Gorging 2015

Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) atop Dog Mountain
Relatively speaking, my time spent in the Columbia River Gorge during my recent spring trip was short. Of all the things I “wanted” to do during my time in the Gorge, a return trip to Dog Mountain during the balsamroot bloom was at the top of the list. It’s been about 6 years since my last visit up Dog Mountain and, although I intended to return much sooner than this, something always happened to thwart my plans. To recap for the uninitiated, the wonderful meadows of balsamroot on Dog Mountain are reached after a 3 mile hike with a 2,500 foot elevation gain. The views don’t come easy!

Despite the legitimate workout it provides, this hike has become increasingly popular. Locals have almost swore off visiting on weekends due to the steady stream of people on the trail. This year, there were well over 50+ cars at the trail head at noon on a weekday (a far cry than my last visit in 2009). After two hours of slogging up hill, I finally made my return to the meadows. I’d like to say I felt inspired upon my overdue return to the meadows but…..I wasn’t. The flowers were in fine shape and any breeze was fairly manageable but I was obsessed with what time it was. You see, this day (the third day of my trip) was the first day where a reasonable chance for sunset was present. I planned on shooting sunset over Mount Hood and that required me to be mindful of what time it was and when I needed to leave Dog Mountain in order to make it to my sunset destination in enough time.
Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) atop Dog Mountain
Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) and Small Flowered Lupine (Lupinus micranthus) atop Dog Mountain
Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) and Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja hispida) atop Dog Mountain
The end result of being so preoccupied with the time was feeling pressured or rushed when I finally did pull the camera out of my backpack. Whenever this happens, your odds of coming come when great photos is quite low. To be fair, this was self induced pressure so I won’t beat myself over this. As I’ve come to learn, visits to some locations just require more time to properly explore.

One location in the Gorge that is more amenable to a quicker visit is Wahclella Falls. All told, my visit about about 2 hours total from car to car. The falls are reach in just over a mile of trail and only 250 feet of elevation to gain. The parking area at the trailhead is small and unluckily for me, it was completely full. I ultimately discovered why on my hike in as dozens of elementary aged kids and their chaperones passed me on their hike out. Bad timing for parking at the trail head but good timing for my time spent at the falls.
Wildflowers at Puppy Point on Dog Mountain
Wahclella Falls, Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area
Wahclella Falls, Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area
Despite the occasional sunshine, it really didn’t impact my photography at the falls thanks to the high canyon walls which shaded the falls from any harsh, direct light. Spray can be a problem here if you’re shooting directly in front or towards the left of the falls but it’s not really apparent how much that threat is. I did happen to notice the indicators of a spray zone so I was pretty vigilant about keeping the front of my lens wiped dry and covered when not in use. I should have explored the creek downstream of the falls a little more but I was thinking about getting to my chosen destination for that evening’s sunset.

My last Gorge-ish destination was a return to Panther Creek falls over on the Washington side. I had a potential idea for a slightly different composition that I wanted to check out in addition to it just being a cool place to hang out. Well, my composition idea didn’t quite pan out and for whatever reason, the cliffy downclimb to reach the base of the falls just seemed different this time around. Maybe it’s age but I swear that there were more handholds to use the last time I was there. Oh well. I was still able to take a few photographs from the viewing platform by balancing my exposure with a graduated neutral density filter. I think I might visit Dry Creek falls instead next spring. I have a line on something interesting in that area that I’d like to check out…
Panther Creek Falls, Wind River drainage
Panther Creek Falls detail, Wind River drainage

Leavenworth 2015

Balsamroot and Lupine, East Van Creek drainage outside of Leavenworth, Washington
I traveled over Stevens Pass last weekend to photograph the spring wildflowers around Leavenworth. In the past, there’s usually a good correlation between the condition of wildflowers in Leavenworth at the Ski Hill and of those found in the surrounding hills. This year, however, was different; at the ski hill, the flowers were in prime condition but elsewhere the flowers were stunted or still coming up in wide open spaces but looked fine in sheltered or edge environments. I have no way of knowing for sure but I wonder if our pitiful winter had a hand in this.

