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

Bear Mountain

Bear Mountain in the Wild Sky Wilderness
In 2008, the Wild Sky Wilderness was established by Congress after several years of grassroots lobbying. The areas set aside as wilderness lie largely in the southeast corner of Snohomish County and extend some of the protections that exist thanks to the Henry M Jackson Wilderness. The Wild Sky is comprised of three individual units- Ragged Ridge, Eagle Rock, and West Cady. The Eagle Rock and Ragged Ridge units are both characterized by steep and rugged terrain and the West Cady unit is characterized by miles of alpine meadows. The Eagle Rock unit is surrounded by roads (Index-Galena Road to the west & North, Highway 2 to the south, and Beckler River Road to the east) but lacks any easy access to its interior. Sure, logging’s historical infrastructure of now decommissioned roads provide some small amount of access but this area is devoid of any hiking trails. The creation of a trail plan was required when the wilderness was created but it will be several more years before any of the trails identified get constructed.

I’ve been interested in exploring the Wild Sky for a little while and finally got started this past weekend. I started with photographing Bear Mountain, which is in the northeast corner of the Eagle Rock unit. Using some of the existing forest service roads as a start, my final destination was the ridge line of San Juan Hill. During my research with Google Earth, it appeared to me that there were some open patches located around one of the high points on the ridge. The first thing I encountered on my visit was a decommissioned road. This was aggravating since I checked the Forest Service’s Motor Vehicle Use Map before leaving that morning and it is still shown as drivable. Guess I’d be hiking just little more than I had anticipated.
Bear Mountain (right) and Spire Mountain (left) in the Wild Sky Wilderness
Bear Mountain (right) and Spire Mountain (left) in the Wild Sky Wilderness
Troublesome Mountain (left) in the Wild Sky Wilderness, Columbia Mountain (back center), Kyes Peak (back right) in the Henry M. Jackson Wilderness
Since they are no trails, the directions were basic: climb uphill until it levels out. The steepness was pretty unrelenting. Many of the trees on the slope were almost J shaped due to the downward pressure that the winter snowpack puts on the trunks. It was a sweat filled 50 minutes to climb the 600 feet to gain the high point for this portion of the ridge but it quickly became worth it. The ridge top did indeed have several clear outcrops that looked both west and to the north. Even better, there were several weather snags that could be used as foreground elements for my photos.

The weather was certainly dynamic. There was a 30% chance of rain and, minute by minute, the amount of blue sky patches would change. It was perfect for a time lapse so I tucked my GoPro behind the base of one of the snags and fired it off. It was quite rewarding to get this peek into the wild interior of the Eagle Rock unit. The clouds did prevent us from enjoying views of Glacier Peak and some of the other more prominent peaks in the distance. Although we didn’t see any, there was evidence that mountain goats had spent some time up on the top (a few tufts of white hairs in the lower branches of a tree).
Bear Mountain (right) and Spire Mountain (center) in the Wild Sky Wilderness
Bear Mountain (center) and Spire Mountain (left) in the Wild Sky Wilderness
Bear Mountain (right) and Spire Mountain (center) in the Wild Sky Wilderness
After a healthy amount of time, I ended my time lapse and we packed up our stuff. We weren’t on the “true” summit of San Juan Hill but it wasn’t too far from us to the south. The ridge line is forested but travel wasn’t too bad thanks to the large amount of airy huckleberry shrubs. We even followed a faint trail or game trail for most of our traverse. We were close to the true summit but the point of diminishing returns had been reached. Neither of us felt particularly compelled to reach the highest point (it appears to be 100% forested anyways). The travel back down slope to the decommissioned road wasn’t as bad as our original ascent.

