Devoted to exploring off the beaten path for beautiful waterfalls, wildflowers, and landscapes in West Virginia.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Exploring the North Fork of the Blackwater River: Kennedy Falls

Though the falls of Douglas are striking and dramatic, there are many more falls on the North Fork as it makes its descent into the Blackwater Canyon. Indeed, an intriguing entry in Philip Pendleton Kennedy’s Blackwater Chronicle led me to look for one of them. In Kennedy’s description of his scramble down the North Fork below Douglas Falls, he wrote: “This level of the stream, however . . .  leads you to a second large fall, a clear pitch again of some forty feet.” When I read that, my eyes widened. A second large fall as high as Douglas? I had neither read of these falls in any modern travel guides nor seen photographs of them. Was Kennedy exaggerating–merely caught up in the thrall of the cascades? 
Kennedy Falls

Following in the Footsteps

I had to find out, and the only way to do so was to follow in his footsteps. With the help of some kayakers who ran the North Fork, I found the falls. I’ll call them Kennedy Falls after Philip Pendleton Kennedy, the man who first wrote of them.

Finding Kennedy Falls

To find Kennedy Falls (Lat 39.1202, Long -79.5205) continue down the railroad grade along the North Fork. Scrambling along the stream bed is difficult at best and somewhat dangerous. If you read Kennedy’s account, you’ll know what I mean. It’s much better to parallel the stream along the road and then descend straight into the canyon at the point of the falls. Hiking about a quarter of mile below Douglas Falls should put you at the point of descent into the canyon. If you come to a rock cairn composed of sandstone cobbles, you’ve gone too far. The falls are indeed directly downslope from the cairn, but there’s an easier way down the side of the canyon. Backtrack about 86 paces or 215 feet to find the best point of entry into the woods.
Kennedy Falls

Descend into the canyon at this point and head straight down the slope. But use caution. The slope is very steep. When you reach the bottom of the canyon, you should be near the falls. Bear right and downstream a little to reach the head of the falls. You can scramble around the falls on the right to see them from below. The falls are about 30 feet high and lovely indeed. A rocky gravel bar in the middle of the stream provides a great frontal view. The levels above the falls beg for attention, too. The rocks are red like those at Douglas Falls and finely sculpted by the river. 
Kennedy Falls

Standing in the Foot Prints

Aside from some intrepid kayakers, I don’t believe many people have seen these falls. When viewing them, you could be standing right in the foot prints of Kennedy and his fellow explorers. As you turn back for cabin or camp or cottage having walked in the footsteps of these frontiersmen, perhaps you’ll feel as Kennedy did when he finished his first day exploring the North Fork:
Kennedy Falls

Kennedy’s Parting Words

“The sun broke out, and we proceeded on our way up the steep ascent–rainbow over-arching the waterfalls, and the spray everywhere golden with sunbeams. At length, reaching the top of the grand chasm, and standing again on the brink of the impending rocks where we first hailed so rapturously, the leap-down of the river–we took a last look of the wild scene and went on our way to the camp.”

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Exploring the North Fork of the Blackwater River: Douglas Falls

“Perhaps in all this broad land of ours, whose wonders are not yet half revealed, no scene more beautifully grand ever broke on the eye of poet or painter, historian or forester. The Blackwater here evidently breaks its way sheer down through one of the ribs of the backbone of the Alleganies. The chasm through which the river forces itself thus headlong tumultuous down, is just wide enough to contain the actual breadth of the stream. On either side, the mountains rise up, almost a perpendicular ascent, to the height of some six hundred feet. They are covered down their sides, to the very edge of the river, with the noblest of firs and hemlocks . . .”
Douglas Falls

The Blackwater Chronicle

Philip Pendleton Kennedy penned those words in 1852 in a colorful account called The Blackwater Chronicle: A Narrative of and Expedition into the Land of Canaan. And who could blame him for waxing poetic. He was leading a party of fellow adventurers into a raw and relatively unexplored region of West Virginia–Canaan Valley and the upper watershed of the Blackwater River. The explorers were lured by the keeper of the Tower’s Inn in Gormania who boasted: “Gentlemen, if you can only reach the fall of the Blackwater, you can take more trout in an hour than you ever took before in all your lives.” That did not prove to be an exaggeration. Kennedy and his company caught native trout, which had never before seen a baited hook, by the hundreds. 
Douglas Falls

