Archive for the ‘National Parks’ Tag

Friday Foto Talk: Photography in National Parks, Part III   6 comments

Sunrise over Lake Powell at Lone Rock.

This is a follow-up to the recent series on photography in national parks.  For these mini-series, they just seem to naturally make up the nice round number of three parts.

Closures & Budget

In one of those posts I listed some of my likes and dislikes on shooting in national parks.  Here is one more pair:

Like:  National parks are open all the time.  Unlike state parks and some other protected areas, which are often closed from dusk to dawn, national parks are generally open 24/7/365.  That means you can go out with your flashlight and hike down a trail to an overlook to gaze at stars (and photograph them).  There are some exceptions, and because of the near universality of this always-open policy, it can be a rude surprise to learn after you’ve arrived to a park that it doesn’t really apply there.  Make sure to check their website before heading out.  A few of these exceptions are described below.

Dislike:  The Park Service has an extremely limited budget and yet in many cases does not seem to know how to spend it wisely.  They are constantly under threat of either being shut down or privatized.  Politically it’s the right-wingers & anti-government tea party types who push this agenda.   While I believe strongly that parks should remain public and that they’re too commercial as it is, I do notice the NPS wasting their limited funding.

For example, I think too much money is spent at Yellowstone and other popular parks on a police force that seems much more well-staffed than it needs to be.  A law-enforcement ranger in an SUV costs a lot of money, much more than an educational ranger who spends a lot of time outside, on foot.

Several decades back the NPS committed strongly to ramping up their law enforcement, replacing real rangers with police in ranger outfits.  I believe strongly that this was wrong, primarily because it took resources away from education and interpretation, the traditional role of a ranger.  It’s not that I disagree with having cops around; crime takes place in parks just like it does anywhere.  It’s just that in most cases the numbers of police is overkill.  There are neighborhoods in many cities that would love to have half the police presence that Yellowstone has.

Orange lichen and sandstone in the Grand Staircase, southern Utah.

Exception 1:  Chaco Canyon.  

This former center of the Ancestral Puebloan (aka Anasazi) culture in New Mexico has a scenic loop road that is the only way to access most of the ruins and trails in this national historic park.  In order to control potential poaching of archaeological resources, the park closes that road at dusk.  I can personally attest to their strict enforcement at Chaco; they want you out before the sun disappears below the horizon.  I had to talk to the superintendent to get a (spendy!) ticket dismissed because I was shooting at sunset and assumed a small grace period.

The supernova pictograph in Chaco Canyon is only accessible by hiking.

The supernova pictograph in Chaco Canyon is only accessible by hiking.

 

Exception 2:  Mesa Verde.  

Mesa Verde in Colorado is similar to Chaco.  That is, there is no access to the cliff dwellings after sunset.  The reason, as always, is to protect resources.  While that is certainly understandable, resources need protection all the time.  The real reason is the usual lack of staffing, a budget issue.

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah.

Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, Utah.

Exception 3:  White Sands National Monument.

This place in New Mexico has an unusual policy where they close the entrance gate from about dusk to dawn, with hours varying by season.  It’s very much like a state park or wildlife refuge.  The reason given is the adjacent missile range, so it’s a safety issue.  But it’s also because they don’t have money to patrol at night.  They are happy to open early for sunrise or stay late if you pay them $50 per extra hour, which is actually a pretty good deal if you have a group.  But really: the military doesn’t have money to patrol their own boundaries?

Early morning at White Sands, New Mexico.

Early morning at White Sands, New Mexico.

DUSK TO DAWN CLOSURES 

When protected areas are closed at night it can create a problem for landscape & nature photographers, even those who don’t want to shoot the stars.  Because of the need to concentrate our shooting at dawn and dusk, it can be quite difficult to properly shoot at sunset and get out by nightfall.  No good photographer packs up right after the sun dips below the horizon, for one thing.  The best light often comes after that.

I’ve found that many state parks will give you a decent grace period; you’re okay until it is fully dark.  Even so, when you hike a fair distance to a sunset spot, it’s well and truly dark when you return to the car.  A grace period won’t help in that case.

Another recent image from the Grand Staircase, Utah.

Another recent image from the Grand Staircase, Utah.

Although (some) state and other parks may show some flexibility, things are different at national and state wildlife refuges.  These sites are managed for wildlife not people, so don’t expect much if any consideration.  Some areas, in fact, are closed to entry day and night.  And it’s common to close areas seasonally for breeding birds.  I’ve heard of people being jailed for entering wildlife refuges, even those without firearms.  Poaching is a big problem at many refuges, so it’s perfectly understandable.

But I often wish for a world without so many rules.  Most are made and enforced because of a very small minority of people who can’t seem to figure out how to behave.  But it’s all of us who have to suffer for it.  I suppose it’s one of those things that can’t be helped, so why stress about it?

That’s it for this week.  I may have come off as a bit of a grump, but that’s not really me at all.  I’m actually very happy having all these fantastic places to shoot and play.  But the main reason for my appreciation is that it’s unlike so much of what humans do, which is the result of rather selfish, short-term thinking.  But parks and preserves are set aside for future generations and thus arise from more enlightened long-term thinking.  Have a great weekend and happy shooting!

Sunset at Coral Pink Sand Dunes, a state park near the much more famous Zion National Park, Utah.

Sunset at Coral Pink Sand Dunes, a state park near the much more famous Zion National Park, Utah.

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Friday Foto Talk: Ethics & Photography in National Parks   6 comments

Chaco Canyon from Penasco Blanco, an out-of-the-way ruin requiring a hike to get to.  Being here at sunset means risking a ticket (see text below)

Last week I listed a few likes and dislikes of visiting and photographing in national parks.  All subjective of course.  When I say I dislike something, it means I dislike only the one thing.  Please don’t try to read anything more into it.  For example, in general I dislike crowds.  Not at ballgames, rock concerts, etc.; they’re a part of the experience at such places.  I certainly don’t begrudge the many people who love our parks and visit them.  I recognize that if crowds at parks are a problem then I’m a part of that problem.  It’s just that I can’t enjoy any natural area if it’s too crowded.

The Yellowstone River meanders through Hayden Valley. While the road through here is very busy, you can hike short distances cross-country for different views.

The Yellowstone River meanders through Hayden Valley. While the road through here is very busy, you can hike cross-country for different views and few people.

Pet Peeve #1: Littering

And speaking of crowds in parks, it can lead to other problems.  One of them, a big pet peeve of mine, is littering.  Strangely, the Park Service seems to do little to combat this problem.  For example the publication you get upon entering any park spends a lot of time warning of the dangers of bears, falling rocks or whatever hazards exist naturally (and obviously) in parks.  Especially bears, they seem completely fixated on bears.  But they say nothing about littering.  The park newsletter is the obvious place to mention the fact that littering is illegal and subject to a fine.

I believe the Park Service thinks the problem was beaten years ago.  Through the 1970s Americans began to litter a lot less.  We became much more environmentally aware in that era.  And increasing fines for littering didn’t hurt either.  But those days are gone now.  The younger generations tend to be less environmentally conscious than their parents.  In other words parents have dropped the ball in this way like so many others.

In addition (warning: this is going to sound politically incorrect), the immigrant population has been increasing.  While that isn’t a bad thing of course, many of them come from places where littering is socially acceptable (though that is now changing in certain parts of the world).  These people simply need to be educated, and for those of us who already know, we need to be reminded.  If anyone doesn’t get the message, break out the fines.  Money talks, in any language.  But the NPS isn’t doing any of this.  As a result we all get to see plastic water bottles and toilet paper strewn about in our national parks.

If Death Valley gets busy you can always head over to adjacent Panamint Valley, a great place to look for feral burros.

