Almost all of the engagement and couples sessions I photograph in Shenandoah National Park are sunrise sessions. Even when clients aren’t “morning people” (because, really, who LOVES to get up at 3 a.m. to get ready, drive to a trailhead and hike, all before the sun comes up), I encourage couples to consider that time of day.
For one thing, Shenandoah National Park is a 2-3 hours’ drive for residents of Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Richmond, Charlottesville and Newport News. This means that by 10 a.m. on weekends, city-living day-trippers have begun to arrive in the park and they don’t really leave until after dark.
At 6 a.m., though, even the most popular overlooks are often free of other visitors. And if you do share the space, it’s usually with just one or two other people — not 20 or 30.
Sunrise is not without possible challenges in the park, though. Some mornings, fog blankets the mountains so completely it’s impossible (or almost impossible) to see the iconic views (check out this sunrise Blue Ridge Parkway engagement session photographed during a complete “white out”).
And if it’s rainy, you might not get a vibrant color show, despite having lost sleep to be up that early (this can also happen in the afternoon, but at least you got to sleep in!)
Finally, some popular spots for sessions are really best at sunset (like Raven’s Rock — see an engagement session and an elopement at that location.) However there are plenty, like Stony Man, where this engagement session was shot, that work well for both or are even better at sunrise.
Where to Stay
Most of the hikes I recommend for engagement or couples sessions are in the Central District or South District of the park.
For trails in the Central District, the handiest places to stay are at Skyland Resort or Big Meadows — both featuring lodges owned by the U.S. Park Service. If you want the wider array of options and prices outside the park, the closest are in Luray and Elkton on the west side of Skyline Drive and Sperryville and Stanardsville on the east side.
There are TONS of Airbnbs and VRBOS in all of those locations as well as a few great bed and breakfasts, lodges and hotels (and a few more affordable chain hotels and motels). A few locally owned places to check out include Lydia Mountain Lodge (a new facility in Stanardsville, complementing older log cabins), The Mimslyn Inn (Luray), Hopkins Ordinary Bed and Breakfast (Sperryville) and my pick of all of these, Hotel Laurance (Luray).
In the South District of the park the closest places to stay are in Crozet and Waynesboro (but you’ll have a few more choices in Charlottesville in terms of accomodations). A few to check out are Afton Mountain Bed and Breakfast (Afton), 200 South Street Inn (Charlottesville) and the Iris Inn (Waynesboro).
And then of course you can always camp! For a link to campgrounds click here.
Make a Day of It
After your session, it’s minutes to get to Skyland Resort (or Big Meadows) for breakfast and then you have the rest of the day ahead of you to explore the park. If you need recommendations for where to hike or explore I’ll help you with that.
How Much Time Do I Need?
I offer one-, two- and four-hour adventure sessions. There are only a few spots in Shenandoah National Park in which we can do a one-hour session – on the plus, none of them involve a hike but, on the negative, they are a little limited in terms of view. So the vast majority of people pick the two-hour session option. For those wanting a little more of an adventure or a longer hike (say Old Rag, McAfee’s Knob or White Oak Canyon), four hours is a better option. My Skyline Drive overlook sessions (where we jump in and out at several overlooks along Skyline Drive) are also two-hour sessions. Although it’s not physically far between overlooks, it does take a while to drive the windy mountain roads.
Featured Location: Stony Man
Stony Man is a favorite summit for my photography sessions. It’s an easy-to-moderate hike to the summit — about half a mile each way and is the highest place in the park. So even if there is fog in the valley below, you usually still get a view because you are literally above the low-hanging clouds. It’s also usually not crowded in the mornings and even if there are other people up there, it’s a big space so we can move around them.
Stony Man is very — stony — though, so good quality shoes and at least moderate physical fitness are a must. (If you struggle with balance at all, it’s not a good choice due to the nature of the terrain.) Additionally, if it’s been raining heavily the day before, I’ll likely recommend we switch to a different location because the rocks can get very slippery at the top and there’s no way to avoid them.
Stony Man is an amazing place to watch the colors drift over the mountains. You get about a 270-degree view from the top and there are two different “summits” there that we can bounce between.
Erin and Stephen came from Richmond for their engagement session. It was a bit of a last- minute session for me — I happened to have a Sunday wedding that weekend and had left Saturday open for another engagement session that got moved, so they were able to slip into the slot about five days before we met up.
We met at the parking area and I gave them headlamps to use (I always offer my clients headlamps for sunrise and sunset sessions) before beginning the trek up the mountain.
The day was clear and comfortable — Stony Man almost always has a bit of a breeze, even a strong wind at the top — but on this mid-June day, it was just about perfect. We began in “blue hour” — just before the sun came up and then moved up to the very top to watch it peek over the mountains. Often it takes a few minutes for couples to get comfortable in front of the camera, but these two were complete naturals. We shot for about an hour before packing up and heading down — them to grab breakfast at Skyland and me to hike a few other summits that I wanted to explore for future sessions.
Right now September 2019 is totally booked, as are all October weekend dates but I am taking weekday sessions the last two weeks of October (oh hey fall leaves in the park!) I also have a handful of November dates still available. By early December, Skyline Drive is often closed due to snow and ice, but if you’re interested in a Virginia adventure session later in the year there are TONS of other options well worth exploring.
I’m also actively booking 2020 weddings and elopements. Get in touch below!
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