Visiting and Photographing the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area: Spider Gap – Buck Creek Pass Loop

The Spider Gap -Buck Creek Pass Loop in the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area of Washington State, USA ranks as my favorite multi-day backpacking trip of all time.  This is a land that although not far from the greater Seattle area truly embodies the essence of a wilderness area, “an area where earth and its community of life are untrammeled by people, and where we are just visitors who cannot remain in a place of such unspoiled beauty.”  Here is a land with vast ancient old growth forests that extend as far as the eye can see up wild river valleys.   These forests suddenly reach equally large and expansive high mountain emerald green meadows filled with a vast variety of wildflowers in a kaleidoscope of colors.  Here is a land where glacier remnants of the ice age provide the access route over gaps that lead one to the very heart of a wilderness experience with chains of turquoise blue mountain lakes, endless trails and landmarks with names like Flower Dome, Fortress and Chiwawa Mountain, Suiattle River, and Middle Ridge.   At the center of of it all is paradise itself at the tranquil and peaceful Image Lake that sits underneath Washington’s most remote volcanic peak, known by the Suak Indian Tribe as “Tda-ko-buh-ba”, but also know as Glacier Peak.  Here is a land where you can get directly in touch with the elemental forces, beauty and mystery of nature; and find your long lost destiny everywhere in the wilderness that surrounds you.  Welcome to heaven on earth!

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Glacier Peak and the Image Lake Basin

The Glacier Peak Wilderness area  is a 566,057-acre, 35-mile-long, 20-mile expanse of land located northeast of Everett Washington, just south of North Cascades National Park, and about twenty miles northwest of Leavenworth Washington.  The area is characterized by heavily forested rivers and streams, steep-sided valleys, and dramatic glacier-crowned peaks.  The dominant geologic feature of the area is 10,541-foot Glacier Peak. It is the most remote major volcanic peak in the Cascade Range and has more active glaciers than any other place in the lower forty-eight states. Glacier Peak is a volcanic cone of basalt, pumice, and ash which erupted during periods of heavy glaciation.

I have ventured into the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area countless time during my life, visiting Image Lake six times and completing this loop twice, most recently in a Sierra Club trip in a 2017 trip led by Mike Bolar and Leah Maddoff.   I find the Sierra Club outings well organized, generally supportive of my photographic goals, and my thoughts on wilderness and conservation resonate well with the club’s goals and participants.   In the future I plan on leading my own Photography Oriented backpacking trip in this area.  I never tire of visiting this area and each time the wilderness presents itself to me a new and fresh way,  providing inspiration for  the further development of my photographic vision.

In this post I will discuss visiting and photographing the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area along the Spider Gap – Buck Creek Pass Loop including the following topics: Basic Route, Getting there, When to Go, Photography Oriented Backpacking, Finding your Vision, Conditioning, Importance of Packing Light, Camera Gear, and a Day by Day Itinerary.  In the day by day itinerary I will provide some insights and guidance for photographic opportunities, subjects and compositions.

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Image Lake Morning Light

Basic Route 

The loop trip spans a distance of 44 miles.  I recommend that you do the loop trip counter clockwise entering in through Phelps Creek and heading up through Spider Meadows to Spider Gap.  The reason for this is that you will need to go up and over the Spider Glacier and if the the snow is too hard to navigate safely the trip will need to be cut short.  Better to do this at the beginning of the trip than toward the end where it would take days tor a return trip back to the car.  The two times I did this loop trip in August the snow was not icy , but every year is different and one needs to take the necessary precautions. Once at Spider Gap the route descends the glacier down to Upper Lyman Lakes, over to Lyman Lake, out to Cloudy and Suiattle Passes, over to Image Lake and then out through Buck Creek Pass and back to the Car.

 

Getting There

From Everett head east on US 2 for 85 miles to Coles Corner. (From Leavenworth travel west on US 2 for 15 miles.) Turn left onto State Route 207 (Lake Wenatchee) and proceed 4.2 miles to a Y intersection after crossing the Wenatchee River. Bear right onto the Chiwawa Loop Road, and after 1.3 miles turn left onto the Chiwawa River Road (Forest Road 62). Proceed for 22 miles (the pavement ends at 10.8 miles) to a junction. Bear right onto FR 6211 and proceed for 2.3 very rough miles to the trail head at the road’s end (elev. 3500 ft).   For the last 2.3 road miles I recommend at a minimum cars with all wheel drive and higher ground clearance such as a Subaru Outback or Forester.  The hike ends just north of the Phelps Creek Campground, requiring a 3-mile road walk back to your car at the end unless a shuttle is arranged.  On my last trip we left a couple of cars at the Phelps Creek Campground and took a couple of other cars to the trail head allowing us to shuttle people back and forth eliminating the need to hike the road back up to the trail head.  Parking is limited and often not available at the trail head on weekends so I strongly recommend starting this loop trip around the middle of the week.

When to Go

The best time to go on this trip and experience the wildflower bloom at or close to peak is from fourth week of July to about the middle of August.  The wildflower bloom changes from year to year but I have found on most years this is the best window of opportunity.  In early  July there will be significant snow still in many areas of this trip so I do not recommend going then.  Glacier Peak also has fabulous Fall color so another possibility for scheduling a trip around autumn colors is the last week of September through the first week of October which typically is an “Indian Summer”.  Going later than this carries a greater risk of inclement weather.

Multi-day Photography Oriented Backpack

My recommended itinerary is organized entirely around the concept of a photography oriented multi-day backpack.  Photography backpacks are much different from a typical organized backpacking trip. The pace and tempo of this trip is centered around photography.   This means frequent stops along the trail and organizing the schedule to be at the right places for at least a two to three hours window around sunrise and sunset.  Breakfasts on photography backpacking trips are usually eaten late and dinners early because it is important to keep the mornings and evenings open for photography.  Most movement from place to place will occur during the middle of the day arriving at the next camp well in advance of  the evening hours which means keeping daily backpacking distances reasonable where possible.  For multi-day backpacking trips I recommend keeping the number of participants at a small number, at the most five or six, to make sure each of the photographers has a quality experience and participants are not stepping over each others toes trying to get the image.  Participants should also be carefully screened as this is a physically challenging backpack and not everyone may be in sync with the pace, rhythm, and goals of a photography oriented backpacking trip.

