For those who haven’t been to Virginia, it may be surprising how much photographic opportunity there is in the state. From beach to mountain, from battlefields to presidential estates, from winter wonderlands to summer water sports – no matter what kind of subject you’re looking for, you can find it in Virginia! Taken from personal experience and polls among local photographers, here are 35 prime locations for shooting in the Old Dominion.
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1 and 2: Chincoteague/Assateague Islands: Since the 1947 printing of Misty of Chincoteague, this island on Virginia’s Eastern Shore has been known for its population of wild ponies. In reality, the ponies reside on Assateague Island, which is split between Maryland and Virginia, and are brought over to Chincoteague only once a year (the last Thursday of July) when they are rounded up, counted, and the herd is thinned. By law, their numbers must be limited; some youngsters are chosen for domestication, but nothing worse than that happens to them. The ponies are definitely a must-see, but they are not all that these barrier islands have to offer. Miles of pristine coastline, the Chincoteague Bay, and vast tracts of undeveloped land offer up loads of opportunity for landscape and wildlife photography. But with all that water around, there are also abundant opportunities for photographing water sports, including but not limited to surfing, fishing, sailing, and hang gliding.
3. Tangier Island: Until the construction of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel was completed in 1964, Virginia’s Eastern shore was largely isolated from the rest of the world. Tangier Island was even further isolated by distance from most of the other barrier islands that form the Eastern Shore. As an illustration, the residents of Tangier only received cable television and internet in 2010. Let that sink in for a minute. As a result, most residents retain an Old English accent, the most common mode of transportation is the bicycle, the most common occupation is commercial fishing and crabbing, and the culture and architecture is of another era. I’m not sure if it will sink into the bay or become overly commercialized first. Either way, the sooner you get there, the better!
4. Wallops Flight Facility: If you’re on the Eastern Shore and you dig the idea of shooting a rocket launch, then the Wallops Visitors Center is a must. Located 4 miles from the launch pad, you can get a perfect view of every launch. View Wallops Flight launch schedule here.
5. Virginia Beach: If you want to do the beach thing, but don’t have the time or the inclination to go into the wilds of the Eastern Shore, Virginia Beach will do. Along with the tourist-crammed “strip,” there are the more rural and serene Atlantic beaches, such as Sand Bridge and Croatan. If the waves are good (i.e. if a hurricane is on its way) and you dig surfing photography, any of the Atlantic beaches will deliver, but my personal preference is Sand Bridge. For bayside fun, Chick’s Beach and First Landing State Park are great choices.
6. Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge: If you’re big on birds and have a lens to match, Back Bay has something for you every season of the year. Located at the very southern end of Virginia Beach and butting up against North Carolina, Back Bay is part of the Atlantic flyway, serving as a vital stop for migrating birds in the Fall and Spring, and annual wintering grounds for many species not seen this far south other times of the year. It is also a nesting place for a variety species, including Bald Eagles and Osprey. In addition to the usual array of overlooks, this refuge also provides tram tours and a fairly large photography blind.
7/8. Norfolk Harbor/Town Point Park: If you’ve heard of Norfolk but don’t have a personal tie here, you probably know it because of the Navy. Norfolk is home to the deepest natural harbor in the world and the world’s largest naval station, which is home to 75 ships and 134 aircraft. If you’re into that sort of thing, though, I hope you have a military ID or know someone who does because otherwise you will not gain access.
If you like nautical, but prefer a less militaristic vibe, you can head over to the Town Point Park area. TPP is Norfolk’s version of a fairgrounds, situated between the Elizabeth River and downtown. In the temperate seasons, you will be hard pressed to visit this park when a festive event is not taking place. From Wine Fests to Gay Pride to the Bayou Bougalou, this space stays busy and crowded. The peak of festival season, and the most picturesque in my opinion, is Harbor Fest, a celebration of both the beginning of summer and tall ships. They’re even kind enough to time the kick-off Parade of Sails right around sunset! The retired Battleship Wisconsin is also docked nearby, and you can even get on board…for a fee, of course.