Speaking of winter, it actually made an appearance in the mountains for our trip across! In the morning, the storm that hit the mountains overnight was beginning to break up. Out in the vicinity of Index, the mix of clouds, sun, and fresh snow on Mount Index was too good to pass up. Nearing Stevens Pass, the fresh snow from overnight reached all the way down to the Tye River valley (2,400 feet). It was too pretty to not photograph so we stopped along one of the pullouts on Highway 2 for some quick photos.

Forecasts for the east slopes called for possible thunderstorms and it held true. They did stay away from our location but that was in doubt for about a half hour in the afternoon when it looked like they were headed in our direction. Once again, we spent our whole day in the Van Creek drainage chasing down a locations that ended up being a bust. This always sucks but it does help with time management for future trips. My next stop will be a much needed return trip to the Gorge and Mount Hood!
Clearing storm clouds and Mount Index
Clearing storm clouds and Mount Index
Clearing storm clouds and Mount Index
Clearing storm clouds and Mount Index
Spring snowfall blanketing the Tye River valley, west of Stevens Pass
Spring snowfall on Lichtenberg, east of Stevens Pass
Young Ponderosa Pine growing out of rock outcrop, Van Creek drainage, Leavenworth, Washington
Balsamroot and Lupine, East Van Creek drainage outside of Leavenworth, Washington
Mount Index and clouds at sunset near Index, Washington
And a couple of quick time lapses from the weekend:

Leavenworth Wildflowers – 2015 from Steve Cole on Vimeo.

Oregon’s Paradise

Wildflowers in Paradise Park, Mount Hood Wilderness, Mount Hood National Forest
Late July to early August is the time that meadows across the Cascade Mountain range come alive with wildflowers. Paradise in Mount Rainier National Park is perhaps the most well known location for wildflowers here in the northwest but it’s by no means the only location. A few years ago, I learned of a meadow on Oregon’s Mount Hood that’s home to an amazing display of beargrass, which is a grass like perennial but actually a member of the Lily family. Beargrass “blooms” follow a cycle so the number of beargrass that do bloom each year will vary. Once every so often, a super bloom will occur resulting in an impressive display and 2009 was such a year in a place named Paradise Park on Mount Hood.

Located in the Mount Hood Wilderness, Paradise Park is a four mile hike north from the famous Timberline Lodge via the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s actually quite an interesting hike in a number of ways. A typical wildflower hike starts low and climbs high but trekking out to Paradise Park starts high, loses 1,100′ of elevation, and then regains 1,000′ to reach the start of the meadows. The other aspect of this hike I found interesting was the variety of ecological zones that the hike travels through. The first mile or two traverses across a corrugated alpine pumice landscape followed by a brief re-entry into high elevation forest. This brings you to the rim of the impressive Zigzag Canyon, which is where the Zigzag River has cut down nearly 1,000 feet down through volcanic deposits. The 4,800′ bottom of the canyon crosses through classic western Cascade forest before reversing the experience on the way up to Paradise Park.
Zigzag Canyon, Mount Hood Wilderness, Mount Hood National Forest
Zigzag Falls in Zigzag Canyon, Mount Hood Wilderness, Mount Hood National Forest
Wildflowers along the South Fork Lost Creek in Paradise Park, Mount Hood Wilderness, Mount Hood National Forest
I was ultimately inspired to make my first visit by a hiker’s comment on the Portland Hikers forum (a great resource for hiking in Oregon) which indicated that the wildflowers were at peak condition right now. While there would be no beargrass blooms, I felt a change of pace from the rat race of Mount Rainier’s Paradise was in order (more on that in another blog post). Forecasts pointed to good weather for the most part but always with a “chance” of thunderstorms. My plan was to overnight in Paradise Park one night, hike out the next day, drive around the mountain and do it all over again at another meadow-y setting. Sure enough, I set out under sunny skies with an ever growing cloud above Mount Hood. Temperatures in the upper 70s made the hike a bit toasty, particularly with heavy pack. I’ve tried to pare down the weight of my backpacking set but I think I have a bit more work to do!