Finding Your Vision

Although this trip is planned around optimizing photographic opportunity, it is important to note that the antecedent conditions for creative photography and finding ones own vision are experiencing nature on its own terms and getting in touch with one’s authentic self.  The descriptions and recommendations offered here are only guides, a starting point if you will.  The expression of your personal photographic vision for Glacier Peak will come about through the intersection of your own inward journey with material world and spirits of nature.  More on this can be found on my recent blog post “Finding your Photographic Vision and the Search for the Authentic Self” .

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Liberty Cap from Buck Creek Pass

 

Conditioning

Many people are very surprised at the difficulty of the trip once they embark on their adventure.  This multi-day backpacking trip requires extensive prior conditioning if you are going to enjoy the trip in comfort.  Before beginning your journey take multiple day hikes that involve elevation gain in the range of two to four thousand feet, for example in the Seattle area Mail Box, Granite Mountain, and Mt. Washington.  Also before launching off, go on a couple of overnight backpacking trips of six miles or more and two to three thousand elevation gain with a backpack in the range of 35 to 45 pounds.  There is nothing like actually hiking and backpacking for conditioning, and although time spent at the fitness center helps, this alone will not prepare you for the Glacier Peak Loop experience.

 

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View at Sunrise from Image Lake Camp

 

Importance of Packing Light

Maintaining a good comfort level on a multi-day backpacking trip has everything to do with keeping weight of the backpack at a manageable level of between 35 and 45 pounds. This challenge is especially hard for us photographers because not only do we need to carry a full array of  backpacking gear, but also we need to carry camera gear including a tripod. On this loop trip you will also need to pack Micro Spikes which weigh about one pound and and least one trekking pole for going up and over the Spider Gap Glacier.  One needs to think carefully through what one brings along because every ounce counts.   I strongly recommend to photographers to carry an ultralight sleeping bag, tent, rain gear, clothing etc.  But this does not mean accepting significant compromises in functionality.   Ultralight gear can be expensive, but there are deals to be  found at the REI Garage, Backcountry.Com and other outlets.   Although reducing weight is essential for comfortable backpacking and a enjoyable experience, make absolutely certain that you pack all the ten essentials.   In a future blog post on Multi-day backpacking I will include a complete equipment checklist that I use to plan every one of my multi-day backpacking trips.

 

Ten Essentials

(1) Navigation (map and compass)
(2) Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
(3) Insulation (extra clothing)
(4) Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)
(5) First-aid supplies
(6) Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles)
(7) Repair kit and tools
(8) Nutrition (extra food)
(9) Hydration (extra water)
(10) Emergency shelter

 

Camera Equipment

My recommendation is to  take only two lenses and at the most three.  The lens that is most useful along the loop is a wide-angle zoom closely followed by a macro lens that also doubles as a telephoto lens.  A light weight normal focal length fixed lens will also be useful in creating tight compositions of Image Lake with Glacier Peak on the horizon.  On my last trip I brought a Sony A7R2 mirrorless camera, a Zeiss 16-35 4.0 lens, a Sony 90mm 2.8 macro lens, and a Sony 55mm 2.8 lens.  The wide-angle will work great for including important foreground details in the grand landscape composition and the macro telephoto works perfectly for flowers, small area compositions, abstracts, a compressed perspective,  and wildlife at a relatively close range.  One may want to substitute for the 55mm 2.8 a small fixed focal length 2.8 manual focus wide-angle lens for stars.  But do not fall for the temptation of bringing any more than 2 or 3 lenses. My entire system including the Induro Stealth carbon fiber tripod weighs less than seven pounds.  Bringing a mirrorless system brought the weight and form factor down considerably .  If I brought my much more bulky and heavy Nikon D810 DSLR and equivalent lenses I would have easily carried an additional three pounds.   It is noted that it is not just the weight that one needs to keep at a minimum but also the bulk of items, because with less real estate one does not need as big of backpack to carry all the equipment.  Bigger backpacks tend to be heavier and also do not balance weight as good as a smaller backpack.  Mirrorless cameras and most lenses designed for mirrorless are much smaller than their DSLR counterparts.

There are two very important photography equipment requirements in multi-day backpacking that I have found many people do not think about until the need becomes apparent.  The first requirement is that you will need a camera available at all times while actually on the trail backpacking.  The second is that once at camp you will need some means to conveniently carry your full frame camera equipment and tripod around.

Photographic opportunities abound on this trip while actively backpacking on the trail,  but to take advantage of these opportunities you will need quick access to a camera.  Although there are many ways to carry your interchangeable lens camera while backpacking, personally I have found all of these ways somewhat awkward and inconvenient when carrying a heavy multi-day backpack.  I have also noticed that when backpackers use such devices as a holster, a chest pouch, or a shoulder mounted peak one,  the  use of these devices is typically only temporary and then the user gets tired of their awkwardness and into the main backpack the camera goes.  What I recommend is to carry a second camera: a high quality and light weight point and shoot camera that fits easily into a pocket, such as the Sony RX100.   This is the camera you use while hiking from point to point while carrying your heavy backpack.   It only weighs 8 ounces, has the full array of both manual and automatic controls, and is capable of capturing excellent images and raw files.  As the saying goes, the best camera is the one you have with you!  Once at camp of course you will use your larger full frame camera.