9. Norfolk Botanical Garden: Heavenly especially for macro photographers, this beautiful botanical garden is world class. There are too many wonderful possibilities at this garden to name, but the rose garden and the butterfly house are two of my personal favorites. Many also come to view the landings and takeoffs at the nearby airport, as well. The garden, however, is most known outside of Norfolk for its Eagle Cam, one of the first of its kind. It focused upon the trials and triumphs of a pair that nested in one of the loblolly pines where they produced 19 eaglets over the course of eight years. After the female was struck and killed by an airplane at the nearby airport in 2011, the eagles became the source of much contention. Eventually, the garden was ordered to take the nest down and any subsequent nests. You may still see eagles at the garden, though. As of this spring, the male was still refusing to leave, and has resisted every effort to dissuade him from trying to rebuild on the grounds. As unhappy as the end of that story is, the garden itself is the epitome of happy.
10. Fort Monroe: In a state that is rife with historically significant sites, Fort Monroe and its role in defending Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay oozes history, and makes it beautiful to boot! It first came to my attention for its photographic potential when somebody in a photo club showed off some shots that he had gotten there. They were the kind of shots that made my head swivel, and immediately put the location on my to-do list. It is especially a gold mine for architectural and landscape photographers, but truly you are only limited by your imagination here!
11. Newport News Park: In an area that is packed with large state parks and national wildlife refuges, it’s sometimes sweet to see what’s in store at the more manageable city parks, and in this case, that’s a lot! It is especially beautiful in November, when the fall foliage finally reaches its peak in this area.
12. Colonial Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg is comprised of the historical area in the city of Williamsburg where the structures are preserved, restored, or sometimes reconstructed colonial era architecture. It is meant to be an accurate portrayal of the original settlement of Williamsburg, and by most accounts they are successful at it. It is peopled by “interpreters” in colonial-era dress busy at their colonial-era occupations; visiting is a wonderful opportunity for all photographers, but especially those with a penchant for portraiture or historical and architectural photography.
13. Maymont: Maymont is a Victorian estate complete with a mansion, an arboretum, and formal gardens. That’s what was there originally. These days, the whole thing has been turned into a park of sorts, and they’ve added a museum, a carriage collection, wildlife exhibits, a children’s farm, and a nature center. In spite of these additions, it is tastefully done and quite a treat that also provides ample photographic opportunities.
14. Hollywood Cemetery: Named for the Holly trees that proliferate here, Hollywood Cemetery is more than just that. It rises to the level of a real public space with its green, undulating hills, winding paths, and overlooking the James River. John Tyler and James Monroe are among the notable Virginians interred here.
15. Monticello: The whole Charlottesville area is imprinted with Thomas Jefferson’s aesthetic and genius. Monticello was his own plantation, though, and as such he oversaw every detail of its building and operation. If you don’t know much about Jefferson, it is worth a visit just to get beyond the myth and learn who he really was both as a worldly and brilliant philosopher, and as an elitist, contradictory, and maddeningly complicated human being. Beyond that, there are the interior and exterior architectural details, and the gorgeous grounds, which include multiple gardens, crops, and wildlife.
16. Crabtree Falls: By the end of this list, you might get that I’m a sucker for water falls, and this one is no exception! Some call it the most beautiful in the state, but I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite myself. It is the tallest, however, and requires a 4.4 mile hike if you want to get the most spectacular views, although you get increasingly sweeter rewards as you go. It’s a moderately difficult hike, but if you are not reasonably fit or have physical limitations, I’m sure it can get difficult. The good news on that count is that it’s not much effort to get to the lower falls, and then I encourage you to go as far as you can to reap whatever rewards you are able before having to turn back. It might help that it’s a well maintained trail with guard rails to help you along, and many overlooks at which you can dawdle. Or take pictures. Whatever.
17. Wintergreen: Although this resort calls itself a “four season” destination, it is best known in the state for its skiing and winter vistas. It is unique in that its amenities are built at the mountain top instead of in the valley, which can make for some stellar landscape opportunities.
18. White Oak Canyon Trail: One of the many splendors of the Shenandoah National Park, White Oak Canyon Trail is a fairly arduous hike with many rewards! I last went there myself before I had learned much about photography, and I am itching to go back now that I have more knowledge, especially for capturing the many waterfalls along the way! For my money, I plan to get there as early as I can force myself, and take my time on this difficult trail, stopping frequently to set up shots. With many areas shaded by foliage, at least in the spring and summer, you should be able to shoot all day. But do plan to get back about an hour before sundown. I learned from experience that the canyon gets quite dark well before the sun sets, which can make difficult terrain downright treacherous.
