Article & Images by Kate SilviaLike many nature photographers, autumn is my favorite season to enjoy the outdoors and hopefully get some quality fall photos as well. As summer comes to a close and the days get shorter, I anxiously await those first few trees to display their glory. More and more, as the days pass, the landscape begins to dance with vibrant reds, yellows, and golds. However, it seems that no sooner do I get into my autumn groove than it’s all over. Sure, I could get creative with the last few remnants of leaves on the ground. Perhaps an early frost will spice up the fallen leaves with their fading color—but not for long. Winter grabs hold of the landscape and unfortunately, most of us begin to spend more time indoors than out. We have to process at some point, don’t we? But what if you could make fall last a lot longer? What if you could photograph autumn color for several months in a row? I don’t know about you, but I’m game! This is exactly what I did from September through November during the fall of 2006, only taking a total of two weeks to travel. I chased fall from the west to the east and back again and with a little planning, you can too.
Depending on your starting location, you may want to do some fall photography in your own backyard before traveling. East or west, mid to late September is typically when it’s time to begin. Areas of northern New England, Michigan, and Wisconsin will peak in mid to late September, as will the Colorado Rockies, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton. Since my hometown was in eastern Tennessee, which peaks in mid-October, September was my time to travel elsewhere. Choosing that travel spot can be a challenge, so it was time to do some homework.
Depending on your starting location, you may want to do some fall photography in your own backyard before traveling. East or west, mid to late September is typically when it’s time to begin. Areas of northern New England, Michigan, and Wisconsin will peak in mid to late September, as will the Colorado Rockies, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton. Since my home town was in eastern Tennessee, which peaks in mid-October, September was my time to travel elsewhere. Choosing that travel spot can be a challenge, so it was time to do some homework.
Proper research is key to having a successful journey. I decided I would visit a few of our nation’s national parks, state parks and preserves. From Denali in Alaska to Acadia in Maine, the U.S. has over 60 national parks that date back to 1872 for us to explore, treasure and photograph. Visit the national parks website at www.nps.gov for the best information regarding where to stay and when to visit. I gathered information about the parks of the east and west to determine my best chances of finding color. Because of my proximity to the southern Appalachians, I decided I would travel in September and November so I wouldn’t miss the color at home during October. When deciding on where to go, I made a checklist of my priorities which also helped to narrow down my choices. Was I after snow capped mountains with yellow aspen in the foreground? Then perhaps Rocky Mountain National Park was where I should go. Or was I more interested in the vibrant reds and golds found in the northeast? What about the desert southwest? Although not first in people’s minds when they think of fall color, places like the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park can offer brilliant color in the trees against the red Navajo Sandstone and other geologic formations. Knowing specifically what your goals are will be a major factor in deciding which area of the country to visit and when.
With my objectives thought out, the next resource I took advantage of was the Photo Travelers guides. Found at www.phototravel.com, these guides written by photographers offer some of the best information about a given park or region. I have found them invaluable in helping me make the most of whatever time I have to spend at my destination. Of course you should always take the time and effort to explore and scout on your own in order to bring your unique vision to an area, but the Photo Traveler guides can help you prioritize your time on your initial visit.
With the information I gathered from different web sites and the Photo Traveler guides, I decided to visit Yellowstone and Grand Teton for a week in September, shoot near my home in the Smoky Mountains and Blue Ridge Parkway in October, head back out west for a week in Zion National Park, Utah in November, and come back home again for the last remnants of color at Chimney Rock Park in North Carolina. Mountainous landscapes were a priority for me so, at my first stop in Wyoming, I decided to spend more time in Grand Teton than in Yellowstone. But if wildlife is your forte, then Yellowstone is the place to be. Upon arriving at the parks, be certain to stop by the local visitor’s center and speak with a park ranger or guide. They’ll have the most up-to-date information on trail conditions, animal sightings, weather issues, necessary permits and other information.
Yellowstone National Park is an incredible place for photography and I don’t think I could have picked a better location to get my creative juices flowing for the season. You could get lost in the amount of images and possibilities here at our nation’s first national park. Spend some time in Hayden valley for sweeping landscapes filled with roaming bison as well as waterfowl along the Yellowstone River. The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone offers waterfalls, rock formations, river scenes, and wildlife. Enough colorful geysers exist in Yellowstone to keep your creativity at its peak during your entire visit.
Continuing on my autumn journey, I traveled to Grand Teton National Park just south of Yellowstone. Grand Teton has many designated overlooks where you can stop and take in the landscape. While these offer stunning views, don’t limit yourself to overlooks alone unless you simply do not have more time to explore. Get off the beaten path and let your imagination and photographic eye take you to wondrous places in this incredible park, as I did. At the time of my visit, the meandering Snake River was accented with yellows and golds and the moose were just getting into the rut. During the latter half of September, the temperatures in the Tetons are comfortable and the crowds have lessened since the summer. While you may still have to jockey for a space at Oxbow Bend at sunrise, you shouldn’t have to go too far to find your own space without tripod holes in it. Take a trip across Jenny Lake and hike up to Inspiration Point or even into Cascade Canyon where you’ll be rewarded with waterfalls, fall color, and wildlife including pikas and golden-mantled ground squirrels. Drive down to Schwabacher landing and follow the trail to beaver pond for reflections of the Cathedral Group. Waterfowl frequent this area so bring your telephoto as well as your wide angle lenses. You’ll be sure to use them all.
