New York, Forever Wild

Fall color is peaking in a vast park larger than Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Glacier, and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks combined—Adirondack State Park in, yes, New York.

October 13 NY 4.jpg
Mt. Van Hoevenberg, Lake Placid, NY
From the mountain's summit, the "forever wild" aspect of the park is evident. Tennant made the image with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 24–105mm f/4L Canon EF IS lens, and polarizer at 1/40 sec and f/13, ISO 320.
Chris Tennant

“So, where are you from?”

“New York.”

At this response, my new neighbors in Virginia would inevitably pepper me with questions about New York City. They seemed genuinely surprised to learn that I grew up in a rural, one-stoplight town surrounded by rolling hills. And they were even more surprised to find out that north of my former central New York State hometown lies more than 6 million acres of wilderness—an area about that of the entire state of Vermont, in the largest park in the U.S. outside of Alaska.

Despite the wildness of the Adirondack State Park, it remains remarkably accessible. Its system of 2,000 miles of hiking, biking, and skiing trails is the largest in the nation. The Adirondacks also contain more than 3,000 lakes and ponds, many of which are accessible by canoe and kayak. Its diverse landscapes include bogs and wetlands, boreal and hardwood forests, cascading streams and waterfalls, and grand vistas from exposed mountain summits. You can stand on a summit and capture an image with no discernible human element in the scene.

Though used by Algonquian and Mohawk peoples for hunting and travel, the Adirondacks were largely ignored by early European settlers. Serious exploration of the region began in 1870, and in 1892 the park was established. Today the 6.1 million acres of the Adirondack State Park include a constitutionally protected Forest Preserve of some 2.6 million acres (colloquially referred to as “forever wild”). The remaining land is privately owned and regulated by the Adirondack Park Agency. In addition to the unique combination of public and private land, the park is home to more than 100 communities that support 130,000 year-round residents and an additional 70,000 seasonal residents.

Shooting the Seasons
Autumn, with its impressive fall colors and cool, comfortable days (and occasional snow shower), is arguably the best time to visit. Color generally begins to peak in the higher elevations around Lake Placid the last week in September and surrounding lower elevations following in the first week of October; color continues until the third week of the month in lower-lying areas such as the Champlain Valley. Take advantage of weekly foliage reports from sources such as foliagenetwork.com. To fully appreciate the spectrum of fall colors, take a short hike to the summit of Mt. Van Hoevenberg and shoot panoramic images. Though a tripod helps, the stitching features in some cameras and software let you handhold for panoramas.

An Adirondack adage sums up the weather rather bleakly as “nine months of winter with three months of poor sledding.” While winters can be harsh, outdoor activities such as cross-country and downhill skiing, snowshoeing, and snowboarding allow hardy souls to experience the sublime beauty of this season. Shoot at dawn and dusk to capture the warm tones in the sky contrasting with the cool tones of snow-capped mountain peaks. (When photographing snow you’ll often have to add at least a stop of exposure over the meter reading.) Marcy Field in Keene Valley provides terrific winter views and requires no hiking.

Spring ushers in “mud and bug” season. The notorious black flies are most intense from mid-May to late June, though they can be managed with proper attire (long-sleeved shirt and pants tied off at the wrists and ankles) and insect repellent. The weather can be unpredictable: Last Memorial Day weekend, 36 inches of snow fell on Whiteface Mountain!

Spring is perfect for shooting cascades. A 10-mile hike along the East Branch of the Ausable River, accessed through the Adirondack Mountain Reserve, offers one of the most waterfall-dense regions in the park. Bring a tripod for long exposures and a polarizing filter to reduce reflections.

Summer brings warm temperatures with pleasantly cool evenings, plus ideal conditions for capturing the quintessential Adirondack sunrise, with mountain summits peeking through layers of mist rising from a pond, lake, or river. Besides creating mood, these layers serve as clear delineations between foreground, middle-ground, and background, creating depth and visual interest in your images.

What to Bring
For scenes such as waterfalls and grand vistas, you'll need a wide-angle lens. A mid-range zoom is my real workhorse, letting me photograph intimate landscapes and wide scenics, while still providing enough reach for isolating subjects. My typical kit includes a Canon EOS 5D Mark II and 16–35mm f/2.8L and 24–105mm f/4L Canon EF lenses. Though I have used the 100–400mm f/4.5–5.6L EF IS lens on occasion, its extra bulk and weight rarely justifies bringing it on longer backcountry excursions.

Whenever possible, I use a tripod. Getting images sharp from near to far requires stopping down the aperture, with a commensurate increase in exposure time that makes handholding a challenge. And when I shoot scenes with a wide dynamic range early or late in the day, I bracket exposures to manually blend in later (to recover detail in highlight areas, for instance), which also requires a tripod.