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Wildflowers and a Mossy Stream leading to a Cairn and Upper Lyman Lakes
Image shot on the fly with my pocket camera, Sony RX100

Many backpacks now come with a secondary built in day pack that can be used to carry a full frame camera, lenses, tripod, and a few essentials once you are at camp and in the field.  I pack my camera in a small F-Stop ICU that fits in a Kangaroo Pouch of my Gregory Pack.  Once at camp I take the ICU out and put it into the pack within a pack that is included with the Gregory.  Although some people just empty out their larger pack and use it as a day pack, in my opinion this is awkward, limits mobility, and also forces one to put all unneeded gear now somewhat disorganized  inside the tent.

Itinerary

The recommended Itinerary for a this photography oriented backpack is shown in the chart below.

Mileage Chart

Here is a basic map of the loop trip route.

Map 1

 


Day One: Phelps Creek Trail Head to Spider Meadows

The first day of your backpacking trip gently climbs and winds its way through old-growth forest and after about 5 miles reaches beautiful spider meadows.  Some great camping spots that also offer protection from wind are located in the forest just to the east of the beginning of the meadow.  This puts you very close to the most photogenic spots which tend to be located more toward the beginning of the meadow.  Water is readily available from Phelps Creek which runs through the meadow from north to south on the east side.  I recommend that you arrive at Spider Meadows on a weekday because the meadow can be very busy with weekend campers due to its relatively ease of accessibility.  I am not sure how the meadow received the name, but the meadow is anything but creepy, and in fact I found it abundantly peaceful, serene, and beautiful.  Please note,  I also did not see a single spider during my two visits!

The meadow contains a variety of wildflowers including Valerian, Purple Asters and Indian Paint Brush which bloom from mid-July through August.  Good near far compositions can be achieved using a wide angle zoom, placing the tripod low and inches away from a cluster of flowers.  Explore the meadow looking for tighter clusters of either a single or variety of flowers with leading lines, patterns and or transitions through the meadow and out to the peaks on the  horizon.  Although both early and evening light is good in the meadow, I found evening light to be be best in this deeply recessed meadow that sits below Phelps Ridge and Red Mountain towering above.

 

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Spider Meadows
21mm, 1/8s, ISO 400, a focus stack of 5 images at F11

 

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There is not a sprig of grass that shoots uninteresting to me.
– Thomas Jefferson  22MM, F16, 1/25s, ISO 200

 

Day Two: From Spider Meadows to Lyman Lake

This day will be the most thrilling and adventurous of the entire journey, taking you through the entire length of Spider Meadow, crossing Phelps Creek, up a series of steep and abrupt switch backs to the foot of Spider Glacier.  At this point it is time to put on the Micro Spikes to follow what will undoubtedly be a boot beaten path through the snow up to Spider Gap, 7,900 feet in elevation.  Then it is a long descent down the glacier until finding cairns at the base of the glacier close to Upper Lyman Lakes.  Follow the cairns on a sketchy trial past Upper Lyman Lakes until finding the well developed trail to lower Lyman Lake, your campsite for the night.

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Backpackers heading up to Spider Gap

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From Spider Gap looking down to Upper Lyman Lakes

Although this is likely the most adventurous part of the multi-day backpacking trip, it is also the one the demands the most caution.  Typically the snow in late July and early August is reasonably soft and not hard.  But if the snow is icy it is may not be safe to travel without crampons, an ice ax and knowledge of self arrest techniques.  Since you are already carrying extra weight for your camera gear you will likely not be carrying also an ice ax.   Both times I did the loop trip the snow was reasonably soft in August and all that was required were Yak Tracks or Micros Spikes.  I strongly recommend metal Micro Spikes because they afford a higher level of traction than the rubber Yak Tracks.  Also helpful is at least a single light weight trekking pole for balance and to probe the snow ahead of you to make sure it is solid.  If the snow is icy do not attempt going up and over Lyman Glacier and just settle for camping below the gap.

Although both horizontal and vertical compositions work well, I found the vertical perspective works the best to balance the foreground, mid-ground and background elements.  The best images usually come from balancing important foreground details with the larger scene using a moderate wide angle lens.  Drifts of flowers and moss, snow drifts, and rocks all help lead the eye down the mountain side to the beautiful Turquoise waters of Upper Lyman Lakes and further out to the peaks on the horizon including Bonanza and Chiwawa.   To give adequate emphasis to the foreground details you will need to get lower which may mean temporarily taking off your backpack to compose the shot (or you can be a masochist like me and just stoop down with heave pack on!).

Once a well developed trail to Lyman Lake is found, continue your descent to the juncture with trail 1286 and take a left going to a bridge that crosses the outlet of Lyman Lake.  In the summer of 2017 this bridge was damaged but still crossable one person at a time.  Continue walking north around the lake going left again at a sign that says camps.  There are some excellent camps with views looking all directions at an inlet stream on the west side of the lake, about a half mile in on the camp trail.  Photographing Lyman Lake can be tricky as this lake is deeply recessed with strong shadows even at early evening or morning.  Explore the lake shore going to the north for the best wide angle compositions that will include interesting foreground details.  Take at least two exposures, one for the foreground and one for the sky, to make sure you have adequate dynamic range for post processing.

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Lyman Lake Evening Light

 

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Lyman Lake Shore- A Horizontal Perspective

 

Day Three: From Lyman Lake to just below Cloudy Pass

Head back to the main trail 1279, going left uphill toward Cloudy Pass.  This will be a very short hike of only 2.6 miles and 700 feet elevation gain.  One may be tempted to just skip this altogether and head to the crown jewel of Image Lake.  But I strongly recommend that you include this beautiful wildflower meadow just below Cloudy Pass in your trip agenda.  This will be one of the most productive areas for creative photography with great sunset and sunrise images from Cloudy Pass,  looking out to the east at Bonanza and Chiwawa Mountains, and to the west to Plumber and Sitting Bull Mountains.  In addition to the grand scenic opportunities of this area there will be ample time for capturing more intimate scenes of the meadow itself.   The camp area will be found about 300 feet before Cloudy Pass where the meadow flattens out off on the right side of the trail.  A small stream for water travels through the meadow.  Look for existing campsites and a durable surface and as always, leave no trace.