19. Great Falls National Park: The upside is that there is no hiking involved in accessing the beautiful falls in this park; the downside is that, while there are no legal strictures against it, the park has posted numerous signs alerting us to the number of drownings that take place each year when the foolhardy and unprepared choose to wander outside the boundaries of the trails and observation decks. I thought briefly of attempting a more unique view of the falls, but there really was not a single square inch of flat land to sturdy a tripod upon as far as I could tell. The good news is that, even with these restrictions, you can get some excellent shots of a truly breathtaking landscape. As a bonus, there are often kayakers in the white water, which can also make for some great shots if you have a good telephoto lens.
20. Mount Vernon: While you’re hanging around Alexandria, you need to find your way to George Washington’s plantation. Ever since Washington himself opened up the place to the curious public, Mount Vernon has been open every single day of the year, no exceptions. Situated right on the Potomac River, the grounds offer up spectacular vistas and themselves resemble a lush arboretum. When the light is right, you can’t ask for better landscape fodder.
21. Arlington Cemetery: The human eye loves contrast, repetition, and leading lines. That makes Arlington Cemetery a photographer’s dream. It also provides ample opportunity for emotion-packed compositions. The best example of this might be the changing of the guards at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Slow, grave, precise, and full of ceremony, it is both poignant and pictorial.
22. Old Town Alexandria: The perception of many is that Alexandria is just another suburb of Washington D.C. While this is true, it has a lot going for it on its own. From the historic architecture and cobblestone streets to manicured gardens and grassy parkland, from the character-rich dilapidated warehouses and narrow alley ways to the waterfront and marina, Old Town offers up a lot of possibilities. It is especially great as a portrait setting if your clients don’t know what the heck they want!
23. Manassas National Battlefield: If you haven’t figured it out, you can learn a lot about American history in Virginia. Here is preserved the site of the two battles of Bull Run, where General Stonewall Jackson earned his nickname. Believe it or not, it is not just an empty field. There are various weapons (mostly canons) and structures, a bridge, a farm, an assortment of monuments, an extinct village, and even a plantation.
24. Potomac Point Vineyard and Winery: In case you think that’s a typo, Virginia has been making some very drinkable wines for a while now. This place is so serene and peaceful, you might just give yourself and your camera a much deserved break. Voted one of the best wedding locations in the country, though, you may not be able to rest until you’ve snagged your images. Just imagine what a great shoot you can have knowing that you can top it off with an excellent meal at the bistro and a nice glass of wine!
25. Mabry Mill: One of many magnificent sights to see as you travel the Blue Ridge Parkway, this mill served as both a saw mill and a gristmill in its time. But while there are educational aspects to the setup, the main draw is the picturesque views of the mill itself. To be sure, there is no shortage of great shots of Mabry Mill, but when you look them up, it’ll probably only inspire you to go get your own!
26. (Blacksburg) Mountain Lake: One of only two natural fresh water lakes in the state of Virginia (the other one is Lake Drummond), Giles County’s Mountain Lake is also where a good chunk of the filming took place for the movie, Dirty Dancing, but try to not let that dissuade you. With its attendant wildlife, and all manner of sporty uses, you wouldn’t necessarily have to leave the lake itself for entertainment or shooting. 2,600 acres around the lake have been protected since 2008, so much of the negative after-effect of filmmaking and subsequent tourism has been tamed. Beyond the lake, there are over 20 miles of multi-use trails, but one of the best things about staying at Mountain Lake is the proximity of so many other wonderful possibilities, such as in the Jefferson National Forest, the New River, and the Cascades Waterfall, to name only a few.
27/28. Abingdon/Damascus: Just as Chincoteague and Assateague are too thoroughly intertwined to list separately, so too are the twin mountain towns of Abingdon and Damascus. The two are literally connected by the Virginia Creeper Trail, and many cyclers and hikers who are not ambitious or crazy enough to do the entire trail satisfy themselves with the Abingdon to Damascus portion. Along this section of the trail are several cars from old steam trains and some restored railroad stations. A 4-8-0 locomotive sits at the trail head in Abingdon. I’m not sure what that means, but apparently it is a rare kind, having something to do with the wheel arrangements? I love me a mill, so I have to send you to White’s Mill in Abingdon while I’m in the vicinity. The Appalachian Trail passes right through Damascus and just outside of Abingdon. Besides the trails, both towns and their environs are alive with horses, vineyards, streams, creeks, and rivers – and humans enjoying them in every possible way!
