Hawksbill Sunrise Nature Photography

Sometimes you need a quick and easy natural escape that you can take just by yourself. Right now, a solo adventure might also be the safest option while still giving you a much needed change of scene from your living room. Putting the beer down, turning off Netflix, and getting out the door is the hardest part.

Such was my own internal struggle last Friday afternoon as the work week wound down. Thankfully, this time of year I keep my expedition backpack fully packed at all times with everything I need for weekend adventures. All I had to do was grab and go and there’s never been a time when I’ve regretted going into the mountains, even just for the day.

Five Things You’ll Learn From This Post:

  1. How to visit and photograph the most beautiful sunrise point in Shenandoah National Park (also the highest point in SNP).
  2. How to backcountry camp in Shenandoah and avoid the overcrowded, noisy, and mostly sold-out-this-time-of-year car campgrounds.
  3. How to hang with “thru hikers” on the Appalachian Trail.
  4. How to climb a mountain in the dark, alone.
  5. Rules of the road for cruising Skyline Drive (the northern extension of the Blue Ridge Parkway).

In previous posts I’ve critiqued weekend warriors who only ever make it to car campgrounds in Shenandoah National Park. But that doesn’t mean I never go to Shenandoah and, indeed, last weekend it was the perfect place to get a quick escape from the city (although I still stayed far away from the campgrounds).

At 200,000 acres, Shenandoah is the closest national park to DC and it may be the only national park many mid-Atlantic residents are able to get to in a given year. The history of Shenandoah stretches back 9,000 years to the first peoples who inhabited the land. The Piedmont Siouans, Catawbas, Shawnee, Delaware, Cherokees, Susquehannocks and the Iroquois all have cultural and ancestral ties to the region. From the 1700s–1800s, European settlers logged a lot of the land, planted farms and orchards, mined, and built homesteads. Remnants of building foundations and stone walls that surrounded these homesteads are still visible throughout the park. Many apple trees can still be found growing at elevations up to 3,700 ft.

Soon after the first national parks were created out west, calls sprung up for an eastern national park. The mountain oasis of Shenandoah, which had already become a weekend destination for many city dwellers, seemed a perfect fit. The park was officially established in 1935.

Today, Shenandoah offers over 500 miles of trails (including a 101-mile portion of the Appalachian Trail), more than a dozen named waterfalls, and is home to over 1,400 species of trees and plants, 190 bird species, over 50 mammal species including white-tailed deer and black bear, over 20 reptile and amphibian species, and over 40 fish species.

There is a lot more on the history, culture, and ecology of Shenandoah National Park (SNP) that I highly recommend any visitor read.

Step 1: The Route

Getting to the Hawksbill area of SNP is very simple and there is cell service the entire way. It’s in the “Central District” of the Park — between Thornton Gap entrance station (US 211) and Swift Run Gap entrance station (US 33). There are, of course, lodges and car camping sites one can utilize if preferred — Skyland and Big Meadows being some of the largest in the vicinity.

National Park Service has a great map of the Hawksbill Area: here.

From whichever direction you enter the park, cruise along Skyline Drive until you reach Rock Spring Cabin Parking near milepost 48. Park your vehicle here, buckle into your pack, and hike a short distance to the Rock Spring Cabin campsite — I clocked 0.8 miles on Strava which took me about 19 minutes even with a full pack.

The hike begins with a short trail from the parking area that links up with the Appalachian Trail. Turn Right on the AT and hike until you see a concrete signpost on the Left that marks where the Rock Springs trail heads from the Left, down a short ways to a cabin, an Appalachian Trail hut, and a water source.

Step 2: Backcountry Camping in SNP

Of Shenandoah’s 200,000 total acres, 196,000 acres are backcountry and wilderness (98%). Think about that stunning stat for a second. If you only ever camp in the car campgrounds, you are only seeing 2% of available camping areas!

In previous posts, I’ve detailed how to pack for and successfully backpack so I won’t get into that again here but I highly recommend checking out my previous posts on the subject. The biggest thing to keep in mind for backpacking in SNP is that you must have a permit. Permits are free and can be obtained upon entering the park at the entrance stations. Usually you can find these at a little box to the side of the road right next to the entrance station. You self-register by filling out your vehicle details, where you plan to backcountry camp, and the duration of your stay and drop the form into the box. Easy enough.

All rules and regulations for backcountry camping can be found: here. Please read these and plan your visit accordingly. There are a couple additional things I’d like to point out when choosing your campsite. Campsites must be:

  • At least 10 yards away from a stream or other natural water source.
  • At least 20 yards away from any park trail or unpaved fire road.
  • At least 50 yards away from another camping party or no camping post sign.
  • At least 50 yards away from any standing buildings and ruins including stone foundations, chimneys, and log walls. Our historic resources are valuable and fragile.
  • At least 100 yards away from a hut, cabin, or day-use shelter. At least 1/4 mile away from any paved road, park boundary, or park facilities such as campgrounds, picnic grounds, visitor centers, lodges, waysides, or restaurants.