When I had my fill of Grand Teton (is that even possible?), it was time to travel back east to take part in one of the most spectacular displays this country has to offer in the Appalachian Mountains. Great Smoky Mountain National Park, a 765,828 acre park located along the North Carolina and Tennessee border, is a must see for any American. Elevations range from 867 feet along Little River to 6,643 feet at Clingman’s Dome and there are 800 miles of trails to keep you and your camera busy. Nearly every stream and river in the park has some sort of water feature, whether it’s a large waterfall or smaller meandering cascades. If you’re looking for fall color along waterways, you can’t go wrong with the Smoky Mountains. Near the park’s southern entrance is the beginning of the Blue Ridge Parkway, a 469 mile road that meanders through the mountains of North Carolina and Virginia. Between the Smokies and the Blue Ridge Parkway, there are more overlooks, hiking trails, waterfalls, wildlife and, of course, more fall color opportunities than you can count. You could keep yourself busy every day of the year but autumn is my most inspired time to photograph. It’s a magical time when you could be treated to an early hoar frost at the higher elevations while it’s a sunny 60 degrees in the valley surrounding you with vibrant color. The varying temperatures often lead to fog in the valley with the colorful peaks extending above. The possibilities are endless.
Following the display in the Appalachians, I’m headed back west again at the beginning of November to track down more color, this time to Zion National Park in southwest Utah. Zion has become one of my favorite national parks to visit. I’ve visited the park during different seasons but, of course, autumn is the best in my opinion. Somehow the light just seems better at this time of year. Some of that research I hope you’ve been doing should pay off when visiting someplace like Zion. Regulations about vehicle usage along the canyon floor differ from the summer months to the fall season. Unless you are staying at the Zion Lodge, personal vehicles are not allowed along the canyon floor during the summer months. Visiting in the fall allows us photographers to get into the canyon before sunrise and to stay beyond sunset. While visiting, be sure to travel up the Emerald Pools trail for views of the Virgin River, the valley floor, and dizzying walls towering overhead. After a decent rain, you’ll be treated to lovely waterfalls. And don’t forget to listen for those canyon tree frogs that frequent this area. Other challenging trails in the canyon are Angels Landing, Observation Point or Hidden Canyon. Perhaps one of the most popular trails is the Riverside Walk, a one mile paved walkway along the Virgin River that ends at the southern end of the Zion Narrows. Opportunities abound along the river for intimate landscapes with colorful cottonwood trees and cascading waters. If you’re up to getting your feet wet, and possibly the rest of you as well, venture into the Narrows of Zion for 2,000 foot towering walls and fall color against the Navajo sandstone. Bring your polarizer as you would for other autumn scenes to minimize the reflections off of leaves and wet rock and to saturate colors. Day hikes in the Narrows do not require a permit, but they do require special equipment and some skill. If you’re as clumsy as I am, pack your camera gear in the most water tight container you can find! Safety is your number one priority in these fast moving cold waters, so speak with park officials about the conditions before proceeding into the canyon.
After spending a week in Zion National Park, it was time to head back home to the Appalachians again. It was November and the color had all but faded in most areas of the mountains. But I had just one more special place to visit that holds on to fall just a little bit longer. Chimney Rock Park in western North Carolina is a 996 acre park with a signature 315 foot granite monolith. Made famous by the final scene in the movie The Last of the Mohicans, Chimney Rock offers a 404 ft waterfall, wildlife such as the majestic peregrine falcon, and sweeping views of the North Carolina mountains. Chimney Rock is located in a thermal belt, causing the color to peak here just a week or two later than the immediate surrounding areas. Locations such as this can lead to a treasure trove of possibilities. Here is a situation where it pays to know your own area very well and to take the time to do a little more research. Having the most up to date data on the color change, park rangers as well as local camera clubs and nature organizations can help make your photographic endeavor even more successful. They’ll almost always have the skinny on the best time to put your memory cards to the test, and you may even get lucky enough to be let in on some of those “secret” places that are otherwise difficult to locate on your own.
Pause for a moment and think about the next fall season. Could you afford to take a week or two off of work to travel? Are there places across the country that you’ve always wanted to visit? Well, next fall may be the time to do it! With proper research and planning, you could take a total of two weeks travel time and manage to photograph fall color over the course of several months rather than the mere few weeks that color typically lasts in your area alone. From north to south or from east to west and back again, chase fall next year, seeking out inspiration wherever your travels take you.