Standing on a beach surrounded by lightning, struggling against gusting winds on the Mile High Swinging Bridge, watching epic sunsets and battling elk, almost getting stranded on a tiny island for the night, and embarking on the most amazing road trip I’ve taken yet. 2016 was a great year for travel. And it just so happens I have the photos to prove it.
I look back at 2016 as a year of development for me. So much has changed for me. I have started recording video, although I still haven’t done anything with it. I bought my first 300mm lens and captured some stunning wildlife photography as a result. I dabbled more with macro photography using the 150mm macro lens I already had.
And of course there was the Appalachian Fall Tour. A 29-day, 2,420-mile journey across the Appalachian Mountains from Syracuse, New York to Chattanooga, Tennessee. During that entire trip I never once used an interstate and explored more amazing places than I had in the past three years combined. It was amazing.
Now that we’re looking into 2017, I thought it would be good to put together my favorite moments from 2016. Of course I have a great photo to go with each moment because my camera is always with me.
I could have displayed these in a particular order leading up to my favorite moment of the year, but really every moment was my favorite. So instead I chose the simplest method of all: chronological. I invite you to take a journey through 2016 with me from my first photo of the year to my last. I hope you enjoy, and leave a comment below telling me which is your favorite moment!
1. A 6-hour Drive for a Sunrise Photo
I was spending a few weeks relaxing in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Unfortunately one night I just wasn’t sleeping. 3 a.m. rolled by and I was still wide awake. I decided I might as well do something. I grabbed my photography gear, made some coffee, and hit the road for Folly Beach. It was a solid two and a half hour drive to the northern end of the island. I grabbed all my gear and started my thirty minute walk along the beach.
For the past three years I’d had this particular shot planned in my head: a photo aligning the sunrise with the Morris Island Lighthouse, which is completely surrounded by water now. After my three hour journey to get into the right position I saw the sun peak over the horizon. Cameras clicked away as I watched with a big grin on my face. I had finally gotten the photo. Of course now I was becoming sleepy. I drove three hours back home and finally went to sleep.
2. A New Toy for Lightning Photography
I have always had a passion for capturing photos of lightning, but I was always limited to night-time photos because of the technical aspects. Lightning flashes way too fast to use a shutter release remote to do it manually. So I invested in the Ubertronix Strike Finder Pro. This device connected to my camera and used an infrared sensor to detect a lightning strike and trigger my camera for me.
My first test came during the summer when a series of thunderstorms moved across the Brunswick Islands of North Carolina. I ran out to Oak Island just ahead of a storm and set up on the beach. A few minutes later the Strike Finder triggered my camera, and I had my first day-time photo of lightning.
3. Leaving My 300mm Lens Behind. Ugh.
I had just checked out of my hotel in Charleston, SC when I read a story about the upcoming Chincoteague Pony Swim. It was Monday; the pony swim was Wednesday, and 550 miles away. I made a quick stop for the night to grab my camping gear out of storage before heading up the road Tuesday.
About halfway to Chincoteague Island I realized during my frantic packing I had left my 300mm lens and 1.4x teleconverter behind. My stomach hit the floor. I made some phone calls and inquired about getting the hefty lens overnighted to me, but the $250 price tag was just too much. I hung my head the rest of the drive.
The day of the pony swim I searched for a good position to get some photos, but with only a 150mm lens I just didn’t have the reach to even bother. I was so disappointed in myself, but at least I made the next three days on the island worth the journey.
4. Breathtaking Sunset at Clingman’s Dome (not in the way you’d think)
There is no doubt the sunset I witnessed from the observation deck on Clingman’s Dome was stunning, but this isn’t what took my breath away. The hike up there did. It had been a long time since my last journey to the highest point in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
The half mile hike is broken up into tenths of a mile with a bench to allow people a chance to rest and catch their breath. It didn’t help that I was lugging nearly fifty pounds in photography and video gear with me. It took me nearly forty-five minutes to reach the top, but still plenty of time to get set up for this spectacular sunset.