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“The hills are alive with the Sound of Music”
Lyman Lake from Cloudy Pass

 

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Looking to the West form Cloudy Pass, Fog Bank at Sunrise

 

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Cloudy Pass flower Meadow

 

Day Four and Five (layover day): From Cloudy Pass to Image Lake

After your sunrise photo shoot, break camp and head back up to Cloudy Pass and descend down to the west until you find a trail intersection.  Take the one that goes to the left that is called a “Hiker Shortcut”.   It will rejoin the main trail that will connect with the Pacific Crest Trail at Suiattle Pass which is not particularly photogenic.  At this point you will have traveled about two miles.  After a short distance on the Pacific Crest Trail turn right onto the Miners Ridge trail for a two night side trip to the crown jewel of our trip, Image Lake, about 3.5 miles from Suiattle Pass.  The Miners Ridge trail to Image Lake steadily climbs up a series of switchbacks and eventually breaks out into a very large mountainside meadow that goes as far as the eye can see with Glacier Peak always in full view.  In late July through the middle of August this meadow rivals the Paradise flower fields in its magnificence and splendor and you will want to have a camera constantly in hand.

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Flower Fields and Glacier Peak from the Miners Ridge Trail

 

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Miners Ridge Bouquet of Flowers

 

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Full Expanse of Miners Ridge

Camping is not allowed around Image Lake itself to protect the fragile meadows and also to help ensure that everyone has a quality experience and can  enjoy the lake without looking at tents pitched everywhere around the lake (as was the case  long ago).  I strongly recommend that photographers plan on staying two nights at Image Lake.  There are several reasons for this: (1) it increases the chances that you will  experience good lighting and weather conditions.  It would be a frustrating to say the least to travel this far and miss out and good photographic conditions; (2) the area around Image Lake and back toward Miners Ridge abounds in photographic opportunities and one needs ample amount of time to explore these areas and compositions, (3) you have arrived at a paradise and heaven on earth, enjoy it!; and (4) for those who just cannot stay put there is an about 8 mile round trip trail to the extremely remote Canyon Lake that also has views of Glacier Peak!

 

 

Return to Oz

Return to Oz

In the above image a  image a somewhat ominous and at same time auspicious long standing wave cloud rises like a tornado along side Glacier Peak and Image Lake just before sunrise. Weather events like this one obviously do not happen often, but your odds of experiencing interesting weather increase the longer you stay at Image Lake.

Image lake, unlike Mt. Rainier’s Reflection Lake, actually does not have much of a reflection unless you are  right at the shoreline and then Glacier Peak is not very prominent and is only partially visible above the trees on the distant shore.  The best views can be found by hiking up the way trails on the east side of the lake.  The quality and character of the view will change at different elevations and depending upon if Glacier Peak is centered above the lake or is situated more to the right side.  Both compositions are good.  Going way above the Lake toward the top of Pyramid Peak also offers spectacular views.

 

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Tda-Ko-buh-ba Sunrise
29MM, F11 focus stacked, 1/5s, ISO 800 (for wind)

In the above image, beautiful pasque flowers gone to seed and Image Lake awaken to a rosy sunrise underneath Washington’s most remote volcano, Glacier Peak.  The quality of the light and how it effects Glacier Peak is much different in the morning than the evening.  In the morning the peak appears more crisp and has better definition.  In the evening it is much more of a softer look as one is looking more directly at the sun and a blue haze that typically covers the peak.  This usually clears up once the sun has actually set.   Both wide angle and normal focal lengths work well, with wide angles emphasizing more foreground details and normal focal lengths emphasizing the peak and the lake itself.  A moderate telephoto perspective of about 90 mm will bring details of the peak to life but you will only be able to include a portion of the lake.  For more on this see my blog post “Going Wide, Going Narrow, Creating Layers of Beauty in the Landscape”.   Although most images of the lake are taken as a horizontal, vertical images carefully framed will offer in a unique layered perspective.  Always take a vertical!

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Image Lake just after Sunset
55MM, F11, 1/13s, ISO 800

 

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Image Lake at Dawn 90MM

 

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Image Lake at Sunset
35MM, F11 focus stacked, 1/50s, ISO 800 (for wind)

 

Day Six and Seven (Layover Day): From Image Lake to Buck Creek Pass

You will want to get an early start because this leg of the trip will be the longest in terms of miles (12.8) and there is also significant elevation loss and gain.  Retrace your route along the Miner’s Ridge trail back to the Pacific Crest Junction.  Take a right heading south at the junction following the Crest trail for 1.5 miles and then turn left on trail 789, dropping about 1,000 feet through beautiful Ancient Forests to a crossing of Miners Creek.  Now it is time to gain all that lost elevation back again as you climb up to the meadows of Middle Ridge, where Glacier Peak in all her splendor is visible once again.  Continue on past the turn off to Flower Dome (we will return here later) and on to the turnoff to the camps at Buck Creek Pass.  The camps furthest out along the camp turnoff trail are excellent and will provide you with the best privacy in this area that can be very busy, especially on weekends.

 

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Lupine Flower fields along Middle Ridge

Once you setup camp and have an early dinner, it is time to take a sunset hike to Flower Dome.  Head back about a half mile to the turnoff and then  about another mile to Flower Dome.  Flower dome is  relatively flat on top, and as its  name would suggest is covered with flowers.  Beautiful compositions abound in every direction: wide open lupine meadows, the Suiattle River Valley, and majestic peaks including Glacier, Fortress and Helmett Butte.

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Sierra Club hikers arriving at Flower Dome

 

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Waves of Lupine and Light

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Sunset from Flower Dome

 

On the next day get up well before sunrise and before breakfast make the short trek back to the main trail and large mountain side meadow where there are beautiful views of Glacier Peak and Liberty Cap.  Moderate wide angle compositions will help integrate attractive foreground details with the prominent peaks including Liberty Cap and Glacier Peak.  Telephoto compositions featuring primarily the peaks are also possible.