There was still some time left in the day and I decided that it was also high time that I visit the middle portion of the North Fork Skykomish River valley. It’s another place I’ve wanted to visit but haven’t been able to because the road (Index-Galena Road) had been closed to public access for several years due to flood damage. We made our way to the Troublesome Creek Campground. Across the road from the campground is a short nature loop trail along both sides of the creek. The water is clear and a brilliant shade of turquoise at times and the surrounding forest also has some interest as well. I thought there was a waterfall along Troublesome Creek but apparently it’s located along a different creek in the area. Oh well!
Bear Mountain in the Wild Sky Wilderness
Troublesome Creek in the North Fork Skykomish River valley
Boulder detail along Troublesome Creek in the North Fork Skykomish River valley
After coming home, I got a big scare- my memory card failed to read successfully. Oh god. Several weeks ago, I had a similar situation with my GoPro’s memory card. I turned to a card recovery program (RescuePro Deluxe) and it worked a miracle. Would lightning strike twice? Well- just about! I ended up losing a handful of images but I was able to recover the vast majority of them. After four years or so, I guess it was time to retire the memory card. There’s a lesson in there- retire your memory cards before you regret it!


Surprise Creek winter scene
Surprise Creek winter scene
President’s Day found me one mile up the Surprise Creek drainage near Stevens Pass. I’ve been up this valley once before, but that was during the summer. I’ve wanted to return but I hadn’t really considered returning in winter. I’m not sure why- it actually enjoys pretty easy year round access due to its proximity to the small “rail yard” near the mouth of the BNSF Cascade Tunnel’s west end. For some reason I expected to be alone as if this was my brilliant idea and mine alone. The six other cars present proved me wrong.

Fresh snow and no rain still make for a pretty good outing so away I went. My lone previous visit during the summertime only provided me with a rough familiarity of the hike. As a pleasant surprise, the trail was very well marked due to a stamped down snowshoe trail. The valley is largely within the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and has some pretty big trees to admire along the way. After a mile of travel, the trail begins to skirt the run outs of several avalanche prone side slopes. I don’t think the first couple run outs are that hazardous but beyond this point, the exposure steadily increases. This outing was also an opportunity to try out some time lapse possibilities with my newly purchased GoPro Hero 3 Black camera. The first large clearing (where two opposing avalanche run out meet in the valley bottom) had lots of interesting mounds and textures and was a perfect place to stop and explore.
Snowy tree along Surprise Creek
Snow covered boulders along Surprise Creek

Someone was a genius and figured out that you can easily modify an Ikea kitchen timer to become a panning base for time lapses (here’s the link) so I set up my GoPro to capture a 30 minute / 180 degree time lapse. The settings I used on my GoPro were the 7mp (wide) resolution and 2 second shot interval. I also used the ProTune option and tweaked the white balance using their CineForm Studio processing software. I have to admit that I’m pretty happy with the results:

While my GoPro was doing its thing, I wandered around the clearing to study the various landforms. It was untracked and pristine, and the large boulders buried underneath the snowpack created a variety of pillowy mounds fanning out around a huge boulder.

Skies were very flat and gray so sunlight was not going to help bring bring out the detail of the snow’s surface. I already knew that the shots I was taking would require Nik’s Silver Efex 2 plugin for conversion to black and white. It seems a bit silly to convert a photo of basically a black & white landscape into a black and white photo but plugins like Nik (or Topaz’s Black & White Effects) just seem to extract the fine detail out of the snow’s surface. I was a bit frustrated during my attempts to capture what I was “seeing”; the overall stillness and serenity of my surroundings, however, tempered those frustrations. After my GoPro time lapse had completed, I packed up and headed further up the trail. Soon enough, I recognized a few signs to let me know that I had traveled at least as far as my lone summertime visit. I spied a couple potential photos but judged the set up for them to be too hazardous. The lateness of the afternoon was also catching up with me so it was time to turn around.

There’s a nice, tall waterfall just around the corner from the trail head that I wanted to visit but ended up bagging it. Some other time (maybe even this winter). Upon reviewing my photos from the trip, I was most drawn to the photos which showcased the texture that fresh snow possess. These certainly weren’t the shots I was expecting to find during my outing but they were a nice challenge to capture. Winter is turning the corner and these kinds of opportunities are winding down and that does sadden me a little. Snow has such a magical quality to it and its ability to completely transform the land is amazing. I’m already looking forward to my next opportunity, whenever and wherever it may be.

