Ohanapecosh River

Springtime come and me Ohanepecosh

The last few years, I’ve made an annual winter trip to the Ohanepecosh River valley in Mount Rainier National Park. I’ve made my trip around mid-February but didn’t get a chance this winter until this past week. I convinced a friend of mine to take a day off from work to join me. Given our abundant snowfall, I was quite shocked by the LACK of snow once we turned off Hwy 12 and onto Hwy 123. It looked like we were going to be in for a repeat of last winter’s trip.

The highway was snow-free all the way to the gate (3 miles off of Hwy 12) where we parked. There was a lone DOT worker who was responsible for opening the gate for DOT vehicles (who are performing the annual highway clearing northward to Cayuse Pass). I chatted with the worker for a little bit and he told me the highway was snow-free all the way north to Panther Creek (which is about halfway between the Cayuse Pass and the Stevens Canyon Entrance to the park). He went on to say that the snow WAS here at this low elevation but it’s been melting fast.

My friend and I wisely decided to ditch pretty much all of our “winter” gear and just walk the road north to Silver Falls. From the Ohanepecosh Campground north, snow appeared in patches throughout the forest. As we arrived at the Silver Falls area, the sun made its appearance. Normally, this would be great unless you’re there to taking photos of waterfalls and a flowing river. All is not lost when you’re faced with these conditions. Many of the photos in this post were taken in sunshine and are single exposures.

Silver Falls and the Ohanepecosh River, Mount Rainier National Park
Ohanepecosh River detail, Mount Rainier National Park
Bedrock pool along the Ohanepecosh River, Mount Rainier National Park
Here’s how to do it-

Use a set of soft edge graduated neutral density filters (ND Grads). Because of techniques like HDR and exposure blending in Photoshop, many people have moved away from having and using these tools. I include myself in this camp for the majority of situations but a set of ND Grad filters doesn’t weigh very much so they are always in my bag. In many of these photos, you’ll see a bright portion of the scene but then the light drops off as you travel away from the bright spots. This sets up well for use with a soft edge ND grad filter.

Generally, my waterfall or stream photography exposure times range from 0.4 seconds up to 0.8 seconds, and sometimes out to 1.3 or 1.6 seconds. Without the use of the ND grad filter, I wasn’t able to come anywhere close to a 0.4 second exposure. On some photos, I was able to just use a 0.9 strength ND grad filter; other times, I stacked my 0.9 and my 0.6 strength filters together to get up into the exposure range I like. I’ll also note that I handhold my filters; my Pentax DA 12-24mm lens has a slim mount circular polarizer (which also helps slow exposure times) and does not have any threads.

The lack of threads on the front of the lens prevents me from using a filter holder (I use the 4″ x 6″ sized ND grad filters BTW). Hand holding your filters in front of the lens can take some practice but isn’t that bad and keeps you shooting when time is of the essence. If you hold the filters against the front element of your lens, you might introduce some shake (or blurriness) into your photos. If you hold the filters just in front of the lens, be sure to review your photos for and light reflections from the surface of the filter back towards the lens. It might sound like a lot but it’s really not- and it will become second nature with a little time.

Ohanepecosh River, Mount Rainier National Park
Ohanepecosh River Rocks, Mount Rainier National Park
Ohanepecosh River, Mount Rainier National Park
Using the ND grad filters helped get me back into that 0.4 – 0.8 second range that I wanted but weren’t the end of the story. While I was able to contain the dynamic range into a single RAW file, some areas were too dark either due to shade or the use of the ND grad. To counteract this, I will “double process” the RAW file which simply means I open one copy set up for the highlights and a second copy set up for the shadow areas. Once I have both open as layers in Photoshop, I blend the two versions together using layer masks. This gives me a usable starting point to perform my remaining adjustments (color correction, sharpening, etc).

Getting back to my story, we spent over an hour at Silver Falls taking photos of the falls and the stretch of river immediately upstream of the falls. I still wanted to check out the Ohanepecosh Campground area so we packed up and headed back south. My friend suggested we follow the trail back to the campground instead of the road and that was a great idea. It’s a lovely forest and the trail was mostly snow free expect for the occasional two foot deep snow patches.