If Death Valley gets busy you can always head over to adjacent Panamint Valley.  Also within the park, it’s a great place to look for feral burros.

Sometimes it pays to be short: A small passageway in Lehman Caves, Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

Sometimes it pays to be short: A small passageway in Lehman Caves, Great Basin National Park, Nevada.

Pet Peeve #2: The Ugly Photographer

Notice I haven’t mentioned the sorts of behaviours that get spread all over social media these days: the idiots (let’s be honest) who approach dangerous animals or enter environmentally sensitive areas to get selfies.  While these kinds of things are certainly damaging (not least to our collective self-respect!), I think they are still pretty rare.  So I don’t join in the public shaming on social media.  But the desire to document everything shows no signs of slowing, resulting in problems more subtle and insidious than charging buffalo.

WILDLIFE & THE GOLDEN RULE

I’d like to throw light on something I’ve observed with increasing frequency in parks.  While not as outright stupid as the tourist who wants a picture of his child next to a wild animal, it’s nevertheless very thoughtless and selfish.  First of all, despite our frequent cluelessness, the great majority of animals do not react to us aggressively at all.  The bad behaviour of photographers, whether they’re slinging a huge lens or holding up a cell phone, is almost always ignored.  But think about it.  We can still make life very difficult for the beings who call our parks home.

Every single day in the parks, wild animals are forced to endure a never-ending procession of tourists who think it’s okay to completely disrupt their lives to get photos.  For example, when bison or elk try to cross the road at Yellowstone, usually to access water or food, tourists routinely block the way in order to get photos.  I’ve seen the same thing done to black bears at the Great Smokies.  I’ve tried to get people to see what they’re doing, but have only gotten angry retorts.  Nobody likes to be called out no matter how diplomatic you try to be.

I spent quite awhile near this young bull elk, letting him get comfortable with me. He was laying down, resting in the forest just a few yards from the road but invisible to all the passing people.

I spent quite awhile near this young bull elk, letting him get comfortable with me. He was laying down, resting in the forest just a few yards from the road but invisible to all the passing people.

I know the good people who read this blog wouldn’t dream of doing this, but it’s easy to get caught up in the moment.  Put yourself in the animals’ places and consider how you’d respond to a stranger barging into your home, blocking your way to the frig while you’re trying to get something to eat or drink.  And just to get a stupid picture.  I don’t mean to rant or lecture too much.  Most people are conscientious.  They just need to hit the pause button once in awhile and think about what they’re doing.

Next week we’ll conclude this little series on the two sides of national parks.  Take it easy out there and shoot mellow.

Grand Canyon is the 2nd most visited park in the country, but if you're willing to drive a long gravel road, the north rim's Toroweap area is much quieter.

Grand Canyon is the 2nd most visited park in the country, but if you’re willing to drive a long gravel road, the north rim’s Toroweap area is much quieter.

Friday Foto Talk: Likes & Dislikes ~ Shooting in National Parks, Part I   17 comments

Sunrise over the Continental Divide, Rocky Mtn. NP, Colorado.

After several weeks of relatively involved Foto Talks, I’m in the mood for short and sweet this week.  As my annual pass to National Parks (NPs) expires, I’m trying to decide when (or even if) I should buy another one.  I probably will.  But it’s made me consider all that I love (and all that I don’t) about America’s National Parks.  I’d love to hear what you think of my likes or dislikes.  Or if you have any of your own you’d like to add.  So fire away in the comments!

On the Ute Trail, Trail Ridge, Rocky Mtn. NP, Colorado, in the very early morning when all my fellow hikers are behind me, to be met on my return hike.

On the Ute Trail, Trail Ridge, Rocky Mtn. NP, Colorado, in the very early morning when all my fellow hikers are behind me, to be met on my return hike.

LIKE

National Parks are photo-worthy.  Of course it’s easy to like the scenery and wildlife of the parks.  It’s mostly why they were protected in the first place.  Nearly all of the parks are photogenic.

DISLIKE

NPs are crowded.  All that beauty and wildlife draws a lot of visitors.  Nearly all of the parks have seen steady increases over the past few decades.  And with recent drops in the price of gas, people are on the road, flocking to the parks.  Visitation is exploding.  Of course a few parks have always been busy: Yosemite, Great Smokies, Grand Canyon.

But two fairly recent trends are bothersome, at least for those of us with some history in the parks.  One is the increase in off-season visitation.  Another is exploding visitation in parks like Zion and Rocky Mountain (which has recently leapfrogged both Yosemite and Yellowstone).  Even small, out-of-the-way parks like Great Basin (which I recently visited) can get busy in summertime.

Colorful rocks and the lichen that like them:  Rocky Mtn. NP, Colorado.

Colorful rocks and the lichen that like them high up in Rocky Mtn. NP, Colorado.

LIKE

NPs are diverse.  Most parks are all about mountains, forests and streams.  Others are more famous for their wildlife.  But many others feature history or pre-history.  The newest unit, Stonewall National Monument in New York, even celebrates LGBT (gay) rights.

DISLIKE

NPs attract very non-diverse visitors.  I don’t know how much of a dislike this is because I think it’s slowly changing.  But parks are lily white.  Black Americans in particular are few and far between, especially in the big nature-dominated parks of the west.  Latinos are beginning to visit in greater numbers, probably because they have families to entertain.  But they’re also under-represented.

A mated pair of pronghorn (which are not true antelope) in Wyoming well outside of any NP.

A mated pair of pronghorn (which are not true antelope) in Wyoming well outside of any NP.

So-called cave shields in Lehman Caves, Great Basin NP, Nevada.

So-called cave shields in Lehman Caves, Great Basin NP, Nevada.

LIKE

NPs are managed for people.  Most parks go out of their way to make parks accessible to everyone.  And this includes the disabled.  It’s actually in their charter.  They were created with a dual purpose in mind, which if you think about it is a pretty difficult pair of opposing values to simultaneously succeed at.

But they do a good job.  There are accessible trails and fishing platforms at Yellowstone and other parks, for example.  Roads give access to the best attractions, and lodging plus camping allow staying inside the park (as long as you make reservations early enough).

DISLIKE

NPs attract all sorts of people.  Here’s a sad fact:  many people bring way too much with them when they go on vacation, yet they routinely leave common sense at home.  People arrive ready to have a good time, and that’s fine.  But for so many, a good time means getting loud and raucous.  You won’t see the same people in a NP that you see at a trailhead for a remote wilderness area, getting ready to hike in for a week of self-sufficient existence.  That doesn’t mean you won’t find these hikers in NPs (I for one, haha!).  It’s just a numbers thing.

In nature, around wildlife especially, being the typical noisy human being is simply not appropriate.  It ruins the atmosphere and impacts all sorts of creatures, including other humans.  But sadly it’s all too typical.  Many young people don’t learn how to have a different sort of good time until well into adulthood.  It’s one of the things I am thankful for.  I learned early on.

Next time we will continue with some general advice on shooting in national parks.  Happy weekend everybody!

Dusk falls at Bluebird Lake in the alpine terrain of a less-traveled area of Rocky Mtn. NP, Colo.

Mtn. Monday: Mount Mazama & Crater Lake   9 comments

Crater Lake, Oregon

Crater Lake, Oregon

My first day back in Oregon after almost a year gone, and I am psyched!  I went up to Crater Lake and hiked out into the snow for a sunset that never quite materialized.  But it was magnificent as always, staring down and out at one of the most beautiful lakes in the world.