Snow covered boulders along Surprise Creek
Snow microscapes along Surprise Creek
Snow microscapes along Surprise Creek

Fall- Meet Winter

First snowfall on Vine Maple leaves - Quartz Creek Trail, Mount-Baker-Snoqualmie National ForestFall is here! So is winter??

My little road trip to photograph fall color coincided with the first real storms we in the Pacific Northwest have encountered in over two months. Those storms came with the first snow for the mountains, too. Our plan was to head over to Leavenworth for their famous fall color and make a side trip or two on the we(s)t side of the pass. Our first stop was to check out the upper North Fork Skykomish River valley via Jack Pass. Fall color conditions up the Highway 2 corridor (as well as up the Beckler River valley) still have some room to improve this week but our lack of recent precipitation have done a number on our trees as well. Many vine maples crumpled and dropped their leaves before transforming into the oranges and reds they’re known for.

Saturday’s weather was supposed to be gray and stormy so perfect conditions for photographing the fall color. We expected to encounter snow going over Stevens Pass (at 4,000 feet) and based on the forecasts, I figured we’d get close to the snow level going over Jack Pass but be just underneath the snow level (Jack Pass tops out at 2,500 feet). As we approached the pass via the Beckler River Road, the trees were flocked with snow. So much for avoiding the snow until Stevens Pass! The snow remained more of a visual attraction and hadn’t really accumulated on the road. The snow disappeared fairly quickly as we descended the north side of Jack Pass.

First snowfall on Vine Maple leaves - Quartz Creek Trail, Mount-Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest
First snowfall along the Quartz Creek Trail, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest
First snowfall along the Quartz Creek Trail, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National ForestCrossing the North Skykomish River, we could see that the north slopes of Bear Mountain were flocked with snow fairly close to the bottom of the valley (about 1,600 feet). We turned onto Forest Service Road 63 and drove the remaining four miles to its end. After crossing the bridge over Goblin Creek, the snow flocked trees returned. The fall color I had anticipated (hoped) for near the end of the road was largely done but there were sporadic examples of vine maple color with snow. Bonus!

The road ends at a large parking area for three different trailheads- Quartz Creek, West Cady Ridge, and North Fork Skykomish River Trail. There was a mobile home (!) parked in one part of the parking lot but we otherwise had the area to ourselves. We decided to check out the area around the Quartz Creek trailhead and found a gold mine of possibilities. We spent about an hour at different spots before getting on with our day. Before leaving the North Fork Skykomish, we stopped at a great talus field at the base of Excelsior Mountain’s north slopes.

North Fork Skykomish River and early Snowfall near Excelsior Mountain, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest
Early snowfall and fall color along Forest Service Road 63, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest
Early snowfall on Vine Maple leaves along Forest Service Road 63, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National ForestA few years ago, I timed things right and the whole talus field was filled with orange color. This year, however, the color was largely over. Lucky for me, the cloudy conditions and snow flocked trees still presented some opportunities to take advantage of. In the back of my mind I kept thinking of the snow falling on Jack Pass so I didn’t want to spend a ton of time here. Traversing back over Jack Pass was uneventful. At the last minute, we made a quick stop were Johnson Creek flows into the Beckler River. The opposite bank (west bank) usually has a real nice grouping of vine maple and this year was no exception (though colors were just a wee bit beyond peak).

The day was quickly passing so it was time to head up and over the Stevens Pass. Conditions up there were snowy and windy but not really affecting travel. I had to pull over in the vicinity of the Stevens Pass Nordic Center because the upper slopes of Nason Ridge were a beautiful mix of snow, fall color, and green forest. After a few quick photos, the wind and snow from the pass caught up with us! The cloud of snow crept in and sucked the contrast out of the scene in front of me. That was enough so back in the truck and down the hill towards the blue sky and sunshine of the east slopes!

