same, but there were some hidden gems that were absolutely incredible.

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Since the sunrise failed me, I decided to just relax this morning. It was my last day there, so why not take some time to chill? After having a bit to eat and playing on my phone, I decided to head to my sunset location. I didn't really have anything planned for midday, so I was just going to take it easy. However, as I was driving along the winding road, I realized the clouds were starting to roll over the mountain. I stopped at the first viewpoint trail I could find; Little Stony Man Summit.

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I was just in time, as the clouds started to gracefully slip over the peaks. It was incredible. I've been in the middle of suuuuper thick clouds and I've even been above these clouds as they've rolled through, but I've never been on the edge of them, as they came over me. It was an amazing experience. I even made a friend, while I was there.

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Everyone, meet Richard Dawson. He was hiking by himself, down to NC, and was cooking breakfast when I bumped into him on Little Stony. We hungout and talked for probably an hour and a half, about everything under the sun. He was an incredible dude and really inspired me to strive for everything in life; happiness, nature, compassion, well being, love, all the things that make life and humanity worth being part of. He even offered me some of his food! This dude. If you see him while you're out hiking, tell him I said hey and thanks for the inspiration.

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The last hike of the trip was to the ACTUAL Stony Man Summit and the view was gorgeous. You could see around the entire park and watch the sun cast over the surrounding towns and cities. I was prepped for an awesome show. Unfortunately, I chickened out AGAIN and didn't get the shots that I wanted. A group of high school students (MAYBE college freshmen) showed up. Like, 10 of them. And they posted up right in the middle of where I was. Once the sun disappeared, I left and completely ignored my "always wait 15 more minutes" rule. I just couldn't stand how uncomfortable it was to be by myself, around a group of kids, that I didn't know, on top of a mountain, while trying to get the perfect shot. And again, it cost me some INCREDIBLE photos. I'm still kicking myself for leaving. I actually RAN down the mountain, trying to catch whatever I could, but it was way too late.

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I can't complain too much though, because I was still able to catch some really beautiful images of the gorgeous leaves in this part of the park. See, Shenandoah may be littered with tourists, but it's still absolutely gorgeous. Even in the worst and most awkward conditions, it was difficult to not get a beautiful shot. Next time, I will do better. I will learn from this experience and take that with me to the next journey. Because what is an adventure if nothing is learned in the process? I'm super glad I made it out to Shenandoah and I can't wait to go back. I'm also super excited I get to share this experience with all of you. If you would like to see the rest of these images, please feel free to follow me on Instagram and catch them as the go up. If you're not on Instagram and still want to follow along, I have YouTube and Facebook pages that also share my content, so make sure to check them out too. Thanks for checking this out and I hope this inspires you to get out and find some little treasures around you.

On a Mountain During a Hurricane

     I'm sure most of you heard, but just in case, it's hurricane season in the United States. I'm not sure if everyone does this, but we name the hurricanes, for clarification sake I guess. Harvey wreaked havoc on Texas, Irma tore through Florida, Jose is on the way, and Maria is behind him. Luckily, for me at least, Irma veered a bit off course and didn't hit the East coast as hard as they originally predicted, which meant I most just got rain and the occasional gust of wind. Leading up to this hurricane, I was thinking of a way to document the storm in my area, but wasn't coming up with any decent ideas. The weather wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, which meant my camera would be safer in the wild, but it also meant there wouldn't be anything super interesting to photograph. I racked my brain for a bit, trying to figure out what to do, as I began planning a couple future trips to other state and national parks, then it hit me. Why not just hike around Hanging Rock? I quickly opened their site, made sure there weren't any closures, grabbed my gear, and ran off to the mountain.

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     The parking lot was a foggy, ghost town, aside from one couple that decided today wasn't a good day to take in the views (boy, were they wrong). I wasn't sure how windy the peak might be, so I was a bit hesitant to visit it at first, so I decided to hike down the mountain instead. The waterfalls weren't that neat and they were below all the fog and clouds, so I pretty quickly turned around.

Feet in the falls

     I was starting to think I should just head home, because the fog and clouds might be lifting or leaving with the wind and sun that were coming throughout the day. I double checked to make sure I was dry enough, then looked through my camera to see what images I had. Not many. And none of them looked very "hurricane-y". So, I pulled myself together and started up the mile and a half hike to the top of Hanging Rock.

Winding into the fog

     The beginning of the trail was pretty boring. If you haven't been here, the Visitor's Center is on a smaller peak that's separate from the actual Hanging Rock peak, so for the first chunk of the hike, you're walking downhill. Eventually, you reach the bottom of the mountain and start making your way back up. It wasn't long before I found myself entering a forest that existed somewhere between a mysterious and enchanting fantasy world and Silent Hill. I was amazed and could barely keep my chin off the trail, where my eyes should have been. Side note, it's pretty hard keeping your balance when you're always looking up.

The doorway

     Eventually, I hit the end of the treeline and walked through the doorway that lead to one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Up until this point, I was trudging up a muddy and slippery trail, through the rain, wrapped in layers to protect my camera, in the most humid environment possible, without anything to eat, and in some vague hope for something I had no clue about. And I would do it all again in a heartbeat.

That first step is a doozy

     It was absolute and complete isolation. Aside from the trees leading up to and around the base of the mountain, nothing existed. It was just a blank, impenetrable, haze. A weird mixture of amazement and existential crisis swirled together to make me absolutely speechless. If you followed my story on Instagram, you'll remember everything I said was merely describing the view and not what it felt like. I still don't know if I can put this experience into words; the only thing that comes to mind is the word "limbo". Imagine reaching a world where nothing existed outside of the environment directly around you and what experiencing that for the first time might feel like. Yeah, it was weird.

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     It was weird, but it was beautiful. I took every shot, from every angle, and climbed all over the peak, until there was nothing left to do, other than stare into the white abyss. It was oddly comforting. One thing that kept coming to mind was how I couldn't see the roads or houses or farms that were around the state park and I liked that. It was almost like seeing the world before the influence of mankind.

     After a while of walking back and forth, retaking photos, and finally coming to terms with the fact that there was nothing else for me to do up there (and that I was starving), I packed up and made my way back home. The ride back seemed faster than usual, but probably because my mind was still reeling from that hike. I've never had that happen before. Even after getting home, eating, and having a cup of coffee (which probably didn't help at all), I couldn't relax and was slowly going stir-crazy. The next morning, I grabbed my camera and went hiking around my property to shoot some more. I needed to get out of the house again and do something. It was a pretty uneventful walk, but I think that's what I needed.

Clearing (in) the mind

Once I got home, I had finally calmed down and was able to convince myself to get back to work. It was a weird couple of days and I still think about it on a regular basis. It was eye-opening in ways I never expected a hike in Hanging Rock State Park could be. In conclusion, I guess; if someone tells you that hiking up a mountain, during a hurricane, is a bad idea, they're probably right. However, in my experience, they could be very very wrong. As long as you're safe. Like, super safe. I kinda almost fell once, so at least stay away from the edges. Also, don't tell my mom.