5. Getting Closer to the Bees
I dabbled more with macro photography this year than I have before. I find it fascinating, especially with nature, to get up close and personal. My 150mm macro lens enables me to capture some pretty decent images of small insects. Of course, I’m just getting started. I still want one of those bug-eyed macro photos.
6. Mile High Swinging Bridge
I finally made it to Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina. I have seen it and passed it along the Blue Ridge Parkway so many times, but never had the time to stop. This summer I took an entire week to explore the Parkway between Blowing Rock and Asheville, and devoted an entire day to the private attraction.
My first stop: the Mile High Swinging Bridge at the very top of the attraction. The wind was gusting pretty good at around 30mph; the swinging bridge is pretty solid and anchored at multiple points, so it barely swung at all. But that didn’t mean the wind wouldn’t blow me around. It doesn’t help that I have a fear of heights, so it took a few times crossing the bridge with white-knuckled intensity before I could finally stand in the middle to capture a few photos.
7. Fighting Bull Elk (and one just grazing)
I had just arrived at the Oconaluftee Visitor Center in Cherokee, North Carolina when a large bull elk shouted out a bugle call. A park ranger looked at me and said, “He just challenged one of the other males. There’s gonna be a fight.” I quickly grabbed my large lens, sturdy tripod, and booked it up the edge of the highway to get situated to capture photos of the fight. And then I waited. And I waited some more. It took nearly an hour for the bull elk to cross a few hundred feet in a field to challenge the other male. I remained steadfast, camera ready to go, just in case one took a sudden charge.
Finally they locked horns and I snapped away. Almost immediately they broke and retreated a few feet. “Are you kidding?” my mind screamed. But a minute later they locked horns again for a short fifteen minute battle for dominance. One of the female elks just grazed nearby, ignoring the macho fight in the background.
8. Almost Getting Stuck on an Island by Tropical Storm Julia
I arrived in the Beaufort, South Carolina area for a two-day photo assignment just after Tropical Storm Julia had passed through. Literally. It had just left the day before. Flood waters were still a little high and the rain still came down in bands. I headed out to the Marsh Boardwalk at Hunting Island State Park for a nice sunset photo.
I walked out across the long boardwalk over the water, crossed over a few tiny islands, and ended up at a viewing platform at the end. After capturing a pretty amazing sunset photo I then packed up my gear and started heading back.
By the time I reached the other end of the boardwalk pictured here I noticed the water level was a mere inches from overlapping the wood. Just inches. If I had been maybe 30 minutes later I’m certain the high flood tide waters would have covered the boardwalk and I would have been stranded for the night. Thankfully it didn’t, and I got back to my car safely.
9. A Night at the Beaufort Inn
I love surprises. Especially when I’m not the one planning them. I was only supposed to be in Beaufort for two days shooting on assignment. But in the blink of an eye I suddenly found myself checking in to a room at The Beaufort Inn.
There were only a few guests, and it was a working visit. I spent a few hours the first night capturing photos of my room and the amazing view from the second story balcony overlooking a peaceful courtyard. The next morning I capture photos of the chef-prepared breakfast before heading out on the town for the day.
I only had one night at this B&B, but it stole my heart and left me with a big smile on my face for weeks. I hope to return here some day and do a bigger story on this place because they have such a wonderful history, and exciting plans for the future.
10. Say Cheese! Or Blue Crab!
I wasn’t actually supposed to make a stop at Huntington Beach State Park in South Carolina. But I was traveling through with a new friend I had made in Charleston, and I wanted to show her the alligators of the park. I never expected to find this alligator.
Normally the gators are in the brackish pond floating around most of the day. For the last hour before sunset the alligators will usually come near the shoreline. But this time I found a large alligator across the road in the shallow saltwater marsh. He was just sitting there. Glaring at me.
I quickly whipped out my camera (told you I never leave that thing behind) and captured this photo just before he scurried off into the tall grasses. It was a great moment and I was so happy to get this photo because it was very rare.
