I’ve lived my entire life in a state that’s home to five volcanoes. The word “mountain” has meant to me a permanently snow-capped peak that often reaches into the clouds.
Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains are nothing like that, but they are inspiring nonetheless — maybe more inspiring if you count the number of times they’ve been featured in songs. I can’t think of them without hearing John Denver singing about them, but Take Me Home, Country Roads is just one of dozens of songs in which they’re featured.
Shenandoah National Park is one of the best ways to experience them. The park is designed to give you the feeling of flying from the comfort of your automobile. The national park was established in 1935 when more people began to enjoy the freedom of cars, but before many had experienced flight.
Its primary feature is Skyline Drive, a road that winds across the Blue Ridge Mountains, often not far from the summit. The highest point of the 105-mile drive is 3,680 feet; the highest point in the entire park isn’t even 400 feet higher than that.
As you travel Skyline Drive you’re given views — at least once per mile — that show how these mountains really seem to rise out of nowhere. The mountains may be short by west coast standards, but they are steep. Especially as you look east, you’re looking down on distant cities. The view reminds me of the views from the mountains at home.
The weather reminds me of the mountains back home, too. We say that mountains can make their own weather. Prominent peaks can be obstacles for moisture-laden air. Storm clouds can form out of what appears to be clear air as it climbs and compresses to get around the peak.
I got to experience that in Shenandoah National Park, too. When I left my motel, the sky was overcast. Less than 15 minutes later, shortly after I reached the top of one of the mountains, I ran into heavy snow.
With a half hour to sunrise, I looked for a place to photograph the dramatic weather. Skies were clear to the east, so I hoped the golden light of sunrise would shine into the storm. I tried a couple of compositions with the storm pouring onto a mountaintop, but then traveled a bit farther south to a place called Range View, which gave me a nice, layered view of the mountains.
As I set up the tripod, a small mouse slid by on the ice that was accumulating at the viewpoint. I shivered while waiting for the sun to make its appearance. When it finally did, I got fantastic golden lighting on the mountains, but even more importantly, on streaks of a rain/ice mix that were falling the next ridge over. (That storm was over my head just 10 minutes earlier.)
I was cold, but delighted that I got a true mountain experience.
(The brand new edition is available of Kevin Ebi's bald eagle book, Year of the Eagle, which tells the story of a year in the life of Pacific Northwest bald eagles. Follow his photography on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.)