Chasing Fall Colors in West Virginia

A camping adventure with my two boys in search of fall colors in West Virginia.

2018 has been a strange weather year in the mid-Atlantic region of the country. Virginia and most of the East Coast have been getting record rainfall all year. Other than two weeks at the beginning of July, the East Coast hasn’t had a single week without one or more days of rain. Because of all of this rain, I have been looking forward all year to fall. Why? Because as a landscape photographer, the rain makes the leaves’ colors more vibrant when they turn, and it also helps them stay on the trees longer because they don’t dry out as fast. The only thing we needed now to have one of the best falls we have ever seen was a good cold snap to get the leaves to start turning colors. Then September hit, and the mid-Atlantic was still having summer temperatures. Then October started, and it was still 90 degrees outside, and everything was still green. It wasn’t until mid-October that it FINALLY started to feel like fall. A few days later, Virginia finally got its first freeze, and slowly leaves started to turn. Fall colors are now two to three weeks behind when they historically peak, and in some cases, because it has been so warm, the leaves are just turning brown and falling to the ground. So I’ve been looking at the fall color reports very closely and I saw that some areas of West Virginia were finally starting to turn colors, so my boys and I headed up to Dolly Sods to find and photograph the fall colors.

We got to Dolly Sods just after sunset, and a storm looked to be rolling in, so we quickly set up our tent. We hung out for a little bit enjoying just being in the mountains and the last moments of the twilight before heading to bed and hoping that the coming storm would pass before sunrise the next morning. About an hour later, the wind quickly picked up, and that night was one of the windiest nights I have ever had in a tent. Around 2:00 AM, heavy rain started to fall. As the temperatures continued to drop and the gale force winds battered our tent, I was actually very warm inside my Sierra Designs down bag (see my full review here). My alarm went off to let me know it was time to get up to photograph sunrise, but the wind was still howling, and it was still raining hard. I peeked my head outside of my tent, and I could not see more than five feet away because we were in the middle of a rain cloud, so I crawled back into my warm sleeping bag and went back to sleep knowing that there would not be a sunrise to photograph that morning.  


When I finally got up an hour later, the heavy rain had finally stopped, so my boys and I got up only to find that it was still lightly raining and windy. More importantly, the surrounding area was well past peak, and we would not be able to see or photograph any fall colors in that area. So we packed up our gear and headed down the mountain to Blackwater Falls State Park.  We decided to take full advantage of all of the rain we have been getting because it is not very often that you can see springtime water levels during the fall, and Black Water Falls State Park has some of the best waterfalls in West Virginia. We made camp and set out to hike to our first waterfall. Elakala Falls is amazing because the rocks at the base of the falls help create little eddies. When taking a long exposure, these eddies show up as swirls in your image. This area of the park was still really green, so we decided to head to another area of the park because we were still in search of some fall colors.

Afterward, we hiked to Pendleton Falls, but along the way we found a small, multi-step waterfall that had a pocket of fall colors directly behind the falls. My sons and I found a trail down to the base of the falls, but we ended up on the wrong side of the river. After searching for a place to cross and finding none, I found the next best thing: a shallow area of the river. With my pant legs rolled up and my boots tied around my neck, I crossed the freezing river four times as I ferried my boys across on my back one at a time. Ten frozen toes later, we made it to the base of the falls. It was well worth it because we not only got some great images of this nameless waterfall, we also ate a great lunch as we enjoyed the sites and sounds of this majestic place.


After hiking to Pendleton Falls, we had time to hike to one more waterfall before it got dark. We decide to hike to the largest and most popular waterfall in the park: Blackwater Falls, for which the parked is named. The best place to view this 62-foot cascade is near the base of the falls. The trail is actually a series of boardwalks that lead down to falls. It’s important to stay on the boardwalks, not only for your safety, but to also help with erosion control and to protect the surrounding landscape from getting trampled by all of the foot traffic. Click here to learn more information about Leave No Trace. Luckily, Blackwater Falls also had a pocket of color behind it, which was awesome to view. However, usually by this point in October, the whole park is peaking or just past peak colors, but at this point in time I was happy with any colors I’m able to view.

With the temperature quickly dropping and another storm rolling in my boys and I headed back to camp for the night. I wasn’t concerned about the cold temperatures and the impending snow that night because of my Cloud 800 sleeping bag and a warm tent.  We were sleeping great but once the snow started falling in the early morning hours, I decided to break camp quickly and to leave earlier than planned because our snow gear was still packed in the attic of my house. So instead of breaking camp with my two young boys, amidst the three inches of snow they were calling for, we left as the storm was starting. While we broke camp earlier then planned, we had a fun two days of camping and accomplished our mission of finding fall colors.

Published: October 26, 2018

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Brandon DeweyExplorer

Richmond

I am a Father, Photographer, Adventurer, and World Explorer (26 countries and counting). I'm from the Bay Area but I'm currently living outside of Richmond, Virginia.