Virginia is a jaw-dropping destination for epic mountain engagement photos.
Most people think of Shenandoah National Park when considering locations for their engagement session, but honestly there is so much more out there.
From state parks like Grayson Highlands to the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests to the Blue Ridge Parkway, there are hundreds of potential locations for your shoot. And there's pretty good chance I've worked there before or scouted it out for future sessions.
Whether you are coming from Roanoke or Charlottesville, Washington or Richmond let's make some incredible art showcasing your love and the mountains.
"She brought creativity, adventure, and a unique perspective to the photoshoot. She had a great eye for setting up some really incredible pics and led us through the shoot with a great combination of posed and candid shots.
Kara did an excellent job capturing our love for the outdoors and for each other! We would definitely use her again and would recommend her to anyone; especially to couples who love to explore nature together and capture beautiful scenes."
Distance to Closest Entrance
From Charlottesville: 30 min
From Roanoke: 1 hr 30 min
From DC: 1 hr 30 min
Skyline Drive is the 105-mile road that meanders through Shenandoah National Park. There are four entrance stations - one near Front Royal, one between Sperryville and Luray, one between Stanardsville and Elkton, and one between Waynesboro and Charlottesville.
Most of the shorter scenic hikes in the park are accessed from Skyline Drive. This means travel time is something you have to take into account when planning your session. The speed limit on Skyline Drive is 35 miles an hour and getting from one of the perimeter towns to your destination typically takes a minimum of 45 minutes' drive time, usually closer to 60 or 80 minutes.
Some of my personal favorite hikes, such as Old Rag and White Oak Canyon, can accessed from the outer perimeter below the park (which is helpful if Skyline Drive is closed due to snow and ice, as is common in the winter), but these are very long hikes. Typically for engagement sessions we are looking for less than three miles roundtrip.
I have about ten hikes of this distance that I use regularly for photo sessions. Most are two miles or less.
For a roundup of five of my favorite hikes in Shenandoah, check out this post.
For those who aren’t interested in hiking, we also do the Skyline Drive hop-on hop-off tour, during which we tackle about 15 miles of the Central District and stop at my favorite overlooks along the way. At the overlooks we get out and often walk a short distance to a hidden spot in order to avoid the crowds who are staying by their cars.
"Kara was phenomenal. She made my fiancé and I feel comfortable and goofy, even though we had never had a camera in our face like that before. Her prompts were super helpful, her attitude was so positive and friendly, and it felt like she made a real effort to get to know us and capture us as authentically as possible. She even rolled up her pants and waded into the lake water to get an epic sunset shot! Talk about dedication!"
The George Washington & Jefferson National Forests cover 1.8 million acres of the Appalachian Mountains west of Shenandoah National Park. Most of the forest lies inside Virginia but it also extends into West Virginia and Kentucky.
For this round-up I’ll just highlight a few spots within a two-hour drive of Roanoke.
Much of the two national forests is dedicated wilderness areas, which means getting to trailheads often requires four-wheel-drive vehicles that can clear deep ruts and potholes on dirt roads. As a result, there are typically a LOT fewer people hiking these trails than you’ll find for places like Shenandoah or the Virginia state parks. Nevertheless the places I’m about to recommend do tend to be the more popular spots in these less-visited forests because of the views and distance (all of these hikes are under 6 miles).
Cole Mountain (also sometimes called Cold Mountain) is located near Lexington, Virginia.
This hike can either be done as a 5.9 mile loop OR a 1.2 mile out and back to the summit. For engagement photos we usually pick the shorter hike.
While almost every other hike mentioned on this list leads to rocky outcroppings, Cole Mountain features an open meadow at the summit. The Blue Ridge Mountains can be seen from all sides and it's truly a gorgeous spot for either sunrise or sunset.
Humpback is probably one of THE most popular hikes in central Virginia. Part of that is because it's one of the most easily accessible hikes from Charlottesville and is popular with UVA students. I have literally never had it to myself on any day of the week, sunrise or sunset. But, it’s worth it.
Humpback is a 1.8 (steep) hike located off of the Blue Ridge Parkway. After a straight up .9 mile climb, you summit to 360-degree views of the valley, with sunrises and sunsets that are some of the best you’ll find.
McAfee’s Knob is the most iconic, photographed spot on the AT. It's located about 20 minutes from downtown Roanoke and features dramatic views and a large, unique, overhung rock outcropping.
It’s a relatively long hike – about 7.8 miles. But if you take the fire road up rather than the AT, it’s a relatively easy hike and the rewards are astounding.
I definitely recommend this spot for sunrise on a weekday, since it is heavily visited and can get very busy later in the day.
Distance to Closest Entrance
From Charlottesville: 30 min
From Roanoke: 30 min
From DC: 2 hr 45 min
The Blue Ridge Parkway links the Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountain National Parks. It starts where Skyline Drive ends and continues for an additional 217 miles southward through Virginia.
So literally the southernmost entrance station for Shenandoah National Park is the northern entrance for the Blue Ridge Parkway. The road is called Skyline Drive one way, and the Blue Ridge Parkway the other.
