Spray Falls

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!

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