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Back to Basics: Skyline Drive (2015)

I recently had the opportunity to explore the beauty and wonder that is that of Skyline Drive, Virginia (and also Luray Caverns).

This is a trip I had been wanting to do for two years, ever since first reading about it in Popular Photography magazine. There was an article that rated Skyline Drive one of the top places to photography and I knew right then I just had to go (especially since it was only a two hour drive away).

Before my trip I did careful research to be sure I'd be arriving when the weather was fine, and the foilage was nice and colorful.

I woke up Sunday morning, packed my gear, and made my way to the Drive.

When I got there I was greeted at an admissions gate where I paid my $20 admission fee, then began my journey. I had a tight itinerary to make sure I got the photos that I wanted, so I rushed right to Luray Caverns (which is just 20 minutes off the drive).

The caverns were awesome, and our tour guide was knowledgeable. My favorite part was the reflecting pools. The water was so clear you could have sworn it was just the floor.

(Pro tip: A stalactite is an icicle-shaped formation that hangs from the ceiling of a cave, and a stalagmite is one that grows from the floor)

"The water was so clear you could have sworn it was just the floor."

Another really cool thing was the natural organ. It's the largest natural instrument in the world!

The caverns were fun, but I was more than excited to continue my trip and see the rest of Skyline Drive!

I got back to the drive and headed toward the first destination on my journey: Little Stony Man Cliffs. These cliffs (I saw online) would give a great view of the sunset. The hike was certainly strenuous, but not impossible. It was fun, however, to really push myself and my limits.

On my person I had a lens belt, camera, clothes/overclothes, and backpacking pack.

In my backpack I had a small four person tent, a sleeping bag, tarp, spare change of clothes, hammer, hand shovel, garbage bags, knife, and other knick knacks. It turns out I didn't actually need most of these things, but you'll have to read on to find out why!

I got up to the cliffs and met some other hikers who were enjoying the view. I quickly dropped everything off and picked up my camera gear. I took a few photos at that cliff, but then I realized that there was a potentially even better vantage point (see below) higher up... but there was no path to get up there. This is where my (virtually nonexistent, though quickly became existent) rock climbing skills came in handy.

This is the cliff I climbed up to get a better vantage point.

I scrambled my way up the cliff and had an awesome view. I decided to take a moment to rest and that's when disaster struck... (see video below)

I thank God, because I was able to find my lens. It had gotten caught in a couple of bushes, and somehow it wasn't damaged. Which is awesome.

The sunset that night was beautiful. Pictures can't really describe the amount of wonder I felt being at the top of that mountain at sunset. But check them out below, anyway:

After I finished taking photos I needed to determine where I'd be sleeping. I didn't have a chance to scope out locations earlier in the day, but I came back down from Little Stony Man and drove around for a bit. I drove to Skyland Resort where I had hoped to perhaps rent a room.

However, the rooms there were about $300 and that was not in my budget. But it was a great opportunity to rest! I ordered a hot chocolate and a sandwich from their snack bar and enjoyed the warmth for awhile.

A short time later I got back in my car and drove a little ways down the drive until coming to a lookout which had a bit of brush in front of it. I decided to sleep in my car that night. I had just bought a king size blanket (which is awesome) so I leaned my seats back and sprawled out in my back seat. But before I went to bed, I took a few photos of the night sky:

The next morning I woke up after a vivid dream. I'm not sure if it was a dream or if it actually happened, but I recalled a ranger knocking on my window telling me I wasn't allowed to sleep there. Regardless of its reality, I was awake, and so I started my day.

Before I left my overlook I took a few photos of the landscape and some nearby wildlife:

But like most days, I needed to start my day off right; with a hearty breakfast. I drove to the Big Meadows Lodge where i enjoyed a fantastic eggs, toast, bacon, and pancake breakfast.