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Glacier Peak at Sunrise from Buck Creek Pass

After breakfast head out on one of the most spectacular day hikes I have ever taken to Liberty Cap and High Pass.  The trial departs right from the campsite and steadily climbs the slopes of  Liberty Cap and then straddles just below a ridge until eventually arriving at High Pass.  The route goes through some spectacular flower fields when in bloom.  Ideally you will be doing this hike when partial cloud cover provides some filtration of the sun’s harsh rays creating opportunities for mid-day photography.  But if not just be present and enjoy an incredibly awesome experience in the heart of Glacier Peak Wilderness Country.  The hike is about  seven miles round trip so pack a good lunch and perhaps also dinner (enjoy the sunset, and return to camp using headlamps!).

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Wildflowers and Peaks along the trail to High Pass

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Gentium Flowers along the High Pass Trail

 

Day 8: From Buck Creek Pass back to the Car.

Backpack out from Buck Creek Pass on a long but  steadily downhill  9.6 miles to the Phelps Creek trail head.  Congratulations!  You just completed what undoubtedly will be one of the most memorable, satisfying, and photographically productive trips of your life, having traveled deep into a personal wilderness experience that will help shape the very essence of who you are as a person for years to come.

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Visiting and Photographing the Enchantments

The Enchantments are calling!  This in an enchanted land of beautiful azurite and indigo blue high mountain lakes  with names like Leprechaun, Perfection, Inspiration, and Temple Lakes.  In Autumn, stunningly beautiful larch trees turn bright orange colors that glow in soft luminous light.  Large peaks made up of huge slabs of granite with names like Prusik, McClellan, and Little Annapurna rise high above the lakes and are reflected beautifully into the calm waters as the  sun rises and sets.  The granite rocks around the lakes almost look like they were placed there by the Gods to create leading lines and curves to transport us into the beauty of each lake and the surrounding landscape.  This in short is a photographer’s paradise, as close to heaven on earth as we will get in our mortal lives.

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The Enchantments are located in the northeastern section of Washington State’s Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area, USA, close to the town of Leavenworth.  I consider the Enchantments are one of the wonders of this world and I harbor great memories of these beautiful blue and rock-bound lakes spanning the last four decades of my life. I have made a journey to this iconic site about every ten years since my late teens. When I received an email notice in CY 2015 that I had won the Enchantments Lottery I was totally stoked!  This time the trip felt like a return journey, somewhat like a spiritual pilgrimage to my roots–a pristine wilderness that has helped shape my photographic journey. With permit in hand, I organized a six-day backpacking trip as a photography oriented trip through the Seattle Mountaineers. Photography backpacks are much different from a typical organized backpacking trip. The pace and tempo of this trip is centered around photography. This meant frequent stops along the trail and organizing our schedule to be at the right places for at least a two to three hours window around sunrise and sunset. I deliberately kept the number of participants at a small number, five, to make sure each of the photographers had a quality experience and were not stepping over each other trying to get the image. Participants were also carefully screened as this is a physically challenging backpack.

I was even more thrilled the following year when a friend, Kris Harken, reached out to me with an invitation to join his team to visit the Enchantments once more in CY 2016.  This time I could capture all those compositions I realized I missed in the previous year!  I think it would take multiple lifetimes of annual trips to fully capture the beauty of the Enchantment, this area abounds in so much nuanced beauty.  On the last trip we were forced to leave early due to heavy and unrelenting snow so I did not shoot all the site I had previsualized.  Hopefully I will return to the Enchantments soon or perhaps in my next life!

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Leprechaun Lake

In this post I will discuss visiting and photographing the Enchantments in Autumn including the following topics: Getting a Permit, Route, Conditioning, Cold Weather Preparations, Importance of Packing Light, Camera Gear, Compositions, Light, Wildlife, Larches, and the Magic of the Enchantments.

Getting a Permit

Going to the Enchantments requires a permit for overnight camping.  This requirement is strictly enforced by the Forest Service to reduce the environmental impact that comes with too many people loving this place to death.  From the Okanogan Wenatchee Forest Website: “Due to the overwhelming popularity of this unique area, all overnight visitors must obtain a limited entry FEE permit for trips planned between May 15 and October 31. Demand for overnight permits far exceeds the number available, therefore advance reservations are highly recommended. A pre-season lottery is held in February through early March of each year to allocate the majority of permits.  Following the pre-season lottery, remaining permits are available on a first come, first served basis through the recreation.gov advance reservation system. A small number of permits are available on an unreserved daily walk-in basis.”

Because this area is extremely popular, far more people apply for a permit than there are permits available, especially in Autumn.  Only 60 people are allowed in the Core Enchantment area at any one time.  The good news, however, is that a permit holder can lead a trip that includes as many as eight people.  So even if you are not lucky enough to get a permit, someone you known many be kind enough to invite you on their trip!  There are different Enchantment Lakes permit zones and the most desirable one is the Core Enchantment Zone because it allows you to camp at the lower Enchantment Lakes for up to eight nights.  Keep in mind that the lower Enchantment Lakes are about 7,000 feet high in elevation and offer the best views of large collections of larches.

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Leprechaun Lake Sunrise

Route

For my last two trips to the Enchantments, we entered through the Snow Lake trailhead just outside the Washington town of Leavenworth along the Icicle Creek. The first day we climbed approximately 3,500 feet over five miles to the beautiful deep woods Nada Lake. Then on the next day we hiked past Snow Lakes then scrambled up the steep trail to the Enchantments Leprechaun Lake where we camped for three nights before returning through Nada Lake .  Although this route is longer and involves more elevation gain than going over Asgard Pass (the alternative route), generally it involves less steep climbing, traversing through scree and boulder hoping.  I love the sense of a journey that one gets taking the route through the Snow Lake trail entrance.  Camping at beautiful Nada lake offers a great transition zone between the sub-alpine and alpine helping whet the appetite for even greater beauty ahead.

