To be a landscape photographer is to be a bit of an obsessive chap. Most of our days begin before the sun’s, and our desire can teeter on the edge of foolishness. It is with this ferocious passion for adventure that I booked a cabin at Roan Mountain State Park a month ago and set out to explore the area as much as I could in the three days of my stay. Planned to be a solo trip that focused on photography, I had no internet or phone service except for at the clubhouse, which I would use for daily check-ins with my wife. Equipped with a portable DVD player, some of my favorite films, and of course, my camera, I was ready for my photographic getaway and some solitary moments of self-reflection.
As the autumn leaves have long settled on the cold clay grounds of Asheville and winter quickly approaches, I thought it no better time to look back at my trip to the beautiful, and at times, offputting area of Roan Mountain.
Day 1 - Thursday, October 15th
Rising at 5 a.m., I gathered my bags and gear and double-checked that I had everything needed over coffee and eggs. I hit the road shortly after in no particular rush, arriving at my first trail of the weekend - Roan Knob via the Appalachian Trail - in the Carvers Gap area at about 8 a.m. What awaited me was ripped directly out of a Tolkien book - an old-growth forest filled with balsam fir trees, moss-covered rock formations, and ferns galore. By far, woodlands are my favorite environment to photograph, and this one gave me an immediate rush of euphoria. The sensory overload made it challenging to concentrate, with compositions illuding me, a theme that plays out on most hikes and one that would continue on this one as well.
After the initial flood of exhilaration, I set upon the trail, exploring the landscape, inspired and still in awe. Streams smattered the area while rocks and roots carved the path like veins leading to the heart of the forest. I meandered the woods at the start, trying to locate any shot, but was unsuccessful. I began to fear that I had arrived too late, both in time of day and time of year. Most of the trees were pretty bare due to storms and the high winds they produced, beating the leaves into submission. Combine bare trees with the clear blue skies of an 8 a.m. sun-drenched morning with no atmospheric qualities, and I was dealing with harsh contrast. Nevertheless, I carried on with the determination, belief, and some would say stature, of Frodo trying to accomplish his mission of reaching Mordor.
As exploration off-trail became more difficult due to the terrain - and less advisable because of harm caused to the ecosystem - my vision became more apparent. I found my first location and composed my shot. Albeit nothing to phone home about, I was happy to get off my first passable shot as it’s those first few I typically use as momentum. I trekked on, switchback after switchback until I reached an offshoot that led to a shelter in a grove of balsam firs and magnificent rock formations. This was indeed an exceptional sight to behold, and there was a sign that made sure to explain precisely how exceptional it was, stating it’s considered a protected rare habitat for the region. After spending time in this area, which included an okay photo and better conversation with a fellow hiker, I decided to head back to my car and get to the park to check-in to the cabin.
After check-in, lunch, and familiarizing myself with the cabin, I decided to head back to Carvers Gap. This time, I hiked in the opposite direction, climbing to Round Bald to capture the sunset. Giving myself enough time to find a composition, I wandered the area until I discovered what I thought was the perfect perch - an exposed rock peaking through blazes of red leading to a valley blanketed by autumnal mountains. Excited, I eagerly waited for what I thought would be a banquet of cotton candy that lined the sky. Instead, 20 minutes before sunset, Mother Nature fed me a bland mush of grey clouds that would not stop flowing. Disappointed but not defeated, I retreated to the cabin, where I found comfort in the form of the fireplace and Gone Girl. There was always tomorrow, I thought.
Day 2 - Friday, October 16th
The wonderful thing about planning this trip was knowing that I had time in the morning. I enjoy waking up a few hours before sunrise for hikes and photography, I do. I look at it as a dare to myself. I also appreciate solitary moments. More importantly, I like getting the rest required for a full day of hiking. That’s what I thought I was in for when I originally planned for an 8 mile out and back trail that is rated as hard. Similar to the sunset the night prior, that hike was not meant to be.
The trail was less than 10 miles from the cabin, but there’s a stark difference between being at a state park and going to a trail in an unfamiliar area. The closer I got to my destination, the more I noticed confederate flags proudly flapping in the wind, oblivious of their status as losers. There were combinations of Trump and confederate flags, and the more prominent their display, the further from safety I felt. As I pulled into the trailhead’s parking lot, it seemed a foregone conclusion that I was not welcome in that general neck of the woods. After sitting in my car for almost 10 minutes, anxious with paranoia, I decided to find another hike. That led me to the majestic Laurel Falls.
I arrived at Laurel Falls feeling more comfortable with my surroundings. The sky was overcast, and after getting out of my car and grabbing my gear, a drizzle started. I knew this would be a terrific hike, and I was not wrong. What followed was a riverside journey through a radiant fall mountainscape.