Along the way, we spied an interesting stretch of river with a brilliant orange rock in the middle; we just had to check it out. Back on the trail, we made the remaining distance to the campground in short order. Although not open for visitors, the campground reverberated with the noise of heavy equipment clearing snow and windfall throughout the campground. We made our way down to the bridge over the river and my friend spied a harlequin duck that was diving for bugs directly below us.

Harlequin duck in the Ohanepecosh Campground, Mount Rainier National Park
Harlequin duck diving for bugs, Mount Rainier National Park
Harlequin duck in the Ohanepecosh Campground, Mount Rainier National Park
As quickly as I could, I pulled my tripod and zoom lens out of my backpack and set up on the railing to take some photos. The river still had a pretty good current so the duck started to drift downstream away from us. We crossed the bridge over to the west side and moved around to a rock outcrop which we used as cover. For about ten minutes, we watched the duck dive for 10 seconds at a time, dislodge rocks, and then pop up to the surface. I rattled off a lot of shots hoping for at least SOME decent stills and then recorded a few quick videos using my camera (only the second time I’ve used the video feature).

The water running through the campground has some wonderful, deep turquoise pools with small sandy beaches. On the south end of the campground, there is an impressive landslide scar which has its origins near the Stevens Canyon road, nearly 1,000 feet above the valley floor. It looks like an avalanche path but is actually the result of a landslide from the November 2006 storm event which dropped enormous amounts of rain. We wandered through the campground back to the road and then followed it back to my truck parked at the gate.

Experiencing this part of the park in the winter is a great experience. First and foremost, solitude is possible and most likely probable. The scenery is certainly breathtaking but being there without the sounds of cars traveling on Hwy 123 or campers throughout the campground really makes it a special experience. Before completely leaving the area, we headed just a few miles further east on Hwy 12 to the Pinnacles viewpoint. At the viewpoint, andesite lava flows take the shape of vertical columnar formations with yellow lichen on their surface. The cloudy skies finally made for better photo conditions and I took advantage of the abstract patterns that the formations provided.

Ohanepecosh River pool in the Ohanepecosh Campground, Mount Rainier National Park
Pinnacles columnar andesite detail
Pinnacles columnar andesite detail
Pinnacles columnar andesite detail
Finally, here’s a quick, Zapruder quality video of the harlequin duck diving for bugs:

Harlequin Duck – Mount Rainier National Park from Steve Cole on Vimeo.

Mount Rainier Lemons

Lemons. Whattaya do you do with them??

I was really looking forward to some plans I had made with a friend this weekend to return to the Ohanapecosh River valley in Mount Rainier National Park to revisit Silver Falls and possibly the Grove of the Patriarchs. We made this hike about two winters ago but I never made it across the hiking bridge to the closer viewpoint of the falls. Leading up to the weekend, the weather forecasts were calling for snow at a low elevation followed for sunshine for the day of our hike. I was excited.


Two years ago, we turned onto SR-123 from US-12 and had to immediately park because the highway was snow covered. This year, in the dead of winter, it was completely snow free so we kept driving. We didn’t see ANY snow the entire way up to the gate at the entrance of the park. I thought we’d be able to get a nice cross country ski in on our way to the falls but there was no snow to be seen anywhere.

Entrance to Mount Rainier National Park along SR-123 on February 19, 2011
Entrance to Mount Rainier National Park along SR-123 back on February 16, 2009
This was a big letdown but we decided to hike up the road without our skis. We had traveled about 0.75 miles before we encountered any snow on the road and probably another 0.25 mile for it began to build a solid base. It was still thin, and that was reinforced by a Park Service truck which sped past us and then turned into the Ohanapecosh Campground. Just before the turnoff for the Stevens Canyon Road, you reach the trailhead for Silver Falls (2.25 miles from the winter gate).

