I have the best job in the world. As a professional nature photographer, I travel all over the Great Outdoors taking pictures. I've visited some wonderful locations throughout the world, but if you really want to get my heart pumping, set me loose in my home state of North Carolina. Someone once asked me why I didn't move out West, where all the great photo ops are. My answer was simply that I could spend my entire life photographing the Tarheel State, and not begin to scratch the surface.
To understand a little bit about what makes North Carolina so special, you have to consider its geography. "From the mountains to the sea" is a common slogan among Tarheels. The Appalachian Mountains occupy the western portion of the state, while the Atlantic Ocean defines the eastern border. The heartland, called the Piedmont, blends features from the west and the east. This unique physiography makes North Carolina among the most biologically, geologically, and aesthetically diverse states in the Union.
Physical attributes aren't the only special features of North Carolina. The state's location on the Atlantic Seaboard and its role as an original English colony, give it historical and cultural significance. When the English made the first attempts at colonizing the New World in the 16th century, their ships landed on North Carolina soil. Two centuries later, North Carolinians authorized its delegates to sign the Declaration of Independence, becoming the first state to declare its intent to secede from Britain. A little more than a century after the Revolution, the Wright Brothers made their historic flight from a sand dune on the windy Carolina coast.
With such rich history and unparalled natural beauty to explore, I could never become bored and certainly never lack for photo subjects. Indeed, my problem is just the opposite. The more I learn about North Carolina and the more places in the state I visit, the more I realize just how much uncharted territory lies ahead.
People often ask me to reveal my favorite shooting location in the state. My reply is typically something along the lines of, "You're kidding, right?" I could never decide upon a favorite, but I do return to some places more often than others.
Few things get my juices flowing better than watching the sunrise or sunset from an overlook on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Beginning in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, the scenic drive follows the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains for most of its 469 miles. Some 250 miles of the roadway run through North Carolina, including, in my opinion, the most beautiful sections. Toward the southern end, it passes over the Black Mountains, the Great Craggies, the Great Balsams, the Plott Balsams, and into the Great Smoky Mountains.
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A favorite stop on the parkway is the commanding Grandfather Mountain. A hiker absorbing the 360-degree views atop MacRae Peak on Grandfather's rugged crest would have no trouble forgiving Andre Michaux for proclaiming that he had "climbed to the summit of the highest mountain of all North America." Michaux visited Grandfather in 1794 while on a French botanical expedition. Although he drastically miscalculated the mountain's elevation-at 5,964 feet it's not even the highest peak in the state-you really do feel on top of the world here.
Construction of the parkway began in 1935. By 1967, the road was completed except for a short section around Grandfather Mountain. The parkway people wanted to build the road at a higher elevation on the mountainside, but Hugh Morton, Grandfather's protective owner, wouldn't allow it. He claimed the upper route would irreparably harm the mountain's scenery and ecology. But the eventual lower route through Linn Cove presented much the same problem. The engineers developed a solution that avoided the delicate terrain altogether. They built a viaduct that follows the contours of the slope and rests on carefully placed support piers. When the Linn Cove Viaduct opened in 1987, it immediately became the most popular section of the entire parkway.
South of Grandfather Mountain the parkway provides access to Linville Falls and Linville Gorge. Peering into the gorge from its eastern rim, a nineteenth-century traveling party turns to their guide and asks, "Does the Linville run there?" He replied, "Yes, and poor thing, it sees troublous times before it gets out of there, too." Troublous, indeed. Linville is the deepest and most rugged gorge in the East. From the spectacular waterfall at the head of the gorge, Linville River drops nearly two thousand feet in its twelve-mile run through the canyon. Striking rock formations and peaks, such as Sitting Bear, Hawksbill, Tablerock, The Chimneys, Shortoff, and Babel Tower line both rims of the gorge and provide unparalled views.
Continuing south on the parkway, you come to the entrance for Mount Mitchell State Park. At 6,684 feet, Mitchell is the highest mountain in the East. On June 27, 1857, Dr. Elisha Mitchell, professor at the University of North Carolina, fell to his death over a waterfall on the mountain's north side. Three days later, Thomas David Wilson-"Big Tom" as he was called-discovered his body. News of Mitchell's death reverberated across the state and Big Tom became a larger-than-life legend. To this day, Elisha Mitchell and Big Tom Wilson are among the most legendary figures in the history of North Carolina.
When George W. Vanderbilt arrived in western North Carolina in the late 1800s to build his grandiose Biltmore Estate, he had visions even greater than erecting the largest private home in America. Vanderbilt wanted a working estate, one with farms and forests that paid for themselves-that were managed responsibly. He hired Gifford Pinchot as Biltmore's first forester and eventually purchased some 125,000 acres of land, which he called Pisgah Forest. In 1895, German forester Dr. Carl Alvin Schenck took Pinchot's place and founded Biltmore Forest School, the nation's first school of forestry.
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Today, Biltmore Estate-still the largest private home in the nation-ranks among the top tourist attractions in the state. Pisgah Forest—now Pisgah National Forest—provides terrific outdoor recreation opportunities, including some of my favorite hiking trails. The Cradle of Forestry in America, where Dr. Schenck operated his school, interprets the rich history of the forest. And as it does with so many of the state's mountain treasures, the Blue Ridge Parkway provides access to it all.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park lies at the southern end of the Blue Ridge Parkway. With some 10 million visitors annually, the Smokies ranks as the most popular national park in the country. People come to hike the challenging trails, absorb the spectacular scenery, explore historical treasures, and watch the abundant wildlife—with everyone hoping for a glimpse at a black bear. Cataloochee Cove, tucked into the secluded southeast corner of the Smokies, offers all this in abundance. Thanks to the park's reintroduction program, the stately elk, long extirpated from the Appalachians, now makes its majestic bugling calls in Cataloochee.