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Conditioning

Many people who are lucky enough to get a permit and very surprised at the difficulty of the trip once they embark on their adventure.  This multi-day backpacking trip requires extensive conditioning if you are going to enjoy the trip in comfort.  Before beginning your journey take multiple day hikes that involve elevation gain in the range of three to five thousand feet, for example in the Seattle area Mail Box, Granite Mountain, and Mt. Washington.  Also before launching off, go on a couple of overnight backpacking trips of six miles or more and two to three thousand elevation gain with a backpack in the range of 35 to 45 pounds.  There is nothing like actually hiking and backpacking for conditioning, and although time spent at the fitness center helps, this alone will not prepare you for the Enchantments experience.

Cold Weather Preparations

In most years peak season for the larches is the last week of September and the first week of October.  Go any earlier and one risks the larches still being partially green.  Go later and one risks the larch trees being stripped of their orange needles due to fierce wind storms that pass through the area.  Although during this time the Enchantments experience what is known as the Indian Summer with warm days and cool crisp nights under cloudless skies, this is punctuated by storms passing through the area that can bring freezing cold temperatures, dark gray moisture laden clouds, and snow.  It is not uncommon to wake up to 2 to 6 inches of snow and temperatures in the teens.  This happened on both of my recent trips.  So cold weather preparations or in order.  This means a four season tent, a sleeping bag that can go down to 15 degrees or below, multiple layers of warmth, head to toe water proof rain/wind gear, gloves, and a warm beanie type hat.

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Importance of Packing Light

Maintaining a good comfort level on a multi-day backpacking trip has everything to do with keeping weight of the backpack at a manageable level of between 35 and 45 pounds.  This challenge is doubly hard for us photographers because not only do we need to carry extra layers of warm clothing and a four season tent, but also we need to carry camera gear including a tripod.  One needs to think carefully through what one brings along because every ounce counts.  I strongly recommend to photographers to carry an ultralight sleeping bag, tent, rain gear, clothing etc.  But this does not mean accepting significant compromises in functionality. Three season tents will be crushed under the weight of a heavy snowstorm and a sleeping bag that only goes down to 35 degrees will not keep you warm when temperatures dip down into the teens.  Ultralight gear can be expensive, but there are deals to be  found at the REI Garage, Backcountry.Com and other outlets.

Camera Equipment

My recommendation is to  take only two lenses and at the most three.  The lens that is most useful at the Enchantments is a wide-angle zoom closely followed by a telephoto zoom.  I have never found the need for a standard zoom at the Enchantments except to take candid images of people and an I-phone will work just fine for that.  On my last trip I brought a Sony A7R2 mirrorless camera, a Zeiss 16-35 4.0 lens, and a Zeiss 70-200 4.0 telephoto zoom.  The wide-angle will work great for including important foreground detail in the grand landscape composition and the telephoto zoom works perfectly for small area compositions, abstracts, a compressed perspective,  wildlife and even macro.  One may want to supplement this with a small fixed focal length 2.8 manual focus wide-angle lens for stars.  I brought the Zeiss Loxia 21mm 2.8 for this purpose.  My entire system including the Induro Stealth carbon fiber tripod weighed in at about seven pounds.  Bringing a mirrorless system brought the weight and form factor down considerably .  If I brought my much more bulky and heavy Nikon D810 DSLR and equivalent lenses I would have easily carried an additonal three pounds.   It is noted that it is not just the weight that one needs to keep at a minimum but also the bulk of items, because with less real estate one does not need as big of backpack to carry all the equipment.  Bigger backpacks tend to be heavier and also do not balance weight as good as a smaller backpack.  Mirrorless cameras and most lenses designed for mirrorless are much smaller than their DSLR counterparts.

Compositions

The lower Enchantment Basin consists primarily of boulders and slabs of polished granite. For grand wide-angle landscapes, one of the keys to finding a successful composition involves finding one of these granite slabs or collection of slabs and boulders that provide leading lines and curves that transport the viewer into the larger scene that will often include a lake and a prominent peak.  This is also how to make your composition unique.  There are literally hundreds of these slabs and boulders surrounding each of the lakes.  Out of any one slab, I could make literally hundreds of different compositions simply by getting closer to the lake or moving further away, changing focal length, and rising and lowering the camera and the direction of the lens ,  working with the ever-changing light.  You do not need to worry about stomp comping here if you work the scene as just described and follow your own intentions for the scene in executing your personal style and vision.

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In the above scene notice the stepping-stones in the foreground leading down to the lake. In the next image I decided to follow one of the granite slabs to an area above Leprechaun Lake and this created an optimal viewing platform and foreground that transported my eyes down the mountainside to the lake and McClellan Peak beyond.  There is a strong line going from the right side of the image to the left that also forms a U shape curve in the lower right section of the image.  The key is to make sure the foreground is well-integrated with the larger scene and do not just select the foreground because it is appealing in its own right.  Orienting the scene around foreground will often make the composition look forced rather than bringing a more organic and free flowing feel to the image.  Look at the scene and how it effects your mood and emotions, determine your intentions, and only then start working the technical details of focal length, specific foreground details, tripod placement, ISO, F-stop and shutter speed.

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The classic composition in the Enchantments typically involves one of the prominent peaks reflected beautifully in the water of one of the lakes.  But you can make yours more unique by also including attractive foreground elements and framing of the peak and reflection such as I was able to accomplish in the next image.

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A telephoto zoom lens is indispensable for smaller area compositions that feature the lines and patterns of the granite slabs and boulders punctuated by blazing orange larch trees..  It takes some training of the eye to isolate an area of the larger scene that will make a good composition but it is well worth the effort because these compositions will be very unique and help balance out an Enchantment Lakes portfolio that is heavy on lake images.  This is an area I plan to work far more in future visits to the Enchantments.

