The Blue Ridge Parkway is a 469 mile long thoroughfare that connects Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountain National Parks. The Blue Ridge Parkway has a large variety of Photo Opportunities along the 469 mile stretch.
It is an easy drive with no traffic lights and no commercial vehicles allowed. In 2 days, I drove the 217 miles parkway from the North Carolina border to its beginning near Shenandoah National Park.
In this blog, I’ll provide tips for photographing and navigating the Blue Ridge Parkway, and also provide my favorites photography stops along the parkway.
Tips for Photographing the Blue Ridge Parkway
Navigating the Blue Ridge Parkway
There is little or no cell phone coverage in much of the park. This can cause problems if you are using your phone for navigation. Bring along a GPS unit and/or download a Blue Ridge Parkway map and use the concrete mileposts along the side of the road to help with navigation and finding your photography destinations. The mileposts start at 1 at the north end of the parkway near Shenandoah National Park and get larger as you drive south.
Crowds on the Weekend
The parkway gets crowded on the weekend especially during peak seasons like peak fall color in the autumn. Go during the week if you can. Also, early mornings are less busy. Even during the peak fall season, I only saw a few people in the early morning hours during the week. But, by 9:30am, the park started to get busy.
Make sure to plan out your trip in advance. Plan your photography stops and how long they will take. Overlooks should only take a short time where photo ops like mills, waterfalls, and cabins may take more time to hike and photograph. I used both the milepost number and GPS coordinates to mark my stops. I list some of my favorite photo ops later in this blog post with the GPS coordinates and milepost numbers.
Also, plan ahead for food and gas. You will likely need to leave the parkway for these items. There are a couple of restaurants along the parkway: Mabry Mill Restaurant and Peaks of Otter Restaurant and Lodge.
Check for Blue Ridge Parkway Closures
Inclement weather, flooding, and construction may cause road closures on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There is a section of the parkway near Roanoke, Virginia that has been closed for a couple years because to road damage due to flooding. Check for road closures at nps.gov.
Be Prepared for all Types of Weather
In a two day trip on the Blue Ridge Parkway, I had rain, fog, cloudy, partly cloudy, and sunny conditions. Each of these conditions present their own challenges and advantages for photography. Dress in layers and bring rain gear.
Don’t stay at the hotel on foggy mornings and cloudy days. These conditions can provide some unique photography opportunities and you can shoot later in the day since there won’t be harsh midday lighting. Rainy / foggy weather also helps to keeps the crowds away.
Tips for Photographing in Inclement Weather
- Fog can provide a moody effect when photographing old buildings like mills and cabins along the parkway.
- Cloudy / mostly cloudy days are good for black and white and infrared photography.
- Zoom in closer for tighter compositions to crop out the sky during flat, cloudy days.
- Unless your camera has good waterproofing, don’t forget to bring rain gear for your camera.
- Bring along a hand towel to wipe down you and your gear.
Photography Equipment to Bring
There are a lot of different genres of photography to shoot on the Blue Ridge Parkway (Landscapes, Wildlife, Birds, Macro, and even Astrophotography). For a base kit, I would suggest:
- DLSR or Mirrorless Camera
- Wide Angle Telephoto Lens
- Ultra Wide Angle Telephoto Lens
- Long Telephoto or Prime lens for Wildlife. I saw a variety of wildlife while driving the parkway: White-tailed Deer, Wild Turkey, Squirrels, and Black Bears (although I did not see one). It’s a good idea to have a second camera body on the seat next to you with your wildlife lens because you may only have a few seconds to photograph wildlife along the road.
- Tripod. If you plan on photographing waterfalls or sunrises / sunsets a light but sturdy tripod would be a good addition to your kit.
Lack of Pullouts
I found very few pullouts along the parkway except for the overlooks. Be careful stopping on the roads for photo opportunities (wildlife, etc.) as there is a lot of curves on the parkway and it can often be foggy in the morning. There are some places where the grass along the parkway is more solid where you can park along side the road.
My Favorite Spots to Photograph on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia
There are a lot of areas to photograph on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia, but here are some of my favorites.
Raven’s Roost Overlook
Milepost: 10.7. GPS: 37.933736, -78.952889
The is a unique looking tree on the edge of the overlook that can be used in your compositions. The tree is located on the left side of the Raven’s Roost Parking Area. Raven’s Roost Overlook is a good sunset shot using the tree in your composition.
Otter Lake Waterfall
Milepost: 63. GPS: 37.556896, -79.358085
There is a small waterfall located at the pullout just south of Otter Lake. The short trail leads down hill to the waterfall. The waterfall is unique as the water cascades down the stone dam from otter lake.
James River Bridge
Milepost: 63.6. GPS: 37.555323, -79.365489
Just a short walk from the James River Visitor Center, you’ll find a footbridge underneath the vehicle bridge. There are photography opportunities of the bridges and compositions of the James River as you walk across the footbridge.
Thunder Ridge Overlook
Milepost: 74.7. GPS: 37.5403407, -79.4904784
There is a short trail from the parking area that leads to the overlook. The Thunder Ridge Overlook has a stone platform to view the overlook. The stone platform can be used in your composition. You may need to stand on a rock and/or hold the camera over your head to get the platform and the overlook view in your composition.
Trail Cabin at Smart View
Milepost: 154.5. GPS: 36.928193, -80.187068
Trail Cabin is located at the Smart View Recreation / Picnic area. There is an old split log fence that can be used as a leading line in the composition. The cabin also works well in infrared and black and white.
Rakes Pond & Dam Overlook
Milepost: 162.4. GPS: 36.865722, -80.285044
This is a quick stop but there are some compositions of the dam and waterfall right along the side of the road.
Milepost: 176.2. GPS: 36.750902, -80.406007
Mabry Mill is one of the highlights to photograph on the parkway in Virginia. The classic shot is the mill reflection in the pond. This can be accessed from the trail leading from the left side of the restaurant parking lot. Additional parking is available in a read parking lot on Mabry Mill Road SE.
There are trails that go around the mill for different compositions. There are also several other small buildings, a wagon, and a plow to photograph.
This is also a good location for Infrared and Black and White photography.
Milepost: 189. GPS: 36.643015, -80.546892
Puckett Cabin is a historic cabin that belong to a famous midwife (Aunt Orlean Puckett) who delivered more than 1,000 babies.
There are several compositions of the cabin and a small outbuilding behind the cabin. One composition is to use the path to the cabin as a leading line. I also like the composition from behind the cabin with an overhanging branch.
The cabin is often enclosed with fog in the early mornings which can give a different mood to your photograph. This is also a good stop for black and white and infrared photography.
Written by Martin Belan
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