Several weeks ago, Tanya and I camped for a few days east of Chinook Pass. There are many Forest Service campgrounds along Highway 410 east of Chinook Pass, and these make a great basecamp for exploring the eastern side of Mount Rainier National Park if you don’t want to (or cannot get into) the campgrounds in the park itself. While there, I drove up to Chinook Pass for sunrise each morning to capture the rising sun on the mountain reflecting in Upper Tipsoo Lake. The first morning was cloudy, the second morning was foggy at the pass (but clear elsewhere), and finally on the third morning, I was able to capture a decent shot (the shot deserves a post of its own, I’ll post it soon).
On that first day, the overcast conditions persisted through the day, but lightened and became partly cloudy later in the day – though there was still no view of Rainier. However, the light overcast day was perfect for another photographic subject – waterfalls. The Visit Rainier website claims there are over 150 waterfalls in the park. The Park Service just says there are “many.” I venture there are several hundred. My go-to guide for Pacific Northwest waterfalls, the Northwest Waterfall Survey, lists 317 waterfalls in Pierce County, and the majority of these are in Mount Rainier National Park.
However, camping and traveling in a place with little to no cell service, calling up the Northwest Waterfall Survey to locate waterfalls to photograph was a non-starter. I needed to do it the old-fashioned way – look at a map. I had my Mount Rainier East Green Trails map, and I noticed a couple of water falls off Highway 123 near the Owyhigh Lakes trailhead. Though I had no idea whether these falls were visible from the trail, nor how photogenic they are, this seemed like a good destination.
The first one I visited was Deer Creek Falls, a short half mile down the trail. The view from the trail looks down onto the falls as is cascades through a small, steep canyon. The view makes the falls look larger than its stated height of 62 feet. It is quite scenic. A wide-angle lens is required to capture the full falls, with your tripod set right on the edge of the canyon cliff looking almost straight down. When you first arrive at the falls, there is a rope “barrier” (easy to step over) to encourage people not to get too close to the cliff edge, but I actually thought the view was better a bit further down the trail, past the end of the barrier.
From Deer Creek Falls, I continued down the trail to its intersection with the Eastside Trail. Heading north on the Eastside Trail, the trail crosses two bridges, one over Deer Creek right before its confluence with Chinook Creek, and the second over Chinook Creek just above the confluence. A small unnamed, unmapped waterfall (maybe it is too small to be considered a true waterfall?) is located on Chinook Creek just upstream from the second bridge. Though small, with a height of 5 to 10 feet, I liked the look of it with a clear green pool below the white water and spent about half an hour here photographing from various angles.
Continuing north, the Owyhigh Lakes Trail splits off westward from the Eastside Trail. There are two more waterfalls a mile or so up the Owyhigh Lakes Trail, but I left those for another day and continued north on the Eastside Trail to find Lower Chinook Creek Falls, which can be viewed about a third of a mile past the trail junction where the trail makes its first switchback up the hill. The view is not very good, with plenty of trees in the way. I looked for a way down to the base of the falls, but decided it was too steep. The Northwest Waterfall Survey does suggest there are two possible routes, but one requires going considerably downstream and then back up to the falls wading in the creek itself, the other requiring a rope. Instead, I found a spot a short distance off the trail where I could get a good shot using my telephoto lens.
I needed to get back to camp soon, so I decided against hunting for waterfalls I hadn’t seen before and go to one last spot that is a proven winner that I have photographed several times before – Silver Falls. I hike back up the hill to the car and drove to the Silver Falls Trailhead, on Highway 123 just south of the Stevens Canyon turnoff and park entry station. It’s about a quarter-mile downhill to the falls. This is an amazing waterfall, big and powerful, on the Ohanapocosh River. Below the falls, the water is funneled into a narrow gorge with a foot bridge over the top. The best views, in my opinion, are from the trail on the east side of the bridge and from the large, flat rocks above the river on the west side in between the aforementioned viewpoint and the falls. The featured shot at the beginning of the blog is from this spot. You can also easily access the area on the west side near the top and above the falls. It you follow the trail north of the falls, there are several spots where you can get down by the river for more beautiful shots. The Ohanapocosh River, with its clear green and blue water, is perhaps the prettiest river in the park.
I’ve lived in Washington a long time and driven by Lake Crescent in Olympic National Park seemingly countless times (okay, perhaps several dozen), but I’ve never taken the short trail to Marymere Falls. Last week I cured this default. I left Tacoma before sunrise (and boy is that early this time of year), hoping to catch the rising sun on the Olympics from the shores of Hood Canal, but the sky was overcast and the sun rose without apparent effect. But overcast skies are great for waterfall photography, so I drove on and reached the Marymere Falls trailhead, reaching the parking lot a little after 7 a.m.
I was the first one there, which is always a plus when photographing popular spots. And this hike is popular, and deservingly so. It travels through moss-covered old growth forest along a pretty creek to a beautiful waterfall. It is short, only 1.5 miles roundtrip, and is flat until the end, where it climbs several hundred feet to the falls.