For those who don’t know, this is a caldera: a giant hole in a volcano.  Calderas usually fill with lakes, at least until they are breached by erosion and drained.  This particular caldera was formed when Mount Mazama exploded in a furious eruption about 6700 years ago.  It’s estimated that the mountain was a bit bigger than Mount Shasta, making it one of the (former) giants of the Cascade Range.

The large magma chamber underneath the mountain emptied rapidly and gravity took over.  The entire peak area collapsed down, creating a caldera.  Some of the last volcanic activity at Mazama, some 800 years ago, formed Wizard Island at one end of the lake.  You can visit the island on boat tours.  I highly recommend you do this if it’s summertime and the tours are running.  You can hike to the 763-foot summit and then return to the cold blue lake waters for a very refreshing swim!

The meadows at Crater Lake aren’t as abundant as at some other Cascade Mountains, but they are nonetheless beautiful.

By the way, hiking to the top of Wizard Island gives you the all-time best lesson in the difference between a crater and a caldera.  Wizard is a cinder cone, a pile of loose pumice and other debris ejected into the air as hot frothy lava and ash.  At it’s summit is a crater, the hole left when that debris blasted out of the summit vent.  So instead of collapse into a large void beneath the mountain, craters are created by explosion outward.  Craters are normally quite a bit smaller than calderas.

This isn't Crater Lake, it's the lake filling Rinjani Caldera, a still-active but otherwise similar volcano on the island of Lombok, Indonesia.

This isn’t Crater Lake, it’s the lake filling Rinjani Caldera, a still-active but otherwise similar volcano on the island of Lombok, Indonesia.

Mazama’s position and height make it a magnet for snow storms, so it wasn’t long before the steaming caldera filled with some of the world’s cleanest water.  Springs in the porous volcanic debris also helped fill the lake, where evaporation and input from these two sources are now in equilibrium.  Visibility down into the lake is awesome, 100 feet plus.  In recent times that clarity has fluctuated, and scientists monitor things closely.

The forests surrounding Mount Mazama attract snowclouds in this image from the other morning.

The forests surrounding Mount Mazama attract snowclouds in this image from the other morning.

My first morning back into my home state after a long time away, and this is what it looked like:  Upper Rogue River area

My first morning back into my home state after a long time away, and this is what it looked like: Upper Rogue River area

Often overlooked when people come to Crater Lake are the beautiful forests surrounding the mountain.  On the wetter west side rises the Rogue River, which the writer Zane Gray made famous when he lived and fished its lower reaches.  Wandering around the rugged and heavily forested upper Rogue you’ll find big evergreens and crystal clear streams, punctuated by the occasional waterfall.

Enjoy Crater Lake, Oregon’s only National Park!

Crater Lake in August.

Crater Lake in August.

Rocky Mountain National Park, Part I   13 comments

The view from Glacier Meadows Campground, Rocky Mountain National Park.

The view from Glacier Meadows Campground, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

Time for a travel post.  After all, that’s supposed to be a major focus of this blog!  I’ve been to a bunch of America’s National Parks.  In fact, there are not many that have fallen through the cracks, parks that I haven’t yet had the chance to visit: Sequoia & King’s Canyon in California, Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, Nevada’s Great Basin, the Everglades and Acadia on opposite ends of the East Coast; not many.

Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park is an exception.  It seems strange that I’ve been to all of the other parks in the Mountain West but never this one.  It loomed large in my mind as a blank spot.  I felt I was missing something, until recently that is.  I’m splitting this post up into two parts, because I want to share a lot of pictures of this place.  I only had my little point and shoot camera, but what the heck, it did a nice job of documenting my trip.

With a week and a half off, and considering I’m working within a (long) day’s drive of Denver, I finally got the chance to visit the park.  The hot weather we’ve been experiencing made the decision easy.  I was longing to get out of the unrelenting flatness and heat of the Great Plains and back into the mountains.  The first night camped at elevation, not far from Colorado Springs, was also the first time I’ve used my sleeping bag in quite some time.  It was blessedly cool.  Perfect sleeping weather!

A common sight on the southern Plains these days, on the way to the Rockies.

A common sight on the southern Plains these days, on the way to the Rockies.

 

Getting There & Camping

After a short introductory hike through Garden of the Gods, I headed up to Rocky Mountain National Park northwest of Denver.  The usual gateway to the park that locals simply call “Rocky” is via Estes Park, a little tourist-town on the east side of the park.  Estes Park is about a 2 hour drive from Denver.  From here, after some last-minute stocking up, you have the choice of two entrances: Beaver Meadows, closest to Moraine Park, or Fall River to the north.

An alternative gateway town is Grand Lake, on the southwest side of the park.  At about 2 1/2 hours, this is a bit further to drive than Estes Park, but because I’m recommending a loop through the park anyway, it doesn’t really matter whether you enter or exit through Grand Lake.  However you get into the park, you won’t have to drive far before you find camping.  Campsites (without hookups) cost $20/night.

You can make camping reservations (which in summer is a good idea) at Moraine Park or Glacier Meadows campgrounds.  These are located in the most popular part of the park, the Bear Lake Road corridor.  Moraine Park is the more popular of the two, but I camped at Glacier Meadows and thought it was just fine.  It has a fantastic view (see image at top) and a very friendly ranger to check you in.  At either campsite you can show up early in the day to get a decent campsite.  Not too early before people check out; about 11-1 is a good timeframe.  Campsites are not huge and forested like we have in the Pacific Northwest, but they’re available.  That is, providing you don’t try to do Rocky on a summer weekend.  Do yourself a big favor and go during the week.  It’s a very popular park, and close to a big city.

The terrain at Wild Basin includes this area that was subject to recent flash flooding.

The terrain at Wild Basin includes this area that was subject to recent flash flooding.

One of the many wildflowers I found along the trail.

One of the many wildflowers I found along the trail.

 

 

Rocky is For Hiking

This is yet another national park that is best seen from the trail, whether on foot or horse-back.  One note: days often start clear, with clouds showing up mid-day and thunderstorms always possible late in the afternoon.  I don’t mind storms (call me strange), but if you want a better chance for calm weather start your hikes early and finish before late afternoon.

I drove up on a Monday afternoon, entering the park via an entrance I haven’t mentioned – Wild Basin.  This is a short gravel road, driveable in passenger vehicles, that dead-ends at a trailhead.  The hike in from here to Ouzel Falls is an easy 2.7 miles.  But you can hike further along to a glacier-gouged subalpine basin, ultimately ending up at beautiful Bluebird Lake 6 miles in.

Another key trail-head lies between Wild Basin and Estes Park.  Long’s Peak is the highest mountain in Colorado at 14,259′ (4346 m.).  You can climb the mountain from the trailhead along Hwy. 7.  In late season when there is little snow or ice, the climb is not technical.  It can be done in a long day, starting before dawn.  Or you can do one of a number of shorter hikes from here.  There’s a small tent-only campground at the trailhead.

The Loch is a beautiful place to hike to in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

The Loch is a beautiful place to backpack in Rocky Mountain National Park.

Flowery grassy meadows are found everywhere at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

Flowery grassy meadows are found everywhere at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.

Another great hike, one I highly recommend, takes off from Bear Lake Road at Glacier Gorge Trailhead.  This is located just before road’s end at Bear Lake.  A short jaunt up the trail and you find yourself at a gorgeous (and popular) little cascade called Alberta Falls.  But keep going, the best is yet to come.

The Loch, a lovely lake popular with backpackers, is your next destination.  When you come to beautiful Timberline Falls 4 miles in, you’ll need to do a little steep climbing.  But the reward for that comes quickly, in the form of two spectacular tarns.  A tarn is an alpine lake set into a depression carved by a glacier at the base of steep mountains.  Lake of Glass and Sky Pond (image below) are aptly named.

