People are hungering to get some outside time. Getting some fresh air while still being able to socially distance if necessary is particularly appealing after the pandemic. One fantastic U.S. destination is West Virginia.
Below, I’ll offer a mix of natural beauty, unusual locations and parks with, er, slightly too many photos of waterfalls, just to mix it up a bit and offer you a variety of photographic opportunities.
Almost Heaven, West Virginia
If you want to enjoy the outdoors, it would be hard to do better than West Virginia. After all, it’s sparsely populated compared to many states on the East Coast. And not only that, it’s covered in beautiful forests, lakes, waterfalls, rivers and more.
It’s frequently mentioned in Outside Magazine as one of the best white water rafting destinations in the nation. And the Mountain State is also popular for rock climbing, especially in locations such as Dolly Sods and Seneca Rocks.
New River Gorge National Park and Preserve
This very new National Park will put the gorgeous New River Gorge area on more people’s radar. Consider coming here before the crowds eventually descend upon the area.
Fayetteville is probably one of the best places to access the National Park. Often included in lists as one of the best small towns in America, Fayetteville has beautiful bed-and-breakfasts and Airbnbs, charming people and delicious food. I especially love Pies and Pints, Secret Sandwich Society and Wood Iron Eatery. Get breakfast at Cathedral Cafe, where you quite literally eat in a former cathedral with stained glass windows.
This area is popular for white water rafting and checking out the amazing suspension bridge, the New River Gorge Bridge. One popular access point for photographing the bridge during sunset, fog, or any other time is to walk down the path to the lookout point from the Visitor’s Center.
Many people explore paths that walk on the many paths that parallel the New River. They offer short walks to ledges that provide stunning views of the river. Some of these areas are popular for wedding photos. Fayette Station Road winds through the gorge and provides great views, including along the lower bridge, offering a great vantage point for watching rafters as well.
The New River Gorge area is rather large, and you could easily spend many days wandering through the forests, soaking your feet in the streams and admiring its many waterfalls.
One of the most accessible waterfalls is the gorgeous Cathedral Falls. This is located near the town of Gauley Bridge, and can be reached from Route 60 on the east side of the New River.
Nearby Grandview overlooks the New River bending, with Thurmond stretching around the bend. These are some of the most beautiful views of New River Gorge National Park.
And of course, you can also drive to Thurmond. During the first two decades of the 1900s, Thurmond was a classic boomtown. Now, it is virtually a ghost town, remarkably well preserved. Talk to the friendly rangers at the Visitor’s Center in the former depot to find out more about its history.
You may photograph here day or night. However, trains run regularly, so you must stay off the tracks and stay alert when exploring Thurmond. The almost ghost town looks great in black and white as well as color, and looks great when cloudy as well as other times.
Hawks Nest State Park
Not far from New River Gorge National Park is this 270-acre park. This has a nature museum, an aerial tramway which take you down to the river, hiking trails, waterfalls and some rather challenging white water rafting. If you enjoy quirky roadside attractions, stop by the nearby Mystery Hole, where the “laws of nature have run amok.”
One of my favorite hikes in the area is the rail trail. I like to take the tram down to the river and hike up a mile to Mill Creek Falls. Along the way, you can also see the foundations of an old water tower, an old trestle bridge and an old mine. If you continue on this trail, you will walk back up to the town of Ansted.
Babcock State Park
Glade Creek Grist Mill, one of the most photographed destinations in West Virginia, is located in Babcock State Park. The most popular time is during the fall, when the trees turn color and the water is flowing. This is about 30 miles southeast of Cathedral Falls along the New River Gorge.
Camp Creek State Park and Forest
Camp Creek State Park is a very accessible, charming park with an easy walk that follows the creek.
Brush Creek Preserve
Not far off the Highway 77, right by the diminutive Brush Creek Preserve, is a gorgeous waterfall. This is a short walk from the preserve and is well worth a visit.
In a state engulfed in endless rolling mountains, I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that the capital of West Virginia isn’t a sprawling metropolis. Still, this city laid out among the banks of the Kanawha (which seems to always be pronounced “Ka-GNAW” locally” River has plenty of things to visit.
Charleston has many things to do. Visit the Capitol Market, an outdoor market and collection of shop selling anything from chocolates, books, wines, or produce. Outdoor markets always provide vibrant colors, perfect for exquisite photography.
