Photo Of The Day: Autumn Leaves In West Virginia

Autumn leaves are especially beautiful when contrasted against a crisp, blue sky, but there’s something equally stunning when you see the brightly colored leaves of fall paired with a dark, brooding, stormy sky. Photographer Ben Britz explores the aesthetics of the latter in this photo, which he shot in an unassuming shopping mall parking lot in Morgantown, West Virginia, last month. As both evening and a strong storm were rolling in, this tree’s leaves glowed with a little help from the monstrous parking lot lights. Do you have photos of this year’s fall foliage that you’d like to submit for Photo Of The Day? If so, go ahead and upload them to the Gadling Flickr Pool and we’ll take a look.

[Photo Credit: Ben Britz]

Hottest Destinations for Fall Foliage

A brief history of Telluride and its surrounding ghost towns

telluride ghost townsTelluride. The name alone conjures a variety of associations, from the debaucherous (Glenn Frey’s “Smuggler’s Blues”) to the elite (Tom Cruise is the other inevitable mention). But this isolated little town in Southwestern Colorado’s craggy San Juan range has a truly wild past and a lot to offer. It’s not the only mining-town-turned-ski-resort in the Rockies, but I think it’s the most well-preserved, photogenic, and in touch with its history. Apparently I’m not alone, because the town core (all three blocks of it) was designated a National Historic Landmark District in 1964.

Located in a remote box canyon (waterfall included) at 8,750 feet, Telluride and its “down valley” population totals just over 2,000 people. I’ve lived in Telluride off-and-on since 2005, and there’s something to be said about a place where dogs outnumber residents, and you can’t leave home without running into people you know. Longtime residents burn out on the small town thing, but I still get a kick out of it after years of city living.

Today the former brothels of “Popcorn Alley” are ski shanties, but they’re still painted eye-catching, Crayola-bright colors, and the old ice house is a much-loved French country restaurant. Early fall is a great time to visit because the weather is usually mild, the aspens are turning, and there’s the acclaimed Telluride Film Fest, brutal Imogene Pass Run (Sept. 10) and Blues & Brews Festival (Sept. 16-18) to look forward to. The summer hordes are gone, but the deathly quiet of the October/early-November off-season hasn’t begun.

According to the Telluride Historical Museum, the town was established in 1878. It was originally called Columbia, and had a reputation as a rough-and-tumble mining town following the opening of the Sheridan Mine in the mid-1870’s. The mine proved to be rich in gold, silver, zinc, lead, copper, and iron, and with the 1890 arrival of the Rio Grande Southern railroad, Telluride grew into a full-fledged boomtown of 5,000. Immigrants–primarily from Scandinavia, Italy, France, Germany, Cornwall, and China–arrived in droves to seek their fortunes. Many succumbed to disease or occupational mishaps; the tombstones in the beautiful Lone Tree Cemetery on the east end of town bear homage to lots of Svens, Lars’, and Giovannis.

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[Photo credit: Flickr user hubs]

telluride ghost townsThe mining resulted in 350 miles of tunnels that run beneath the mountains at the east end of the valley; you can see remnants of mine shafts and flumes throughout the region. If paddling is your thing, you’ll see gold dredges runnning on the San Miguel, San Juan, and Dolores Rivers.

Telluride’s wealth attracted the attention of Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch, who famously robbed the town’s San Miguel National Bank in 1889 (trivia: I used to live in an upstairs apartment in that very building). But in 1893, the silver crash burst the money bubble, and almost overnight Telluride’s population plummeted. By the end of World War II, only 600 people remained.

Telluride is a part of the 223-mile San Juan Scenic Highway, which connects to the historic towns of Durango, Ouray, and Silverton. There’s only one paved road in and out of Telluride, and that’s Hwy. 145. The only other options are two high, extremely rugged mountain passes (which require 4WD and experienced drivers). There are also a handful of ghost towns in the area. Some, like Alta (11,800 feet) make for a great, not too-strenuous hike; you’ll see the trailhead four miles south on Hwy 145. There are a number of buildings still standing, and two miles up the road lie the turquoise Alta Lakes.
telluride ghost towns
If you want to check out the ghost town of Tomboy, it’s five miles up Imogene Pass (13,114 feet). Don’t underestimate just how tough it is if you’re hiking; you’ll gain 2,650 feet in altitude; otherwise it’s an hour’s drive. The trail begins on the north end of Oak Street; hang a right onto Tomboy Road. Unless you’re physically fit and acclimated to the altitude, the best way to see these ghost towns is by 4WD tour with an outfitter like Telluride Outside. Another bit of trivia: every July, the “Lunar Cup” ski race is held on a slope up on Imogene Pass, clothing optional.