Douglas Falls

The wilds of Canaan, however, did not easily yield their treasures. These men sloshed through dank swamps and slashed through dense laurel thickets. The going was tough, but the rewards were grand. Kennedy’s party had crossed Backbone Mountain and were descending the North Fork of the Blackwater River when they came upon an inspiring scene. Kennedy breathlessly described it this way: 

“Turning a rocky promontory that jutted the mountain side, the Blackwater, some hundred yards ahead, seemed to have disappeared entirely from the face of the earth, leaving nothing visible down the chasm through which it vanished, but the tops of fir-trees and hemlocks . . . The expedition stepped out upon the furthest verge and very pinnacle of the foaming battlements, and gazed upon the sight so wondrous and so wild, thus presented to their astonished eyes.” 
Douglas Falls

They were approaching the brink of what is now called Douglas Falls–the point at which the North Fork of the Blackwater River begins its precipitous descent into the Main Fork. Further discoveries lay ahead as chronicled by Kennedy in his book. 

Exploring the North Fork

But is there any adventure left for us in the Land of Canaan some 150 years later? Can we follow in the footsteps of these explorers and experience the wonder they felt? The answer is, “Yes!” If you’re lodging at Blackwater Falls State Park or in surrounding areas and are willing to stay a few more days, then I suggest you spend some time exploring the North Fork of the Blackwater River. It’s only 4 miles from the state park. If you do, you’ll get a taste of adventure and discover for yourself some scenic gems that few people have seen since Kennedy and his men forged the way in 1852. 
Douglas Falls

How to Get to Douglas Falls

An excursion on the North Fork should start at Douglas Falls (Lat 39.12403, Long -79.51965). Beginning from the entrance to Blackwater Falls State Park at State Route 32, drive about two miles north on Route 32 until you come to the Douglas-Coketon Road on your left. After leaving Route 32, drive about a mile to a bridge crossing the North Fork.  Immediately after the bridge look for a gravel road to the left, which is an abandoned railroad grade that runs along the length of the North and Main Forks of the Blackwater River all the way from Thomas to Hendricks. It’s a great bike path. Up to Douglas Falls, it’s also passable by vehicle. But I wouldn’t try it with my sedan. It has some deep potholes that require a vehicle with high clearance.  
Beehive Coke Ovens

Beehive Coke Ovens

Since Douglas Falls are just a mile down the road and the way is fairly level, you can hike, bike, or drive it pretty easily. On the way keep your eye out for some abandoned coke ovens on your left. One look at the structures and you’ll know why they were called “beehive” coke ovens. The way is strewn with wildflowers, too, and occasional glimpses of the North Fork of the Blackwater. Although this is a fairly flat stretch, the river does make a couple of short leaps and runs over sandstone ledges.
North Fork of the Blackwater R.

When you reach a Forest Service gate across the road, the falls will be immediately to your left. Take the path that leads down to the falls and explore them. The falls drop some 40 feet into an emerald plunge pool surrounded by huge prisms of rusty-red sandstone. The rocks are tinted red by iron-bearing minerals leached from acid mine drainage upstream. The coal mines have since been reclaimed, but the boulders are colorful reminders of the past pollution. Douglas Falls are not as high or as wide as the Great Falls of the Main Fork of the Blackwater, but they are picturesque and beautiful nonetheless. In fact I find them stunning.
Douglas Falls

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Five Viewpoints for Photographing the Babcock Grist Mill

The Glade Creek Grist Mill at Babcock State Park is one of the most photographed sights in West Virginia drawing more than 200,000 people every year. You’ll find pictures of the mill at Babcock on calendars, postcards, magazines, and travel brochures. Most of the visitors to Babcock have a camera in their hands wanting to take home their own photos of this West Virginia icon. In photographing the Babcock Mill and the Glade Creek Falls for the last 15 years, I’ve learned that many points of view (pov) can be found to capture the falls and the mill, but generally most people settle for two traditional views.