Even with 40+ lbs on my back, I found myself an hour later at the rim of the Zigzag Canyon (2.3 miles from my starting point at Timberline). After a break and some photos, an hour later I was crossing the Zigzag River and beginning my climb up to Paradise Park. The mid afternoon sunshine was still cooking so my climb up to Paradise Park took close to another 90 minutes. It seemed like I would never reach Paradise Park but eventually I turned the corner and there it was. Now, before I continue, I feel the need to explain something. Photographers use a lot of adjectives to describe scenes such as amazing, grand and stunning. So much so that they, perhaps, loose their impact.
Wildflowers in Paradise Park, Mount Hood Wilderness, Mount Hood National Forest
Wildflowers in Paradise Park, Mount Hood Wilderness, Mount Hood National Forest
Wildflowers in Paradise Park, Mount Hood Wilderness, Mount Hood National Forest
Despite my numerous outings over the last five years, I will admit that the number of times I’ve been truly moved by the scene in front of me have been few. What’s my definition of “moved”? I’d say it’s the desire to share what you’re experiencing with someone you hold dear. It’s wishing someone was with you at that moment because it’s the only way they can ever truly understand why you do what you do. Rounding the corner as the first meadow of Paradise Park came into view was one of those moments for me (only my second time this year). As picturesque as any meadow I’ve ever seen, I just wanted to drop everything and just stare. The sweat and fatigue of the journey to get here was but it was so, so worth it at this moment.

If I was to get ready for sunset, I needed to get going and set up camp. Not too far after entering Paradise Park is the South Fork of Lost Creek and the first campsites found in Paradise Park. The creek was lined with all sort of wildflowers along with one of the finest campsites I’ve ever seen. As good as it seemed, I decided to keep going, at least until the crossing of the North Fork of Lost Creek. Again, the creek was lined with wildflowers but the campsites were much more exposed. There was still a threat of thunderstorms so the prudent thing to do was to retreat back to the more sheltered campsites along the South Fork. I set up my camp and took a little nap before setting back out to the first meadow for sunset.
Wildflowers in Paradise Park, Mount Hood Wilderness, Mount Hood National Forest
Last light towards the west from Paradise Park, Mount Hood Wilderness, Mount Hood National Forest
Sunrise and wildflowers in Paradise Park, Mount Hood Wilderness, Mount Hood National Forest
Behind the Paradise Park Loop Trail signpost is a way path that meanders up through the meadow towards Mississippi Head and the rest of Mount Hood. The flowers here were thick, in perfect form, and consisted mostly of Lupine, American Bistort, Arnica, and some sporadic Indian Paintbrush. As I’ve grown fond of doing, I brought along my GoPro so that I could also shoot a time lapse series. The only downside of this is that you have to pick a spot and stay there. Sometimes this doesn’t work out to your advantage. At this lower location in the meadow, the focal point are the flowers and Mount Hood; not much else is visible due to the treeline which is literally all around you.

On this night, this didn’t work in my advantage. The large billowing clouds from the afternoon had pretty much disappeared by sunset. Minus the clouds, there wasn’t much left to capture and reflect the warm light of sunset. Behind me, though, the skies were filled with pinks and oranges. I worked my surroundings as best as I could before calling it an evening. Clouds seeped back in the darker it got and I pretty much knew that any star photography wasn’t going to be an option. I was tired enough that I didn’t have a big problem with that.
Sunrise and wildflowers in Paradise Park, Mount Hood Wilderness, Mount Hood National Forest
Sunrise and wildflowers in Paradise Park, Mount Hood Wilderness, Mount Hood National Forest
Wildflowers in Paradise Park, Mount Hood Wilderness, Mount Hood National Forest
Waking up at 4:45am the next morning, I hiked back to the same meadow for sunrise serenaded by the cooing of a mourning dove. It was quite evident that I was in for a gray sunrise. Still, there was little wind and the no bugs. True sunrise greeted me with a few moments of light rain. This area was so nice that I had been toying with the idea of extending my stay one extra night. The weather (and myself, frankly) wasn’t looking too good so I kept with the decision to hike out and head home. Before breaking camp, I continued furthered up the path to the upper slopes. I found it interesting that the wildflowers (primarily asters) were actually a little bit past prime and somewhat “burned” out. Lower slopes normally burn out before the upper slopes simply because that’s the way the snowpack melts back during the course of summer.