How to get there
Telluride is a six-and-a-half-hour drive from Denver, but it also boasts the world’s second highest commercial airport (9,078 feet) with daily non-stop connections from Denver and Phoenix. It’s closed in sketchy weather (if you’re flight phobic, just say “hell, no”), and it’s often easier and usually cheaper to fly into Montrose Regional Airport, 70 miles away. From there, take Telluride Express airport shuttle; you don’t need a car in town. Go to VisitTelluride.com for all trip-planning details. For more information on the region’s numerous ghost towns, click here.

When to go
Telluride is beautiful any time of year, but avoid mid-April through mid-May and October through before Thanksgiving, as those are off-season and most businesses are closed. Spring is also mud season, and that’s no fun. Late spring, summer, and early fall mean gorgeous foliage, and more temperate weather, but be aware it can snow as late as early July. August is monsoon season, so expect brief, daily thunderstorms. July and winter are the most reliably sunny times; that said, Telluride averages 300 days of sunshine a year. If you want to explore either pass, you’ll need to visit in summer.
telluride ghost towns
Telluride tips
The air is thin up there. Drink lots of water, and then drink some more. Go easy on the alcohol, too. Take aspirin if you’re suffering altitude-related symptoms like headache or insomnia, and go easy for a couple of days until you acclimate. Wear broad-spectrum, high SPF sunblock, and reapply often on any exposed skin or under t-shirts. Wear a hat and sunglasses, as well.

[Photo credits: Tomboy, Flickr user Rob Lee; Mahr building, Laurel Miller; winter, Flickr user rtadlock]

The abridged Appalachian Trail: Shenandoah National Park’s day hikes

Ever since reading Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods seven ago, I’ve wanted to through-hike the Appalachian Trail (AT). Bryson’s account isn’t all birds and trees and sunshine, however. It largely focuses on the blisters and blood, and cast of often-sketchy characters he meets on his grueling trek. Yet through it all, he paints a beautiful portrait of one of America’s greatest recreational and conservationist achievements.

Conceived in 1921 by Benton MacKaye as a “project in regional planning,” the AT reached completion in 1937. It begins in Springer Mountain, Georgia, and runs 2,179 miles, culminating in Mount Katahdin, Maine. It traverses14 states along the way, including Virginia.

I’ve always been an avid hiker and camper, but I’ve never managed to find time to do the full trail. In May, while planning a business trip to Virginia, I realized it was time to face facts: I was 41, recovering from a lengthy illness, with a bad back, and an anemic bank account. Taking the three months or so required to through-hike the trail simply wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. Fortunately, there are alternatives for thwarted ambitions and weak lumbar regions like mine. The AT extends 100 miles through Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, making it possible to day-hike sections, or connect to them via the park’s other 399 miles of trails.

%Gallery-98597%Thus, my boyfriend (who has bad knees to go with his bad back) and I decided to camp for a few days in the park. Our sole purpose was to find the best AT day hikes situated in, or near, Loft Mountain campground, 26 miles from the southern entrance at Rockfish Gap. Then we’d continue up Skyline Drive-the famed scenic road that runs the length of the park-to the northern entrance at Front Royal. We decided to bring only the bare minimum of food (coffee, peanut butter, and a loaf of bread), to see what the park camp stores stock for ravenous through-hikers on a tight budget. During our visit, we discovered that cheating the AT is a great option for outdoor enthusiasts short on time, money, or fully-functional body parts.

We arrived at Loft Mountain on a hot, overcast afternoon. It’s a huge campground, but it was nearly deserted during our mid-week visit. All four of the park campgrounds cater to RV’s (something we wished to avoid), but after checking out the other places, we found Loft Mountain the best if you’re looking for full amenities, sites ranging from hike-in to RV, and overall scenic splendor. Outside of the campground proper, there’s a store, sewage disposal facility, coin-operated showers, laundry, telephone, mail drop, and gas station, and an amphitheater for weekend ranger programs. The AT trail runs along the eastern border of the campground.