View from the Rocks at the End of Stairs

For their first shot of the falls and the mill, most people traditionally take the stairs behind the lodge down to the pond and shoot from the rocks at the end of the stairs. From this pov both the falls and mill are close and produce good composition.

View from Sewell Road Opposite the Dam

Another traditional point of view is to walk down Sewell Road along Glade Creak on the opposite side of the parking lot and shoot back toward the mill and falls from the road. Good compositions along the road are possible until reaching the end of the pond and the small dam that forms it. From this pov, the falls and the mill adopt an eye pleasing alignment. With a little zoom added, the photo below shows the scene on the road directly above the dam.

View from the Dam below Sewell Road

Shots from these two traditional povs nearly always produce good results giving the falls and mill a serene look. However, I have experimented with three other povs that interject a different, perhaps more dynamic mood. For instance, to capitalize on reflections from the old swimming pool, I prefer to take a few shots at pool level. To get down to pool level, I take a short trail that begins at Sewell Road right above the dam and leads down to the dam abutment below the road. Safe set-ups can be made on the end of the dam or just behind it. The resulting pov offers better reflections of the pool and interesting views of the stone retaining wall below Sewell Road. The example photograph shows the scene from this location. 

View from the Lip of the Falls of Glade Creek

After shooting from pool level, I usually climb back up to Sewell Road and walk about half-way up it. Right at the rim of the falls, there’s a short trail from the road leading down to the lip of the falls. It’s not a precarious position and offers a pov that profiles the falls. The grist mill is partially obscured, but I don’t think this takes away anything  from a photo taken here. Below is an example of the scene from this pov.

View from the Large Rock in Glade Creek

The last set-up I’d like to mention is taken from atop the large rock that sits in the middle of Glade Creek and appears in the upper right of the photo above. In my opinion setting-up on this rock yields a good pov because stream action in Glade Creek and the mill are highlighted. Images from this pov are dynamic and attention grabbing. 

The mill and falls at Babcock State Park look good from just about any pov. These five spots are just suggestions.  There are many other fine locations such as on the grass on the parking lot side of the Glade Creek and down at creek level on this side. Furthermore, when Catawba Rhododendrons are blooming, povs including them are going to make good photographs, too. So relax and enjoy photographing Babcock. The Park will almost certainly reward your efforts. 

For more about the mill at Babcock see this blog entry Five Facts about the Mill at Babcock.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Hiking the Waterfalls of Big Branch

If you like waterfalls, you’ll love the Big Branch Trail of the New River Gorge. Depending upon how you count them, you’ll see six or seven waterfalls in the space of ¾ mile. For the sheer joy of seeing water descend over rock, the Big Branch Trail is hard to beat. I won’t describe all the waterfalls in this blog, but we’ll take a look at most of them.
Big Branch Falls


The trailhead is about 4 miles from Hinton on the River Road—the road that takes you to Sandstone Falls. Look for the trailhead across the road from the Brooks Falls overlook. Starting at the trailhead, take the left-hand fork, which after about 500 feet of woodland walking leads to the streambed of Big Branch. At this point the trail crosses Big Branch for the first of four times. Since this stream doesn’t have a large watershed, it’s generally a trickle in summer and fall. But in winter and spring, it’s full enough that you should plan to get your boots wet when crossing.
First Waterfall

First Waterfall

Before crossing the creek, look for a trail running downstream and take it for about 100 feet. The first waterfall on Big Branch will be to your right. It’s a nice waterfall that takes about an 8-foot drop before spreading out across a large, flat bedrock surface. The water is shallow across the bedrock plain, so you can walk across it and set up a tripod wherever you please to snap a few photos of the falls. Backtrack to rejoin the Big Branch Trail, make the first stream crossing, and head uphill. 
Rocky's Falls

Rocky’s Falls

The trail hugs the course of Big Branch all the way to the top waterfall, so when you’re not relishing a waterfall you’re being serenaded by the music of a babbling brook. At the second crossing there’s a fair size riffle, but do continue for more waterfall action. The next waterfall is named after Randall Sanger’s dog “Rocky” who was fond of splashing in it and getting into the photos Randall was trying to take of the falls. Though “Rocky’s Falls” is just a 4 to 5-foot plunge, don’t let its size fool you. This is a very lovely and photogenic waterfall.
Double Falls