Sky Pond is your final stop before turning around.  Unless you want to do some mountain-climbing that is!  You will be hiking across rocky tundra at the foot of the granite giants.  It’s what you come to Colorado for!  The total mileage for Sky Pond is 9 miles round-trip, with about an 1800-foot elevation gain.  Not an easy hike, especially with the high altitude, but definitely worth it.

 

Sky Pond is a glacial tarn sitting high in Colorado's Rocky Mountains.

Sky Pond is a glacial tarn sitting high in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.

One more great east-side hike takes off from Bear Lake at the end of Bear Lake Road.  You will need to take a shuttle for this one-way hike.  First park your vehicle at the Fern Lake Trailhead near Moraine Park Campground.  Just back up the dirt road from here is a shuttle bus stop.  The park operates a free shuttle bus that runs daily from mid-June to mid-October, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.  You never have to wait long for a bus.

You’ll actually take two shuttle buses with a change mid-way along to Bear Lake, your starting point.  From Bear Lake, hike along the lakeshore to the right, quickly leaving the crowds behind when you veer right at a junction and begin climbing to a gentle pass.  After skirting a beautiful alpine lake at the base of rugged peaks, drop steeply down to Fern Lake and then out through a lovely valley to the trailhead, where your vehicle is parked.  You’ll pass some spectacular scenery on this 9+ mile hike, with the chance to see bear or mountain sheep along the way.

Elk browse in one of the park's many grassy meadows.

Elk browse in one of the park’s many grassy meadows.

Other Things To Do

After all that hiking you may be ready for some mellow pursuits.  If you have fishing gear (you can rent in Estes Park), fly-fishing along the Big Thompson River as it winds through Moraine Park is so perfect you won’t need to catch any fish to have a wonderfully relaxing time.  Early morning in Moraine Park is also a great time to break out the camera and tripod to get some pictures.  Herds of elk frequent the huge meadow that makes up Moraine Park.

The Big Thompson River, popular with fly fishers, is a crystal clear stream that flows conveniently through beautiful Moraine Park.

The Big Thompson River, popular with fly fishers, is a crystal clear stream that flows conveniently through beautiful Moraine Park.

There are several stables in the park that offer trail rides.  All of them seem to be centered around Moraine Park.  Those that I saw were your typical long trains of tourists perched uncomfortably on bored-looking mounts.  But I’m sure you could arrange to ride in a smaller group where they cater to a more experienced rider with a quicker pace.  However you do it, it looks to be well-organized.  And the scenery is truly spectacular for horse-back riding at Rocky.

Stay tuned for the second part of this post, where I’ll cover spectacular Trail Ridge Road and the west side of the park.  Thanks for reading and happy travels!

Bear Lake at dusk.

Bear Lake at dusk:  Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

Friday Foto Talk: Where to Shoot and When, Part II   2 comments

I hope your Thanksgiving was warm and wonderful!  This is the second of a two-part post.  Check out Part I.  I left off talking about what a traveling photographer should do with all those well-meaning recommendations on what and where to shoot, plus when is the best time of day.  Upon entering Arches National Park in Utah, the flier the ranger gives you has one of these lists of where you should consider shooting photos at sunrise and sunset.

An unusual cloud formation over the La Sal Mountains (Utah) just as the sun was making its first appearance on a cold morning after snowfall overnight.

An unusual cloud formation over the La Sal Mountains (Utah) just as the sun was making its first appearance on a cold morning after snowfall overnight.

Following Recommendations…sort of

After my first day in the park, I got around to reading the flier.  Among others, they listed Balanced Rock and (of course) Delicate Arch for sunset.  For sunrise, one of the spots on the list was the Windows area.  I didn’t know exactly what to think about the list, so I checked out the internet to see what popped up. After Googling “good photo locations for sunrise at Arches”, I came upon definite recommendations on where I should go.  The first page of search results all featured the same target: the Windows area.  They were more specific than the Park Service in that they recommended a certain composition where North Window frames Turret Arch.  Both arches are lighted by front-light from the rising sun, which is over your shoulder.

The sandstone fins at Arches National Park are where arches form.

The sandstone fins at Arches National Park are where arches form.

If you’ve read this blog before, you know what I did with this information. I made a note not to photograph Turret Arch framed by North Window at sunrise.  But I didn’t avoid the area at sunrise, far from it.  In fact, I think it is a great place to shoot at sunrise and I wound up visiting no less than four times.  On that first morning, I went to the recommended spot.

I had that funny feeling you get when you are doing something counter to your personality.  But what the heck.  I was there very early, I was curious, and only two other groups of people appeared pre-dawn.  Unfortunately the light was not great at sun-up.  I roamed around to look for other shots and voila!  I found some.  On subsequent visits to Windows I captured Double Arch, a nice panorama, and some great moonlight shots.

Each of the other mornings I visited the Windows area up to a half dozen photographers were in place before sun-up in order to replicate the picture of Turret Arch through North Window.  And this is in low season!  The area where you need to set your tripod is small so I imagine in high season competition is fierce.  There really isn’t enough room for more than a few photographers.

Double O arch, while on a popular hiking trail, is often empty because it is at the far end of the trail.

Double O arch, while on a popular hiking trail, is often empty because it is at the far end of the trail.

In Moab, the town near Arches, I saw two framed versions of Turret Arch through North Window.  One was in a bank and the other in a cafe.  I’m sure there are more hanging around.  This is a very popular picture.  Is it a good one?  Sure.  But I think it’s also somewhat two-dimensional.  And after shooting in Arches pretty extensively over a week, I know it isn’t even close to being the best picture you can get in the park, at sunrise or any other time.  It may not even be the best you can get from the Windows area.

This is one of the shots I got at the Windows area in Arches N.P. while NOT getting "the shot".

This is one of the shots I got at the Windows area in Arches N.P. while NOT getting “the shot”.

Another different sort of shot in the Windows area,  of Double Arch.

Another different sort of shot in the Windows area, of Double Arch.

What to Do with Recommendations

So what to do when you’re researching an area you are planning to visit?  I recommend not totally ignoring the lists of recommended spots for photography and when to shoot.  Check the direction of the sun at your planned time of visit (use the Photographer’s Ephemeris) to see what the angle of light will be. Check at sunrise and sunset; the recommended time to shoot will usually be based on front-light, and you might want to try it back-lit (shooting into the sun).

Also, check maps (or Google Earth) to get an idea of the terrain around the popular subject.  If you want to shoot it, don’t hesitate.  Go for it.  Just realize that anything that is listed very high on a Google search will be over-shot.  Period,  no exceptions.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t find other interesting compositions in the area.  It also might be worthwhile to get the recommended shot under unusual conditions (snow, moonlight + stars, etc.).  It pays to visit during the day with an idea of where the sun rises and sets.  Record the azimuth of sunrise & sunset and bring a compass, or use one of the smartphone apps for this purpose (I go old-school).

By using a map and having a healthy explorer’s spirit, you can often get a different perspective on the popular subject.  To illustrate this last way to visit popular photo spots without shooting the same shot everybody else does, let me tell you what I did at another place in Arches National Park: Courthouse Towers.

I took a break from Arches to go up to the La Sal Mountains, and of course that was the night it got cold and snowed.

Courthouse Towers in Arches National Park, shot during a “non-recommended” time of day.

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I decided to take a break from Arches and went up to camp in the nearby La Sal Mountains. Of course it got cold and snowed!

Shooting a Popular Spot your Way

You will find Courthouse Towers on almost any list of recommended places to shoot at Arches, in this case at sunset.  I had checked the area out one morning and noticed a group of people with rock-climbing gear heading out.  I watched where they went, up a steep gully.  They weren’t using their ropes.  Later that day, I hiked/scrambled up the gully and, as I suspected, found out it was a canyoneering area.

