The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Grandfather Mountain Nature Photography Weekend


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Prayer Flags in the Blue Ridge The Grandfather Mountain Nature Photography Weekend is a 3-day photo workshop and contest at Grandfather Mountain State Park in North Carolina, originally founded by Don Nelson, a former professional photographer and rep for Nikon and Pentax, and now managed by his son Scott. The photo contest is judged by me and Doug Brewer, a photographer from Richmond, Kentucky. Tickets go on sale on April 1st and usually sell out before the event. (Registration information here.) This event is also the unofficial annual meeting of members of the Pentax-Discuss Mailing List (PDML).

The Nature Photography Weekend always takes place on the first weekend after Memorial Day (a U.S. holiday at the end of May). From Friday afternoon through Sunday, participants get to take photos in one of the most spectacularly beautiful places on the continent, listen to talks by renowned nature photographers and participate in the casual yet competitive photo contest. “Casual” and “competitive” may seem contradictory, but they aren’t in this case. You’ll have to experience it to understand how this can work. You also get to meet the great people who comprise the participants in this event. For some, that’s the best part of the deal.

The Mountain

Looking up from Linville BluffsGrandfather Mountain is designated by UNESCO as an International Biosphere Reserve and is considered one the most biologically diverse mountains in North America. The main spine of Grandfather Mountain is a ridge that runs from southwest to northeast (or the other way round, if you prefer). It has four distinct peaks (from SW to NE): Linville Peak (5303 ft), MacRae Peak (5845 ft), Attic Window Peak (5855 ft) and Calloway Peak (5946 ft — the highest point in the Blue Ridge).

When you visit you should get a copy of the Grandfather Mountain Back Country Trail Map. It’s available free at the main entrance on Rt 221 and is extremely helpful for finding your way around. Until you get down there to pick up an official map, you can make do with one I’ve created. You can download it (it’s a PDF) by clicking on the thumbnail below. It’s formatted for an 11 x 17 print.

Grandfather Mountain mapAll the modern facilities — main entrance, road to the top, picnic area, nature museum, etc. — are at the southwest end. This means that from most easily accessible spots your view of sunrise is blocked by the mountain itself. Your best bet for sunrise photos (other than camping out in the back country – which I totally recommend, by the way) is to hike out the short Black Rock Trail in the early morning darkness and catch dawn at Grandmother View. The top parking lot (Linville Peak) usually has good sunset views.

Nico, Cory and Mark on Grandfather MountainThe Grandfather Mountain road runs up the mountain from Rt 221 to a parking lot just below the summit of Linville Peak. There you can walk up a flight of steps, across the Mile High Swinging Bridge and just another 100 yards or so to Linville peak itself. A rugged trail from the other side of the parking lot leads out to the back country and the other three peaks. The trail is (quite accurately) rated “strenuous” by hiking guide books and it’s all at an elevation between 5000 and 6000 ft. This makes travel even more difficult for people accustomed to sea-level air, especially when carrying a lot of camera gear. Be aware of this!

On the main road about half way between the entrance and the summit is the nature museum. This houses a gift shop, restaurant, auditorium (where the Nature Photography Weekend events take place) as well as the museum itself. Behind the museum are the animal habitats; these comprise a kind of a wild, outdoor zoo where you can see bears, cougars, otters, eagles and deer in quasi-natural settings.

Photo taken from a parking lotHere’s the thing about Grandfather Mountain: You can go out into some rugged wilderness and get astonishing photographs… and you can get some equally amazing shots while sipping coffee inside your car on the mountain road. No matter what your level of fitness or adventurousness, you’ll find great photographic opportunities somewhere on the mountain.


Yes, there will be weather. Sometimes lots of it. Be prepared for all kinds, from cold and rain to sunny and blazing hot — during the same weekend. Winds at higher elevations can be violent. As in “shaking-your-car-around-so-much-you’re-afraid-to-get-out” violent. But some of the best photographs are shot in foul weather. Bring a weather-sealed Pentax DSLR and a spirit of adventure!

Plan on rain. No matter what the forecast is. Bring hiking boots and outdoor clothing for all kinds of weather. Then see what nature gives you when you get there.


No, that’s just Dave Brooks snoring.

Finding Grandfather Mountain

If you’re coming from Boone, NC, take Rt. 105 South about 18 miles and turn left at Rt. 221. The main entrance is about 4 miles farther on your left. From almost any other direction, get on the Blue Ridge Parkway and follow it as far as the exit near mile post 305. Take Rt 221 south for about a mile and you’ll see the main entrance on your right.

Don’t follow computer-generated directions or GPS navigation systems — even non-Apple-Maps ones. Once you get off the main roads (as these systems always try to get you to do), the roads never behave quite the same in reality as they seem to do on a paper or electronic map. Trust me — people have tried and regretted it.


Sign-in for the Nature Photography Weekend begins Friday from 3-7 p.m. in MacRae Meadows, 30 yards on the Linville side of the main entrance on Rt 221. Look for Doug Brewer sitting at a table under a canopy. If you don’t know what Doug Brewer looks like, imagine what you think Doug Brewer ought to look like and then look for someone who looks like that. That’s Doug.