We can't leave the mountains until I tell you about one of my favorite photo subjects. Western North Carolina boasts more waterfalls than any state in the East. We have everything from delicate little cascades surrounded by lush vegetation evoking a rain forest, to powerful crashing torrents hundreds of feet high. The largest concentration of falls is in the southwestern counties of Transylvania, Jackson, and Macon. Transylvanian's call their county the "Land of Waterfalls."
North Carolina's heartland, the Piedmont, includes the Triad region of Winston-Salem Greensboro, and High Point; the Triangle region of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill; and the state's largest city, Charlotte, with its never-ending sprawl. Far more people live in the Piedmont than in the western and eastern regions combined. At first glance, you might not think the Piedmont would be particularly attractive, but that's not the case at all. In fact, you don't have to drive far outside any of the metropolitan areas to find scenery as good as anywhere else in the state. Of course, if you like historic architecture, cultural history, or modern amenities, there's no need to leave the cities.
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The Piedmont's scenic beauty lies largely in its pastoral settings. Agriculture has always been important to North Carolina and remains so today. In the Piedmont, you'll see rolling fields of corn, wheat, and soybeans. And of course, tobacco. North Carolina was built on a foundation of tobacco farms, and the state remains the largest producer in the nation. In the last few decades, dozens of vineyards have popped up in the Piedmont region, adding another picturesque quality to the countryside. Since we live in nearby High Point, my wife and I like to tour the wineries in the Yadkin Valley region of the Piedmont, sometimes affectionately referred to as North Carolina's "Yappa Valley."
Water characterizes the eastern portion of the state. Of course, being at the coast, you're going to have water, but what makes North Carolina's coastline unique is the chain of barrier islands running along its entire length. In the northern section, these islands lie several miles from the mainland, creating a vast sound and marsh system. Pamlico Sound and Albemarle Sound, along with several smaller sounds, make up the second-largest estuary system in the nation (Chesapeake Bay is the largest).
Albemarle Peninsula, which separates Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds, provides superb wildlife habitat. At Mattamuskeet and Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuges, tens of thousands of ducks, geese, swans, and other migratory birds overwinter or use the land as a stopover along their migration routes. At Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, biologists made the first attempts to reintroduce the endangered red wolf into the wild as a self-sustaining population. Like the bugling call of the elk in Cataloochee Cove, hearing the howl of the red wolf at Alligator River creates a lasting impression.
A trip to North Carolina's coast is not complete without visiting Roanoke Island. Here you can see the outdoor drama The Lost Colony, which depicts the failed English attempt at settlement in the New World in 1587. Roanoke Island Festival Park provides a "living history" experience for visitors. You can watch and interact with interpreters who demonstrate blacksmithing, shingling, carpentry, and other jobs required of the early colonists. The park's biggest draw is Elizabeth II, an accurate representation of the sixteenth-century sailing vessels used to transport the colonists.
Unquestionably, North Carolina's most idyllic mountain drive is the Blue Ridge Parkway. On the coast, that honor falls to NC Highway 12 from Nags Head to Ocracoke. Most of the drive passes through Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge. On the east are wide sandy beaches; to the west are picturesque marshes, mud flats, and the expansive Pamlico Sound. Along the way are three lighthouses, including "America's Lighthouse," Cape Hatteras. In 1999, Cape Hatteras Lighthouse received even more attention than usual with its relocation away from the threatening sea.
While Cape Hatteras National Seashore makes a terrific destination, it can get mighty crowded during the tourist season. If you want to escape the crowds and still experience the beauty and recreational opportunities of the Outer Banks, try Cape Lookout National Seashore instead. Cape Lookout is accessible only by boat, so you'll have to expend a little energy on your visit. But the pristine natural beauty and lack of crowds make extra work well worth it. You can ride over on a ferry from Beaufort or Morehead City, or take your own boat. I put my kayak in at Harkers Island and paddle the four miles across Core Sound to the seashore. Here's a little advice for paddlers: Pay attention to the tides. You'll want an outgoing tide for the trip over and an incoming tide on the way back. Trust me on this!
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Along the southern portion of the North Carolina coast lies my favorite North Carolina city. Wilmington possesses more historical architecture than any town in the state. Across the Cape Fear River from Wilmington's waterfront is the USS Battleship North Carolina Memorial. At her commissioning in 1941, the USS North Carolina was regarded as the greatest sea weapon ever built. She saw action in every major naval campaign of World War II and earned fifteen battle stars. Even if war machines or big boats are not your thing, a tour of the venerable battleship is highly recommended.
You know, one of these days I might just head out West and check out all those great photo ops. Just as soon as I explore North Carolina's new Dismal Swamp State Park, and paddle my kayak down the Lumber River, and make a few more trips down the Black River, and hike to that new waterfall off the Blue Ridge Parkway my friend told me about, and photograph the North Carolina State Capitol in evening twilight, and try the Cabernet at that new Yadkin Valley winery, and...