Road access to North Cascades National Park is extremely limited. The North Cascades Highway doesn’t actually travel through the park; rather it travels through the Ross Lake National Recreation Area. The road south from Canada to Hozomeen also only enters Ross Lake National Recreation Area; besides it is currently closed. There is a road from Stehekin that extends a couple of miles into the park, but of course, Stehekin has no road access itself. That leaves the Cascade River Road, which ends at the Cascade Pass trailhead. In my opinion, the view from the end of the road is amazing; the view from Cascade Pass is better (in their description of the trail to Cascade Pass, the Washington Trails Association says “perhaps no other trail in the state delivers as much reward for the effort”). But if you want to go this season, you better hurry. The Park Service announced yesterday the road will close five miles from the trailhead starting tomorrow for a minimum of two weeks. Following that, there is no telling when it might close due to snow.
I had the opportunity to hike to Cascade Pass last week when in the area for work. My business done at noon, I drove up the Cascade River Road and into the park. The trail is 3.6 miles one way and climbs about 1,700 feet. It starts out of the parking lot with 31 switchbacks, climbing through forest with occasional “peek-a-boo” views of the surrounding mountains. But with less than a mile to go, past the last switchback, the trail levels out and comes out of the trees for impressive views of glaciers, fields, mountains, and valleys. Wildlife sightings are common – a fellow hiker reported a bear near the trailhead, though I did not see it.
For continued views, the trail extends from the pass up Sahale Arm. For the atheltic hiker, the trail east down out of the pass continues about 30 miles, all the way to the aforementioned town of Stehekin. And for the truly adventurous, the Ptarmigan Traverse (a high backcountry route) climbs over the mountains south of the pass (some of my photo buddies have done this route and brought back amazing pictures). For me, at least on this day, I chose to travel up the Sahale Arm trail mile or so before turning around to get back to the car before sunset.
The fall colors were amazing, even if slightly past their peak on my hike, as I think you can attest by the accompanying photos. The featured shot above is a 3-shot vertical panorama looking back at Cascade Pass from the Sahale Arm trail. Captions explain the other photos (below).
The Cirque of Towers in the Wind River Range of Wyoming is truly an amazing place. The photos that accompany this post really do not do it justice. It clearly rivals the scenery in many a National Park or Monument, and while there, I heard more than one person question why it isn’t in one. My guess is that it may have more to do with local and western politics than anything else (for example, there was a large, vocal opposition to Grand Teton National Park), but that is just speculation. Or it may be that Wyoming is the only state in which the President cannot use the Antiquities Act to create a national monument. Whatever the reason, the Cirque is worthy. That said, it may be just as well it isn’t in National Park – if that were the case, it would be mobbed. While Lonesome Lake, located in the middle of the Cirque, isn’t really lonesome, it isn’t crowded either.
In my previous post, I described the first half of a backpacking trip my brother, Rob, and I made to Cirque of Towers , where we camped at Shadow Lake behind (west of) the Cirque. The official trail ends at Shadow Lake, but an unmaintained trail climbs up above Shadow Lake, skirts several other lakes, and climbs Texas Pass into the Cirque.
The unmaintained trail is a bit hard to follow at some points. As Rob and I hiked up the hill east of Shadow Lake, we wandered off the trail once or twice, but the forest is not thick here and it was easy to keep going. At the top of the hill, the land flattens out in a mostly treeless mountain valley. Here the trail is again easy to follow, skirting along or above the shores Billy’s Lake, Barren Lake, and Texas Lake. As we were told earlier, there are great spots to camp near Billy’s Lake, though we both thought the view was better at Shadow Lake (this is not to say the view is bad at Billy’s Lake, it is great, just not as great as at Shadow). The upper two lakes, Barren and Texas, looked to have fewer spots to pitch a tent. Interestingly, Barren Lake did not apparently get its name from lack of fish. As the trail climbed some 50 feet above the shore, we could still see large trout in the cruising along the shoreline.
The valley ends abruptly in a rocky wall of mountains with one steep looking pass. So far, the elevation gain isn’t bad. Shadow Lake is at 10,287 feet, and the trail before climbing Texas Pass is about 10,800 feet (and most of that elevation gain came between Shadow and Billy’s Lakes) covering about 1.75 miles. But from near the shore of Texas Lake up to the top of Texas Pass, at an elevation of about 11,450, is a grueling climb of nearly 700 feet in about just 1/4 of a mile. (For those of you familiar with the Enchantments in Washington State, it reminded me a lot of Aasgard Pass above Colchuck Lake – though not as long – Aasgard gaining 2,000 feet of elevation in about 3/4 of a mile.) During the climb I found myself taking plenty of camera breaks to shoot the lakes below (seriously, just because the scenery is so good).
