Mountain Laurel along the Chattahoochee River. Photo by Tom Wilson
By Tom Wilson
I’ve been photographing the Chattahoochee River for 20 years, and although I love all the different units that make up the recreation area, my favorite is West Palisades.
Located just within I-285 and just east of I-75, this portion of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area is a beautiful place to visit any time of year. But right now, during May, might be the best time to explore its beauty.
One of my favorite photos I’ve taken of this area was in May 2007 (it was featured on the Park’s 2012 annual pass). I took it when the Mountain Laurel was in bloom across the river next to the bluffs. I made the photograph right from the access adjacent to the bathrooms and just upriver from the small boat ramp. The bluffs are beautiful, as are the “Devil’s Racecourse” and the Thornton Shoals sections of rapids upriver of the bluffs, and Thornton Shoals on the downriver end. The area is also particularly good for wildflowers, starting in late winter and lasting through spring.
This section of the river and its surrounding landscape offer a wide range of photo opportunities, so I always hike down to the river prepared for almost anything. I remember one morning on the river when I saw 11 Great Blue Herons at one time. While in this area, I’ve made landscape photos, macro images, telephoto pictures of birds – you name it. In fact, I have never hiked down to the river without finding some nice opportunities for landscape photographs. This is also a particularly good place for photographing people enjoying the river (I’ve included one of my photos of two kayakers, which now appears on one of the park’s brochures).
This area can be accessed from the Akers Mill Parking Area. Turn onto Akers Drive SE off of Akers Mill Road and drive up the hill until you see the National Park sign on your left. Turn left there and follow that road down to the parking area. For a map of the trails, visit the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area website, click on “maps” and scroll all the way down for the West Palisades Unit Map.
You will need a pass to use the parking area. To learn about fees and passes, go to the same Chattahoochee NRA website, click on “Plan Your Visit” and then “Basic Information” and “Fees and Passes.” This unit will also soon be included in the National Park Mobile App, which you can download from the App Store.
Anytime I’m photographing rivers, I always have my tripod and a polarizing filter with me. The tripod is helpful because it allows me to shoot at slow shutter speeds, and the polarizer removes glare from the water and the vegetation. You may want to watch out for the usual polarizer issues, such as uneven polarization of a blue sky, but it’s definitely worth having one with you.
Make sure to pack your normal hiking gear, such as water, snacks, rain gear, sunscreen, bug repellant and any other essentials. If you have your cell phone with you, I believe you will even be able to see an indicator of your exact position by using the National Park App. I spoke to a Ranger today who told me that you should have a facemask with you in case you encounter a situation where it’s needed, and of course you should be social distancing. There is a restroom available by the river that is usually open during warmer weather, and it includes a station for filling water bottles.
No matter what type of nature photography you prefer, chances are you’ll find some great opportunities at this hidden gem.