Shenandoah National Park and Washington DC

A little over a week ago, I departed Elizabethtown, Kentucky and began driving back east towards Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. If you've never been, Shenandoah is a very narrow park. It runs roughly 100-miles north to south yet never stretches more than thirteen miles wide. My plan was to enter through the south end and make my way north over the course of four nights sleeping at a different campground every evening. However, by the time I arrived, I had fallen a few days behind schedule and didn't get there until Friday afternoon. Mid-October is peak season for the park due to the beautiful fall foliage and on a weekend, this place can get pretty crowded. I wasn't surprised then when I found out that all of the campgrounds were full for the weekend. 

You've probably heard me mention in this blog about sleeping in Walmart parking lots which probably sounds pretty strange. But something I learned in the preparation for this trip is that Walmart has a great policy for this kind of thing. For no charge, they will allow RVer's, truckers, or simply weary travelers to overnight park in their lots (although they do leave it up to the individual stores to decide if they'd like to take part in this). So if you're like me and are totally comfortable roughing it and sleeping in your car, this is a great option for when you're in between places, traveling on a budget, or when your plans fall apart like mine did. 

With that in mind, I quickly looked up where the nearest Walmart was and spent my first days at Shenandoah commuting mornings and evenings to and from the park. It almost felt like I was going to work!

Shenandoah in October is a lovely place to visit. The trees were awash with red and yellow hues and often the only thing you could hear was the sound of leaves falling from their branches. However, I had a hard time finding good scenes to photograph. There are dozens of scenic overlooks throughout the park, but from a photography standpoint, few of them really stood out to me. I had the best weather with almost every day sunny and cloudless, but again, as a photographer, I find this makes for dull sunset shots. I decided then, to turn my attention inward and explore the interior of the park. What I found were beautiful waterfalls and incredible evening light on the forest trees. 

Dark Hallow Falls - one of the most visited falls in the park. I took this on a Sunday afternoon and there were park visitors constantly walking across. I had to shoot it for well over an hour just for a shot with no people in it. 

Some bum standing on top of Dark Hallow Falls. 

Lewis Mountain Campground

I set my tripod down for 2-seconds and this demon from hell decided to show up

At my campground in Big Meadows, dear would frequently stroll through my campsite. Later that evening, a whole herd came galloping through while I ate dinner!

Sitting on a mountain. Probably thinking about the weather or what I'm gonna have for dinner. 

One nice thing about Shenandoah is that it is only about 100-miles west of Washington DC. I hadn't originally planned on going there, I had already visited when I was younger and seen all the sights. But it felt wrong to have a project called "Rediscovering America" and not visit the nation's capitol so on a last second whim - I departed Shenandoah after four nights and drove to DC and I'm so glad I did.  

I only had one day in DC, but luckily I had an idea of the shots I wanted. So I spent most of the day exploring the National Mall and the Smithsonian Institute while I waited for that late afternoon light to set in. 

The Capitol - you can still see the construction going on in the center if you look close. 

The Capitol

At the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

This is the actual Wright Flyer that was flown at Kitty Hawk. Pretty cool to see up close after having just visited Kitty Hawk a few weeks prior

Lunar re-entry pod

The top hat that Abraham Lincoln was wearing when he was assassinated. Taken at the Smithsonian American History Museum.  

Complete T-rex Skeleton taken at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum.

Charles Lindbergh's 'Spirit of St. Louis' hangs above one of the Apollo Lunar Landers. Incredible when you realize that only about 4-decades separated these two monumental achievements. 

That guy who's on the one-dollar bill

A solemn but moving photo piece I found in one of the art galleries. 

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to spend some time in Ketchikan, Alaska. I met some incredible people while I was there, one of whom was a local artist named Ray Troll. His artwork is all over town, and I can only assume all over Alaska as well. Fast forward to a few days ago, I was in Washington DC strolling through the Smithsonian Institute and stumbled upon one of his pieces. You should go check out some of his work at http://www.trollart.com/

Later in the day, as the lighting began to improve, I set out to shoot the Washington Monument. I knew the shot I wanted and how I wanted it framed. All I could do was cross my fingers that the sunset worked in my favor and fortnuately it did! I used a 10-stop neutral density filter from Breakthrough Photography to give me a longer exposure and smooth out the water. 

Washington Monument at sunset. (Note to readers, the National Mall is way bigger than it looks in Forrest Gump)

I had another shot in my head that I very much wanted to get. This one was of the Lincoln Memorial. But something I found out about Washington DC is that there is a never-ending flow of tourists (most of them kids on field trips) marching throughout the museums and monuments. I wanted this shot to be people-free which unfortunately would have been impossible shooting in the evening. So I made plans to return early the next morning while the tourists were still sleeping and shoot it at sunrise. However, knowing how easily plans can get derailed, I decided to take a "safety shot" and I'm so happy I did because that night I was overcome with a bit of insomnia and didn't get a wink of sleep which equated to no early sunrise photo. 

The "safety shot" fortunately turned out really nice. It's much different and more personal in tone than the shot I originally set out to get, but I'm very pleased with the final result.  

One final note about DC before I conclude this post. After shooting, I spent about an hour wandering around the National Mall. I found that walking through the National Mall at night is a very special and humbling experience. Even though there were still plenty of visitors out, I felt alone with no one but the ghosts and ideals of those who built this country to keep me company. I've been on the road for a little over a month now, and have had some of the most amazing experiences of my life in that month - but I would consider that night strolling through Washington DC as one of the highlights. If you ever have the chance to visit, I hope you try it.

I'm currently in New York City where I've been battling rainy weather and city restrictions on where you can take tripods - but fortunately, I have plenty of friends here to keep me company and show me around. Tomorrow I depart for Boston and then Acadia National Park in Maine. Until then, thanks for tuning in.

-Zak