Though the trail is not maintained, there still is an official Forest Service, weather-worn sign at the top of the pass marking the boundary on the continental divide between the Teton Wilderness in Bridger-Teton National Forest from the Popo Agie Wilderness in the Shoshone National Forest. The view from the pass into the Cirque is dominated by Pingora Peak, a graceful granite tower on the east side of the continental divide named, according to Backpacker.com, for the Shoshone word for “high, rocky, inaccessible peak.”
The trail south of Texas Pass leads down past the base of Pingora Peak to Lonesome Lake (on the featured image at the top, Pingora Peak is the prominent one on the left). Though mostly meadows, the trail is once again easy to lose. Just keep heading downhill, an elevation drop of about 1,300 feet in one mile. The trail is east of the small creek that comes out of the small cirque below the pass, cutting through the trees above Lonesome Lake, emerging at the northwest corner of the lake. From there, it skirts the shoreline and meets up with an official trail again right at the outlet stream at the east end of the lake. (Or I should say river, the lake is the headwaters for the North Popo Agie River.)
There is no camping within a quarter-mile of the lake. We found abundant campsites on the southeast side of the lake. The view of the Cirque of Towers, as it surrounds the lake, is spectacular. Unfortunately, the afternoon we arrived, the sky had grown overcast, and it looked like it might rain that night. I took a few photos, but just mainly enjoyed the view and took a nap on a flat boulder “island” along the lake shore.
In the morning, we rose early for sunrise, just in case the clouds had parted in the night. And they had. As the first alpenglow hit the peaks, the lake was a mirror. As the sun rose, lighting more of the mountains, a slight breeze came up, but the view was no less amazing.
Later that morning, we packed up and climbed the trail to Jackass Pass – not nearly as bad as Texas Pass, only gaining 550 feet over a mile – the scenery spectacular all the way. We spent a long time at the pass, climbing the small hill west of it, soaking in the view of the nearby War Bonnet Peak to the west, the rest of the Cirque and Lonesome Lake to the north, and Arrowhead Lake (shaped exactly like an arrowhead) to the southwest.
From Jackass Pass, the trail traverses along the mountainside above Arrowhead Lake then drops about 1,000 feet down to Big Sandy Lake, about 2.4 miles from the top of Jackass. While the elevation between Big Sandy Lake and Jackass Pass isn’t too extreme, both Rob and I were glad we were coming down instead of going up. What’s not included in the 1,000 elevation gain is all the little ups and downs. We both thought coming into the Cirque from the north via Texas Pass was the easier option if doing the loop trip (if doing an in-and-out, coming in via Big Sandy and Jackass Pass is probably easier, but you would miss Shadow Lake that way).
Our original plan was to camp at Big Sandy Lake and hike out the next day. Even though the scenery at Big Sandy Lake is great, after the previous day in the Cirque, it didn’t quite match up, and still being relatively early in the day, we decided to hump it all the way out that afternoon and spend our extra day driving through Yellowstone National Park on the way home. The trail from Big Sandy out to the trailhead is about 5.6 miles and relatively flat, losing only about 600 feet. We set a good pace and made it back to the car before dinner time.
All in all, it was a great backpacking trip. I highly recommend doing the loop. Don’t be afraid of the portion of the trail that is unmaintained and unofficial. For the most part, it is easy to follow, and where it is not, the way to go is fairly obvious. This national-park worthy hike will leave you wanting go back – I can’t wait to go back.
Following the eclipse, my brother and I set off backpacking in the Wind River Range of Wyoming. We did the Cirque of Towers look hike, about 25 miles through some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in the United States. I’ve wanted to go there for several years now after seeing some photographs taken by my buddy, Don Thompson, on a trip he made. After the wildfires in British Columbia canceled our hike in Kootney National Park, we needed to find an alternate destination that didn’t require a lengthy or complicated permit process. The Wind River Range was the answer. No permits needed, other than signing in at the trailhead. In preparation for the trip, I found this blog post, which provides a nice guide to the hike.
After the eclipse, we made a sort-of-quick stop in Pinedale to borrow bear canisters from the Forest Service ranger station. BTW, apparently they accept reservations for the bear canisters, which we did not have. Luckily, several had just come in and they cleaned them out and let us have them. We started our trip on a Monday, if you plan on starting closer to a weekend, you may want to reserve (or bring your own). Bear canisters are highly recommended. Reportedly, the rangers will give out tickets to anyone who does not practice bear-safe food handling. Further, according to a sign at the trailhead, the bears in the area have learned to cut ropes to get hanging bags of food down. Play it safe, take a bear-proof container.
While picking up the bear canisters was quick, getting a “quick bite” before running off into the wilderness was not. We went to the Wind River Brewing pub and the place was packed, even though it was well past lunch time (about 3 pm). We found the last two seats available at the bar and waited. It took about 15 minutes to get a beer and an hour more to get our meal.
