It started with a photo on the internet. I had just started working with high dynamic range (HDR) photography when I happened across a time lapse HDR image of a waterfall. My initial interest was in the technical details of the shot, but I soon found myself wondering how people found such interesting places to shoot. The article accompanying the image didn’t mention where the shot was taken. I gleaned what I could about how the photo was achieved and began to apply the technique to photos I shot at Quail Hollow and in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. But, for some reason, that particular photo kept popping up. A subsequent article identified it as Elakala Falls, and Google informed me that this was in the vicinity of Blackwater Falls in West Virginia.

I had camped at Blackwater a few times, but I did not recall seeing anything like the waterfall in the photo. The Blackwater Falls themselves are considerably taller at 57 feet than Elakala Falls appeared to be. The name comes from the murky water in the Blackwater River. It isn’t quite black, but it is tinted a dark shade of reddish-brown by the tannic acid from fallen hemlock and red spruce needles. The campground at Blackwater is a little more civilized than I would prefer, but I decided it was worth a few days to see if I could find Elakala. I learned that there were four levels to Elakala Falls, and that access was difficult, requiring a steep 140 foot descent down the canyon wall.

I made the trip in June of 2012. As I was registering for my campsite, I asked the attendant if she knew where I could find Elakala Falls, but she did not. I looked at a trail map, and there was an Elakala Trail on the other side of the river near the lodge. No guarantee that it wasn’t just coincidence, but it seemed like a good place to start. At its head, the trail did not look all that promising. There’s really no such thing as a bad hike, so I set off. The trail ended after a mile or so at this sign:

That sounded like the approach as it was described, so I started down over the side. Had I not been carrying my camera gear in a backpack, the climb would not have been quite so intimidating. I couldn’t go down forward as the pack kept catching on rocks and branches, throwing me off my balance. So I turned and continued to descend backwards, facing the canyon wall. I couldn’t see where I was going, just feeling for my next foothold as I went. The practical side of me was thinking, “You know you’re going to have to climb back out of here, right?”. I tried not to think about that much, just hoping that I would find what I sought in the end. I did.

The first and second levels of Elakala were all that I had hoped to find. The lower two levels were not quite so impressive. I was determined to make the effort worthwhile, so I climbed all the way down, leaving the camera bag at level two. The climb back to the rim wasn’t bad at all. It was much more natural to climb up facing the wall than it had been to descend that way. Having accomplished what I came to do on that first day of the trip, I spent the next few days chilling at a remote lake near the campground. The only ill effect from the whole adventure was the sunburn I got doing morning yoga on a sandstone ledge overlooking the river.

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