By the time I had packed up camp and hit the trail, the sun appeared. A bit bittersweet but frankly it didn’t last too long. Most of the uphill hike out was graced by cloudy skies which did keep me a bit cooler. Even with dubious forecasts, I crossed paths with lots of people hiking in towards Paradise Park. After returning home, I found that that Timberline Lodge received 2.5″ of rain during the time I would have still been out there had I extended my stay. One thing I sometimes do after a trip is re-examine my “research” on an area to better understand and merge the on the ground reality I experienced and the textual or other information I had leading up to my visit. I discovered AFTER the fact that there were two waterfalls in the Paradise Park area which I could have photographed. Doh! Even with such a quick introduction to the area, I know I’ll be back. Acres of wildflowers that I didn’t have to share with anyone? Why would I NOT return??! I would highly recommend a visit to Paradise Park!
Wildflowers in Paradise Park, Mount Hood Wilderness, Mount Hood National Forest

Lastly, I’d like to give a special hat tip to Oregon photographer Wesley Picotte who generously shared some of his knowledge with me while I was researching my trip. Check out his great work also from the Pacific Northwest. Thanks again, Wesley!

Leavenworth 2013

Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) in bloom at the Leavenworth Ski Hill
Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) in bloom at the Leavenworth Ski Hill
Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) in bloom along Mountain Home Road near Leavenworth
Spring sometimes comes on like a lion and that seems to be the case this year. We’re still getting some late season snowfall in the mountains but the melt is definitely on. The east slopes of the Cascades are the first areas to produce wildflowers and in 2009, I learned that the Leavenworth / Cashmere area are home to an explosion of arrowleaf balsamroot. I’ve tried visiting every year since then around the middle of May; last year I was a week or so too late so this year I gambled on being a week early. As it turned out, I threaded the needle perfectly.

In Leavenworth, head over to the old ski hill. The slopes hold various flowers as does the wooded cross country ski trail that parallels Titus Road. On the south side of town, Mountain Home Road steeply gains a ridge (seemingly a lateral moraine) and traverses out along it towards the southwest. The roadside holds a variety of wildflowers and offers views down towards Leavenworth as well as the entrance to Icicle Creek Canyon. On this day, the only wildflowers were about 1 mile up the road right next to it. The day was blustery, making photos of flowers quite difficult. Every now and then, the wind would finally die down and provide a fleeting moment to click the shutter.
Long exposure using my B+W 10 stop neutral density filter of Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) in bloom along Mountain Home Road near Leavenworth.
Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) in bloom near Dryden
Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) in bloom near Dryden
Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) in bloom near Dryden

After a while, I decided to go with the flow and I tried out my newly purchased B+W 10 stop neutral density filter. It’s basically a light reducing filter (almost like a welder’s mask!) which will dramatically lengthen your exposure times. I bought it for another purpose but I figured if I can’t beat ’em, join ’em! I doubled up the filter with my B+W thin mount circular polarizer and was taking exposures out to 20 seconds at F16 and ISO-100. I was concerned about the filter creeping into the corners of my frame (I’m using it on my APS-C 12-24mm lens) and it does do that at the widest end. The intrusion disappears at 15mm so that was a relief.

The next stop on our whirlwind tour was Eagle Creek Road, about 2 miles outside of Leavenworth to the northeast. The first 5 miles or so are paved until the junction with Forest Service roads 7500 and 7502. Just a quarter mile up road 7500 is a nice view up valley and a small grouping of balsamroot. Well- not this year because we were a little early. They might be there if you go in another 2 weeks! We also made a quick trip up 7502 to check out spur road 7531 but nothing was going on up there either. Pretty forest up that way, though!
Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) in bloom near Dryden
Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) in bloom near Dryden
Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) in bloom near Dryden
Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) in bloom near Dryden
One place I do know that has a great display of balsamroot is located up Ollala Canyon Road near Dryden. Sadly, the blooms are located on private land so any photography should be done roadside. About halfway up the valley and on the opposite side of the canyon is a nice location of balsamroot growing in a former wildfire burn area. The slope immediately above the road can also yield a nice combination of balsamroot and lupine (but not this trip). The jewel of Ollala Canyon is at the head of the canyon, just before the end of the county road. A couple of rounded hillsides (one with a lone tree on the top) is filled with balsamroot and turn the slopes a wonderful shade of yellow.