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A telephoto lens can also be used to capture even smaller subjects and details such as this next image of a snow-covered larch branch.

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Lighting

Most of the featured images I have seen of the Enchantments are taken at sunset which is a great time to capture soft light, and colorful dramatic clouds and skies.  This, however, in my opinion is not the best time to capture well illuminated larches.  I have found the best light to actually be about an hour after sunrise and about an hour  before sunset.  Digital enhancement and painting on light can only go so far if the light was not there in the first place.  The lower Enchantment basin is deeply recessed beneath the towering peak and it is only then the light will penetrate low enough to sufficiently illuminate the larches to get the desired effect.  The lighting will also be far more nuanced in this time period with areas of light and shadow.  If there are clouds and mist in the area and the sun can still get through, the effects will be even more splendid.

Leprechaun Sunset  Leprechaun Lake at Sunset

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Tidelands no StackCompLeprechaun Lake Tidelands (One hour after sunrise)

Fish and Wildlife

The lower Enchantment Lakes are teaming with trout, and this area is one of the best in the Alpine Lakes for the sports fisherman.

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There are Mountain Goats in abundance at the Lower and Upper Enchantment Lakes.  You can expect them to wander into your campsite in the mornings and evenings creating multiple opportunities for both wide-angle and telephoto capture.

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0270EnchantmentsMama and Kid Goat checking out the intruders!

Larches

About one hour  after sunrise and one hour before sunset the Larches are at their best.  In this next image I captured a beautiful collection of side-lit larches reflected in a small tarn.  It is also possible to find single specimens to capture the beauty and character of an ancient larch.

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The Magic of the Enchantments

In this post I have  expressed my own perspective about capturing the magic of the Enchantments.  I hope some of what I wrote here will  provide you some helpful guides as you follow your own instincts, personal vision and style in creating your own images that capture the Magic of the Enchantments.   Thanks for looking, sharing and your comments are always greatly appreciated.

Utopia, Costa Rica, and Peace on Earth

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion, too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace.

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one
Lyrics from JOHN LENNON’s Imagine

Last week my wife Julia, our daughter Caroline and I flew to San Jose, Costa Rica for a 8 day tour of this beautiful country with Caravan Tours.  I am not much for guided tours, but we heard good things about Caravan and thought it would be a great way to introduce ourselves to Costa Rica.  On the tour bus heading to our first stop at the Poras Volcano National Park, I chatted with a tour participant about Costa Rica.  I said that we heard that Costa Rica is a tropical paradise, a stable democracy, educated, and relatively affluent for a Central American Country.  She said YES, this place is UTOPIA!   Utopia–hmm, the last time I thought about Utopia was back in the sixties (which for me was really the seventies) when “Give Peace a Chance” was a mantra for a anti-establishment generation fed up with wars in Southeast Asia.  Many  of us focused our attention on finding a more perfect green, and peaceful world only to later to be co-opted into a me generation more focused on career growth and the trappings of rising affluence and status.  Utopia, lets hold that thought while I introduce the first stop along our tour!

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Poas Volcano Crater and Lake

I feel lucky that during our brief visit to Poas National Park that we were able hike through the cloud forest and see the Poas Volcano Crater and Lake. The Volcano and Lake are only visible about 30% of the time, so one is throwing the dice with a brief visit. Poas has erupted 39 times in the last two centuries and is a very active volcano. The crater is over 8,000 feet in elevation.

Costa Rica is one of the most progressive nations on earth when it comes to protecting its wild areas with over 30% of the nation consisting of National Parks. By way of contrast the US is about 14% with much of that land in Alaska. Everywhere I went in Costa Rica it was evident the Government and People were going through great lengths to protect the natural environments and endangered species.  Costa Rica was twice ranked the best performing country in the New Economic Foundation’s (NEF) Happy Planet Index, which measures environmental sustainability, and was identified by the NEF as the greenest country in the world.  Costa Rica officially plans to become a carbon neautral country by 2021.  So Costa Rica, while perhaps not exactly Utopia, ranks high as a country that has gone farther than others in taking steps to ensure environmental sustainability, protection of natural beauty and habitat, and reducing its environmental footprint.

After the Poas Volcano we headed toward Fortuna and the home of another beautiful Volcano, Arenal.  Along the way we stopped a beautiful church, the  Iglesia de San Rafael, located in the mountain village of Zarcero, Alajuela.  I just loved the effect of the afternoon light coming in through the stained glass windows.  This church and many others that dot the countryside also serve as a reminder that this nation is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, a unifying cultural influence.  If this place is Utopia, religion still has a strong role in the lives of the people.

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Iglesia de San Rafael

Along the way we also passed through coffee, banana, guava, and pinapple plantations-a reminder that although tourism plays an important role in the Costa Rica economy, so does agriculture.  Increasingly, however, Costa Rica uses immigrant labor from Nicaragua to harvest their crops, as the pay is not adequate for most Costa Rican’s who have grown accustomed to the highest standard of living in Central America.

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Banana Flower Blossom

Our next stop and home for two nights was our hotel in Fortuna, located right at the base of the Arenal Volcano National Park.

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Arenal Volcano at Sunset

Arenal is one of seven historically active Costa Rican volcanoes along with Poás, Irazú, Miravalles, Orosí, Rincón de la Vieja , and Turrialba and is considered one of the ten most active volcanoes in the world. It has been studied by seismologists for many years.The volcano is located at the center of Arenal Volcano National Park in the northern part of the country.  In 1968 it erupted unexpectedly, destroying the small town of Tabacón.  This serves as a reminder that although in certain conditions this country looks beautiful, calm and peaceful, there are explosive volcanic and potentially destructive forces lurking underneath the ground that at anytime can erupt and change forever the landscape as we know it.