Though it is an out-and-back trail, end of the trail near the falls has a small loop. As the trail nears the falls, it crosses over Barnes Creek (on a relatively new steel bridge) and then quickly over Falls Creek (on a classic one-person-wide wooden log bridge. From there, the trail climbs uphill and forms a small loop, leading to two viewpoints of the falls, one directly at the base, and one higher up nearly level with the top of the falls. I found the views at the lower level, and part way up from there, to be better for photography than at the upper viewpoint.
I mostly had the falls to myself, only interrupted by two sets of people who came quickly through, and I spent about 20 to 30 minutes photographing (leaving shortly before about a dozen people arrived). I spent another 20 to 30 minutes photographing in the forest on the way out. All in all, it was worth the stop, and I wondered why it took me so long to give it a try.
When my children were young, they liked going the Dungeness Spit, though my son liked to call it the “Dungeon of Spit.” Dungeness Spit is the longest natural sand spit in the world. It juts out into the Straits of Juan de Fuca from the Olympic Peninsula near the town of Sequim, Washington. This location, in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains, makes it one of the sunniest places in western Washington (Sequim averages only 16 inches of rain per year while the town of Elwha, about 30 miles to the west, averages 56 inches). The spit is home to the New Dungeness Lighthouse, the oldest lighthouse in Washington State north of the Columbia River.
A week ago, I lead a group of four Tacoma Mountaineer photographers on a photo hike of the Dungeness Spit. Though I have been there many times, I’ve never made it all the way out to the lighthouse (an 11-mile round-trip hike from the parking lot). So that was the goal of this trip. This is the rare hike in Washington where you can see your destination almost the entire length of the hike. The first half mile is through forest. But from there on, the hike is on the beach and the lighthouse if visible – though seemingly so very far away. But keep walking on the beach, and eventually you will get there.
The lighthouse is open to the public; volunteer lighthouse keepers lead tours up the tower and gladly answer questions about the lighthouse operation and history. The volunteers each spend a week at the lighthouse, living in the historic lightkeeper’s house and taking care of the place. Our guide lives in Los Angeles but has come up to Washington for the past six years just to spend a week at the lighthouse.
My friend, Greg Vaughn, who wrote the book on Washington, mentions Dungeness Spit in his book, but says it doesn’t offer much for nature photographers. I usually agree with Greg, but here I beg to differ (at least if you like lighthouses and mountains). On a sunny day, with the Olympics and Mount Baker out, the spit offers great views. Though it does help to have a fairly long lens to help pull in Mount Baker (and the lighthouse if you are not close). On this trip, mainly used my 28 – 300mm zoom.
Dungeness Spit is part of the Dungenss National Wildlife Refuge. There is a $3 entrance fee payable at the trailhead. The trailhead is accessed through the Dungeness Recreation Area, a park run by Clallam County. The refuge is open daily from sunrise to half an hour before sunset (though we didn’t make it back until a little after sunset and no one bothered us about it). Half the spit – the half facing Dungeness Bay – is closed to public access to allow the birds a safe haven. So all the hike is on the Strait of Juan de Fuca side, which has bigger waves and less drift wood. The final half mile of the spit, past the lighthouse, is also closed. For much of its length, the spit is only 100 to 200 feet wide (less at high tide, more at low tide). After the walk through the forest, the hike is all on the beach, which is mostly sandy at low tide. At high tide, much of hike is on cobbles and large gravel instead of sand. The spit is a popular hike, and it can be difficult to not get other hikers in your photographs when looking up or down the beach. However, by getting up off the beach into the drift wood, the drift wood can be used to hide people walking on the beach.
To prominently show the lighthouse in your images, you will have to walk at least several miles. However, my favorite view of the lighthouse is actually from a small viewing platform just above the beach where the trail exits the forest. Here the lighthouse is placed directly in front of Mount Baker, and with a long lens, you can get a good shot of it looking small and isolated, alone and practically in the sea in front of the mountain (see featured photo above).
Besides the views of the mountains and lighthouse, Dungeness Spit offers photographers abstract shots of driftwood, shells, rocks, waves, etc. Being a wildlife refuge, there is also lots of birds. Bald eagles are very common, as are many waterfowl (just remember to stay on your side of the beach). One hiker we met said they had seen coyotes on the spit, and I’ve often seen sea lions and seals just off shore.
Winter in Washington State brings snow to the mountains, but to the Skagit River delta, it brings snow geese by the ten’s of thousands. And right now is prime snow-goose viewing on Fir Island. In addition to snow geese, there are thousands of trumpeter and tundra swans, as well as dozens of bald eagles and other raptors. Throw in a random flock of ducks and a great blue heron or two and you have a birder’s paradise.
