From Harpers Ferry in the north to Roanoke in the south, the 200-mile-long Shenandoah Valley gives Virginia and West Virginia various claims to its beauty: mountaintops, waterfalls, pastoral charm. In fact, the green valleys and winding mountain roads of its central area between the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains are a nature-photo portfolio waiting to happen. With so much to shoot, don't miss these must-stop spots:
1. Change is good.
Thomas Jefferson bought Natural Bridge, this "most sublime of nature's works," from King George III, and, ever since, painters, writers, and photographers have tried to capture its mercurial beauty. Carved from the limestone above Cedar Creek, this arch is 215 feet tall and spans 90 feet.
Repeat visitors report that it appears different every time you see it. Backlit and cloaked in early morning mist, vividly wreathed in bright green leaves mid-afternoon, or hued by a rich sunset, this is a challenging setting to shoot. After a few establishing shots, get in close for the texture and color of weathered limestone. Bring out burnt-sienna undertones with a warming filter.
Open 8 a.m. until dark, it's about 5 minutes off Interstate 81 between Roanoke and Harrisonburg. A more scenic approach is along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
2. Roam at the top.
Running along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Skyline Drive is a 105-mile vista-shooter's paradise, with 75 overlooks on the valley in the west and the Piedmont in the east. Don't miss Old Rag View to capture the rock summit of the 3,291-foot Old Rag Mountain. You also get stunning views on the other side, though the scramble is strenuous. A UV filter helps you cut through haze. For shots of the rolling hills in the Piedmont pull over at Moormans River Overlook.
Along the roadside, wildflowers grow uninhibited, so bring a macro lens for jack-in-the-pulpit and trillium in the spring, astors and goldenrod in the fall. Deer tend to dart into the road, so don't break the 35-mph speed limit. Wild turkeys, black bears, and bobcats might also appear.
Skyline Drive eventually turns into the Blue Ridge Parkway, a stunning, 469-mile route that extends into Tennessee. But before you drive on, stop and visit...
3. National treasure.
At 300 square miles, 40 percent federally protected wilderness, Shenandoah National Park is a cache of photogenic trails. The most spectacular: Whiteoak Canyon, with year-round opportunities to shoot the six waterfalls along the way. Bring a tripod for super-long shutter speeds. It's a 2.3-mile hike to the first (and, at 86 feet, the tallest). Get a map from the visitor's center or the website.
4. Small Town, USA.
Embedded in rolling country, Staunton, VA, is an architectural gem. Established in 1747, it's a veritable textbook of 18th- and 19th-century design. Walk the Stuart Addition Historic District for homes dating to before 1825 and the intricate stonework of the Victorian-Gothic St. Francis of Assisi Church. Mary Baldwin College has neoclassical white buildings on green lawns; downtown are the landmark Masonic Building, the stained-glass interior of the SunTrust Bank building, and the Clock Tower building. For an old-time feel, shoot in black-and-white.
For more information, contact the Shenandoah Valley Travel Association at www.VisitShenandoah.org or call 800-847-4878.