It was well after 4 pm by the time we left town. And while Pinedale is the closest town to the trailhead, that is not to say the trailhead is close to town. The hike starts at the Big Sandy Trailhead, a mere 54 miles (half over dirt roads) from Pinedale. Despite its remoteness and the fact it was a Monday evening, there must have been a hundred cars at the trailhead, many lining the road for a half mile before the parking lot. Tanya says I have parking karma, so I drove right up to the trailhead itself and parked in the open spot there. We loaded our bear cans and repacked our backpacks to make them fit, and off we went, hitting the trail at the early time of 6:30 pm, entering the Bridger Wilderness shortly thereafter.
Based on the blog cited above, we decided to hike the loop in a clockwise direction (I highly recommend hiking this direction due to the elevation gain), first traversing a section of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDT). Needless to say, we didn’t go that far that first day. We hiked several miles until near sunset, aiming to camp at Divide Lake, which is about 1/4 mile off the trail. We weren’t the only ones camping there. A couple who had left the trailhead perhaps 15 minutes before us was there, and later, perhaps 10:30 pm of or so, we saw headlamps from another group wander into the meadow below the lake and set up camp. It was a pretty spot, though we couldn’t camp directly near the lake because of marshy conditions (besides, camping within 200 feet of lakes is prohibited). We made dinner in the dark and slowly ate, amazed by the brightness of the stars and Milky Way.
The following morning we hiked back to the trail and continued north, passing lake after lake – Mirror Lake, Dads Lake, Marms Lake, as well as several smaller unnamed ponds. Just past Marms Lake, we left the CDT and headed off on the Hailey Pass Trail for a mile or so before turning east on the Shadow Lake Trail. The scenery was grand along the trails, which run mostly through meadows and give views of granitic mountains to the north and east. Along the trail we met several other groups of hikers going our same way. This is not a trip to take if you don’t want to see anyone else for days. While the route was not lonely, but neither was it overwhelmed with people.
We reached Shadow Lake late in afternoon. The maintained trail ends at Shadow Lake, but an unofficial trail continues on above the to more lakes and on to Texas Pass. Earlier in the day we talked with several knowledgeable hikers who suggested the camping was better at Billy’s Lake, the next lake (about half a mile) past Shadow, and upon reaching Shadow Lake, we considered continuing. But being tired (living at sea level and hiking at over 9,000 feet in elevation will do that to a person), we decided to camp at Shadow. Besides the view of the lake, and the backside of the Cirque of Towers above it, was spectacular. With a bit of scouting and boulder hopping, we crossed over the outlet creek and camped on the west side of the lake. We had this side of the lake to ourselves (three or four other groups were camping on the east side). For photography purposes, I suggest camping where we did, as I think the view of the lake and mountains is better from the northwest shore of the lake.
I shot a ton of images that evening, as the sun lit the mountains above the lake with orange alpenglow – though fish jumping played havoc with the mirror-like reflections in the water. And when the alpenglow faded, I walked a couple hundred feet on the other side of our camp, where Washakie Creek (the outlet creek from Shadow Lake) widens into a large pond studded with granite boulders and shot some more. I finished the day with some Milky Way shots as it rose over the mountain west of the lake.
At sunrise, I was at it again, though the way geography is situated, sunrise photography is not nearly as good as sunset shots. Later that morning, we packed up and started up the trail to Texas Pass to hike into the Cirque of Towers itself. More on that in my next post.
While in Santa Fe, Tanya and I visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. We had missed it on our previous trip there, so we wanted to be sure to see it this time. We enjoyed learning about Georgia O’Keeffe and seeing some of her paintings, though quite frankly, both of us we disappointed that more of her work was not on display. That said, it is worth a visit if you are in the area and enjoy the work of this truly American iconic artist.
Non-flash photography is allowed in the museum, though some pieces are marked for no photography signs. Additionally, no tripods are allowed.
One of the issues of photographing paintings and other artwork is getting the color correct. Most museums, not just the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, have title cards next the artwork that is neutral grey. To get the true color of the piece, also take an image of the title card. Then in Lightroom, use the color balance eyedropper tool to get the correct color balance. Copy the color balance to the image with the artwork, and instantly the colors in the artwork are correct. For more on this technique, see my earlier post on the subject.
Exploring the work of Georgia O’Keeffe in a museum is one thing, but seeing the places she painted with your own camera lens is another. So a day or two after seeing the museum, Tanya and I traveled north of Santa Fe to the region around Abiquiu, where Georgia O’Keeffe lived, to see in person some of the places she painted. We didn’t drive into Abiquiu proper (not there is much town there) because we walked around it several years ago. But if you do visit, the church there is very photogenic. Tours of Georgia O’Keeffe’s house are also available through the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.