After breakfast I decided to explore the Big Meadows. It was like something out of The Lion King:

One of my fondest memories from my trip came right after this. A couple of cars were parked along the drive, and these two guys were walking around seemingly surveying the land. Next thing you know they pull out a drone from the back of their car and a bunch of other people show up. The park ranger nearby tells me and some of the other onlookers that it's actually a group from National Geographic and Subaru shooting a video for an upcoming TV spot benefiting the National Park Service.

The lady driving the Subaru was a photographer from National Geographic by the name of Laurie (spelling?) I got to meet her and she was really cool and encouraging. I asked her how she got to where she was and for tips for a budding photographer like myself. She advised that I just keep shooting, and that I have to determine what I really enjoy shooting and to focus on that. I was a little too starstruck to ask for a business card, but it was great meeting her nevertheless and I hope to meet her again someday.

The day (Monday) only got better after that. I went to the Dark Hollow Falls trail for a good hike and some wonderful views. Check it out below:

On the way back from the falls I met a fellow photographer who unfortunately wasn't able to get all the way down to the falls, but was photographing some of the subtleties along the trail. We walked back to our cars and bidded farewell. At this time it was again getting close to sunset again!

But before I was able to get out and take pictures from the Cresent Rock Overlook, I noticed there was some traffic up ahead. I tried zooming in with my 300mm to see what the ruckus was about but no dice. It was then I heard from some people passing by the keyword, bear.

I grabbed my camera and my witts and walked down to where all the cars were backed up, and sure enough...

This guy was way up in a tree! Check out the panorama below to see just how high!

Little fellow as munching on some acorns, and had quite the audience enjoying the show.

Knowing this would be my last night on the drive, I knew I had to try some actual camping. But before that I took some more sunset photos:

Earlier in the day I had stopped by an information center (which was also a museum and had some interesting facts about the park), and gotten my back country camping permit and some advice on where to camp.

It was an area off the appalacian trail and I was promised an easy hike.

I was promised wrong. It was rather steep, and I had hiked for about 20 minutes and it started to get dark. I knew at this point I needed to start setting up camp.

I found a relatively flat spot off the trail and unloaded. It was at this point I realized I had never set up a tent before. Much less, in the dark. I held my phone with it's flashlight in my mouth and got to work. About 20 frustrating minutes later, I had my tent pitched and was ready to crash.

And it was at this point I realized it was only about 7:30PM and I wasn't really tired. But I had nothing else to do, so I tried to sleep anyway. And it was at this point that I realized the spot I though was relatively flat was actually relatively steep and it was hard to find a spot to lay where I wasn't sliding down. But eventually I did, and I fell asleep... for about an hour. And at this point I realized camping is really scary. Noises in the woods every which way (and mind you, this is just hours after seeing a bear just a mile or so from this spot) spooked me and my nerves just couldn't take it. I packed everything up and stumbled down the mountain in the dark back to my car. I made it and took comfort in my familiar back seat and slept the whole night. I woke the next morning to a truck pulling up beside me from which I was greeted a "good morning." I got out and went back up the trail to retrieve my tent. And just so you don't think I didn't try... here is a photo my trucker friend took of my with my tent.

After I got my tent, I bid farewell to my new friend (after trading contact information) and started the journey home. The sights on the way out were pretty as well, and it's with a heavy heart I exited Skyline Drive.

From this adventure I learned that if you're going to camp... come prepared. I think next time I may like to bring a friend, or at least practice pitching a tent (in daylight). I also learned to appreciate nature and the beauty of creation around me better. We often take for granted the plants in our office, or the trees alongside the highway, but it is these things (nature) that our planet thrives on, and so we need to take notice, appreciate, and care for mother nature better.

I also learned that it might be a good idea to keep a daily journal as it took me some time after getting home from the trip to actually have some free time to write up this blog post. But thank you for bearing with me. I hope you enjoyed reading about my adventure, and I can't wait for the next one! I'm thinking Arizona...

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