Reservations are strongly recommended in high season, which is Memorial to Labor Day, and October, when fall colors are at their peak. The campgrounds also have a set number of first-come, first-serve sites. There are fire pits, but the park prohibits outside wood to prevent the spread of the Emerald Ash Borer beetle: purchase wood for five dollars a bundle at all campgrounds and stores, or collect deadwood for free. Tent sites are spacious, clean, level, and mostly devoid of back-puncturing debris. We selected a sandy tent site in the more isolated “A” section, which overlooks the pastoral Shenandoah Valley. It was located above a series of equally well-maintained, but smaller, sites down a short foot path just steps off the AT (the campground has 44 walk-ins). A large, white-tailed deer, antlers covered in velvet, ambled out of the bushes near our site as we unloaded.

It’s an easy, one-and-a-quarter mile hike on the AT from the campground to the popular Doyles River Falls trailhead (mile marker 81.1 on Skyline Drive).The Doyles River trail runs along a wooded creek, which keeps things cool on steamy summer days. It’s an easy-to-moderate downhill walk (three miles, roundtrip), through mossy, fern-shrouded terrain thick with wildflowers and oak-hickory forest. The trail is well-maintained, although it could have a better marker at a major junction (hang a right just past the spring). Unfortunately, the falls were essentially non-existent, due to global warming or whatever, but it’s such a pretty, peaceful hike, no matter.

On the way back, we stopped at the camp store. It’s well-stocked; you certainly won’t lack for basic necessities or food. There’s a lot of backpacker-friendly options: pasta, rice, canned meaty things. If, however, you’re health conscious (I am), there’s mighty slim pickings. I’m not dissing the store, which is great by national park/campground standards. Camp stores obviously aren’t created to cater to the palates of demanding gourmands or health foodists, so pack accordingly. There are a lot of black bears in the park, as well, so whether you’re car or backcountry camping, you’ll need to store your food accordingly.

Dinner options included a minuscule selection of sad, floppy, produce, and some grillable meat items, such as anemic pork chops, the ubiquitous hot dogs and dubious burger meat. To save cash, we went the processed meat route. Which is how we ended up eating “pressed and formed” deli turkey (49 cents a package!) and processed “cheese food” sandwiches on squishy wannabe-Wonder Bread. In retrospect, we should have splurged on s’mores makings, which would have been great with the Bulleit bourbon Boyfriend had thought to bring from home (because, while pressed turkey is one thing, cheap bourbon is another, and life is too short to drink it).

On day two, we hiked to 81-foot Lewis Falls (moderate, 3.3 mile loop, half of it uphill), outside of Big Meadows campground/Byrd Visitor Center. The center is a nice interpretive facility with camp store and restaurant (tip: give the park restaurants a miss). The trailhead off Tanner’s Ridge Overlook (mile marker 51.5) is tricky to find. Instead, drive into the amphitheater parking, where there’s another trailhead.

If you hike the downhill loop to the falls, there’s a well-marked junction to the AT. I highly recommend a detour, even if it’s just a mile (you’ll need to backtrack). It’s a particularly beautiful section, but it also gives you a good sense of how solitary and meditative the AT can be. At the falls proper, there’s a stellar view of the Shenandoah Valley, dotted with barns, silos, and farmhouses.

On our last day we stopped at the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center, near the northern entrance, and took the one-mile Fox Hollow Trail. It leads to the ruins of some old homesteads and a tiny cemetery. The homesteading heritage of the park is fascinating; it was initially formed from more than 1,000 privately-owned land tracts ranging from forest and pasture, to orchards. If you want to delve more deeply into the history of these early residents, other good trails with homesite ruins include Hannah Run at mile marker 35.1, Nicholson Hollow at 38.4, and Rose River Loop at 40.4. The visitor centers also have excellent books and exhibits on this topic.

For Shenandoah National Park backcountry information and regulations, go here.

My trip was sponsored by the Virginia Tourism Corporation, but the opinions expressed in this article are 100% my own.

Leaf peeping in the northern hemisphere

Let’s face it: autumn is here. But why not embrace the fall by heading to the hills and enjoying the turning of the leaves from green to fiery red?

It’s no secret that New England is one of the world’s top fall foliage destinations, but I bet you didn’t know that there are several other places in the northern Hemisphere where you can see the trees in their autumn glory. An additional bonus? Fewer people travel in the fall, and prices tend to be cheaper too!

Here are a few of the world’s best places to check out fall foliage:

In the USA:
Arizona Highlands — Arizona might have deserts and canyons, but the higher elevations around Flagstaff and its White Mountains have really photo-worthy foliage.