Canyoneering (called canyoning in Europe) means hiking up to the top of a canyon and then using ropes to climb/rappel/jump/slide/swim down.  I’ve done it a half-dozen times in technical canyons and it’s a blast!  The slickrock area at the top turned out to be fairly extensive and easily explored without climbing gear.  You do need to be sure on your feet and not too afraid of heights.  Best of all for me, it looked to have promise for photographing Courthouse Towers from above.

Early pre-dawn shot from atop Courthouse Towers in Arches N.P., Utah.

Early pre-dawn shot from atop Courthouse Towers in Arches N.P., Utah.

I got some decent shots on that late afternoon, but I suspected it might be even better at sunrise, shooting into the sun.  So I returned a couple mornings later, hiking up by headlamp.  While actual dawn was a little disappointing light-wise, once the sun was up I got a few very nice shots, including the ones above & below.  I really like the fact this picture shows the majesty of Courthouse Towers, but not with the popular perspective of looking up at them. Instead, this view is downward and includes one of the steep canyons that makes the area popular with the climber/canyoneer crowd.

From above, the Courthouse Towers in Arches National Park are awesome at sunrise!

From above, the Courthouse Towers in Arches National Park are awesome at sunrise!

Various forms of quartz (jasper, opal, etc.) lie scattered on the sandstone & reward the exploring sort of photog.

Various forms of quartz (jasper, opal, etc.) lie scattered on the sandstone, rewarding the exploring sort of photographer

Now you might or might not be up for doing this kind of exploring.  I certainly don’t want to encourage you to get into dicey situations.  You normally need to be a fairly confident off-trail hiker to explore for unusual nature photo opportunities.  Very important is to stay off of delicate areas.  For instance, in the desert southwest, there are extensive areas of biotic soil crust, a living community that is destroyed by boots and bike or jeep tires.

To start out, you should take easier and shorter routes and work slowly towards tougher excursions.  Remember if you start getting in over your head you can always turn back and retrace your steps.  Rely on your intuition on this.  The key, photographically-speaking, is to not have any expectations of certainty.

One thing I’m certain of, however, is that in popular areas such as National Parks, in order to find unique and interesting photos, you simply must be willing to explore, to eschew the shots that have become popular. You might strike out of course.  The safe and sure course is to go where other photographers are.  I’m not looking down my nose at those photos or the folks who capture them.  I simply want to point out there is another way to do it.

If you recognize this scene, you might be dating yourself!  It was in many "Marlboro Man" commercials.

If you recognize this scene, you might be dating yourself! It was in many “Marlboro Man” commercials.

I wound up investigating this  full pothole in Canyonlands N.P. for a couple hours.  Potholes fill after a rainfall and the creatures hibernating in the mud spring into action!

I wound up investigating this full pothole (aka water-pocket; -tank) in Canyonlands N.P. for a couple hours. Waterpockets fill after infrequent rain and the creatures hibernating in the mud spring into action.  These shrimp breed and die quickly, nourishing those who are still growing.

As usual, if you are interested in any of these images just click on them.  If you get to my galleries and can’t find the one you’re interested in, that means I haven’t uploaded it to my site yet.  I will, however, respond immediately to any request you have.  Just contact me.  I prefer meeting any of your needs with personal attention anyway.  Thanks for your interest!  This subject has given me some ideas that I’ll share in a post soon, a post that will be a different sort for me.  I hope you’ll stay tuned.

Driving along in Canyonlands National Park I stopped and scrambled up a steep hill to find this view.

Driving along in Canyonlands National Park I stopped and scrambled up a steep hill to find this view just before sunset.

A tough little hike was required to reach this spot, a spectacular stretch of smooth slickrock.

A pretty tough little hike was required to reach this spot, a large, perfectly flat stretch of smooth slickrock.

Visiting the Olympic Peninsula   33 comments

A rewarding sunrise from Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic Mountains highlights the peaks of the North Cascades in Washington.

A rewarding sunrise from Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic Mountains highlights the peaks of the North Cascades in Washington.

Back to my bread & butter, a travel-tip post on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, home to one of America’s best national parks.  I spent a week there in August.  I know I know, what took me so long to write about it?  I’ve been posting pictures for other posts, but it’s finally time to give my take on this beautiful place.  I’ve been there several times, but never as extensively as this one.  It is in my opinion the most diverse national park in the country.  Where else can you hike among flowers in alpine meadows, see glaciers, walk through a misty rain forest, or along a beach studded with sea stacks and brimming with tide pools?  Throw in skipping stones on a beautiful lake and a good soak in a hot spring and you have a pretty special place.

The crescent moon rises over the rugged Olympic Coast at Cape Alava.

The crescent moon rises over the rugged Olympic Coast at Cape Alava.

Places to Visit on the Peninsula

The best time to visit the Olympic Peninsula is anytime during the warmer months, mid-May to September.  April, even March can be nice, also less crowded.  You can have rainy weather at any time, but it is much less common July to mid-September.  Here are the spots I think are worth visiting.  I’ll start with the two most popular places.

      • Hurricane Ridge.  This area accessible via a twisting climbing road from Port Angeles is probably the most spectacular place in the park, and the Peninsula as well.  The views are astounding.  You can see into Canada, over to the Pacific Ocean, and out into the Cascade and Olympic Mountains.  The flowers peak in late July to early August.  There is a small visitor center and a few short trails.  If you drive the gravel road (doable in a 2WD) east to the end of the ridge, you will have more views.  And if you hike a mile or two out one of the trails here you can see Puget Sound and the North Cascades: awesome!
Mount Olympus and companions bask under a beautiful dawn sky as viewed from atop Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park, Washington.

Mount Olympus and companions bask under a beautiful dawn sky as viewed from atop Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park, Washington.

      • Hoh Rainforest.  Although this area on the west side of the Peninsula can get crowded, the trails have people dispersed in a hurry.  A few short nature trails give a good feel for the forest, and there is a very long trail that heads up the Hoh River, eventually reaching alpine meadows and views of the Blue Glacier. There is also a good visitor center.  Note that you’ll pay an entrance fee (currently $15) to access either Hurricane Ridge or the Hoh, but not for most of the other locations listed below.
Dusk gathers in the foggy forest of the Olympic National Park, Washington.

Dusk gathers in the foggy forest of the Olympic National Park, Washington.

      • La Push Beaches.  The coast near La Push is spectacular.  Several short trails head to beaches, which are popular for backpacking.  But you can also simply drive to Rialto Beach or First Beach.  It’s beautiful.  Do yourself a favor and take a couple walks along the beach.  Time it for low tide for some superb tide-pooling.  Pick up a tide table or jot down times from the internet.  Catch a sunset if at all humanly possible!
The beautiful Olympic Coast at First Beach near La Push, Washington.

The beautiful Olympic Coast at First Beach near La Push, Washington.

      • Ozette.  Actually if you have time do both Ozette and Cape Flattery.  The drive out there from Port Angeles is so beautiful.  Once at Ozette, which used to be a thriving if isolated community but now is not much more than a trailhead, you can hike out a few miles to Cape Alava.  This is the furthest west you can go in the continental United States.  It’s spectacular.  You can hike south along the beach then turn left and make a loop back.  It is about 9 miles for the loop.  The lake is a big one, very worth paddling on if you have a canoe or kayak.  I camped right on the lake and had some very nice starry skies (see image).

