Photofocus Road Trip: “Almost Heaven,” West Virginia

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

Jackson’s Mill, 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.

The New River Gorge Bridge is such a landmark that it can be found on the West Virginia version of the quarter!

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.

Thurmond, West Virginia, a former boom town.

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.

The enormous coal tipple at night, Thurmond, West Virginia.

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

The famous Glade Creek Grist Mill, although during this particular summer, there was not much water flowing.

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

Brush Creek Falls, not far south of Camp Creek State Park, is another place with beautiful waterfalls. There is often more water than this in the fall, but this reveals the beautiful rocks behind the water.

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.

The gold-domed historic State Capitol building dominates the city’s riverfront, and at 292 feet (89 meters) is the tallest building in West Virginia. This is part of a historic area listed on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. This was designed by Cass Gilbert, who also designed the U.S. Supreme Court, the Woolworth Building, and much more. The building is five feet taller than the dome of the U.S. Capitol. And yes, the top of the dome is actually covered in gold leaf. While there, visit the West Virginia State Museum to see one of the greatest quilt exhibits on the face of the planet.

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

Dolly Sods. Photo by Mark ‘Indy’ Kochte/IndyVision.

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

Seneca Rocks attracts rock climbers from all over the world. Gunsight View at noon. Photo by Mark ‘Indy’ Kochte/IndyVision.

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.

4th of July fireworks from the Gunsight, Seneca Rocks. Photo by Mark ‘Indy’ Kochte/IndyVision.

West Virginia Penitentiary, Moundsville

The foreboding exterior of West Virginia Penitentiary in 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!

West Virginia Penitentiary at night, Moundsville.
West Virginia Penitentiary at night, Moundsville.

The roads less traveled

One of many beautiful scenes in the back roads of West Virginia, probably one of the better states for country driving.

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.

Part of the fun is eating and meeting people too. This is Hillbilly Hot Dogs, home of the enormous Homewrecker. Not to worry, they have much smaller portions as well.
Trees. So many trees. If you love trees, West Virginia is surely paradise.


Head on over to the Ken Lee Photography website to purchase books or look at night photography and long exposure prints and more.  My books are available there and Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Target, Booktopia, Books A Million, IBS, and Aladin. If you enjoy the book, please leave a nice review, thanks!


Night photographers Tim Little, Mike Cooper and I all use Pentax gear. We discuss this, gear, adventures, light painting, lenses, night photography, creativity, and more in this ongoing YouTube podcast. Subscribe and watch to the Nightaxians today!

Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like)

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



Ghosts of Coal Barons Past – West Virginia Ghost Town At Night!

Ghosts of Coal Barons Past (7344)

Night photo looking up at the enormous coaling tower, Thurmond (almost) ghost town, West Virginia. Once a prosperous town, the nearly abandoned town now has less than twelve residents. The trains still run there, though. Mike Cooper, Tim Little, and I needed to warn each other and be extremely cautious since the ghost town lays on a sharp bend, and trains seem to suddenly appear around the curve. I illuminated the walls during the exposure. Feel free to share using the “share” button here on Facebook, thanks!
Nikon D610/14-24mm f/2.8 lens, 3 minute exposure f/8 ISO 200. July 2017.
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Long Exposure Night Photo with Light Painting

You can see more of these photos here  on my Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like), on 500px, or my Ken Lee Google+ Page. We discuss long exposure, night sky, star trails, and coastal long exposure photography, as well as lots of other things, so I hope you can join us!

And you can go to the Ken Lee Photography website, which has more photos from Ken Lee.  Thank you very much for visiting!


Photo: Brush Creek Falls (long exposure photo)

8748kenlee2015-06_westvirginia-waterfalls-brushcreekfalls-f113siso100-1000pxAlmost Heaven, West Virginia. This is a 2.5 second exposure of Brush Creek Falls. Despite the constant rain, the water for most waterfalls we visited was a trickle. Brush Creek Falls was the exception. This is the largest waterfall in the southern part of the state, and once had a water-powered mill, which was built by Jimmy D. Johnson around 1880. The falls drops over a sandstone ledge that is about 25 feet/7.5 meters in height near the mouth of the stream’s deep gorge of Brush Creek at Bluestone River.

Title: Brush Creek Falls
Photo: Ken Lee Photography
Info: Nikon D7000, Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 lens. f/8, 2.5 second exposure, ISO 100. B+W 6-stop ND filter. 18 June 2015.
Location: Brush Creek Falls, West Virginia, USA

You can see more of these photos here  on my Ken Lee Photography Facebook Page (poke your head in, say hi, and “like” the page if you would, uh, like), on 500px, or my Ken Lee Google+ Page. We discuss long exposure, night sky, star trails, and coastal long exposure photography, as well as lots of other things, so I hope you can join us!

And you can go to the Ken Lee Photography website, which has more photos from Ken Lee.  Thank you very much for visiting!

Almost Heaven Month: Photo Detail of Elakala Falls, West Virginia

Please click on the photo to view it larger and more clearly!  Thanks!