The Great Lakes Region — The Lakes region is famous for its huge expanse of fresh water, but the trees in fall paired with the blue of the water makes fall a great time to travel north.

Maine — This whole state is ablaze with fall colors come October. Just ride the I-95 north and breathe in the New England air. It’s no wonder the state slogan is, “Maine: The Way Life Should Be.”


In Canada:
Vancouver Island — Canada’s western isle is teeming with fall colors — from the city of Victoria, British Columbia’s capital, to the wilderness of Strathcona Provincial Park.

Prince Edward Island — Leaf peepers can hike, bike or take a horseback ride through the uncrowded trails on Prince Edward Island. Additionally, Charlottetown rings in the fall with its Fall Flavours food and wine festival.

In Europe:
High Tatras, Poland — Poland’s eastern mountains are great for skiing in the winter, but the fall offers fantastic opportunities for hiking. Zakopane makes a good base for fall excursions.

Lot Valley, France — Walk, bike, or drive around Lot Valley’s orchards and vineyards, which glow with autumn colors. The region is great for active bird watching or just a quiet weekend retreat.

Bruges, Belgium
— Take a stroll around Bruges’s canals or drink a Belgian beer while admiring the trees. This is one of the few places where the city offers just as many photo-worthy fall shots as the outskirts.

The Swiss Alps — While this mountain range is famous for its skiing, fall offers great opportunities for multi-day hiking or road tripping along winding mountain roads as you admire the warm colors of the hills.

Lake Bled, Slovenia — Take a boat onto Lake Bled and take in the perfect blend of the area’s clear waters and the trees’ fiery hues.

[via SkyScanner.net]

Best spots for an autumn hike

With fall officially upon us, cooler weather has begun to set in, and the green leaves of summer have given way to the bright reds, oranges, and yellows of autumn. For many, this is the best time of the year to head out on a trail for a long hike and to take in this annual color show. Hear are some recommendations for the best places to witness nature’s color palette on display.

The Great Smokey Mountains National Park
The Great Smokey Mountains National Park is one of the most popular in the U.S., pulling in nearly 10 million visitors per year. But in the fall, the crowds begin to thin out, just in time for the leaves to start changing colors. With over 800 miles of trails to explore, there are no lack of great hikes in this park. Be sure to check out the higher elevation trails, such as Sugarland Mountain and Gregory Bald, which offer stunning views throughout October and into November. With sugar and red maples, hickory trees, and scarlet oaks, you’ll have plenty of eye candy to take in.

Allegheny National Forest
Located in northwest Pennsylvania, the Allegheny National Forest is a bit of a hidden gem and mostly unknown outside of the region, which generally translates to smaller crowds. Each fall the half million acres of oaks, poplars, and white ash trees show off a brilliant range of colors to those lucky enough to experience them. While there are miles of trails to choose from, perhaps the best of the best is the Hickory Creek Wilderness Trail, which is 11 miles in length, and cuts through the heart of the forest itself.
Pisgah National Forest
Leaf lovers in North Carolina have plenty to see when they hit the trail in Pisgah National Forest, found not far from Asheville. With the southern Appalachian Mountains as a backdrop, the forest becomes spectacularly colorful in late October, making all of the trails a good bet for a day hike. Take a stroll up Mt. Mitchell, which at 6089 feet in height, offers views that will take your breath away for more reason than one. But when you get to the top, the view is worth the effort.

Columbia River Gorge
The Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area in Oregon offers up spectacular scenery all year round, but come fall, the maple trees turn to gold and standout brilliantly against the stark cliff faces. The Gorge has a number of beautiful waterfalls as well, which add even more of allure of a hike through the area. Check out the Multnomah Falls loop trail, which is only about a mile and a half in length, but gains more than 600 feet of altitude along the way. The trail gives hikers a great view of the Gorge, and passes right by one of the most scenic waterfalls in the entire country.

Porcupine Mountain Wilderness State Park
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula remains a great wilderness escape and one of the best places in the country to enjoy fall foliage. The Escarpment Trail in Porcupine Mountain Wilderness State Park is amongst the best hikes in the Midwest, and while it is just 4.3 miles in length, it provides spectacular views of the surrounding forest which ring the Lake of the Clouds. In the fall, the hills are ablaze with reds, oranges, and yellows that are just too good to miss.

There you have it. Just a sampling of some of the best fall hikes throughout the U.S. What’s your favorite fall hike? is there a hidden gem that you’d like to share? Leave a comment and tell us all about it!