Panoramic views can take your breath away. But sometimes they can leave questions, like “What exactly is that over... there?
That’s not a problem for photographer Tim Barnwell, whose eye-candy book, “Blue Ridge Parkway Vistas,” says it all with the subtitle: “A Comprehensive Identification Guide to What you See from the Many Overlooks.”
The 122-pager, published last fall (Numinous Editions, $29.95), holds 60-some panoramic photos taken from choice spots along the roadway. And in the skies above the horizon of each image are IDs of the mountains, bluffs, ridges, rivers, forests and roads spread out on the page before you.
The book works on your coffee table. It works on your dashboard.
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“One of biggest compliments I’ve gotten,” said Barnwell, “is from rangers who say they take it with them and keep it on their desks as a reference.”
Barnwell, 60, is no stranger to these parts. He was born in Bryson City, lived in Franklin, and is a commercial photographer in Asheville.
“This project started six years ago. When I was out shooting and had my camera and tripod, people would say, ‘What are we looking at?’ They might know direction and what was in the foreground and maybe some of the peaks. I knew more than many people, but felt inadequate. What am I really seeing? How many miles away am I seeing?”
The easy part was deciding where to go – Parkway overlooks he knew would be of interest, places with open foregrounds and no trees in the way. He planned to take two photos in most instances and combine them into one panoramic image. Barnwell would make the print, lay transparent acetate over the result and start marking what he knew.
The first obstacle was finding enough clear days. “We have about 90 a year here in Asheville, as opposed to some places out West. We have more humidity, haze and pollution.” The last year he worked on the project, “there were six days when the Parkway was open and it was clear enough to shoot.”
And “clear” doesn’t necessarily require total sunshine: “A camera will record more UV light than your eyes see, and haze is mostly UV light. It doesn’t clear things any better.”
This explains, Barnwell said, why the vistas in the book tend to be of spring or autumn: Unlike summer, the air is clear.
Even after Barnwell selected the most spectacular overlooks to shoot, he spent a lot of time driving back and forth to determine the best time of day to take the photos. Early morning and late afternoon were best, he said, because the low angle of the sun helped visually sculpt the mountains.
Then there came the task of identifying what was shown in the backgrounds and determining their distances.
“A photo flattens three dimensions down to two,” he explained. “I’d take a photo back to where it was shot and compare it to what I would see through binoculars, then match the contours to maps. I would go back to most sites four or five times – especially Mount Mitchell, where six photos are used to create a 360-degree view from the observation platform.”
Gathering the IDs was hard, he said, but the project didn’t end there. Barnwell wrote text for each photo to add context to the views and mentioning nearby attractions.
He also wrote about mountain geography and geology and the BRP’s history.
“It became more of a driving guide – not just the naming of things, I guess.”
He strays off the BRP for the final seven panoramas – to popular overlooks like Chimney Rock Park, Jump Off Rock near Hendersonville, the summit of the hill at St. Joseph Hospital in Asheville, the Library Terrace at Biltmore House, the top parking level of Asheville Mall and two choice views from I-26 in Madison County (elevation at viewpoint: 2,668 feet) and a view of Cashiers Valley from U.S. 64 in Jackson County (4,300 feet).
It’s all quite an eyeful.
1. Waterrock Knob Overlook. “It’s got one of the most interesting mountain views – a wide panorama of interesting shapes. You can see where the Parkway tracks across the mountains to Mount Pisgah. It’s near the Jackson-Haywood county line.”
2. Mile-High Overlook. “It’s a spur road off the Parkway in Swain County. You’re looking from there back to Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”
3. Mount Mitchell. “You have a 360-degree from there. With binoculars, you can see the Charlotte skyline, 88 miles away.”
4. Raven’s Roost Overlook. “That’s in Virginia, near the start of the Parkway, on the Augusta-Nelson county line. It shows you the Great Valley, which was a passageway going all the way back to Cherokee Indian times.”
5. Chestoa View Overlook. “It’s neat because you’re seeing unusual shapes – Grandfather Mountain, Table Rock and a little bit of Hawk’s Bill sticking up. It’s in McDowell County.”