Double Falls

After the third creek crossing, you’ll come to “Double Falls.” Actually Double Falls is composed of several stair-stepping drops, but has two primary falls. The trail runs right above them and makes a perfect platform for some tripod locations. Or you can easily climb down to creek level for some shots. Continuing upstream you’ll pass “Log Falls.” It’s a small waterfall with a couple of prominent logs near it. 
Big Branch Falls

Big Branch Falls

Because of its 30-foot drop, the next waterfall is the main attraction on Big Branch. I call it “Big Branch Falls” because it is the largest waterfall on the creek. It sits in a semi-rounded cove and begs for exploration. Patience when approaching this waterfall is rewarded. Instead of bushwhacking a way to the falls when you first spot it from the trail, stay on the steeply inclined trail until you’re almost level with the top of the waterfall. At this point, an easy trail takes off downhill to the right and will deposit you at the base of the waterfall. The ground is relatively flat around the base of the falls, so you can move about freely. Right, left, and center, good photo ops abound. 
Top Falls

Tops Falls

After surveying Big Branch Falls, backtrack to the main trail and continue uphill. The next waterfall is not far. The Big Branch Trail flattens out for a bit and crosses Big Branch for the fourth time right above what I call the “Top Falls.” This waterfall is about ten feet high and sits across from the ruins of an old homestead. A rusty bucket and the remains of a stone house mark the location of the Berry family home. To learn the history of the home site check this web address Berry Homestead

At Top Falls I generally back track to the trailhead at Brooks Falls. But if you’re willing to hike another 1 ¼ mile, you can complete the loop trail. When the leaves are off, several scenic views of the gorge and river can be seen along the ridge top. The trail then descends steeply to the trailhead, offering scenic views of Brooks Falls along the way.
Bluebell Patch

Virginia Bluebell Patch

If you’re exploring Big Branch in early spring, you might find the Berry homestead covered in Virginia Bluebells. Indeed, the Big Branch Trail is a hot spot for early spring flowers. So you can enjoy both waterfalls and wildflowers on your trek up the trail. The Big Branch Trail is a win-win for day hikers.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Art of Wildflower Photography:

Since spring is here, some tips on the art of wildflower photography might be appropriate. Let me begin by saying that I am only expressing my opinions about the subject. In my view, the qualities of a good wildflower photograph are those that: exalt the beauty, uniqueness, and character of a wildflower as seen and felt by the photographer in its natural setting. Delving deeper into the art of wildflower photography, I believe a good image employs the wildflower as a means of evoking emotions, provoking thoughts, and inviting the observer to explore the nature of self and the world. In this blog, I would like to share eight images that illustrate my approach to the art of wildflower photography.

Purple Fringed Orchid

Focus on the unique: 

This image of a purple-fringed orchid highlights the intricate fringes of the orchid. By taking a profile view of the flower head and by eliminating any background detail that would distract or obscure the blossom, the fine structure of the fringes are highlighted. On a deeper level, to me, the flowers resemble angels with out-stretched wings.
White Avens

Negative Space:

In this image, a lone white avens sits by itself on a stem. When photographing a flower, it’s common to fill up the entire frame with the subject. But negative space, the area between and around the subject, often puts not less but more emphasis on the subject. In addition, the negative space assumes its own meaning. The image suggests that the flower is reaching out into a nebulous void in search of something enigmatic.
Wild Columbine

Concentrate on the Bokeh: 

Bokeh (pronounced Bough-kay) is a Japanese term for the subjective aesthetic quality of out-of-focus areas of a photographic image. Simply put, it is “the background blur.” Bokeh is a powerful tool that can richly add meaning to a wildflower image. This is an image of a wild columbine. They are by nature a very showy flower and can grow prolifically. In a patch of wild columbine, all the blossoms seem to shout for attention. I lined up the background and adjusted the blur, the bokeh, in this image to showcase the bloom—to let it “show-off.”