If you are coming from Charlottesville, Richmond or DC, you’ll be getting on the Blue Ridge Parkway at the north entrance, accessed near Waynesboro. From there the closest pretty hike you can do is to Humpback Rock. It’s also a really popular hike, so I highly recommend doing it at sunrise on a weekday if that’s a spot you want to hit. (See the National Forest section for more detail about Humpback.)
A little farther down the Blue Ridge Parkway is an overlook called Raven’s Roost. It’s honestly one of the prettiest places on the parkway, but it is exceptionally popular. Raven’s Roost is west facing and is an amazing place to watch the sunset. As a result, on any given night you’ll find college students, families and several photographers gathered here. Due to the extremely high volume of people who go here, I typically try to avoid it. If your heart is set on Raven’s Roost (and I understand if it is since it’s beautiful), we definitely want to aim for a low-traffic day -- namely Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday.
If you continue a little farther along the Blue Ridge Parkway there are several great locations for “leg stretcher” spots (session locations that require no hike), including Big Spy Mountain (open meadow and views of the Shenandoah Valley), Otter Lake Trail (.8 miles around Otter Lake), and Thunder Ridge (short hike to a viewing platform -- great place for an elopement ceremony).
Whenever feasible, I recommend tackling the Blue Ridge Parkway starting at mile marker 106 in Roanoke and heading north (as opposed to starting in Waynesboro and heading south). From Roanoke you have quicker access to some of the best hikes in southwestern Virginia.
Three of my favorites: Sharp Top (1.5 steep miles to a 360-degree view – 3 miles total), Abbott Lake (.9 miles flat) and Flat Top (5 miles roundtrip - less crowded than Sharp Top). The latter can be accessed at mile marker 85.5 from the Peaks of Otter Recreation Lodge, which can also can host weddings for up to 100 guests.
The Sharp Top trailhead can be accessed from Peaks of Otter off of the Blue Ridge Parkway. It's located about 45 minutes from downtown Roanoke.
Sharp Top requires a very steep 1.5 mile ascent, but leads to some of the best views in the region. From the summit you get 360 degree views of the Piedmont and Blue Ridge Mountains. Peaks of Otter Lodge and Abbott Lake are also visible below.
Abbott Lake is the lake beside Peaks of Otter Lodge. A .9 mile flat trail goes around the lake. Both Sharp Top and Flat Top mountains can be seen from the lakeside.
It's a great pick for couples who want mountain + lake views but don't want to hike.
This spot can get crowded later in the day so if you want privacy consider visiting at sunrise.
You can find me climbing fences, wading in water and scaling trees to get the best shot for my couples because truly, you deserve the best.
I love a good adventure and when I'm not photographing weddings, you can find me hiking in the Blue Ridge Mountains or traveling with my two kids, dogs and hottie husband.
We will probably get along if you love dogs and new experiences and really good food paired with really good conversation. I am your chill wedding side kick, your dance in the rain hype-woman who will always make sure you are taken care of because I'm the kind of person other people call as their safe place. You create memories and I'll document them for you. I can't WAIT to capture your love story.
"Kara was phenomenal. She made my fiancé and I feel comfortable and goofy, even though we had never had a camera in our face like that before. Her prompts were super helpful, her attitude was so positive and friendly, and it felt like she made a real effort to get to know us and capture us as authentically as possible. She even rolled up her pants and waded into the lake water to get an epic sunset shot! Talk about dedication! And while this session was a contest giveaway, entirely free, Kara spared no time or effort. Thank you so much Kara for making our engagement shoot so fun!"
"Kara was incredibly flexible & easy to work with! She provided an extensive list of recommended locations and they ended up being the perfect mountain views. She made us laugh & dealt with our crazy pups like a seasoned pro. We couldn't be happier with our photographs and will be sharing them far & wide. Highly recommend!"
"She went above and beyond with our engagement photos. We not only received so many photos back from her, but we were able to have an experience to last a lifetime. With being a photographer myself, Kara made it extremely easy to be on the other side of the camera- where I don't typically feel comfortable. We loved every single photo from our engagement session."
On our wedding day, we couldn't have been happier- not just because we had just tied the knot, but because Kara made us feel so loved too. She worked so hard and we couldn't be more thrilled with how our wedding gallery turned out.
If you're looking for a photographer that is spontaneous, fun, energetic, and adventurous, Kara is your girl! She creates images that make you feel like you're experiencing the moment all over again. The richness and depth of her photos bring moments back to life. I can't praise her enough."
We’ll always be able to look back and remember how we felt in those moments, something that is truly invaluable.
Kara made my wedding day happen! Everything from finding the location, helping me find a florist, and pick out an airbnb. If it wasn't for her the day wouldn't have happened so easily. Through the entire process Kara hung in there every time I changed my mind (67 times to be exact, including my wedding date!) and handled all of it so kindly. She builds a quick relationship with you and brings out the most real emotion in the pictures.
Kara shot our wedding and put together the most beautiful wedding videos that we will cherish forever! Her adventurous personality shined through all of her creative ideas. Kara was a joy to work with and I’ll never forget our wedding day splashing in the creek thanks to her!