This year my timing was spot on and we spent a fair amount of time there. At one point, my friend pointed to the top of the ridge and almost a dozen deer appeared and proceeded to graze along the upper slopes. As awesome as it was here, I wanted to explore a couple of other canyons in the Cashmere area. The first canyon (via Hay Canyon Road) was nice near the mouth of the canyon but didn’t have much else despite being reminiscent of oak-chaparral woodlands found in southern California. A quick bust so we made our way to the next canyon over to the east which is served by Nahahum Canyon Road. This canyon is much broader than Ollala and very scenic. Most slopes seem to be good habitat for balsamroot and, indeed, several slopes had small patches of yellow. Nahahum Canyon is also largely private property and is actively signed as such.

Almost all the way up the canyon we found one small slope and draw that had a mixed display of balsamroot and lupine. You could tell that the flowers were *just* a bit past prime but still pretty and photogenic. Except for the occasional car driving the road or cow moo, it was very quiet and peaceful up there. The day was finally getting late so we finally headed back to Leavenworth for a little dinner. We still had time to dart back up Mountain Home Road for sunset. The thick clouds from a front dropping rain over the crest wiped out our sunset but that was ok. It’s nice to come out ahead sometimes!
Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) and lupine in bloom along Nahahum Canyon Road near Cashmere
Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) and lupine in bloom along Nahahum Canyon Road near Cashmere
Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) and rising moon along Mountain Home Road near Leavenworth
Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata) and rising moon along Mountain Home Road near Leavenworth

Of course, I also had my trusty GoPro with me for some timelapses. Here’s a composite of four different ones from the day:

Mazama Ridge 2012

There’s not much for me to say about Mazama Ridge in Mount Rainier National Park that I haven’t said in previous years here and here. Last weekend I made the trip down to view the wildflowers which were probably beginning their peak week. Great time as always and I ran into a few fellow photographers I’ve interacted with online over the last couple years.

Wildflowers on Mazama Ridge in Mount Rainier National Park
Wildflowers on Mazama Ridge in Mount Rainier National Park
Wildflower meadow on Mazama Ridge in Mount Rainier National Park
Wildflowers on Mazama Ridge in Mount Rainier National Park
Wildflowers and the Tatoosh Range from Mazama Ridge in Mount Rainier National Park
Mount Rainier and the Mazama Ridge trail
Wildflowers in late afternoon light on Mazama Ridge in Mount Rainier National Park
Wildflowers and the Tatoosh Range from Mazama Ridge in Mount Rainier National Park
Wildflowers and Mount Rainier from Mazama Ridge
Wildflowers and Mount Rainier from Mazama Ridge
Valley fog and late sunset light from Mazama Ridge in Mount Rainier National Park
Last light of sunset from Mazama Ridge in Mount Rainier National Park

As I hiked out after sunset, the low clouds that persisted all day at lower elevations finally began creeping up the Stevens Creek valley towards Reflection Lakes saddle. I stopped for a couple quick photos on the ridge and at Faraway Rock-
Valley clouds well up from the Stevens Creek valley after sunset in Mount Rainier National Park
Evening cloud panorama above Louise Lake from Faraway Rock on Mazama Ridge in Mount Rainier National Park
Stevens Creek valley clouds creep in over Reflection Lakes after sunset in Mount Rainier National Park

Showtime at Mazama

Mazama Ridge is in prime wildflower conditions. I had loftier goals for this day but the weather forecast didn’t come close to materializing. Though dry, the mountain was wrapped in clouds the entire day with only two brief windows of visibility. On my way to Mazama Ridge, I made a quick stop at Silver Falls along the Ohanapecosh River:

Silver Falls along the Ohanapecosh River
Ohanapecosh River before the plunge off of Silver Falls
I arrived at the Reflection Lakes area and geared up. A bit of a breeze made conditions feel more like fall than summertime and the clouds were persistent at about 5,300 feet. The damaged log footbridge at the base of the climb up to Faraway Rock washed downstream so it’s actually safer to cross now. Flowers were mostly spent around the Reflection Lakes and up to Faraway Rock.