As the trail dives into the forest away from the road, the snow disappeared. In fact, the short trail to the falls were pretty much free of snow and there were barely any patches of snow in the vicinity of the falls. This “La Nina” winter has really done a number on us in the Pacific Northwest. It should have been snowier in the mountains but it never has delivered. The log bridge crossing over the Ohanapecosh was snow free; 2 winters ago, it had a 3-4′ mound of snow up to its railing.

On the far side, we settled in at the viewing area and I attempted to take some photos. The sun had crested the eastern ridges and was shining brightly on the falls. The photo taking was extremely tough and I resorted to taking bracketed exposures. These weren’t the conditions I was expecting (or hoping) for but an interesting thing began to happen. The spray from the falls was beginning to develop a rainbow and, as the sun rose more, it was getting stronger.

Silver Falls rainbow along the Ohanapecosh River in Mount Rainier National Park
I kept firing off bracketed exposures from the top of the cliff. There are some rock slabs below but they appeared to be icy and very slippery. My friend explored it further and found out that there was a narrow but safe access along the rocks to a better vantage of the falls. I gathered up my gear and headed down to the spot my friend had described. It was better but the spray that was generating the rainbow was also coating the front of my lens rather quickly.

Silver Falls rainbow along the Ohanapecosh River in Mount Rainier National Park
Clear waters of the Ohanapecosh River in Mount Rainier National Park
Thus began a repetition of wiping off the front of my circular polarizer, rotating around, and taking my bracketed shots. I’ve done this dance several times before so now I always carry three microfiber cloths with me to help ensure I always have a dry cloth. We spent about an hour at the falls before hiking out. Originally I expected this to be a day long affair but the lack of snow really sped up our outing. Originally, I had hoped that we would finish with enough time to head a little further east on US-12 to the Palisades viewpoint for sunset but now….now we could double pack and head towards the mountain for sunset and I knew where we should go: Ricksecker Point.

This, of course, didn’t prevent us for still visiting the Palisades since it’s just around the corner from the SR-123 / US-12 intersection. The Palisades are a neat volcanic feature right along US-12. Across the small canyon from the viewpoint is an exposed columnar volcanic formation. There’s also a nice bonus view of Mount Rainier in the distance. The timing of our visit couldn’t have been WORSE because the sun was directly overhead of the formation. Photographs were impossible without glare I ended up with just this lone shot of the Palisades and this zoomed panorama of Mount Rainier:

Mount Rainier as viewed from the Palisades Viewpoint along US Highway 12, west of White Pass
Detail of the Palisades formation at the Palisades Viewpoint along US Highway 12, west of White Pass
The day was starting to get long so we needed to double back towards the Longmire entrance of Mount Rainer National Park. North of Morton, I noticed some puffy clouds were developing around the west flank of the mountain at around 5-6,000 feet. By the time we entered the park, it was too late to make it up to Paradise so I made Ricksecker Point our primary destination. This spot is a short loop road that has a couple turnout viewpoints of Mount Rainier, the west end of the Tatoosh Range and the Nisqually River valley to the west. In the winter, this road isn’t plowed so it provides a short opportunity to cross country ski. By this time of the afternoon, we had the backside of the loop all to ourselves.

The few clouds I had seen back near Morton turned into a thick mess at Ricksecker Point, obscuring the mountain. The views were otherwise fabulous and we came across an interesting set of animal tracks. If anyone knows what they are, please leave a comment! Only thing I could come up with was maybe a raven hopping across the snow & returning in the same track:

Unusual animal tracks in the snow at Ricksecker Point in Mount Rainier National Park. Please leave a comment if you know what it was!
Tatoosh Range ridgeline east of Eagle Peak in Mount Rainier National Park
Anyways, the afternoon light was beginning to warm up so we made are way back in hopes that the mountain was once again visible. It wasn’t- but the light was transforming into that classic pink winter light. I concentrated on the view towards the west but Mount Rainier began to show through some expanding windows in the clouds. I shifted locations and then concentrated on Mount Rainier. At the best time possible, the clouds began giving way and we were treated to it’s snowy slopes basking in pink light. Just magnificent!