If you go to Cape Flattery and have time for a hike, you can head south along the coast on Hobuck Road.  It will give you a feel for how the Makah Native American tribe lives, and you’ll end up at the trailhead for Shi Shi Beach (pronounced shy shy).  Also, at Neah Bay, there is a very worthwhile museum focused on the native culture of the Makah and other coastal tribes.  Cape Flattery is spectacular, the northwestern-most point of the U.S. (excluding Alaska of course). On the drive out there, make sure and check out the beautiful beach at Salt Creek County Park.

Tide pool ornaments on the Olympic Coast.

Tide pool ornaments on the Olympic Coast.

The day's last rays of sunlight strike a sea stack off the northern Olympic Coast in Washington.

The day’s last rays of sunlight strike a sea stack off the northern Olympic Coast in Washington.

 

      • Lake Quinault.  Like many places on the Olympic Peninsula, this beautiful lake lies on American Indian tribal land.  It is bordered, however, by Olympic National Park.  There is a very nice lodge on the southern shore, plus a beautiful nature trail that winds through enormous trees.  The rainforest here is at least as lovely as that in the Hoh Valley.  Drive east past the lake for trailheads that strike off into wilderness.  There are rustic campsites up here, and BIG trees.
Lake Quinalt on Washington's Olympic Peninsula is a beautiful place for a sunset stroll.

Lake Quinalt on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula is a beautiful place for a sunset stroll.

A pretty little waterfall nestles in a verdant alcove near Lake Quinault.

A pretty little waterfall nestles in a verdant alcove near Lake Quinault.

 

      • Lake Crescent.  This glacially-carved lake is the most beautiful lake in Washington, if you ask me.  Steep mountains rise from a curving lakeshore.  Many people just drive right by it on the way from Hurricane Ridge to Hoh Valley.  Don’t be one of these people!  A small beach at the west end of the beach is a good place for a picnic.  Roads head along the far northern shore from either end, and a hiking trail ascends to Pyramid Mountain for even better views of the lake.
Lake Crescent on the northern Olympic Peninsula in Washington is calm under misty skies.

Lake Crescent on the northern Olympic Peninsula in Washington is calm under misty skies.

      • Sol Duc.  This valley covered in beautiful forest is additionally blessed with a (developed) hot springs.  Though I prefer undeveloped hot springs, this one is nicely done.  A short hike takes you to Sol Duc Falls, a beautiful (but popular) cascade.  Reach this valley by turning south just west of Lake Crescent.
Sol Duc Falls in Olympic National Park.

Sol Duc Falls in Olympic National Park.

      • Overnight Hikes:  The two classic trips are up the Hoh River and along the coast.  For the former, start at Hoh Visitor Center and head up to the Blue Glacier. You can turn north at the ranger station to enter a lovely lake basin.  Then if you do a shuttle you can exit through the Sol Duc Valley.  For the coast, talk with rangers at the park’s wilderness desk for local information.  You need to factor in slower hiking times plus tides.  There are several possibilities including the hike from Ozette to Rialto Beach, along with Third Beach to Ruby Beach.  Many other backpack trips are possible in the park, including some that ascend quickly into great mountains and lakes from the east, Hood Canal side.
Life thrives along the rugged northern Olympic Coast in Washington.

Life thrives along the rugged northern Olympic Coast in Washington.

A huge leaf after overnight rainfall in the Hoh rain forest.

A huge leaf after overnight rainfall in the Hoh rain forest.

 

The rugged coast along the northern Olympic Peninsula in Washington was a particularly serious threat to early shipping, and especially during bad weather.

The rugged coast along the northern Olympic Peninsula in Washington was a particularly serious threat to early shipping, and especially during bad weather.

      • Dungeness Spit.  I would be remiss in not mentioning Dungeness Spit near Sequim.  A hike along the Spit is a different experience, reaching far out into the sound.  And it is flat as a pancake!  Sequim is a small town east of Port Angeles.  It benefits from a climatic phenomenon called the rain shadow effect.  It means the rainfall in Sequim is about 16 inches, while over in the nearby rain forests of the western Olympic Peninsula it exceeds 150 inches.  The Olympic Mountains effectively block storms coming in off the Pacific Ocean.  The air rises and cools as it hits the mountains.  Cool air cannot hold as much water in its vapor form as warm air can, so it rains and snows over the high country.  As the weather passes over the peaks and air descends toward Sequim on the Puget Sound, it warms and dries, holding the remaining moisture back – until it hits the Cascades further east.
Low clouds cover the entrance to Puget Sound, with the lights of boats.  Viewed from atop Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park, Washington.

Low clouds cover the entrance to Puget Sound, with the lights of boats. Viewed from atop Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park, Washington.

 

Onward from the Olympics

You can make your visit even more special by visiting Victoria in Canada.  Just take the ferry from Port Angeles and make sure you have your passport with you.  There are countless lodging options, but perhaps the nicest are the many beds and breakfasts.  You can also stay in one of the hotels lining the truly beautiful harbor.  Whale-watching tours are available, but you should also keep watch from the ferry.  Orcas are not uncommon.

Fog and mist moves in on the beautiful Elwha Valley on the Olympic Peninsula near Lake Crescent.

Fog and mist moves in on the beautiful Elwha Valley on the Olympic Peninsula near Lake Crescent.

From there you can take a ferry over to the San Juan Islands, getting a taste of the slower life there before continuing by ferry back to the Washington mainland north of Seattle.  Some years back my girlfriend and I took her Westphalia camper from Portland up through the Olympic Peninsula, over to Victoria for a bit of culture, then to San Juan and Orcas Islands for more beauty and nature, then home via I-5.  It was a magical trip, perfect for a two week vacation in summertime.

I hope you get to visit this special place some day.  Or return for more in depth exploration if you’ve been there before.  If you are interested in any of these images just click on them.  They are all copyrighted and not available for free download without my permission, sorry about that.  If you have any questions, please contact me. Thanks for reading and have a great week!

A large sea stack and beautiful gold reflection from the sea highlight sunset at Cape Alava on Washington's Pacific Coast.

Beautiful gold reflections on the sea highlight sunset at Cape Alava on Washington’s rugged Pacific Coast.

The Cascades III – Mount Rainier, Part 3   19 comments

The oft-admired view of Mt Rainier from Reflection Lakes.

The oft-admired view of Mt Rainier from Reflection Lakes.

I visited Mount Rainier National Park in Washington this past August for a few days.  This is one of my favorite parks in the country.  When I was more of a backpacker I used to go up to Rainier and hike in the evening, getting an early start on the weekend.  I don’t mind hiking at night with a headlamp.  Sometimes you see some cool animals.  Well, maybe it’s not so cool to see a cougar at night alone!  I would spend the rest of the weekend off-trail, visiting pristine alpine meadows.  Alas, I wasn’t a serious photog. in those days.

There are many many waterfalls at Mount Rainier.  This one sits along a lightly traveled trail in the Paradise Valley.

There are many many waterfalls at Mount Rainier. This one sits along a lightly traveled trail in the Paradise Valley.

This last of the Mount Rainier series (but the Cascades series continues!) will pass on some travel tips.  Along with many visits over the years, I worked for one summer at Rainier a long time ago.  I actually lived at the park that summer and hiked nearly every day.  I was a pretty serious runner then and hit the trails on brutally steep routes.  My creaky knees remember every single mile.  But it was the best shape I’ve ever been in.  We also flew once per week around the mountain, counting elk.  It was a great summer.

So here are my favorite places to visit & photograph at Mount Rainier:

      • Paradise is by far the most popular place in the park.  It can be very crowded right around the visitor center.  But it’s a superb place to gain access quickly to subalpine flower-fields.  For the mobility-challenged, there are paved trails.  You can lose the crowds simply by hiking a couple miles out.  This is also the starting point for the hike to Camp Muir and the most popular route for climbing the mountain.
One of the many flowering subalpine plants at Paradise Park on Mount Rainier.

