Destination: Ricketts Glen State Park, Pennsylvania
Dates: October 2-4, 2014

The autumn color season began for me in Pennsylvania, as it has for the past couple of years. Why Pennsylvania? My mother has roots there and thus, I have roots there: memories of visiting my grandmother and going to Knoebels, which is hands down the coolest little amusement park I know of personally! Think amusement rides in a fully wooded environment, no admission fees at the gate (per ride ticket sales instead), no parking fees, wooden coasters, dogs strolling with their owners throughout the park—it isn’t Six Flags for sure, and I mean that in the best of ways. But I’m off topic. My autumn color seasons begin in Pennsylvania, at least for the past couple of years they have, and this season was no exception. What was different though, was that I had company on this go around. My father took a few days off work to accompany me on my annual trip north. It was his first trip to see Ricketts Glen State Park and the famed Waterfall Loop Trail that features dozens of waterfalls, one after the other, all within several miles of rugged trail.

I roused my father on a Thursday in the dark hours of the morning by sending in his German Shepherd to lick, paw, and otherwise ensure that sleep would not be a viable ongoing option (that always gives me a smile for some reason!). Once inside the truck though, he drifted into sleep again and remained that way for much of the drive! I brought us safely through the less-than-scenic portions of the drive and somewhat amusingly woke him when we were close to our location by taking a few of the two-lane curvy roads a touch more aggressive than I had to (gotta have some fun in life, you know?!). Our first location upon arrival, while the sun was still low and the fog hanging thick in the air, was Josiah Hess Covered Bridge, a one-hundred ten foot burr-arch covered bridge over Huntington Creek in Fishing Creek Township, Pennsylvania. For those unfamiliar, Pennsylvania has more covered bridges than any other state in the nation, making it the “Covered Bridge Capital of the World!” Bridges were historically covered in the past to theoretically protect the structures from environmental conditions like snow and rain, thereby extending their service lives. I visit this particular covered bridge every time I head into this area of Pennsylvania despite never coming away with a single picture that I like! And this time was no different. I waded upstream and down, got low, got high, looked for something interesting, and ultimately realized that I wasn’t going to create any fine art on this particular morning. It was nice to stretch my legs after the drive though.

Next stop: Ricketts Glen State Park. Drive enough and you learn to enter a sort of meditative state, where you turn inward instead of constantly monitoring your route or your gas or your next stop: you just roll, somewhat detached, through the landscape…a moving observer if you will. During the drive I bookmarked in my mind’s eye the seasonal decoration and atmosphere of the small towns that my father and I passed through. Despite being economically challenged, these areas showed a tremendous amount of hope and spirit with their celebration of the harvest season and the fun spook of Halloween. Coming from one of the richest counties in the United States (Fairfax) where seasonal decorations were sporadic and limited at best, it was just the sort of contrast that really stood out and certainly begged thought. I even eventually mentioned the observation to my father.

Ricketts Glen State Park. The Lake Rose Parking Lot. The morning clouds were hanging on and blocking the sun from infiltrating the woods and waterfalls, so, I decided now was a great time to stretch the legs, scout the falls, and perhaps even take a shot or two if things looked good. The Waterfall Loop Trail is shaped like a slingshot, or a “Y” connected at the top by the Highland Trail. The respective branches of the “Y” are Glen Leigh and Ganoga Glen, with the bottom of the “Y” leading down to PA-118. The full loop is just about seven miles in total; however, skipping the bottom of the “Y” and making a smaller loop of Glen Leigh and Ganoga Glen, returning via the Highland Trail, is a condensed effort in the range of 3.5 miles, and that was the route that my father and I took on this morning. My first real shooting of the autumn season, I was excited to get into the thick of things and I proceeded to traipse around in Kitchen Creek at the base and top of many of the waterfalls, giving the shutter on my camera a good workout for sure. I thought the conditions were “good enough” for sure, but viewing the photographs in hindsight, I didn’t use a single take from that morning!