Tent on the mountain. Duh.Camping on the mountain is both the best way to get to know the other participants and the best way to maximize your photographic time on site (thereby improving your chances of getting a winning shot). Nature Photography Weekend participants are allowed to camp in the mountain’s picnic area, which is just a about half a mile up the Grandfather Mountain Road from the main entrance. There is a small building with men’s and women’s toilets, running water and a couple of electrical outlets. No shower facilities. (Some people have proposed getting a group to pitch in for a hotel room nearby to be used just for the purpose of showering and cleaning up throughout the weekend, but as far as I know no one has ever put the plan into action.)

The best way to get good sunset shots and good sunrise shots, is to backpack out onto the trails high on the mountain and camp out for the night at one of the back country campsites there.


If you’re wimping out (not camping) then the closest places with hotels are Linville and Banner Elk, about 10-15 minutes from the mountain. Farther out you’ll have Foscoe, not far from the Profile Trail entrance on Rt 105. You might even stay as far away as Boone. On the other side of the mountain, near the Blue Ridge Parkway, the town of Blowing Rock is only about 25 minutes from the main entrance of GFM and is a bit more upscale (pricey) than other options.

PDML Central

The famous PDML BlimpAll the Pentax-Discuss Mail List people camp in a group, the central command station of which is known as “PDML Central”. Traditionally, this was Bill Owens’ pop-up camper, superseded by Cory Waters’ camper until Cory wimped out. Now you’ll just have to look for the fabulous PDML BlimpTM to find wherever we’ve put it.


As mentioned earlier, there are electrical outlets in the nature museum building, where the restaurant and auditorium are located. This is the best place to get power. There are a couple of outlets in the picnic area (campground) and I do mean "a couple" – as in two; they are usually taken quickly.


You should bring your own computer if you’re participating in the photo contest. It’s usually possible to borrow someone’s computer (this is generally a friendly and accommodating crowd), but it may not have the software or configuration you’re accustomed to. Extra storage capacity, in the form of flash drives or an external hard drive, is also recommended.


Your entry fee for the Nature Photography Weekend gets you dinner on Saturday night. You can buy a ticket for the Sunday morning breakfast buffet for a small fee and get more than your money’s worth in calories. Other than that, you’re on your own. There are grills for cooking in the picnic, a supermarket down near Banner Elk and you can buy food at the restaurant in the nature museum building.


Canadians have occasionally been spotted on the mountain during the Nature Photography Weekend. Just don’t make any sudden moves and you’ll probably be all right.

The Contest

The photo contest is the highlight of the weekend even though there are no prizes (other than a “suitable for framing” certificate and getting your winning shot displayed on the wall at the nature museum). To be eligible, your shots must either be taken on Grandfather Mountain or be shots of the mountain, taken from off the property. I can help newbies with good locations for either kind of photo.

Contest categories are:

  • Scenic (landscape)
  • Plants & Flowers (and fungus)
  • Animals in Nature (in the wild)
  • Animals in Habitats (in captivity at the nature museum)

Furthermore, each of the four categories are subdivided into “Beginner” and “Accomplished” divisions. You get to decide which category you fall into. It’s on the honor system. If you’ve had a top-3 or Honorable Mention photo at the contest previously, you’re Accomplished. If you act dishonorably (entering as a "Beginner" when you’re not really a beginner) we feed you to the bears.

You start shooting on Friday as soon as you check in.

You turn in a flash drive with your three best shots on Saturday afternoon.

You watch the awards presentation on Sunday morning.


It’s been a couple of years since any Australians have been sighted on Grandfather Mountain. We’ll try to alert everyone in advance if there’s any sign this year.

The Doug & Mark Show

This is the awards presentation on Sunday. While you’re listening to Sunday morning’s guest speakers, Doug and I are in the basement finishing up the judging of the photo contest. The facilities for the judges are fabulously luxurious. We recline in ermine-covered seats, savoring truffles and vintage champagne and viewing the contest photos on 193-inch plasma screens while naked Tahitian virgins give us foot massages. Then we present the awards. But first we begin by showing photos that didn’t win anything but were too good to not mention. These have been dubbed “dishonorable mentions” even though they’re quite honorable. Go figure. Then we show the winners in each category. Often we get many of the photos properly matched with the correct photographers.

Doug and I have been doing this for a while now and we’re getting ready to pitch the concept of a radio program to NPR. Something along the lines of “Car Talk” but dealing instead with photo critique. We’ll let you know when it’s time to call your local station and start demanding that they carry it.

The Attic Window Hike

vertigo!This is not an official part of the program, and is a relatively recent addition to the traditions of the GFM Nature Photography Weekend: On Saturday morning I lead a hike up to Attic Window Peak. We’ll start from the top parking lot at 9:00 a.m. and hike the Grandfather Trail out to MacRae Peak and Attic Window Peak. There’s fabulous scenery but it is a strenuous hike. Not for weaklings or those with fear of heights.

Geocaching with Nico & Doug

Be sure to bring a two-way radio and flare gun to aid rescue parties in finding you.

British People

We still don’t know if any British people will be present. Bring some cleft sticks just in case.

Photo Galleries:

Photo galleries from myself and others of Grandfather Mountain in general and the Nature Photography Weekend in particular.

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3 Responses to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Grandfather Mountain Nature Photography Weekend

    • DougF says:

      I should mention that I’m not sure which of these galleries is still active. People tend to take them down or move their hosting service without saying much about it. :-)

      • admin says:

        Thanks, Doug! Most of those gallery pages are indeed dead — I hate it when people don’t keep URL’s live (one of mine is gone, but it’s in a “temp” directory that’s labeled as such). I’ve added a couple that are still on line and likely to stay :)