Leave Areas Out of Focus:

   It seems counter-intuitive not to put an entire flower blossom into clear focus. Yet, leaving part of the blossom softly out of focus has a strong artistic effect. On one hand, the portion of the flower that is in focus catches the eye and becomes the center of attention. Meanwhile the soft focus region instills depth to the image, creating, in effect, a three-dimensional feel.
Turk's Cap Lily

Black Backgrounds:

A colorful flower, such as this turk’s-cap lily, set against a black background almost always produces a stunning image. In the studio, background color is easy to control. In the wild, it takes more thought and technique. To achieve a black background in the field, I lined up the shot so the flower was set in front of the darkest background I could find. Then I set my light meter on spot metering and centered it on the flower blossom. In full sun, the showy flower was the brightest subject. My camera automatically lowered the exposure level of the whole image, so the bright blossom was not over exposed while darkening the background.
Tall Ironweed

Maximize the Macro: 

Macro settings and lenses allow for extreme close-ups, which enlarge the minute details of a wildflower bloom. The tall ironweed pictured here stood alone in a large field. A photograph of the whole plant or even the entire blossom head might not have been very interesting. But the macro lens image highlighted the fascinating and intricate flower structure. Frankly, I had not realized before the beauty inherent in the complex design of the ironweed wildflower. Although macro photography can be revealing, it can also be overdone. In my opinion, wildflower photography is not primarily an exercise in macro photography.
Showy Sunflowers

Include Context: 

A macro of one of these showy sunflowers might have made a good image. But wildflower photography is naturally done in the wild. Capturing where wildflowers live, their context so to speak, is important to me. So I chose to put the lead flower in focus and let the others illustrate the beauty of the whole stand of flowers.
Deptford Pink

Combine Ideas: 

The blossom in this image is a deptford pink, which is no larger than the tip of your little finger. Yet, the fine detail of the flower is amazing. In this image I tried to apply multiple ideas to bring out the best of this small wonder. I used a macro lens to capture the fine detail of the flower. But I gave the blossom some negative space to showcase its angular, grass-like structure. And I employed the bokeh by varying the patches of background color. The light yellow on the right profiles the newly forming bud while the green on the left makes the pink flower stand out.  

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Spring Wildflowers of the New River Gorge: Big Branch Trail

The Big Branch Trail of the New River Gorge is another spring wildflower hot spot. Located on the River Road to Sandstone Falls, the Big Branch trailhead lies opposite Brooks Falls about 3.8 miles from Hinton. Across the road from Brooks Falls pick up the Big Branch Trail and take the left-hand fork when the trail divides. Before it reaches Big Branch, the trail, for a short stretch, parallels the River Road. In mid-April, along this part of the trail you can find Jack-in-the-Pulpit in bloom. After a short descent you meet Big Branch for the first time and must cross the creek. Since the stream does not have a large watershed, it’s generally a trickle in summer and fall. But in winter and spring, it’s full enough that you should plan to get your boots wet when crossing. In the lower stretch of Big Branch before the first stream crossing, bloodroot blossoms. As one of the first wildflowers to bloom, it really stands out among the colorless forest floor. 

Spring Beauty
After the first stream crossing, the trail ascends for about ¾ mile alongside the stream before leveling off at an old homestead. At this point, the Big Branch Trail crosses the creek a fourth time above a waterfall and leaves the stream. The trail continues from here for about a mile traversing the north slope of the Big Branch watershed and then making a steep descent to the New River and the trailhead. But as far as wildflower hunting goes, the old homestead is a good place to stop and turn around. 