While standing in the water taking this photo, I was also mesmerized by some of the details of the Elakala waterfall.  Sometimes, the little details can be just as charming as the whole. And pausing to admire the details can be a valuable lesson for us this month.

Title: Elakala Falls III – Close
Info: Nikon D7000, Nikkor VR 18-200mm lens. F/8, 8 seconds, ISO 400.
Photography: Ken Lee
Location: Blackwater Falls State Park, West Virginia, USA.

For more photos and stories from this trip:



Almost Heaven Month Continues with Cathedral Falls, West Virginia!

Almost Heaven, West Virginia Month continues, this time featuring the amazing Cathedral Falls.  And also….Happy Martin Luther King Day today!

Please click on the photo to view it larger and more clearly!  Thanks!


Title: Cathedral Falls August 2012 II
Info: Nikon D7000, Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 lens. F/11, 10 seconds, ISO 200.
Photography: Ken Lee
Location: Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, USA.


Almost Heaven Month: Elakala Falls, West Virginia!

Please click on the photo to view it larger and more clearly!  Thanks!


For this photo, it was time to get wet. All five legs in the water (I’m counting the tripod here, don’t worry). This is Elakala Falls. As it turns out, Elekala Falls has three falls sections, each one apparently progressively more difficult to access, according to our West Virginia waterfalls book that Lisa found. These are only of the upper, most accessible falls, a short distance from the lodge.Title: Elakala Falls II
Info: Nikon D7000, Nikkor VR 18-200mm lens. F/11, 6 seconds, ISO 400, Feisol tripod. I took this photo while standing in the pool.
Photography: Ken Lee
Location: Blackwater Falls State Park, West Virginia, USA.



January is Almost Heaven Month! Photo: Blackwater Falls, West Virginia

January is West Virginia Month!  We’ll kick it off with arguably their best known geographic feature, the amazing Blackwater Falls.

Please click on the photo to view it larger and more clearly!  Thanks!


Title: Blackwater Falls I
Info: Nikon D7000, Nikkor VR 18-200mm lens. F/11, 1.3 seconds, ISO 200.
Photography: Ken Lee
Location: Blackwater Falls State Park, West Virginia, USA.One of the largest and best-known falls in West Virginia, the image of this waterfall can be found everywhere, from keychains to shirts to jigsaw puzzles.



Tip of the Month: 7 Tips For Beautiful Waterfall Photos!

Cathedral Falls, West Virginia
Cathedral Falls, West Virginia, Nikon D90, 18-200mm lens, 18mm, f/22, 1.6 seconds.  West Virginia has at least 3500 waterfalls.

Is there anyone who doesn’t love waterfalls?  Okay, maybe besides that one cranky great-uncle?  By request, I’m going to cover the best tips for getting gorgeous waterfall photos!

1.  Slow Shutter Speed. This is up to you and your tastes.  If you want to “freeze-frame” the spray, the specific waves, the droplets of water, you want a really fast shutter speed.  Once in a while, I like this to capture the power or drama of the falls.

Or do you prefer a soft, silky, ethereal feel of the water?  This is usually my preference.  If so, you want a slow shutter speed.  I shoot waterfalls, depending on the light, anywhere from 1/2 second to 1.6 seconds, using a low ISO.  But how can you shoot this slowly?

Upper Yosemite Falls
The Mighty Upper Yosemite Falls.  Although I generally prefer to shoot waterfalls using a slow shutter speed, there are sometimes in which I prefer a fast shutter speed to capture the individual waves and spray of the water, which can sometimes add more drama.

2.  Use a tripod.  You knew that, didn’t you?  This’ll keep everything sharp – except for everything that’s moving, of course. I like to use a Nikon MC-DC2 Remote Release Cord to further minimize camera shake, which can be introduced if you are touching the shutter button on your camera.

If you are hiking, use either a lightweight carbon fiber tripod or, like I did for the Cathedral Falls photo, a Joby Gorillapod.  It lightens the load and allows you to take photos of beautiful waterfalls, even if they are miles along the trail.

3.  Filters.  If the light is bright, you may not be able to slow down the shutter speed to 1/2 second or more. So, what to do?  You can screw on a neutral density filter or a polarizing filter to let in less light.  Cool, huh? For this photo, I used a polarizing filter because I left the neutral density filters at home.  Using a combination of the polarizing filter and a really small aperture allowed me to get a shutter speed as slow as 1/6 seconds.

4.  Figure Out The Best Time To Shoot!  When’s the best season?  When does the foliage look the best?  When does the water flow?  Might it look really cool in winter? Often, spring or fall is the best time for water flow, while the winter or summer may hardly have anything at all.

The time of day matters too.  The harsh light of day may not be the most flattering.  but certain times of the day may not be so great either if there’s strong contrast from trees or foliage overhead, with “hot spots” from the sun mixed with shade form the leaves and branches or trees. Most of the time, early morning or late afternoon is best.  Cloudy, foggy, or misty days can also provide good light for photographing waterfalls. But talking to people, checking out the falls, and otherwise doing research is best, particularly if you’re visiting.  Figure out when the light looks the best, or the most dramatic. Popular places like Yosemite often have a lot of information online or in photography books.