One of the many flowering subalpine plants at Paradise Park on Mount Rainier.

      • Staying on the south side of the mountain, Reflection Lakes is a great place to photograph the mountain at sunrise.  It is just to the left of the main road not far after the turnoff to Paradise.
The sun struggles to break through the fog at sunrise on Reflection Lakes, Mount Rainier National Park.

The sun struggles to break through the fog at sunrise on Reflection Lakes, Mount Rainier National Park.

      • If you want a great short hike, Snow Lake is just the ticket.  Drive a bit further east from Reflection Lakes and the trail-head is on the right.  It is only about 2 miles to Snow Lake; halfway up take a short spur to Bench Lake.  This gorgeous lake when calm has a perfect reflection of Rainier.   You can camp at Snow Lake.  By hiking in this direction you are entering the Tatoosh Range, a rugged line of peaks running along the south side of the park.
Snow Lake at Mount Rainier is peaceful in the early morning.

Snow Lake at Mount Rainier is peaceful in the early morning.

      • One of Rainier’s best Native American names is Ohanapecosh.  Keep going east past Reflection Lakes and down Steven’s Canyon to the southeast entrance.  Just before you get there, a trail on the left offers a great short walk along the lovely Ohanapecosh River.  An old-growth forest with huge trees grows along the stream banks.
One of the big trees the trail passes at the Ohanapecosh River.

One of the big trees the trail passes at the Ohanapecosh River.

      • Tipsoo Lake on the east side of the park is a popular place from which to photograph Rainier at sunrise.  Since I only have time for one or two over-popular photo spots on each of my trips, I have not photographed this one yet.  I’ll get around to it.  Google Tipsoo for beautiful images!
      • The White River Campground sits along an energetic stream at a great trail-head.  You can hike from here to Glacier Basin.  It’s a beautiful but fairly popular trail.  It is also the starting point for the climb up to Camp Schurman and the north ascent of the mountain.  In my opinion this is a better climb than Camp Muir, but I’m partial to glacier climbs.
One of summer's later blooming flowers is the beautiful blue gentian of boggy subalpine high country, here at Mount Rainier, Washington.

One of summer’s later blooming flowers is the beautiful blue gentian of boggy subalpine high country, here at Mount Rainier, Washington.

      • Sunrise is, like Paradise, a popular place to hike through subalpine meadows.  You have your choice of hikes, short to long, on a multitude of trails.  It’s not hard to leave the crowds behind here.  There is a visitor center plus walk-in campground.  This is the trail-head to gorgeous Mystic Lake on the north side of the mountain.  By the way, any time you want good back-country information at a national park, visit the back-country ranger’s desk, which is separate from the less useful visitor center’s info. desk. In many cases, Sunrise being one, the back-country office is in a separate, more rustic-looking building.
This furry critter is a hoary marmot and is a common sight (and sound) in the alpine meadows of Mount Rainier.

This furry critter is a hoary marmot and is a common sight (and sound) in the alpine meadows of Mount Rainier.

      • On the road up to Sunrise is the Palisades trail-head.  The road makes a big 180-degree switchback and there is a parking lot in the center of the curve. The trail heads out to Palisades and Hidden Lake (which make good day-hikes), continuing to wonderful Grand Park (overnight).  Although the trail is short on views of the mountain, it passes a number of beautiful lakes and meadows.  My favorite thing about it is the likelihood of wildlife sightings.  I’ve seen bear, elk, deer, and smaller critters on this trail.
Flowers crowd Clover Lake on the Palisades Trail at Mount Rainier National Park.

Flowers crowd Clover Lake on the Palisades Trail at Mount Rainier National Park.

      • Grand Park is an overnight backpack trip starting from the Palisades Trail-head.  It is shorter if you approach it from outside the park (google for directions). Grand is a huge meadow sitting high atop a mountain, and is a magnet for wildlife.  On one trip there, I approached the park at night.  The meadow was filled with elk!  I could hear them bugling a few miles away, and when I arrived there was a real party going on.  The male elk made it very clear to me that I was not invited.  I had to camp back in the forest; rutting elk bulls are not to be messed with.
Bull Elk

Bull Elk

      • Mowich Lake on the northwest side of the mountain is a wonderfully peaceful place to camp for a night or two.  Though you need to exit the park and drive awhile to reach it from the rest of the park, and the final approach is a gravel road, it’s worth it.  Mowich is the largest lake in the park and trail-head for a number of great trails.  You can stay over in a small tents-only campground.  The trail to Spray Park is awesome, climbing through great meadows with stunning views of the mountain.  Eunice Lake, about 2.5 miles from Mowich, is one of my favorite places to photograph the mountain from, especially at sunset.
Mowich Lake at Mount Rainier allows no motors and is accessible on an RV-unfriendly road, making it a very peaceful spot.

Mowich Lake at Mount Rainier allows no motors and is accessible on an RV-unfriendly road, making it a very peaceful spot.

      • Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground on the west side of the mountain is a great hiking destination.  You can reach it on a rough trail from the West Side Road, or on the Wonderland Trail.  There are flower-filled meadows along with tarns which yield great photos of the mountain.  The hike up to Pyramid Peak from here is steep but not too difficult a scramble.  On the other side of the peak is a great pristine alpine meadow.
One of the tarns (small lakes) in the meadows of Indian Henry's Hunting Ground at Mount Rainier National Park.

One of the tarns (small lakes) in the meadows of Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground at Mount Rainier National Park.

      • Lastly, if you’re a backpacker, consider doing the Wonderland Trail.  It is 93 miles of outstanding scenery, a trail that winds its leisurely way around Rainier.  You will face plenty of hills, so plan to not make record time.  You won’t want to hurry, believe me.  It’s an experience you will always remember.
If you're afraid of heights you will probably not enjoy this suspension bridge along the Wonderland Trail at Mount Rainier National Park.

If you’re afraid of heights you will probably not enjoy this suspension bridge along the Wonderland Trail at Mount Rainier National Park.

Plenty of other destinations tempt you at Rainier.  It’s up to you to find them (I won’t give away all my secrets!).  I would consider devoting the good part of a week at the park if you have the time.  Plan at least a few days for a good introduction.  Visit the park’s website for lodging and camping information.  This park gets busy on summer weekends, but it covers a huge area so don’t let that stop you. September is a fantastic month to visit, as the crowds have lessened greatly, the weather is generally perfect, and the wildlife is much more active.  Flowers peak in August.

Cloud Block

Please note all of these images are copyrighted and not available for free download without my permission.  They are low-resolution versions anyway.  To learn about pricing options for the high-res. versions, simply click on the images you’re interested in.  If you have any questions at all, please contact me.  Thanks for your interest, and thanks for sticking with me on this rather lengthy post!

Hiker's Heaven: Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

Hiker’s Heaven: Mount Rainier National Park, Washington.

The Cascades III: Mount Rainier, Part 1   8 comments

Mount Rainier is reflected in a small tarn in the subalpine meadows called Indian Henry's Hunting Ground.

Mount Rainier is reflected in a small tarn in the subalpine meadows called Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground.

It’s no use stalling anymore.  Let’s continue my series on the Cascade Mountains of the Pacific Northwest.  Check out Part I, an introduction to the Range’s geography & geology.  So which mountain should be next?  Well, there are many interesting options.  There are the little-known “climber’s” peaks of Mount Jefferson and North Sister, Glacier Peak and Mount Stuart.  There are the popular recreation meccas of Mounts Baker, Bachelor and Hood.  But there is just one mountain I can’t put on hold any longer: the Big Kahuna, the sleeping giant, the Mother of Waters, training ground for Everest, Seattle’s sky-ornament, Tahoma, Mount Rainier.