A Wildflower Revelation

The ¾ mile ascent of Big Branch is a wildflower revelation. Coltsfoot, an early bird of spring wildflowers, is common next to the stream. Purple trilliums cling in number on the banks of the trail opposite the creek. Spring beauty, foam flower, and cutleaf toothwort abound as well. Also present are miterwort, blue cohosh, wild ginger, large-flowered bellwort, toad trillium, rue anemone, wood anemone, trout lily, mouse-ear hawkweed, and Canada violet. 
Trout Lily

Dutchman’s Breeches

But what I like most about the Big Branch trail are its large stands of Dutchman’s breeches and squirrel corn. I had always admired Dutchman’s breeches in identification books, but for some unknown reason never expected to see them in the wild. Yet I saw them first on Big Branch. Dutchman’s breeches is a brilliant white flower shaped like bloused, baggy pants hanging upside down in a row on a wash line. Because of their unusual shape, they are endless fun to photograph. In mid-April just after the Dutchman’s breeches fade out, squirrel corn pops up. Squirrel corn is a lovely, white, heart-shaped flower that also begs to be photographed. Squirrel corn and Dutchman’s breeches grow on the Rend Trail, too, but I like them best on the Big Branch Trail.
Dutchman's Breeches

Virginia Bluebell Stand

The Big Branch Trail distinguishes itself with yet another wildflower display. At the ¾ mile turnaround point, the ground surrounding an old homestead is covered with a gorgeous stand of Virginia bluebells. In my opinion, this is one of the nicest displays of bluebells in the New River Gorge. It varies year to year, but I have found peak blooming time to be around mid-April.
Virginia Bluebells

14th Annual New River Gorge Wildflower Weekend

If you would like to go on some guided wildflower hikes consider attending the Fourteenth Annual New River Gorge Wildflower Weekend hosted by the NPS and West Virginia State Parks. This year ranger-guided programs at local National and State Park sites will be held on April 28-30, 2017. For more information call Jodi French-Burr at 304-574-2115 or 304-465-2632.
Squirrel Corn
For a book about exploring other scenic spots in West Virginia see this blog entry Exploring the Wilds of West Virginia.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Spring Wildflowers of the New River Gorge: The Rend Trail

As the last snows of winter linger, it’s comforting to know that spring will come and flowers will bloom. And it’s true what they say about spring wildflowers; they sprout up out of nowhere. As chaotic and uncertain as the world seems to be, we can still count on spring wildflowers to carpet the forest floor. The best place to spot spring wildflowers are on the trails that run along the bottom of the New River Gorge. The National Park Service (NPS) maintains many such trails. In this blog I’d like to feature one of these trails and point out which spring wildflowers to look for.
Rounded-leaved Ragwort

The Rend Trail

Hiking the NPS Rend Trail will reward spring wildflower seekers. The Rend trailhead is on the road to Thurmond and is not far from the Stone Cliff trailhead. Directions according to the NPS are as follows:  “From U.S. Route 19 north of Beckley, take the Glen Jean-Thurmond exit. Take an immediate left, and go 0.5 miles to Glen Jean. Take a right and follow the signs to Thurmond (WV Route 25). The trailhead is on the left, 5.1 mile down WV Route 25.”
Common Fleabane


Rather than finding a lot of the earliest spring wildflowers, Phyllis and I like the Rend Trail for wildflowers that bloom in middle to late April. Common fleabane, wild strawberry, wild blue phlox, Dutchman’s breeches, squirrel corn, Solomon’s seal, false Solomon’s seal, and wild geranium are common. But the main attraction of the Rend Trail for us is Jack-in-the-Pulpit and a special stand of trillium. Jack-in-the-Pulpit abound on the Rend Trail. This uniquely formed spring wildflower is a favorite of ours. About a mile from the trailhead, it is found in numbers on the uphill banks of the trail. Along this segment of the trail, Jack seems to pop his head up every other step you take. Being photographers, we like the challenge of trying to capture images of Jack-in-the-Pulpit, which is not easy since “Jack” likes to hide under a large, overhanging leaf. 

Trillium Galore

About 1 ½ miles from the trailhead, the Rend Trail meets the Arbuckle Connector Trail, which descends to the South Side Trail. Take this connector trail to its intersection with the South Side Trail. Near the intersection of the two trails, there’s a stand of trillium well worth seeing. The trillium is white wake robin that extends on both sides of the trail in lavish numbers. If you time it right and catch the trilliums when they’re fresh, the abundant blossoms are a sight to behold. To be sure, this stand of wildflowers is a little off the Rend Trail, but is worth the extra effort. 


Judging by what I saw on March 30th of this year, I’d say the trillium will be out early. I estimate they will hit peak around April 7th.
Wild Blue Phlox