The single most important lens accessory? A polarizing filter. Besides reducing reflections from water and wet rocks, it can cut specular reflection from foliage to produce deeper and richer colors and to add more drama to blue skies by increasing contrast.

You’ll also need a comfortable backpack with ample room for non-photographic necessities: water, map, compass, flashlight, first-aid kit, pocket knife, and extra clothing. A built-in hip-belt will help redistribute the load and increase comfort on the trail; look also for a space to strap a tripod to the pack.

Be vigilant when hiking to exposed summits, where the wind can be harsh. Rain showers can develop quickly—creating terrific atmospheric conditions for photographs—so pack rain gear to ensure you stay warm, dry, and comfortable. Bring a rain cover for your camera (such as Opteka’s Rainsleeve) or use a lightweight travel umbrella, which you can clamp to your tripod to shield both you and your gear.

Getting Around
No major airports serve the Adirondacks, but the Burlington (VT) and Albany (NY) International Airports are each within a two-hour drive of the park. Its 14 designated Scenic Byways are among the best ways to cover large portions of the park while also soaking up its diverse beauty. If time is short or you cannot negotiate trails, drive to the top of 4,867-foot Whiteface Mountain on the Whiteface Veteran's Memorial Highway for breathtaking 360-degree views.

Lodging in the park ranges from conventional hotels and motels to quaint bed-and-breakfasts, from luxury resorts to primitive camping. Besides state campgrounds (dec-campgrounds.com), there are hundreds of designated backcountry campsites. But to experience something akin to the storied Great Camps of the Adirondacks, you can do no better than Elk Lake Lodge (elklakelodge.com), where you can capture gorgeous images literally from the comfort of an Adirondack chair.

The village of Lake Placid, home to the 1932 and 1980 winter Olympics, provides an ideal base for exploring the High Peaks region. Home to 46 mountain summits of 4,000 feet or greater, this area offers some of the most rugged, wild beauty in the park, including the Ausable River, Mt. Van Hoevenberg, and Connery Pond. Visit www.adkbook.com for my e-book guide to High Peaks.

Planning a trip to a park of this size can be overwhelming. For first-time and returning visitors alike, visitadirondacks.com is a valuable resource.

From the intrepid backcountry explorer on a multi-day trek to the young family on a day hike, the Adirondacks have something for everyone. Though often overshadowed by our national parks, the pristine and rugged grandeur of the Adirondack State Park stands as one the country’s greatest treasures for lovers of the outdoors.

Chris Tennant is a physicist with a passion for photography. To see more of his award-winning work, visit www.christennantphotography.com.

Connery Pond, Lake Placid, NY
Connery Pond, Lake Placid, NY
The iconic mist of the region rises in Chris Tennant’s shot made with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II and 24–105mm f/4L Canon EF IS lens with circular polarizer. Exposure: 1/15 sec at f/10, ISO 640. A Feisol tripod was used for all photos in this feature.Chris Tennant
Cascade Waterfalls, N. Elba, NY
Cascade Waterfalls, N. Elba, NY
Tennant used a Canon EOS 5D Mark II and 24–105mm f/4L EF IS lens and polarizer; 4 sec at f/18, ISO 100.Chris Tennant
Round Pond, St. Huberts, NY
Round Pond, St. Huberts, NY
5D Mark II, 100–400mm f/4.5–5.6L EF IS lens and polarizer; 1/60 sec at f/11, ISO 400.Chris Tennant
Mt. Van Hoevenberg, Lake Placid, NY
Mt. Van Hoevenberg, Lake Placid, NY
From the mountain’s summit, the “forever wild” aspect of the park is evident. Tennant made the image with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II, 24–105mm f/4L Canon EF IS lens, and polarizer at 1/40 sec and f/13, ISO 320.Chris Tennant
Elk Lake, North Hudson, NY
Elk Lake, North Hudson, NY
Tennant made four overlapping exposures of 1/80 sec at f/14, ISO 320 with a Canon EOS 5D Mark II and 24–105mm f/4L EF IS lens fitted with a polarizer. He later stitched the exposures into a panorama in Adobe Photoshop.Chris Tennant
Forest Floor, High Peaks Region
Forest Floor, High Peaks Region
The same gear as above was used to make this study in autumn colors; a polarizer helped intensify the hues. Exposure: 1 sec at f/16, ISO 320.Chris Tennant
Round Pond, St. Huberts, NY
Round Pond, St. Huberts, NY
A polarizer helped bring out both the blue-gray of the rock face and the reds and golds of the foliage. Tenant used a 5D Mark II and 100–400mm f/4.5–5.6L lens; 1/8 sec at f/11, ISO 320.Chris Tennant
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