Last Sunday, Tanya, Nahla and I headed up to the Skagit to check out the birds. This is one photo opportunity where you don’t have to get up early in the morning. The snow geese spend the night our on the bay, but fly in to congregate on the agricultural fields of Fir Island (as well as other parts of the delta). They fly in flocks of dozens to thousands, and in my experience, as the day progresses, they tend to gather in larger and larger flocks. Indeed, on Sunday we arrived about 12:30 p.m. and the geese were largely congregated into two huge flocks. It’s always a bit of crap shoot on how close they will be to the road (and you want to shoot from the road, not only are the fields private property, they are extremely muddy), but last Sunday both large flocks were very close to the road. The edge of one flock was within 10 feet of the southern side of Fir Island Road and the other was perhaps 50 feet from Polson Road.
I think most photographers like to get a shot of a huge flock of geese in flight. Normally the geese are gathered on the ground, grazing on the fields, with small groups flying in and out. But now and then, something startles the birds and the entire flock takes off at once. If you wait long enough, you can often capture such a mass takeoff. Last Sunday, I had the perfect vantage (perfect for me, not for the geese) with the flock off Polson Road. The flock was north of the road (in a field closed to hunting), so I was not shooting into the sun, while south of the road were perhaps a dozen hunters (in a field open to hunting). When a few geese would fly over the hunters, shotguns would ring out (see what I mean about not being perfect for the geese), which would scare the flock north of the road and they would all take to flight. The flock would circle north a ways, land, but eventually a few dozen or hundred at a time, come back to where they had originally been and the cycle would repeat.
In addition to the geese, we saw several flocks of swans (a mix of trumpeter and tundra swans), the largest being probably over 1,000 birds. And along the river were plenty of bald eagles, typically in groups of three to seven hanging out in the trees along the river banks.
I normally don’t shoot a lot of bird pictures. I don’t have big enough glass for most bird photography (my 28 – 300 mm zoom is my largest lens and all the bird images in this post were taken with it), and I don’t have the patience that is often needed. But this is why I like going up to the Skagit in winter. Often, as was the case Sunday, you can get decent images without a huge telephoto lens. And you don’t have to wait for a lot of bird action – just drive around on the roads covering Fir Island looking for a flock of geese or a congregation of eagles.
The other thing I like about going there, is that it is close to Deception Pass State Park. Deception Pass is a favorite place of mine to shoot. So, after we had enough bird viewing to fill our day, we drove over to Deception Pass for sunset. From the middle of Fir Island, Deception Pass is about a 30 minute drive away (just over 20 miles). I shot a few images of the Deception Pass Bridge and then hustled down to Bowman Bay to shoot the sun setting over Deception Island.
All and all a good winter’s day.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve been through Longmire in Mount Rainier National Park; dozens at least, maybe a hundred times over my life. Usually I drive right past on the way to Paradise, but even so, I have stopped many times over the years. The main reason I usually don’t stop at Longmire is that I’ve always considered the view of Rainier to be, frankly, not so good. I’m sure it was great then they built the lodge, but it’s my supposition that over the years, the trees have grown up around Longmire meadow, blocking much of the view of the mountain. Additionally, if you shoot from the lodge, the road runs through the foreground.
Last week I discovered I was wrong. Longmire has a great view of Rainier! Perhaps this is old news to everyone out there whose ever been to Mount Rainier National Park, but it was news to me. Last week my photographer buddy, Mark Cole, and I went to the park to go snowshoeing and take a few pictures. We stopped at Longmire, not because that was our destination (we had planned on going to Paradise), but because the road to Paradise was closed due to the snowplow needing a replacement part. I was resigned to the fact that our photography would be limited to snowy forest scenes, perhaps a few shots of the Nisqually River, and maybe a view of Rainier from the Rampart Ridge trail if we decided to snowshoe it.
We stopped in to talk to the ranger, largely to see if the road to Paradise would open later that day, but we also asked about where to snowshoe at Longmire. We mentioned the main purpose of our outing was photography. He told us about Rampart Ridge, but said the best view of Rainier was at the Community Building right in Longmire. Both Mark and I had never heard of the Community Building nor the road to it. The ranger told us of a road which travels through the employee living area, crosses the Nisqually River on a suspension bridge, and runs down the south bank of the river to the Community Building (and a short distance beyond). We drove to the Community Building and couldn’t believe our eyes, the view of the mountain was awesome. Some of Longmire’s buildings are visible on the north bank of the river, but by wandering along the river, and through careful composition, the buildings can be eliminated from a photo. The bridge is also in the view, but it is pretty scenic, so I kept it in my compositions. I’m not sure what the view looks like here without snow, but with snow, it is great.
We ended up spending an hour of more there, snowshoeing along the river, taking photos of the mountain from several different locations. By the time we finished, we didn’t have enough daylight left to do the Rampart Ridge loop, so we wandered up the Wonderland Trail toward Cougar Rock looking for more shots of the river. But as sun set approached, we again crossed the bridge at Longmire and took shots of the alpenglow on Rainier with the river and bridge in the foreground.
Thanks to a broken snowplow, I discovered the Longmire does have a great view. Who knew?