Nisqually River valley in late afternoon light from Ricksecker Point in Mount Rainier National Park
Beginning of alpenglow light on the south slopes of Mount Rainier. Photo taken from Ricksecker Point
Mount Rainier revealed before the peak of sunset. Photo taken from Ricksecker Point
Mount Rainier Alpenglow from Ricksecker Point
Alpenglow light on the southern slopes of Mount Rainier. Photo taken from Ricksecker Point
Mount Rainier Alpenglow from Ricksecker Point
Mount Rainier Alpenglow from Ricksecker Point
Due to the NPS policy of shutting the gate in Longmire nightly, we couldn’t stick around too long after the show ended. We hurried back to my truck and drove back down the hill before the 6:30pm closure. The day turned out to be NOTHING like what I had envisioned. By remaining flexible and knowledgeable about where I was going helped me salvage the day. In fact, I ended up with some photos that I never would have taken had I followed through with my original plans!

In other words…make some lemonaide!

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!

Winter in Mount Rainier…

Several circumstances have sidelined me from taking photos for the better part of a month. With the holiday weekend, I was determined to finally get out and I decided that I wanted to head south to Mt Rainier. Initially I wanted to poke around the subalpine slopes of Paradise but the forecasts didn’t seem cooperate for mountain views.

After some thinking, I finally decided on returning to Silver Falls and the Grove of the Patriarchs in the southeast corner of the park. My only other visit was last June and I was curious how winter would change the landscape. First, I had to verify that this was possible. After some emails and phone calls to the Park Service and the state DOT, I was told by both that the highway was clear of snow up to the park’s entrance. That made a long day a little shorter with a roundtrip on snow of about 7.5 miles.

After picking up my friend, we drove another 2.5 hours to the turnoff from Highway 12 and were immediately greeted by this:

Highway 123 / Highway 12 JunctionCrap. Our long trip became even longer. The snow on the road now added another 2.5 miles just to reach the park entrance. We made good time getting there so we geared up and headed out on foot. Thankfully a firm base with only 1-2″ of new snow made snowshoes unnecessary. About an hour later, we arrived at the park entrance:

Entrance to Mount Rainier National ParkContinuing on, we finally arrived at the Silver Falls trailhead after another 1.5 hours (~5.25 miles from my truck). A short scramble downslope brought us to the falls:

Silver Falls in winter
Below the fallsDownstream of the falls:

Downstream of the fallsAfter lunch, it was time to move on and continue north. About a half-mile north, the Stevens Canyon Rd park entrance is reached:

Stevens Canyon Park EntranceHere, the snow depth was about 4′ deep (at about 2000′ elev). The trailhead for the Grove of the Patriarchs is just beyond the entrance. Upon arrival, we were greeted with a sign posted that told us that the suspension bridge across the river to the Grove has sustained damage during the fall 2008 flooding and was closed. Double crap.

Well, we had come this far so why not go another half mile to take a look? We did so and arriving at the bridge, we found it standing with no visible signs of damage. In fact, the entire span had 4′ of snow on the deck and seemed to be supporting it just fine. A sign on the bridge simply advised one person at a time when crossing the bridge.

We decided to cross it and I went first. I was able to cross without incident and so my friend followed:

Carefully crossing the Ohanapecosh RiverSafely on firm ground, we arrived at the Grove. Being the dead of winter, the highway (which is across the channel from the Grove) is closed and so there was no noise whatsoever. It’s very rewarding to experience this environment in complete solitude.

Grove of the Patriarchs
Grove of the Patriarchs panoramaNew growth on a very old Douglas Fir:

New growth..I admit that I have a hard time photographing this place and I think it just has to do with the immense scale of the environment. Here my friend stands in front of one of the cedars:

A Sense of scale..Big brother, little brother…

Big brother, little brotherFinally, there was this interesting sight. Normally, as limbs die on a tree, they break off due to snow, weather, etc. For this particular cedar, it hasn’t happened so it seemed like a medusa tree:

Medusa treeWith that, it was time head make the long trek back. As we headed back, the weather broke more and more and we were treated to some nice sunset color above us as we hiked out. About 8 hours and 12.5 miles roundtrip and we never saw a soul. A grueling but very rewarding effort.

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