5.  Take Photos at Different Exposures and Shutter Speeds.  You never know what you might really like when you get home.  Experiment.  I mess with the shutter speeds, taking them from very fast shutter speeds to as long as 5 seconds or more, although for slow shutter speeds, I usually end up going for somewhere around 1/2 second to 1.6 seconds.  But not always.

6.  Small Apertures.  Consider using small aperture settings when shooting waterfalls.  Why?  As I mentioned, it lights in less light, handy if you are trying to achieve that silky smooth look of the water.  But more than that, what it allows you to do is keep more of the waterfall and surrounding landscape in focus.  This allows you to have a greater depth of field and keep the foreground elements as well as the leaves and trees around the waterfall, as well as the top of the waterfall, in focus.  My very small aperture of f/22 is a little smaller than most people do, but I did that because it was relatively bright and I wanted to get the shutter speed slower.  But experimenting with apertures between f6.3-f/13 in most cases will do the trick.

7.  Bring Microfiber Cloths and Plastic Bags.  Indispensable when you’re shooting around spraying water. You can use a plastic bag to cover the camera until you are ready to shoot. Using your lens hood can sometimes keep some of the water droplets (or sun) off the lens as well.

When I was shooting Cathedral Falls, most of the water on my lens came from a little boy who suddenly chose to throw rocks in the water pools right in front of my camera while his mother looked on and did nothing.  Because I’m helpful, I gave her some tips on parenting.

Equipment:  Nikon D90, Nikon 18-200mm VR II Nikkor Telephoto Zoom Lens, Nikon SB-600 Speedlight, Sto-Fen Flash Diffuser.

Featured Photo – Waterfalls of West Virginia

Mill Creek Falls, West Virginia

Mill Creek Falls, West Virginia

Photo:  Mill Creek Falls, West Virginia.  Nikon D90, 18-200mm VR Nikkor lens at 32mm, 1 second exposure at ISO 200, f/14

I have visited West Virginia every summer for the past ten years or so.  My girlfriend grew up there, and we go every summer to visit her family.  I love the state.  It’s beautiful.  It’s a hilly area with many rivers and lakes, and consequently, there are about 3500 waterfalls in this state alone.

This waterfall is near Ansted.  Ansted is very close to Hawk’s Nest.  And to another attraction, the Mystery Hole.  I love places like this, the funny tourist traps. The Mystery Hole is one of those places like the Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz, one of those crazy houses where gravity and the laws of nature have apparently run amok.  Yeah!!!!! Of course, we’ve taken the tour.  But every time we pass by there, I insist we stop so I can purchase another T-shirt and more bumper stickers.

Got distracted. Happens every time I talk about the Mystery Hole.

There is a nice walk from the bottom of Hawk’s Nest back up to Ansted.  And along the way is Mill Creek Falls. From the trail, you have to slide down a hill, grabbing on to trees so you don’t tumble downhill like all those rocks and dirt that you’re kicking down.

I photographed this with my trusty Nikon D90 and a circular polarizer, that also sort of acted as a neutral density filter to let in less light as well.  Coupled with that, I used a small aperture to let in even less light so I could get a more wispy sort of look from the waterfall, using a 1-second exposure.  I screwed ’em on to my Feisol Travel Carbon Traveler Tripod and shot away.

Alright!  one waterfall down, 3499 to go!

EDIT:  A got a few requests for how to photograph waterfalls, so I’ll try and make that the next Tip of the Month!

Equipment:  Nikon D90, 18-200mm VR Nikkor lens

Photo Link: New York Leper Colony

I  came across photos of this abandoned leper colony, left to rot on the island of North Brother, just 350 yards from The Bronx.  This was a quarantine zone, leper colony, and center for drug addicts, once home to hundreds of patients, now abandoned to nature. As with many abandoned buildings, this is eerie.  But the nature of the building makes it perhaps more akin to the photos I’ve posted of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, West Virginia in some respects.

New York leper colony
New York leper colony

New York leper colony
New York leper colony

New York leper colony of North Brother
New York leper colony of North Brother

Link:  The short article is by Liz Hazelton on the Daily Mail, with photography by Ian Ference/Barcroft Media.  Thanks to Scott for the link!


A couple of photos from my Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum collection of photos that I took during my visit to West Virginia in 2010:

Doctor's office, Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
A decaying doctor’s office at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, West Virginia. Some of the doctors had special wings, where their wife and children would stay. Can you imagine being a kid, living and growing up at an insane asylum? – Photo by Ken Lee

Metal doors for violent inmates, Trans-Allegheny Lunaic Asylum, Weston, West Virginia
The area for particularly violent patients in the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, with several bolts, as one patient still managed to bust one metal deadbolt. Trans-Allegheny Lunaic Asylum, Weston, West Virginia – Photo by Ken Lee

Equipment:  Nikon D90, 18-200mm VR Nikkor lens