Wander inside 240,000 square foot Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences, a center for performing and visual arts as well as sciences located on Clay Square. This is very kid-friendly, and offers many interactive science exhibits as well as traveling exhibits. There’s also two theaters in the center.
One of my favorite places to walk along the brick walkways of Capitol Street and the surrounding area. Capitol Street is filled with good boutique shops, galleries, and restaurants. In March through December, the area hosts ArtWalk events that celebrate local talent with free tours of shops and galleries featuring paintings, sculptures, photography, and music. There are plenty of photographing opportunities here, especially during the ArtWalk.
I’m particularly fond of Taylor Books. This is an independent bookstore, coffee shop, cafe, and art gallery. The buyers for this bookstore seem to have discerning taste, as the book selection is fascinating, compelling, and diverse. It also features a wide variety of local artists, authors, and books about West Virginia and the Appalachian region.
Some of my favorite restaurants in Charleston include Pies and Pints, Tricky Fish and Books and Brews. The latter has amazing pepperoni rolls as well as pizza and local brews. And books, of course. So many books.
Blackwater Falls State Park
This beautiful park is located approximately three and a half hours northwest of Fayetteville in the Allegheny Mountains. The park is named for the amber waters of Blackwater Falls, a 57-foot cascade tinted by fallen hemlock and red spruce needles. The falls, along with Elakala Falls, Lindy Point and Pendleton Point Overlook, are some of the state’s most photographed spots.
Blackwater Falls is a short 0.4 mile walk. There is a large lookout that offers a good vantage point for photos. I like taking photos of waterfalls when the light is not harsh, such as early mornings, early evenings or if it is cloudy.
Also well worth the look is the more delicate Elakala Falls. There’s actually several falls as you follow the path down. The first waterfall is extremely close to Blackwater Falls Lodge. This waterfall doesn’t have the volume of water of nearby Blackwater Falls, but it’s absolutely gorgeous. During warm months, you might take your shoes off and take photos from the water so you can get closer to the falls and achieve a straighter view.
If you are using a tripod or Gorillapod and it is overcast or in the shade, as Elakala is, you may be able to take long exposure photos of waterfalls with just a circular polarizer.
Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
Located in Weston, this National Historic Landmark served the mentally ill beginning in the mid-1800s. The area is very large, and consequently, there are many tours. You can discover fascinating stories of Civil War raids, gold robberies, the “curative” effects of architecture and the efforts of determined individuals to help better the lives of the mentally ill. They also offer paranormal tours and even a night photography workshop in May.
Dolly Sods Wilderness
This is located in the northeastern part of the state in the Monongahela National Forest. Filled with hiking trails, this is a popular place that offers beautiful vistas perfect for photography, and dark skies for night photography. One of the most popular viewpoints is Lion’s Head Rock. This is a popular area to view the setting sun.
Seneca Rocks is one of the best-known natural landmarks in the state. This is close to Dolly Sods Wilderness and located in Monongahela National Forest, is scenic and popular with rock climbers and night photographers due to its dark skies. You can also photograph these rocks from Route 28 and U.S. Route 33.
Alternatively, you could check out the views from Spruce Knob, the highest point in the Mountain State. You may hike 14 miles from the base to the summit. Or simply drive to the top. From the parking lot, it’s only a quick quarter-mile walk to the observation point.
West Virginia Penitentiary, Moundsville
This imposing Gothic-style prison is located in the far north of West Virginia. It has a fascinating, violent history, and operated from 1876–1995. Many of the tour guides worked as prison guards, so you get a firsthand account of the penitentiary. It’s well worth a visit.
As a bonus, you may arrange for night photography if you wish. A warning, though: This is by far the creepiest place I have ever photographed at night!
The roads less traveled
Perhaps one of the greatest pleasures of West Virginia is to get off the highway and travel through some of the back roads. These never disappoint. Travel through small charming towns, rolling green hillsides, verdant forests and much more. I hope this inspires you to get outdoors and explore West Virginia.
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Behind the Shot video podcast – interview February 2020
How We Got the Shots: Five Photographers, Five Stories – Night Photo Summit 2022
Ken Lee’s Abandoned Trains Planes and Automobiles with Tim Little of Cape Nights Photography
Conversation about night photography and my book with Lance Keimig of National Park At Night
A Photographer Captures Haunting Nighttime Images of Abandoned Buildings, Planes, and Cars in the American Southwest – Business Insider by Erin McDowell
A Photographer Explores Southern California’s Desert Ruins – Los Angeles Magazine article by Chris Nichols