The images you see here are copyrighted and not available for free download without my permission, sorry about that.  If you want to see purchase information, just click on the images you’re interested in.  If you have any questions, please contact me.  Thanks for your interest!

Mount Rainier and the largest glacier in the lower 48 United States, the Emmons, are bathed in early morning sunshine.

Mount Rainier and the largest glacier in the lower 48 United States, the Emmons, are bathed in early morning sunshine.

Mt. Rainier, at 14,411 feet (4392 meters), is one of America’s most spectacular mountains.  It sticks up hugely and dramatically a little more than 50 miles southeast of Seattle, Washington.  Rainier’s prominence is enhanced by a total of 26 glaciers with over 35 square miles of ice.  In North America, only Alaska and the Canadian Rockies have more dramatic, glaciated mountains.  By the way, don’t get confused about Part III and Part 1.  It’s just that with this particular mountain, there’s too much to fit into one post.  Stay tuned for one or two more posts on Rainier, but we’ll still be on the Cascades Part III until we jump to another mountain.

Mount Rainier's Paradise Park

Mount Rainier’s Paradise Park

The hairy pasqueflower blooms in contrast with indian paintbrush.

The hairy pasqueflower blooms in contrast with indian paintbrush.

Mount Rainier was named by Captain Vancouver of England for a friend of his, Rear Admiral Rainier.  It’s original name, from a local American Indian tribe the Puyallup is Tahoma (or Tacoma).

A Dangerous Volcano

Rainier is considered one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes, and there are a few important reasons for this. Like Vesuvius in Italy, Rainier is situated quite close to population centers.  That is the most important factor that makes it dangerous.  The second most important reason is not, as you’d expect, the volcano’s activity level.  Rainier sleeps for long periods.  Instead, what makes it potentially deadly is the fact that it is steep and weak.  In other words, the same thing that makes it dramatic, sticking up so steeply as it does, also makes it dangerous.

Spray Falls on Rainier's northwest side is a spectacular cascade.

Spray Falls on Rainier’s northwest side is a spectacular cascade.  The mountain receives abundant precipitation, much of it in the form of snow.

The glaciers, with their incredible erosive power, have done a very good job of steepening the volcano.  But how is it weakened?  As the mountain sleeps between eruptions, it sits above the magma chamber below and literally stews in its own juices. Rainier is in a wet climate, and the mountain’s bulk draws even more precipitation its way.  Because of this, Rainier’s rocks are wet.  Add heat and acidic gases from below and you have a corrosive mix.  As a result the rocks are altered to clays, greatly weakening Rainier’s steep cone over time.  In other words, much of the peak is literally rotten.  Add these two things together, the volcano’s steepness and its inherent weakness, and you have a very real and constant hazard on your hands.

Fields of lupine bloom in the subalpine meadows of Mount Rainier, Washington.

Fields of lupine bloom in the subalpine meadows of Mount Rainier, Washington.

The biggest volcanic hazard at Rainier is not from lava flows but from mudflows (aka lahars).  If the mountain erupts lava or hot ash, large amounts of ice could melt quickly, causing a catastrophic flow of mud, rocks, trees, bridges, cars, etc. that cascades down river valleys, wiping out everything in its path.  But here’s the thing: an eruption is not really necessary to bring destruction to the surrounding populated valleys.

Now imagine a small earthquake, perhaps during an unusually warm summer when much of the ice high on the mountain is melting (can you say global warming?).  This could easily trigger a large and very destructive mudflow.  Geologists know this has happened in the past.  In fact, a good portion of the city of Tacoma (plus some of Seattle) is built on deposits from an enormous Rainier mudflow that buried the area some 5000 years ago.

Bears are not that uncommon at Mount Rainier.

Bears are not that uncommon at Mount Rainier.

The Rainier region now has a warning system made up of sirens that are triggered when mudflows higher on the mountain begin.  Citizens of towns like Orting and Enumclaw are taught to heed these sirens by escaping to high ground.  Mudflows are powerful enough to sweep away large bridges and buildings like a spoiled toddler kicks over his leggos.  But all their dirty work is limited to river bottoms, so getting up out of the valley will save your life.

The last of the day's light falls on Mount Rainier in Washington.

The last of the day’s light falls on Mount Rainier in Washington.

Smoky Photography at Grand Canyon   5 comments

A smoky view of the western part of Grand Canyon from the North Rim.

A smoky view of the western part of Grand Canyon from the North Rim.

 

This is a follow-up to a two posts on photography under smoky skies, one from Crater Lake and one from the North Cascades.  On my recent trip through the American West, I was as close as I’ve ever been to Grand Canyon’s North Rim.  Having never been there, I just had to make the side-trip up there.  I had heard that they were doing some prescribed burning in this part of the park.  Prescribed fires are very common in the West these days, as land managers try to reduce the amount of fuel in forests in order to discourage large damaging wildfires in future.

This fire, on the north rim of the Grand Canyon is one of several "prescribed burns" that took place in Fall 2012.

This fire, on the north rim of the Grand Canyon is one of several “prescribed burns” that took place in Fall 2012.

Because of the fires, I almost skipped the North Rim (again).  I was hoping to do some star photography, and very clear air is necessary for that.  I’m very happy I swallowed my misgivings and headed up there.  By the way, for some detailed travel-related tips on the North Rim, check my previous post.

Grand Canyon's majesty is on display as viewed from the north rim at Bright Angel Point.

Grand Canyon’s majesty is on display as viewed from the north rim at Bright Angel Point.

The image above was one of my first views of the canyon.  When you approach on the longish highway that traverses a flat, forested plateau, your first view of the canyon is always a stunner.  You know it is there, but the majesty and scale is always surprising.  In the late afternoon the skies were quite smoky, but this view towards the west is actually pretty clear.  The fires were to the west of my location here, which meant the light was ruddy red, yet I was not enveloped in smoke (where good photos are extremely difficult to get).

The sunset was pretty darn incredible.  I pointed my camera towards the west, where smoke was thicker.  Because of this, I did not even need to use a graduated neutral density filter to darken the sky.  This is quite remarkable; pretty much any other sunset photo like this would require this filter.  And no need to add saturation during post-processing, though you do need to add some clarity and contrast to cut through the haze.

Cape Royal on the Grand Canyon's north rim sees a colorful sunset under smoky skies.

Cape Royal on the Grand Canyon’s north rim sees a colorful sunset under smoky skies.

After sunset, the air cooled appreciably and the smoke steadily decreased.  You can see this in the starry image of the rising full moon below.  There is some haze around the moon, but the sky above is bright with stars.  It looked like I might get the best of both worlds!  As it turned out, photographing towards the west was still impacted negatively by the haze, but only for the stars.  The landscape part, the lower part of the image at bottom, turned out fine.  I processed the sky separately, and then merged the two in Photoshop.

The full moon rises on the North Rim of Grand Canyon, as Orion, Jupiter and company shine above.

The full moon rises on the North Rim of Grand Canyon, as Orion, Jupiter and company shine above.

Photographing during smoky conditions allows you to do at least two things: (A) While staying away from the worst of the smoke, try pointing the camera away from the sun, with your subject  bathed in light filtered through the smoke.  (B) As the sun gets very low, and depending on how hazy your foreground and mid-ground is, try photos towards the setting sun with a sky fully or partially shrouded in orange smoke.

I had a fine time up on the North Rim, despite (or maybe because of) the smoky conditions.  Thanks for reading.

A full moon lights this view from the North Rim westward down the length of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

A full moon lights this view from the North Rim westward down the length of the Grand Canyon in Arizona.

 

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