Emerging from the trail with wet boots and the excited feel of actually doing something (you’d be surprised how infrequently you actually can get out and about with the other duties and financial obligations of this gig), I was stoked to be on the leading edge of the autumn color season. Ricketts Glen was showing nice colors and the weather was fantastic. After lunch, my father and I set up camp on Lake Rose and then drove down to the trail access at PA-118. For those unfamiliar, there is one waterfall at this parking area, Adams Falls, which is perhaps one of the most beautiful and photogenic of the entire twenty-plus named waterfalls within the loop. However, the best feature of this waterfall, in my personal opinion, is a thick, rounded veil that shows only when the water levels are high, and this particular trip the water was near non-existent. Perhaps the lowest levels I’ve seen at the park during my own visits. So, we took a quick look, crossed the highway and skipped up the bottom of the “Y” to see the three or so waterfalls that we had missed earlier in the morning on our condensed loop hike. These three waterfalls are the consistently largest on the loop (with the exception of Ganoga Falls), as the two branches of Kitchen Creek meet at what is termed, aptly, “waters meet”, and throw increased water loads over the rocks and cascades downstream at this point. On this particular evening the light was still heavily overcast, dark, flat and otherwise uninspiring. We had a look and then returned to the truck. On the way to the campsite though, the sun found a break in the thick clouds and before I knew what was happening the fall foliage was alight with the golden hue of sunset. The early hour of last light really caught me off guard—could the sun actually be setting at 6:00pm? Pedal down hard we labored back up the steep grade of PA-487 and I threw the vehicle into the boat launch area which had nice views of the lake. The wind that had blown for most of the day had magically settled and the golden light was painting the lakeside trees with really wonderful light. A quick lens and filter change and I was running around wild-eyed trying to find an engaging composition with what I knew would only be a few moments of remaining light and color. After about twenty snaps, I poked my head around the front of the camera only to realize that the two-stop graduated filter that I was using was completely sideways, making me cringe at the mistake in the haste of the action. It would turn out to be the best light of the trip and it would turn out that through inadequate awareness and planning (mixed with some good old fashioned errors and mistakes) that I would not get a single take! I was rusty and this sunset really brought it out. It was time to get serious if I wanted to make hay this autumn!

Sunrise brought thick fog. We stayed at Lake Rose, walking and exploring its banks, trying to find a composition that could showcase the autumn colors and perhaps the reflective quality of the waters. However, the fog was dense and the visibility nil. When breaks occurred, they were accompanied by wind, which took away one of the elements of the compositions I was working. It was largely a morning of missed opportunities by me. We dropped the mountain and I took my father to an awesome Amish farmer’s store, one of the great cultural pieces of Pennsylvania farm country, where we bought sweet treats that neither of us should have, but that we both enjoyed quite a bit! That evening, we returned to Ricketts Glen State Park and walked through some of the game lands that lie above Lake Rose. The colors were absolutely gorgeous, with the ground covered in ferns of various shades of yellow and green, and the trees were all various shades of fire red and orange. However, there were not many compelling compositions given the flat, blustery weather conditions. The night was unproductive behind the lens. On the other hand, my father and I did find that the game lands contained a number of apple trees, now surrounded and overgrown but still producing fruit that must have been the relic of a different past. The small apples were especially tart and provided a nice snack for the evening walk.

Rain moved in overnight as promised by the weather forecasters and the following morning was primed for some waterfalls—we hiked the loop trail again in its entirety and this time around, grabbed a couple of cool shots with the slightly increased water levels and fallen foliage. Off the trail, it was back to camp, packing up the gear, gassing up the truck, and onto the highway for me and my father. It was time for my pops to get back to his work and for me to get on with my next trip. After a day of rest and refueling, I would be making my first trek to Dolly Sods Wilderness Area and Bear Rocks Preserve in West Virginia for a night of camping and a few days of exploration. Pennsylvania was gorgeous, my father’s company was much appreciated, and the rust had been largely knocked off. My boots were messy, my tripod and camera reacquainted with the elements, and my mind getting further away from the cluttered and busy digital realm and closer to the calm and reflective nature that I hoped to capture behind the lens!

Find more photos of Ricketts Glen State Park on Fine Art America.  Pardon the links; they help place my photographs higher in the search engines at Fine Art America!

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