Our first stop was Plaza Blanca, or, as Georgia O’Keeffe called it, the White Place. Plaza Blanca is a spectacular set of white limestone cliffs, small canyons, and hoodoos just north of Abiquiu. To reach the White Place, driving west out of Abiquiu on US Highway 84, shortly after passing over the Rio Chama, turn right on County Road 155. After a mile or two, this good dirt road becomes paved. Shortly after the road becomes paved, turn left on a dirt road through the gate for the Dar al Islam . When the road splits, stay right and come to a small parking lot. The White Place is a short walk down the hill.
Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to explore Plaza Blanca in detail as it was already late afternoon and I wanted to the Ghost Ranch before sunset. The Ghost Ranch is about 10 miles north of Abiquiu on US 84, and while driving there, we stopped to take some pictures of the badlands and red rock cliffs along the highway a mile or so before the turn off for the Ghost Ranch. There is also another spot worth noting between Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch. The highway between Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch climbs up out of the Rio Chama valley west of town. At one point, there is a pullout with a good views of the Rio Chama both looking back to Abiquiu in one direction and toward the mountains in the other. We stopped here on our way back from Ghost Ranch during the blue hour.
Today the Ghost Ranch is an education and retreat center owned by the Presbyterian Church. But you need not be a church member or go on a retreat to visit or even stay there; all visitors are welcome. When arriving at the Ghost Ranch, visitors check in at the Welcome Center. There is a $5/person fee for day visitors. You can also join in at meals in the dining hall (for a small additional fee) or even stay overnight if not full (reservations are available). For visitors not partaking in a retreat or organized educational event, the day pass offers access to hiking trails, the ranch’s museums (an anthropology museum and a paleontology museum), restrooms, trading post, and the rest of the campus grounds.
I had very little knowledge of the Ghost Ranch, other than it was a good place for photography, prior to our arrival. The Welcome Center was closed when we drove up, but a woman was just leaving the building as we got out of the car. It turns out she was the Executive Director of the ranch. She suggested a couple hikes, invited us to dinner at the dining hall, opened the Welcome Center to let us use the restrooms, and told us a bit of history about the ranch. Apparently, the ranch was originally owned by a pair of cattle rustlers and thieves, who kept their pilfered livestock in a box canyon on the ranch. To keep people out, they told stories of evil spirits that haunted the area. This led to the original name Ranch of the Witches which was eventually changed to the Ghost Ranch. Arthur Pack, an east-coast conservationist, purchased the ranch in the 1930s. He sold a small piece of it to Georgia O’Keeffe, who kept a studio there and painted many of the Ghost Ranch landscapes. Pack donated the ranch to the Presbyterian Church in the 1950s to be used as a retreat center.
The ranch is set at the base of a series of red-rock cliffs and small canyons and badlands, quite reminiscent of much of southern Utah. Its most famous geologic feature is Chimney Rock, an orange and red sandstone spire jutting out from a cliff face (shown in the featured images above, as well as one image below). Tanya and I did about half of the Chimney Rock hike, far enough to get a good photograph (the one below). Based on the angle of the setting sun, which was backlighting the formation, we didn’t complete the hike so I could get a better shot entrance road to the ranch. The image above was shot just before sunset along the entrance road, next to an old log cabin (which Tanya explored while I took pictures).
In all, we spent less than half a day exploring the Georgia O’Keeffe country around Abiquiu. From this short outing, I know I want to go back for more.
Every year I seek to capture a few snowy scenes for possible calendar use. At Robinson Noble, where I have my day job, we produce a calendar every year for clients, and I supply all the images. There seems to be some unwritten law that requires the December and January images to have snow in them (sorry that my northern hemisphere bias is showing here!). The problem is that I’m not that much of a winter person, so I don’t get out much in the cold season. Plus, the easiest place for me to get snow images is Mount Rainier National Park, which is only 70 miles from my home. However, the calendar needs variety, so the January and December images can’t be taken in Mount Rainier National Park every year. Now add in that this winter has been very warm in the Pacific Northwest and there is not much snow.
So with all this in mind, I took last Monday off work to go and find some snow. Tanya, Nahla and I drove east into the mountains. At Snoqualmie Pass, it was very dark with mixed rain and snow falling. We kept driving. Coming down from the pass, the weather improved, as it usually does, with sun and mixed clouds. While this area is typically snow-covered in January, it was not this year. We kept driving. We left the interstate and headed toward Blewett Pass and we finally found snow and sun together. We stopped at the top of Blewett Pass and got out the snowshoes. While snowy, the snow wasn’t deep, perhaps about a foot at the parking lot.
We hiked off the northern end of the lot, west along a forest service road. Most of the time we were in the forest, but the views did open up at a few spots. It was an easy snowshoe hike and a nice day to be out. I captured a few shots that might be worthy of being on the calendar next year (let me know if you agree). Mission accomplished.