North of the rock, the wildflowers come into prime. As many people have predicted & discussed, the wildflowers this year are “normal” at best and nowhere near the show or density of last year. Still, I was pleasantly surprised at what I discovered. Flowers along the ridge were at peak conditions and hadn’t begun to degrade. In fact, the upper third of the ridge still had some flowers coming up. This is definitely the week to visit & experience.

First meadow - Mazama Ridge
Lupine in bloom - Mazama Ridge
Indian Paintbrush framed by False Hellebore leaves
Lupine and False Hellebore
Path to upper meadows - Mazama Ridge
Foggy meadow - Mazama Ridge
Fog and flowers - Mazama Ridge
More elevation, more flowers - Mazama Ridge
I did make the brief side trip down to the junction with the Skyline Trail and the creek that flows from Sluiskin Falls. The flowers here are also glorious with a lot of valerian in bloom. Along the creek, pink monkeyflower can be found in pockets.

Pink Monkeyflower near the Skyline Trail
Pink Monkeyflower near the Skyline Trail
Streamside Indian Paintbrush
On my way back to Reflection Lakes, I hoped that the clouds might clear out but they did not. I did come across a black bear working the margins of one of the meadows.

Late Afternoon and the Tatoosh Range
Black bear - Mazama Ridge
False Hellebore - Mazama Ridge

After that, I was a bit more vocal on my solo hike out. I stopped once again at Faraway Rock since sunset was only minutes away. There was no direct sunset light but it was being reflected off of the various clouds which made for some interest. The full moon had also risen a fair amount into the sky which created some photo opportunities with the east end of the Tatoosh Range.

Clouds drifting through the Tatoosh Range
Full moon rising above Stevens Peak and the Tatoosh Range
Full moon over the summit of Stevens Peak
Unbelievably, as I got ready and packed up my camera for the final hike out, a red fox came trotting up the trail right next to me and proceeded to examine the area around me. I was stunned to see this and thought about dragging out my DSLR for a second. I figured it would be gone by the time I was ready to shoot so I grabbed my point & shoot instead. I only snapped a few quick stills before I switched to shooting video which I have also posted below. I’d recommend watching the video. So much cooler than the photo!

Red fox at Faraway Rock

Red Fox – Mount Rainier National Park from Steve Cole on Vimeo.

The day wasn’t what I had hoped for but was still filled with several memorable moments!

5 Minutes in Spray Park

Weather in the mountains can change very quickly. On this day, we were treated to one of these transformations as fog gave way to a glorious sunset in less than 5 minutes.

Based on some internet reports about conditions, I decided to head down to Spray Park in Mount Rainier National Park to check out conditions and hopefully shoot sunset. I was able to convince a friend to join me on this endeavor (the forests here are bogeyman quality once it gets dark!) so we set out from the trailhead at Mowich Lake around 5pm. Earlier in the week, Mount Rainier was blessed with nice light around the time of sunset but on Saturday, the clouds were very stubborn around the mountain, offering a short glimpse of its glaciated slopes every now & then.

As we hiked in along the trail, we passed dozens of people who had spent the day at Spray Park. They described the flowers as good in spots but in between the earlier phase of lillies and the lupine / wildflower phase- and no mountain views. In a while we stopped at the Eagle Cliff viewpoint and saw a very thick cloud layer around 6,000 feet.

Creek along the trail to Spray Park
We pressed on and eventually arrived at the sidetrip to Spray Falls (my first visit to the falls). The red rock in the narrow canyon really provides a dramatic setting for the wide, fanning waterfall which originates from the subalpine parklands of Spray Park. We got our feet wet crossing the creek to explore a better view of the falls. Quickly snapping a photo, it was time to head to our primary destination: Spray Park.