Keeping this all in mind, my 0.8 mile hike to Rock Springs was more than 1/4 mile from Skyline Drive where I parked, and I made sure to pitch my tent at least 100 yards away from the Rock Springs cabin and the Rock Springs AT shelter where tired AT hikers need their rest! I was also at least 20 yards away from the trail and 50 yards away from another camping party.

Also, camp fires are prohibited while backcountry camping in Shenandoah.

This is all pretty easy to follow once you get the hang of it and it allows you to camp almost anywhere!

One other note about Hawksbill Mountain is that camping is not allowed over 3,600 feet in this area (near the summit area). So Rock Springs area is really the closest and flattest place to camp near the summit.

Finally, this is bear country so, as in my previous posts, please follow all bear safety tips and be sure to Leave No Trace. For more details on how to do this, see: here.

Step 3: Getting to the Top of Hawksbill Mountain

“I’m not a professional photographer, so I won’t claim to know all the tips and tricks to get the perfect photo. What I do know, however, is how to get to the best spots to allow you to take your best shot.”

Sunrise was 6:08 am for me that day so I arose at 4:30 am, not knowing exactly how long it would take me to reach the summit. I was out of my tent and on the trail by 5 with coffee, breakfast, and water in a small day pack. It was pitch black so I had a headlamp on.

Hiking in the dark is certainly a unique experience but one I also really enjoy. It’s easy to slip if you’re tired (as I was) so you have to be careful but the forest is still and quiet and a cool breeze was blowing providing a much needed respite from the insane heat and humidity we’d been having that week. There is something almost primordial about hiking alone in the dark woods — as if a part of your Lizard Brain remembers the dark terrors that hunted your ancestors in dark forests such as these.

I had bear spray with me just in case but after a few minutes I fell into the groove and felt totally at peace. I played some soft music from my phone to keep a steady beat and pace as I zigzagged up the mountain.

After climbing back up the very short Rock Springs trail from the campsite, you again hit the AT and this time turn Left to continue along toward Hawsbill summit. There is really only one trail to follow and you know you’re on the AT by the signature white-painted marks (aka: “White Blazes”) on trees near the trail.

After 10–15 minutes, the summit trail turns off the AT to the Right. This is the “Salamander Trail” and you can see it on the NPS map I screenshot and hyperlinked to earlier.

According to my Strava, the entire hike that morning was 1.5 miles and took me 35 minutes. Near the summit, stay to the Left again when the trail splits. This will take you immediately to the “Byrds Nest 2 Shelter” which is a nice day use shelter with picnic tables.

There is a rock clearing with nice vistas at Byrds Nest 2 but if you keep going just a little further along the trail you’ll reach a circular viewing platform that provides 270-degree sweeping panoramas of the entire region and a direct line of sight to the sunrise.

At ‎4,050 ft, Hawksbill Mountain is the highest point in Shenandoah National Park. From the top, it very much feels hundreds (if not thousands) of feet higher than surrounding peaks as the ground plunges steeply away from the summit and toward the valley floors below. It’s one of the best and least obstructed views in the park.

Step 4: Sunrise Photography

I reached the viewing platform at roughly 5:30 am and had over half an hour to get set up, have my coffee, and a snack. As the dark sky first turned grey and then streaks of color started to show, more and more people arrived at the platform. I was surprised at how many people there were so be sure to arrive as early as you can to get the best spot. But I was happy to learn I was the only one who’d camped. Everyone else had awoken 1–2 hours before me and driven into SNP that morning, parked, and hiked from their cars.

I’m not a professional photographer, so I won’t claim to know all the tips and tricks to get the perfect photo. What I do know, however, is how to get to the best spots to allow you to take your best shot.

I also know enough to know that the more stable your camera is, the clearer your photo, especially if you’re using a long-range zoom and especially at low light. This is why people set up tripods. For me, I chose to just hold my camera to allow for quick location changes. But you can simulate the effect of a tripod while holding a camera if you: drop your elbows along your body and hold your arms stable against your frame, turn your body slightly sideways while placing your feet in a line a couple feet apart from each other (kind of like you’re in a snowboarding stance), shift your center of gravity over your back foot slightly to stabilize your movements, and use your front hand to grip and stabilize the camera lens. Keeping the camera supported from front and back with your hands, staying as motionless as possible (you can even hold your breath when you take the shot), and keeping your elbows down and arms locked against your body you should be able to take some great clear shots.