11. Maybe My Favorite Place on Earth
My Appalachian Fall Tour started in Syracuse, New York. While visiting the city I stumbled across a brochure for Watkins Glen State Park. I immediately recognized the photo on the cover; it was the scene pictured above. I had seen this photo years ago on a website and immediately fell in love with this place; I told myself one day I absolutely must visit this place!
As soon as I realized Watkins Glen was just a couple hours from Syracuse I changed the entire route of my App Fall Tour. I took a long detour around the Finger Lakes region and into Watkins Glen late one evening. I only had a couple of hours of sunlight left, so I spent the night in the small town and came back early the next morning.
I was absolutely mesmerized by this state park. It’s located in a gorge and the trail kinda hikes up in elevation so you start at the bottom of the gorge at one end, and the top of the gorge at the other. When I finally turned a corner and saw the scene above I was sold; I had finally made it to what I think is my favorite place on Earth.
12. Running Out of Gas on the Blue Ridge Parkway
Of course no road trip is complete until you run out of gas. I ran out of gas on the Blue Ridge Parkway at the Peaks of Otter near Roanoke, Virginia. I was driving a new vehicle that normally got 20 miles per gallon on the highway, but I wasn’t on the highway anymore. I was on the mountainous, curvy, up-and-down Blue Ridge Parkway.
Although my gauge read half a tank which should have meant about 160 miles range that morning, I was on empty by the time I had driven just 60 miles. Oops. I coasted into the Peaks of Otter area at the restaurant and lodge, and called Geico for a little assistance.
But that’s okay; I captured some pretty good sunset photos on the lake while waiting for some gas, and I couldn’t stop laughing at myself all night. Life is an adventure. I make that adventure exciting.
13. This Last Minute Sunset
You would think the Blue Ridge Parkway would have plenty of scenic overlooks to enjoy the sunrise and sunset. And you would be wrong. I was wrong, too, because I thought the same thing.
One day these dramatic clouds were moving in from the west just an hour before sunset. I frantically began searching for an overlook that would give me a great view. I couldn’t find anything. It was so frustrating!
But then with just 20 minutes to spare I found this spot on the side of a gentle curve. I had only just learned that it is acceptable to park on the grass along the Parkway, so I quickly pulled off the road in a precarious tilt and grabbed all my gear. A few minutes later I had this photo in the can. Not bad. Not bad at all.
14. Finally Met a Black Bear
I had probably spent a combined four weeks in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and only seen a black bear once. I had seen the after effects with dozens of cars pulled over on the side of the road, and think I might’ve seen one in a tree once. But nothing concrete. No good photos.
Then I visited the park again in late October. I was driving along the two-lane road leading to the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. I saw two cars pulled over ahead on the right. And on the left was a massive black bear just a few feet from the road.
I quickly found a place to pull off the road and grabbed my 300mm lens (I hadn’t forgotten it this time). A few minutes later I had this really great photo of a black bear, my very first. Did I mention how awesome the Appalachian Fall Tour had been?
15. It’s Called Sunset Rock for a Reason
On the 28th day of my Appalachian Fall Tour I rolled into Chattanooga, Tennessee. It was the official end of the road trip. On the last night of the trip I visited Sunset Rock on Lookout Mountain.
I learned exactly why it has this name. The view of the setting sun was absolutely amazing. Of course the fact it was a sheer cliff drop off of about five hundred feet just made it even more exciting!
16. But, Grandmother, What a Big Moon You Have!
This was actually one of the last photos I captured in 2016. The supermoon rising from the summit of Whitetop Mountain. It was a bit windy, and I took a new friend up there with me. She thought it was cute to see how excited I got while capturing this photo. I had the biggest grin on my face as I kept running back and forth between my two cameras.
Later that night I sat at my computer looking at this stunning photo I had captured of the Supermoon rising over Wilburn Ridge on the Appalachian Trail. It was amazing to witness the event, but I was so happy to have a great photo as well.
This was the end of my year in travel. I spent a few days with a friend, visited the grandmother, then went down to the parents’ house for Thanksgiving and Christmas. It was nice to finally relax after an intense year of amazing travel across the country. And now…on to 2017.