False hellebore and Spray Falls
The first 2 miles to Spray Park has minor ups and downs but the last 0.5 mile push to Spray Park from Spray Falls switchbacks up 700 feet. Spray Park has several terraces to it and the trail works its way up through them before reaching the divide that separates Spray Park from Seattle and Mist Parks. Leading up to our visit, I spent some time studying the imagery in Google Earth looking for potentially interesting locations. I ended up identifying three locations to pursue and the first one was near the entrance to the Spray Park area.

It turned out that the features I saw in the aerials weren’t as photogenic from ground level as I had hoped. The meadow WAS beautiful with several nice areas of blooms. This meadow was an area that also was part of the headwaters for Spray Creek. The mosquitoes were aggressive in this area so I covered up before getting out my camera gear.

Avalanche Lillies - Spray Park
Spray Creek in Spray Park
I took a couple photos of Avalanche Lillies and Spray Creek and then noticed my friend saying something to me that I couldn’t make out. I walked closer to him and could finally make out what he was saying… “THERE’S A BEAR….20 YARDS OVER THERE…” …and he pointed towards a grove of trees across a small creek.

Oh oh. Apparently this meadow had a guardian and wasn’t that pleased to see visitors. The bear had snorted a couple times at my friend who had not seen it due to a well concealed rest area in the trees. We decided to make a slow but quick retreat and try our luck elsewhere. Before leaving, I tried to get a photo of Smokey the Bear:

This is my meadow!
Mount Rainier through a quick cloud window
We rejoined the trail and continued to climb into Spray Park. Each step brought us deeper into the cloud bank which was thick and stubborn. We had a brief window through the clouds of Mount Rainier at one point but it quickly closed. We had Spray Park all to our self and it was quite a feeling. It was dead calm and quiet, which was at times erie. Arriving in the heart of Spray Park, we made our way to the second location I had identified. We passed a large tarn which intrigued me due to the large rocks in the shallows and the reflection of the trees lining its edge.

Tarn reflections - Spray Park
We continued but the wildflower blooms weren’t there. The clouds above and around us continued to thicken. We retreated back to the main trail and suggested a rest stop so I could eat a bit. Conditions did not look like they would improve for viewing sunset. I was finishing up my sandwich when I thought I saw some pale blue sky above us. I thought it was an optical illusion but then I turned to look at the mountain.

There it was! I quickly stopped and gathered up my camera and tripod. I ran around in full panic mode looking for a composition. I settled on one location and began to fire off shots.

8:34pm and 12 seconds:

A mountain revealed- 8:34pm and 12 seconds
8:34pm and 40 seconds:

A mountain revealed- 8:34pm and 40 seconds
8:35pm and 5 seconds:

A mountain revealed- 8:35pm and 5 seconds
8:36pm & 17 seconds:

A mountain revealed- 8:36pm and 17 seconds
Wow. The transformation was nothing short of spectacular. As the mountain was revealed, the warm, pink light of sunset was in all its glory. You’ll notice that the photo compositions kept changing. I had to do this because of another photographer who appeared out of nowhere and planted himself right in my frame. A definite bummer but this was no time to pout.

Last light on Mount Rainer
If the light show on Mount Rainier wasn’t enough, beautiful scenes were happening all around us. To the west, we discovered that we were now above the clouds as an endless sea of clouds extended towards the horizon. Behind us, fiery clouds glowed above Hessong Rock *AND* clouds were leaking over the ridge from Mist Park. We ran around looking for different compositions but in short order, the glorious light on Rainier faded away.

Sunset's glow above Hessong Rock
Fog and fire
I turned my attention to the west and took a few shots of the sea of clouds before packing everything up for the hike out. It was 9:14pm and sadly time to go so, with my bear bell and headlamps on, we hiked out. The darkness of the forest is amazingly creepy and I was thankful to have a partner with me during the hike out. Ninety minutes later, we were back at my truck and on our way home.

Last memories - Spray Park
As photo trips go, this didn’t go as well as well as I had hoped. I do rank this sunset as one of the top five that I’ve had the pleasure of shooting. Five minutes can make a world of difference!

 Scroll to top