I was introduced to golden canopies, unscathed by the storms of prior weeks. Tunnels that seemed ablaze with the season’s fire lined either side of the waterway as the landscape beckoned. Bridges were portals that transported you further into the magical realm of Laurel Falls. Even the riverside campsites that didn’t hold much in the way of photo opportunities offered glorious sights. Though, with each step closer to the waterfall, the more picturesque it became. Soon, after traversing a small mountain cliff on the side of the river, I found one of my favorite compositions of the trip. It was a brilliant display of the season as the river rushed and created a path that directed the eye from foreground to background wonderfully. I truly relished the moment and basked in its glory.
At the waterfall itself, it seemed as though my luck ran out. Try as I might, I could not work the landscape for a photo I liked. There were also crowds forming as morning turned to noon, and I was interrupted by a family and their dogs. They were nice enough to corral their furry companions and remain out of the view of my lens, but the distraction had already broken my focus. I decided to pack up and head back to the cabin for lunch, elated with the photos I did get.
After lunch and a beer, I tried my luck again at Round Bald, searching for my sunset photo. I arrived with time to spare, remembering my previous perch’s location, and prepared my composition while listening to music. Unfortunately, the events of the day prior replayed themselves, with the same mush of grey clouds caring not for whatever fantastic idea of a photo I had. Tail tucked, I once again retreated to my cabin, but there was a consultation prize awaiting me in the form of a roadside creek I made a mental note of while driving. Though that photo wasn’t the dessert I desired, it was sweet nonetheless, and it paired well with a warm shower, a burning fireplace, a cold Guinness, and Nolan’s The Dark Knight.
The Final Day - Saturday, October 17th
When I originally conceived of this trip, I wanted to share the experience with fellow photographer friends. Covid-19 was nowhere close to being in the public’s consciousness, let alone a deadly global pandemic, and my wife had a separate trip planned with a friend. I ended up inviting a couple of photographers, including the great Calvin Byrd of AtomBlk.com, and he accepted, arriving Saturday morning with his colleague, TyQuian English.
We started with the easy Cloudland Nature Loop - a half-mile romp through a woodland that was already in its winter slumber. Pausing at a most impressive rock formation, we made time for photographs, with Calvin and I trading portraits and techniques while TyQuian captured video footage of our small adventure. We quickly found ourselves at the end of the loop, heading back to the cabin for lunch.
After a good bite, we set out for another waltz through the forest, this time on the provocatively named Blue Trail 2. Decaying leaves layered the pathway until it was almost nonexistent. Tree limbs stretched towards the heavens, silently accepting the cycle of life in what was then their inevitable progression into a dead sleep. As was the theme for most of my time in the area, compositions were fleeting, but the building of ideas was excellent. We spoke of creative philosophies, our motivations, long-term goals, and of course, anime. Then a hush fell over us in an instant. We spotted something gallop in the distance. A dog? No. As its head rose, we saw a deer. The first deer that I’ve ever seen on a hike. A rustling came from behind us, and then another massive deer passed mere feet in front of us, stopping to graze on what little vegetation the land had left. We wrestled with our cameras, but a decent shot required repositioning, and we didn’t want any sudden movements to disturb the deer. We opted for quiet admiration—a fitting end to that hike.
Once at the vehicle, we returned to the cabin, and Calvin and TaQuian packed their bags to hit the road. However, my day was not over. I passed by Cates Hole on a few trips and thought it looked spectacular from its roadside views. Being one of the few places that still had the fiery calling card of autumn, I was delighted at the possibility of being able to capture a decent shot. To my elation, I was able to discover a couple of compositions. The first being a creek-side, rock-filled beach of sorts, which seemed to bask in the sun. The second was a wide shot of that same creek from atop a bridge at the entrance, standing in stark contrast to that first composition as tree coverage created a steely mood for the scenery. Happy with Cates Hole, I knew I had one more monster to conquer before I could leave Roan Mountain satisfied, and the time was fast approaching for me to slay this beast.
The hour of my last showdown with sunset at Roan Mountain was nigh. With two days of defeat in a row under my belt, I decided that my strategy needed to change, and I’d have to compromise my desire for a sunkissed sky. Not wanting another opportunity to end shrouded in grey nothingness, I settled on finding a proper frame from one of the overlooks leading to Carvers Gaps from the park. After ganders from the first few - one that included decomposing deer carcasses - I found a promising view. The sky gave way to a mountain valley that seemed like a candy dish of color as the sun illuminated spectacular hues of red and orange. This was not the categorical photograph that I had in mind when planning specific shots for the weekend, but it’s one that I gladly accepted. Ultimately, nature always wins, and we should learn to embrace the beauty she bestows upon us instead of chasing our own idyllic ideas of what we think it should be. A lesson Roan Mountain reminded me of daily.