29. Galax: A small independent city almost to the North Carolina border, Galax is known for its place in the Virginia Heritage Music Trail. “Heritage music” in Virginia is – that’s right – good old mountain music, so we’re talking fiddles and slide guitars. Perhaps the peak of the year in Galax is the annual Old Fiddler’s Convention, usually in August. The right photographer with a certain aesthetic can come away with some wonderfully detailed photos of musicians, instruments, and enthralled audience members.
30. Grayson Highlands State Park: Well, I’ve read it so many times in state park literature, I have to repeat it: Virginia state parks were voted “America’s Best” by the Sports Foundation and the National Recreation and Park Association. Having visited state parks in many places inside and outside Virginia, I have to say, my home state really does do an excellent state park. In fact, I could have easily filled this list with state park offerings. So, I’ll say here, if you’re coming to Virginia, check out the state park listings! At any rate, if you liked the wild ponies in Assateague, you’re in for a treat if you can get up to the elevations at which Grayson’s wild ponies reside. They are more rough and rugged looking than their counterparts at the beach, namely because of the harsh conditions at the top of the mountain. They need those shaggy coats to ward off the cold that starts early and lingers long into the spring. There are other beauties to be seen at Grayson, but to be sure, those ponies steal the show. If you’re going in any season besides summer, it may be prudent to call ahead to be sure the road up the mountain is not closed due to icy conditions.
31. Smith Mountain Lake: Not to be confused with plain old Mountain Lake, listed above, Smith Mountain Lake is situated between the relatively small cities of Roanoke and Lynchburg. Its origins may trouble you (it was formed by damming and development), but its combination of glistening waters and majestic blue mountains will not. I mean, really, throw in some good light and what more do you need for a stellar shot? Don’t worry, though. If you like people, fish, dogs, or boats in your shots, there’s plenty of those, too.
32. Falling Spring: Bath and Allegheny counties are full of wonders at every turn, so it’s hard to pull out specific ones for extra attention. But selecting Falling Spring was easy. First of all, if you’re lazy or in a rush, you can get decent shots of it from the road. If you want the money shots, of course, it’s not that easy. Your best bet is to arrive at dawn, and follow the trail down as far as it lasts and then carefully scramble over the rocks to the base of the falls. I got all my best shots before the sun peeked around the ridge and started glinting off the water. It made for rich, saturated colors and beautiful contrast. It’s also a plus in my book that I had the place to myself until 9am on a pleasant summer morning. In winter, you can often have it to yourself all day long, and the ice formations are spectacular – just be careful on those rocks!
33/34. Winchester: If you’re a gun enthusiast, I’m sorry to say (not really) that Winchester, VA has nothing to do with the manufacture of Winchester firearms. Winchester makes this list for two main reasons: apple blossoms and the Civil War. Sound contradictory? Well, this is the state that can’t decide whether it’s red or blue, so go figure. Ranging from the sublime to the gaudy, the Shenandoah Apple Blossom Festival encompasses it all. Outside of the obvious – apples and their groves, trees, and blossoms – there are parades, outdoor musical events, and a general carnival-like atmosphere.
As most know, Virginia was very much at the center of the Civil War. In fact, more Civil War battles took place here than in any other state. If you want to learn more about the war and/or the time period, Winchester is probably the single best place to visit, not least for its battle re-enactments. You can observe and photograph re-enactments of both battles of Winchester, the Battle of New Market, and the Battle of Cedar Creek, to name a few. As much as this is not my particular cup of tea, I have seen some outstanding shots that were taken at battle re-enactments.
35. Douthat State Park: This state park is the only one in the Northwest region of the state, and was voted the 10th best state park in the nation. Spread over Bath and Allegheny counties, it has 43 miles of trails, some reserved just for mountain biking, and a 50 acre lake with its own restaurant overlooking it. But the gem of the gems, in my opinion, is the Blue Suck Falls. The falls can be arrived at by either of the two day hike trails – the Tuscararora Overlook trail or the Beards Mountains Loops trail. In terms of rewards, you could flip a coin here, as they both yield spectacular views. The difference is in the difficulty, with the Tuscarora Overlook (also just called the Blue Suck trail) being longer and more difficult. Nothing like saving the best for last!