My camera is a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ1000. It’s not quite a DSLR so it’s basically an expensive point and shoot. But it takes amazing photos with little effort and I don’t have to worry about lugging a bunch of extra gear and lenses around with me. It also has a built in long-range zoom that I love for nature shots. A long zoom can make all the difference in outdoor photography as it enables you to get “up close” to wild animals, birds, and to perfectly frame those far off peaks (or sunrises).

The morning proved to be mostly cloud free and perfect. The sun slowly rose above mountain peaks that crested through a blanket of cloud and fog that looked like an ocean. It was one of the most beautiful sunrises I’ve ever seen.

Some of my favorite shots are included here but additional shots from the morning — as well as many more outdoor adventure shots from Alaska to Utah to Iceland to West Virginia — can be found on my Instagram page: here.

Step 5: AT Thru-Hikers

The Appalachian Trail runs roughly 2,200 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine, with some of the prettiest miles in Shenandoah National Park. Each year, thousands of people hit the trail in April and May. At mile 857, you hit the southern end of SNP. Hiking 15 miles per day (a good pace for most hikers), this distance will take about 57 days which puts thru-hikers in Shenandoah anywhere from mid-June to late July.

Thru-hikers are so named because they are hiking through the trail the whole way, end to end, continually one direction. I’ve run into many AT thru-hikers while hiking along the AT in VA and WV during the summer and this trip was no different. They are an awesome, rowdy, earthy, artistic, musical, and hairy bunch. They are full of stories and they find camaraderie with each other and with day and weekend hikers like myself as they traverse the Eastern Seaboard. The AT has a real sense of community you can feel whether you’re on it just for one day or for six months.

Covid has certainly reduced this year’s numbers, but one AT thru-hikers was still utilizing his designated shelter area at Rock Spring where I was also camping. After returning to camp from the sunrise hike, I hung out with him for a little over breakfast.

His name is Hayden Braxton and his trail name is “Lucky Charms”. Each AT hiker has a trail name that is usually given to them by a fellow hiker at some point on the trail. Names can be given for any reason but they usually come with a story that either applies to some situation the person found themselves in or in reference to their physical appearance.

In Lucky Charms’s case, he both looks like the leprechaun from the namesake children’s cereal brand and has found himself in a bunch of “lucky” situations where people have provided great food and experiences for him once they learned he was a thru-hiker. He has also survived some unlucky weather experiences.

While chatting, I similarly provided breakfast, coffee, and sunscreen for him. After months on the trail, these men and women can use any little acts of kindness they can get and a little bit goes a long way out there, far away from the comforts of home. Providing these acts of kindness is known as “Trail Magic” and I try to practice it every chance I can.

Lucky Charms told me he was interviewed by NBC News in Charlottesville, VA about hiking the AT this year among the pandemic and he shared the screenshot with me that his parents took when they saw him on their TV. The article and video is: here.

Step 6: Cruising Skyline Drive

This post is already way too long but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the amazing experience that is Skyline Drive. Running the entire length of the park, along the tops of the ridgelines, bending around countless vista points stretching as far as the eye can see, is a road built for cruising on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon.

According to VisitSkylineDrive.org, a website run by the Shenandoah Valley Travel Association, “there would be no Skyline Drive without the efforts of the CCC [Civilian Conservation Corps]. They graded the slopes on either side of the roadway, built the guardrails and guard walls, constructed overlooks, planted hundreds of thousands of trees and shrubs and acres of grass to landscape both sides of the roadbed, built the picnic areas and campgrounds, comfort stations, visitor contact and maintenance buildings, and made the signs that guided visitors on their way.”

The CCC was the Great Depression-era public works program that built many of our national recreation areas, trails, and other items related to the conservation and development of natural resources in rural public lands. I’ve mentioned the CCC’s legacy in other posts including the site of one of the first African American Civilian Conservation Corps camps.

Skyline Drive is a beautiful road best enjoyed on two wheels, in my opinion. Many cyclists and motorcyclists feel the same way and the road is filled with two wheels during the summer months, as well as hikers. BE VERY CAREFUL when you are enjoying the drive in any vehicle and always be on the lookout. DRIVE SLOWLY. Someone’s life could depend on it. There are many areas built specifically to pull safely off the road to take pictures so when you’re on the road stay focused and aware of your immediate surroundings.

Even if you don’t camp or hike and do nothing else than cruise Skyline for a few hours on a beautiful summer weekend day, it’s still an incredible experience everyone in the region should have.

Skyline will take you as far north as Front Royal and as far south as Waynesboro where it links up with the Blue Ridge Parkway and extends all the way down to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Stay tuned for future posts about motorcycle touring the Blue Ridge Parkway!

Will Hackman, Hackman Guided Adventures

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Will Hackman

Will Hackman


Oceans, public lands, and rivers advocate by day. Climate activist and owner of Hackman Guided Adventures by night / weekends. wc.hackman@gmail.com