The Gold Creek Basin, located about one hour from Seattle, is a premier location for snowshoeing, photography and fun with friends and family. The snowshoe route includes multiple beautiful sites along the way including Gold Creek Pond, Creeks and Rivers, Heli’s Pond and Bridge, and sweeping valley views. All of this can be done in a round trip snowshoeing trip of less than six miles and an elevation gain of only about 500 feet.
Getting to the Trailhead
Drive Interstate 90 east to Exit 54, 2 miles east of the Snoqualmie summit. Exit I-90, turn north, crossing under the freeway. A few hundred feet north of the highway interchange, turn right onto a narrow paved road (FR 4832) and drive east parallel to the freeway for 1 mile. This section of the road in the winter will have compact snow and ice but can usually be driven with just about any vehicle, but I have seen cars and trucks get stranded in this section. All or 4 wheel drive vehicles, and front wheel drive vehicles will have no problem. Later in the Winter the road to the trailhead will be closed at this point and you will need a Sno Park Permit to park along the side of the road. Before the deep snow falls you can now turn left on Gold Creek Road 142 (all wheel drive advised) and go another .3 miles to the Gold Creek Pond Parking Lot where a US Forest Pass is required for parking.
Helli’s Pond Bridge
Preparations for a snowshoe trip will be quite different than a typical spring, summer or fall hike. Early in the Winter you may be able to get by with just some Yak Tracks or Micro Spikes for traction. But as the snow gets deeper snowshoes will be needed to keep from sinking deep into the snow. The snow, however, in Western Washington is different than many of the areas that the designers had in mind when releasing their products. Around here one needs a smaller snowshoe that has saw tooth like rails on the underside to pierce the typically frozen crust of snow and ice that forms the top layer of snow. It is rare that one encounters deep powder snow on western Washington snow trails. I have found the MSR (located in Seattle) moderately priced EVO snowshoes work excellent at Gold Creek. Just say no to the great big monster snowshoes, they are hardly ever needed around here!
You will also need to be prepared for a variety of weather conditions, everything from wind, cold, and snow, to warm sunshine, and perhaps even freezing rain. This means that one must pack layers, rain gear, gaiters, warm hat and gloves. I recommend having a map, compass, cell phone, and GPS. The reason for this is that if it snows your route back will no longer seem quite so straight forward and it is easy to get confused when trails are covered with fresh snow and ones visibility only extends a short distance due to snow and fog.
I also recommend having at least one trekking pole. A trekking pole comes in handy to see how solid the snow is in an area off trail that one wants check out in hopes of finding a better photo perspective. One of the most common accidents in the snow is stepping into a hole close to a tree and falling underneath the snow. Forget using your bladder and a hose for water, it will freeze during the trip. Just carry conventional plastic bottles and store one of them in your pack. With all of your gear, you will likely need a somewhat bigger pack than is used for summer day hikes. Although a luxury, if with kids and family, I recommend taking a small stove and boiling pot for hot drinks, and perhaps even a lightweight plastic cloth to serve as a place for preparing food. Always bring at least a small first aid kit.
Gold Creek Early Morning Light
From the trail head and no more than a half mile walk, the first destination you will come to is one of the tributaries of Gold Creek as shown in the above image. I have found this makes an excellent image around sunrise.
The next destination is Gold Creek Pond as shown on the above image. By the middle of Winter the pond will likely be frozen creating unique photographic opportunities. Even if the pond is frozen there will usually be a fairly large section of the pond on the north side close to the inlet that is unfrozen yearlong creating opportunities for images with reflections. Follow the trail clockwise around the pond until you get to the north side of the pond, about one mile from the trailhead, and you will get to the site of the next image. Notice the small ducks in the water-they are permanent residents of the pond!
Winter Impressions at Gold Creek Pond
Keep following the trail around the pond and you will eventually find a sign that says Gold Creek Trail. Turn left and go up the hill to an access road for cabins. Follow the road for about another half of mile paying close attention to signs at road junctions that direct you to the Gold Creek Trail. You will arrive at a major junction with a sign that says Heli’s Pond. Go left on a short spur path and trail to beautiful Heli’s Pond.
Bridge of Frozen Silence
There is a beautiful curved bridge at the outlet of Heli’s Pond. Also take the short trail completely around the small pond to find more vistas and potential photo ops looking out to Kendall Peak and Rampart Ridge. Return to the main trail. At about two miles you will leave the road and start following the actual Gold Creek trail. After about a half mile or so you will come to an opening presenting a beautiful view looking up and across the Gold Creek Valley toward Kendall Peak as shown in the next image.
Gold Creek Basin
This may be a good turn around spot if there is heavy snow because from this point on the trail passes through avalanche shoots that may not be safe. But earlier in the winter or if there is not much snow, one can go about another half mile to where the trail crosses Gold Creek and there is a beautiful spot next to the creek where one can have lunch next to the snow covered boulders looking out to the creek and mountains beyond.
Snow Covered Boulders
There is one big problem when it comes to shooting snow: Snow is white. Your camera’s metering system wants to meter everything as middle gray. As a result, the pristine white snow becomes dull and dirty snow. Conventional wisdom says that one should overexpose images that include snow. The problem with this is that although it leaves the snow looking white, there may be little definition in the snow nor preservation of subtle color tones on the snow. Especially in the early morning and around sunset, the snow will take on some of the color cast of the sunlight that is coming from low angles. One may actually wish to accentuate these subtle color tones rather than to just render them white.
My approach typically involves taking several images, about three to five, both under and over exposed. Typically I will select a slightly underexposed image and work with a raw editor (I use adobe camera raw but the same thing can be done with lightroom), to edit the image with both global and local adjustments. For global adjustments I will work to get a somewhat neutral image, neither warm no cool, moderate opening of shadows and controlling highlights, moderate contrast, and conservative adding of vibrance and or saturation. I will work with the HSL panel to enhance subtle color tones that are not represented accurately in the raw image, such as a purple or mauve hue. With local adjustments I will further adjust white balance in selective parts of the image, this (along with local area exposure adjustments) will help insure the snow is the color you want it to be. This is necessary because winter images usually include both warm and cool areas and therefore this local adjustment is essential to creating a natural looking image. Using local adjustments in the raw editor, I will further adjust shadows and highlights to better expose for dynamic range.
Good Night Gold Creek Pond
In the above image notice the subtle mauve/purple hues on the snow in the foreground. You will notice similar subtle tones in the next image.
Daybreak at Gold Creek
Early Winter Magic
In the above image notice the cooler tones of the shaded areas contrasting with the warmer tones of the areas still illuminated by the setting sun including Kendall Peak and the Clouds. The transition from cool to warm tones is not abrupt because of the presence of soft magical evening light. When taking wide angle images always look for interesting foregrounds to help draw the viewer into the image.
Once I open the image from the raw editor as a TIFF in Photoshop, I will complete the editing process using luminosity masks for perfecting contrast and adding a slight Orton effect, along with subtle adjustments for micro contrast using an NIK filter.
Fun with Family
Not all of my snowshoeing trips are oriented strictly around landscape photography and I have brought my family up here about once a year as my daughter Caroline was growing up. This is a great snowshoe for family and friends and because in the winter light is at a low angle all day long, there are many opportunities for capturing some awesome handheld images along the way. Here are a few of Caroline and I and her friend Emma. Kids always find a way to have fun playing in the snow and throwing an occasional snow ball at each other! Happy snowshoe trails everyone!