Beckler River fall color near Johnson Creek, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest
Confluence of Johnson Creek and the Beckler River, Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest
Fall to winter transition on Nason Ridge, Wenatchee National ForestThe stretch of Highway 2 in the vicinity of Nason Creek and the community of Merritt was awash in fall color. It was really quite amazing and the only regret from the day was that we did not stop to look for photo opportunities in this area. The day was getting shorter and our plans included Tumwater Canyon and Icicle Creek Canyon. The color in Tumwater Canyon wasn’t bad but the lighting sure was. The sun was directly above the ridges, creating lots of harsh transitions from sun to shade. I couldn’t find anything compelling to shoot so we continued on to Icicle Creek Canyon.

My friend has spent a lot of time climbing up and down the valley but this was my first visit. The road travels some 18 miles up valley through spectacular scenery. The valley is deeply incised; relief between valley floor and adjoining ridges can range between 3-5,000 vertical feet! Displays of fall color are fairly constant throughout the valley although it is spaced out. At the upper end of the valley where the road turns back west, the southern valley slopes are littered with larch. In fact, some larch can be found in the vicinity of the Rock Island Campground along the road.

Fall to winter transition on Nason Ridge, Wenatchee National Forest
Icicle Creek downstream of Eight Mile CreekI was a bit overwhelmed by it all and found it hard to find anything to photograph. The same lighting issues from Tumwater Canyon carried over to Icicle Creek Canyon. The end result was a lot of looking but not much photographing. Time was also a factor because I still wanted to travel back over Stevens Pass while it was still light. That didn’t leave a whole lot of time. Hopefully I’ll be a little better prepared for future visits in the area. While my trip to the Leavenworth area didn’t yield much, my trip to the upper North Fork Skykomish River valley on a whim was something special. It ended up being the highlight of the day for both of us. I don’t know if the colors will last into next weekend so if you’re going to go check them out, it’s better to go sooner than later!

Larch fall color, upper Icicle Creek Canyon
Larch fall color, upper Icicle Creek Canyon

Snoqualmie, I Hardly Know Thee

South Fork Snoqualmie River and Franklin Falls
South Fork Snoqualmie River and unnamed waterfall
South Fork Snoqualmie River near Snoqualmie Pass
I don’t like crowds when I’m outdoors so making the decision to visit someplace notorious for crowds is crazy for me. The I-90 corridor up to Snoqualmie Pass is the place where ALLLLL of Seattle decides to go to when they want to go for a hike. That explains why I’ve only done one hike in the 13 years that I’ve lived in Washington. So what would lure me back? Franklin Falls.

I’ve been searching for locations to match an idea I have and Franklin Falls fit the bill. Franklin Falls is accessed by the ever popular Denny Creek trailhead and it is EXTREMELY popular. It’s only a mile from the trailhead to the falls but it turns out that you can also get there much quicker via a side trail off of a switchback of Forest Service Rd 58. Crazy simple!

South Fork Snoqualmie River near Snoqualmie Pass
South Fork Snoqualmie River near Snoqualmie Pass
South Fork Snoqualmie River near Snoqualmie PassAnyways, Saturday was a cloudy day with showers coming so it was a perfect day to make a first visit. Lots of Trillium were in bloom in the area and there were still pockets of snow despite a modest elevation of 2700 feet. Spring melt is underway and the falls were quite full. The spray from the falls filled the amphitheater and quite a ways downstream as well. Much like my experiences at Tamanawas Falls on Mount Hood, I had to constantly dry my lens of water drops before every photo. I was only taking some test photos so we only spent about a half hour at the falls. Almost on cue, the horde of visitors began!

Within 10 minutes, 15 people appeared so it was time to go. We continued up Road 58 towards the pass to visit another unnamed waterfall near Alpental. It’s similar to one located at the Deception Falls picnic area. Here, though, the South Fork Snoqualmie River drops and crashes into a rock wall and then spins 180 degrees before continuing downstream. It’s tough to shoot becase some of the I-90 structural elements can sneak into your frame.

