Hiking and Photography through the Snow Covered Appalachian Mountains

My adventure in -2 degree to capture the snow covered Appalachian Mountains at sunrise.

Last weekend, as most of my fellow landscape photographer buddies stayed up late to photograph the blood moon, I decided I was going to head to bed early so that I could wake up at 2:30am to photograph the sunrise. I wanted to capture the snow covered Appalachian Mountains, but the snow didn’t come as far east as predicted. The snow mostly fell in West Virginia and in northwest Virginia. So I decided to hike a trail that has been on my list for a while now, which winds along the Virginia/West Virginia border through the Ridge and Valley Range of the Appalachians so that I could capture the fresh snow fall (click here for landscape photo tips). Checking the weather before going to bed, it was calling for scattered low clouds to blow in about two hours before sunrise and then completely blow out about two hours after sunrise. Low clouds can be tricky because if they are in the wrong spot, they will block the sun as it rises, resulting in little-to-no color. Since the weather was calling for scattered low clouds, I figured I had a 50/50 chance of getting a colorful sunrise. With my plan in place, I went to bed.


Two-thirty came quick; my alarm went off, and I got up and grabbed my gear. The weather was calling for -2 degrees Fahrenheit, before the wind chill, so I dressed in layers. The key to staying warm while hiking in the winter, especially as a landscape photographer, is layers. When you are hiking, you want to stay comfortably cool so that you don’t sweat though your layers. Once you stop hiking you can add layers as needed to say warm. As a landscape photographer, I hike to a location and then sometimes sit around for hours waiting for the best light. If I’m wet and cold from sweating, then I’ll be uncomfortable, so I will not enjoy the experience and may even leave early, resulting in missing the desired image. This is why the gear I wear is just as important as my camera gear. With this morning being frigid and windy, I first put on a merino wool base layer, a polyester mid layer, and my Marmot Featherless Component Jacket. My jacket was going to be a key piece of gear to block the wind while keeping me warm.  

When I left my house there were still clear skies, but as I got closer to the trail head, a few clouds were starting to form. I pulled into the Wolf Gap Recreation Area, and it looked like an ice rink. The whole parking area had about 2" of smooth, wind-blown ice covering it and I was slipping and sliding as I made my way to the trunk of my car to grab my backpack. I quickly put on my micro spikes and I had no more traction issues. I walked to the Mill Mountain Trail Head and started my 2.1 miles hike to Big Schloss up the icy trail. This was my first time on this trail, but even in the dark, it was very easy to follow. The first .75 miles you hike up the mountain on the West Virginia side of the border; the trail follows a north/south spine ridge line that is the border between Virginia and West Virginia. This part of the hike was amazing. The full moon was setting to the west with the first signs of light from the rising sun to the east. I followed the trail on the ridge line for just over a mile until I reached the Big Schloss Spur Trail and hiked the remaining .25 miles to the rocky overlook. 


When I popped out of the trees onto Big Schloss’s rock face, I was very glad I was wearing my Marmot Featherless Component Jacket because the summit had 25mph sustained winds with gusts of over 50mph; and while I waited for the sun to rise over the ridges, the jacket did an outstanding job blocking the wind. I was warm the whole time and never felt the wind except when it tried to blow me off my feet. I quickly scouted out the area and found a composition (click here to learn more about photography compositions) I liked and set up my camera gear. As I hoped, the low level clouds were in the perfect location to reflect the light of the rising sun without blocking it.  As the sun rose above the ridge, I sat and enjoyed the panoramic view.  Once the sun was above the ridge, I started to explore the rest of area.

Big Schloss is an awesome outlook. It has a bunch of huge boulders that I was able to scramble up to change my view point. Since the whole area was covered with fresh snow, I had to be careful where I walked for two reasons. First, and most important, I wanted to make sure I didn’t fall into a crevasse or off the side of the mountain. Second, as I was walking around looking for compositions, I didn’t want to disturb the fresh snow.  Once the snow is disturbed, there is no going back. One of the best ways to do this is to start in a wide arch and slowly move in as needed. For more winter photo tips click here.


After exploring the area, I took in the view one more time and started hiking back down the mountain. The hike along the ridge was even better on the way back because I could see through the leafless trees the layers of the mountain ridges of both Virginia and West Virginia. Once I got back into the trees, the wind died down, and with the sun now up I started to shed some layers. One of the things I really like about the Marmot Featherless Component Jacket is it’s actually two jackets: a waterproof outer shell and a featherless insulated jacket that zips together forming one all-purpose jacket. Because of this, I was easily able to unzip the outer shell and stuff it into my backpack. Even though this was my first time hiking up to Big Schloss, I know it will not be my last. Not only does it have an amazing panoramic outlook, but the trail also has some great views along the way, and I cant wait to go back to photograph the area in different seasons.

Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations.

Brandon DeweyExplorer

I am a Father, Photographer, Adventurer, and World Explorer (26 countries and counting). I'm from the Bay Area but I'm currently living outside of Richmond, Virginia.