South Fork Snoqualmie River near Snoqualmie Pass
South Fork Snoqualmie River Detail near Snoqualmie Pass
South Fork Snoqualmie River near Snoqualmie PassNext up was a 0.25 mile stretch of the river downstream of this waterfall. It’s a little ways down and away from the road but we had some glimpses that piqued our interest. There was a little more snow in the trees here so we had to be careful about collapsing undercut snowbanks. As it turned out, this stretch of river has several really interesting features. Despite being so close to the westbound lanes of I-90 (literally below them), you couldn’t hear the traffic. The looming rain finally made its appearance and that signaled that it was time to move on again.

The last location in this part of the valley I wanted to check out was the Ashael Curtis Nature Trail. It’s your typical short loop trail through a forest with some old growth-esque sized trees (but still held much evidence of prior logging including springboard notches on a stump). I don’t know the history of this particular nature trail but it does appear as though it has been hammered by storms. There’s lots of windfall debris all over the place which made things a little too difficult to come up with good compositions. The large trees are still worth visiting, though!

South Fork Snoqualmie River near Snoqualmie Pass
Weeks Falls along the South Fork Snoqualmie River in Olallie State ParkTo finish off the day, we headed west back towards North Bend and took Exit 38 to go check out Weeks Falls in Olallie State Park. The falls are wedged between a dam upstream and a hydroelectric spillway on the downstream end. I imagine that the falls were probably more aesthetic before humans made “improvements.” The advection fog which we observed forming over the South Fork Snoqualmie River in the Denny Creek area was now making its appearance at the top of Weeks Falls.

Compositions are tough here so I focused on more intimate scenes. After a little while, full fledged rain began and it was time to call it a day. It was only a recon outing but I’m definitely excited about what I found. I’ll have more to share from this area in the future.
South Fork Snoqualmie River Detail near Weeks Falls in Olallie State Park
Weeks Falls along the South Fork Snoqualmie River in Olallie State Park

Lewis River Drainage 2012

Curly Creek, Lewis River Drainage Curly Creek, Lewis River Drainage
To put the cap on my trip to Oregon, I once again made the side trip to the Lewis River drainage on my way back home. If you recall my post from a year ago, my first visit to this area came with sunny skies. Forecasts for my return visit this year was showers so I was sure to have better conditions for waterfall and stream photography. My first stop was Curly Creek. I’ve been unsatisfied with my standard photo of the falls from its public viewpoint and I know there’s a way down to the base of the falls. My goal was to try and reach it.

My first thought was to hike alongside the margin of the Lewis River from a spot about 0.5 miles upstream. After some consideration on site, I decided to double back to a campground located along Curly Creek and attempt to parallel the hike to its base. Some waypaths existed around the campground and provided a start. There was a nice waterfall located next to the campground that I decided to photograph. The sun appeared just as I set up my gear; so much for those showers!

Curly Creek, Lewis River Drainage Lower Lewis Falls, Lewis River DrainageThere was one bonus that came with the sun- a low mist has hanging over the creek, upstream of the waterfall and it was now backlit thanks to the sunlight. After taking my share of photos, I packed up since I still had a ways to travel to reach the falls. The waypath I used would appear and disappear but the travel wasn’t as ornery as it could be (no devil’s club!). That’s not to say it was easy- I sweated a ton but did make it to the rim of the Lewis River. The final distance was the toughest and the sketchiest. I was so close- but I didn’t feel confident that I could descend safely. The only course of action was to turn back. After all, the waterfall will still be there!

Regrouped and refreshed back at my truck, I headed further up valley to the Lewis River waterfalls (which I never visited last year). On the way to the Lower Lewis Falls trailhead, I spied a few roadside attractions which I made mental notes of; I would try and visit them on my way back to I-5. Lower Lewis Falls is the largest of the three waterfalls on the Lewis River and the easiest to view. After parking, the viewpoint for the falls are a mere 100 yards away atop the high cliff. I didn’t stay long since the views are limited..

Lower Lewis Falls Detail, Lewis River Drainage Lewis River from along the Lewis River TrailMy last stop up valley was the Middle Lewis Falls trailhead. The waterfall isn’t very far (only a 0.5 mile hike upstream), and unlike Lower Lewis Falls, you can get fairly up close to Middle Lewis Falls. The river drops 33 feet and crashes into a broad piece of bedrock literally right next to the trail. It’s quite a powerful scene, especially in springtime when the river level is high. Those high river levels made the waterfall a solid wall of whitewater. Before calling it a day, I made a few stops at some locations that caught my eye while driving in. It was a nice end to a trip that had a rocky start!
Vine Maple and snag, Lewis River Drainage Unnamed Creek, Swift Reservoir Drainage

Columbia Gorge 2012

Mid to late May is the time for my annual trip south to the Columbia River Gorge and Mount Hood area. It’s usually a jam packed few days so this year I’m going to group some like minded outings together. This year my Gorge visits were limited to Oneonta Gorge and Elowah / Upper McChord Falls, both of which were first visits for me. I was very fortunate to have both locations all to myself!

Oneonta Gorge in spring. Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Oregon
Oneonta Gorge in spring. Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Oregon
Oneonta Gorge in spring. Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Oregon
Wetland along Historic Columbia River Highway, near Ainsworth State Park
…and on a much rainier day, here are some photos from the Elowah Falls area-

Elowah Falls
Upper McChord Creek Falls
Upper McChord Creek Falls

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.

Sunny Deception Creek

Last winter I visited the Deception Creek Trail in hopes of reaching a particular waterfall in order to capture it in a winter setting. That attempt ended prematurely due to time constraints. This winter I never really had the chance to try again until this past week. I didn’t have high hopes since our weather has finally shifted away from full-time snow & rain to a more transitional phase. I parked near the Deception Falls picnic area and started my hike up to the trailhead. It’s always a bit dangerous to be walking along a road with a 60mph speed limit but drivers are considerate for the most part.

The hardest part is also the most hilarious- ascending and crossing the snowbank created by the highway snowplows. This year, that equates to climbing up onto a four foot high bank consisting solely of unconsolidated snow with the consistency of sugar. Once atop the bank, I donned my snowshoes and took two steps. And quickly sank down to my waist. Whoops. While one snowshoe was outside of my little burrow, my other snowshoe was buried by backfilled snow and became an impromptu deadman anchor.

Deception Creek breaking free of winter
Waterfall on Deception Creek
Sunlight dappled rapids along Deception Creek
I spent the next 5-10 minutes digging out my foot by hand in the glorious sunshine. Having freed my foot and retrieved my snowshoe from the black hole of snow, I regrouped and mushed forward to the trailhead. There was about 3 feet of snow out in the open but that diminished slightly to about 2 feet once I was in the forest. Due to the snow filled access and limited parking, I was assured of a solitary experience. The skies above were partly cloudy so sunshine would beam through the old growth forest from time to time.

I followed some old snowshoe tracks along the official trail and made my way deeper into the forest. In short order, I passed the spot I turned back from last winter. Sure enough, the spot I coveted was only a short distance further. Doh! I climbed up into position and began to fire away. As anticipated, the snowpack was “spring dirty” with fir needles and cones. The wide shots will have to wait until next winter so I focused more on isolating little scenes throughout the area.

Rapids along Deception Creek
Deception Creek waterfall detail
Deception Creek detail
As I finished up, a very quick snow squall drifted through while the sun continued to shine. A great, fun day but it was time to head back. Once back at my truck, I thought about making another stop just a bit further east but talked myself out of it. On the drive back to town, The summit ridge of Mount Index was knifing through some passing white clouds. I pulled over and took some shots thinking they might make some nice black & white photos. Behind me, the summit of Baring Mountain was doing the same thing.

I was more than happy with the day so I packed up and called it good. Just another great day in the Cascades!..

North Peak of Mount Index and clouds
Impressive north face of Mount Index
Clouds swelling above the summit of Baring Mountain
Mount Index and clouds

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