The next day we were back on the bus for a field trip to a Rio Frio river cruise through the Costa Rican jungle and the Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge, way up north toward the Nicaraguan border.  Along the way our tour guide Rebecca informed us that Costa Rica is a nation without an Army.  In 1948, Jose Figueres, then president of Costa Rica, made a fiery and eloquent speech, after which he took a sledgehammer and bashed a hole in a huge stone wall at the nation’s military headquarters, Cuartel Bellavista. Its imposing towers and massive gates had loomed over the capital city of San Jose since 1917, the country’s premier symbol of military power and the home of the “Tico” military establishment.

Figueres was not just being a showman; he was announcing something truly extraordinary: Henceforth, Costa Rica would take the almost unheard-of step of renouncing its military. At the conclusion of the ceremony, he publicly handed the keys to the minister of education, announcing that Bellavista would be transformed into a national art museum and the nation’s military budget would be redirected toward healthcare, education and environmental protection.

Figueres was painfully aware that Costa Rica’s military, like that of other Central American states, had been used to suppress domestic uprisings and undertake coups, especially against governments perceived to be left-leaning like his (even if they were actually more middle of the road).  Eliminating the military would also eliminate the possibility of military coups.  But how does a country surrounded by unstable neighbors protect its borders without a military?.  Somehow Costa Rica has managed.  When Nicaragua made a territorial claim to a Costa Rican island on the Carribean side of the nation, kicked out the Costa Rican residents, and built a military airport things got testy. But a simple meeting at a San Jose hotel conference center between Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, the President of Costa Rica and Obama was enough to diffuse this crisis. Nicaragua gave up its claim and Costa Rica gained a new airfield.  I kept thinking to myself that if more nations eliminated their military the world would be a much more peaceful place and once again I started dreaming of utopia.  The Utopian vision may never be fully reachable, but it is a vision that can help guide us to a more evolved world with fewer if any military engagements.  Realistically this may not be possible for superpowers like the USA, but it is certainly possible for the nations of Central America, and without exception they would be better off.

Time to awaken from this Utopian dream and get back to reality.  We are on the river cruise through the jungle and we come to the banks of the Rio Frio River where there is a group of White Face Monkeys.

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White Face Monkey

This Alpha Male White Face Monkey separated himself from a pack of monkeys playing on the river bank. He walked out on small tree branches close to our boat, aggressively started banging branches toward our boat and making loud noises signaling for us to go away. The captain only staid here a few brief moments, during which time I was able to capture this shot.

The next day we enjoyed fresh Costa Rican coffee at sunrise and headed out to the JW Marrior Resort at Guanacasste Beach along the Pacific Ocean.  We felt blessed to see the volcano in full view as the chance of seeing this is no greater than about 30%.

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Arenal Volcano in rare full view at Sunrise 

Guanacaste Beach is located along the Pacific Ocean in an area that a lot of Americans have chosen as their new home in retirement. Although attractive, this dry and hot area would not be my first choice and I preferred the cooler jungle areas around the Arenal and Poras Volcano’s. I can understand the attraction, however, for the scores of American Baby Boomers who call or are planning to call Costa Rica their new home.  They can find their piece of near Utopian beach paradise for a fraction of the cost of places such as California, Florida and Hawaii.

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Guanacaste Beach Sunrise

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Lone Tree Guanacaste Beach 

After leaving Guanacaste Beach we headed south toward Panama for another jungle cruise and a chance to see crocodiles in the wild along the Tarcoles River.

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This Croc is patiently waiting for his lunch. How would you like to be the dental hygenist responsible for cleaning this guy’s teeth?!  While Costa Rica may be as close to Utopia as one can get here on earth, there is danger lurking in the waters of the rivers, and I would not recommend swimming!

Nest up on our tour and final destination is the San Bada Hotel just steps away from Manuel Antonio National Park.

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Floating Free as a Bird 

Here is a sunset view from the roof top of the San Bada Hotel, where we just arrived after a long drive and were in desperate need of refreshment. This also just happened to be happy hour with unlimited complementary Pina Coladas! How would you like to be the paraglider gliding through this scene?

So back to our opening question: is Costa Rica utopia?  Well after an eight day tour through the country and doing some of my own research, I would say not.  There is still crime in this country and also there is a significant number of people are living close to the poverty line. But the nation is blessed with a climate, natural beauty, culture and government that has brought the country closer to the Utopian vision than just about any other place on earth. For a young Costa Rican coming of age, I am certain that it is comforting to know that their nation has undertaken the right decisions to ensure that they are not only prosperous now but also that the beautiful environment in which they live is sustainable not only for the immediate future but also for future generations.  It is also comforting for them to know that their nation’s resources are not being used to support a military that historically has worked against the evolutionary development of the nation, but instead these resources have been directed toward education and the well being of its  citizens.

Thanks everyone for taking time to read this blog.  Your comments and feedback are always greatly appreciated!  Thanks again for looking!

Gold Creek Snowshoe, Photography and Fun

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.

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Winter’s Gold

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.

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Helli’s Pond Bridge

Preparations

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!

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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.

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 Gold Creek Early Morning Light

Destinations

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.

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 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!

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 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.

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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.

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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.

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Snow Covered Boulders

Photography Tips

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.

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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.

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Daybreak at Gold Creek

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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.

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Snow Mounds

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!

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Waterfalls of Cougar Mountain

Often I get asked if I can provide some guidance about learning about photography.  One of the best pieces of advice I can provide is drawn directly from my own experience.  Practice taking images at local parks that you can go to with a short drive and can return frequently.  Although these parks may lack the spectacular beauty of the more iconic sites such as Mt. Rainier, the Grand Canyon, and Grand Tetons-you will learn more to sharpen your photographic skills at these more modest local parks than you ever will by just shooting the iconic sites.  Anyone can shoot a reasonably compelling image of Mt. Rainier’s Reflection Lake in good light, but taking a compelling image of a waterfall at Cougar Mountain Regional Wildland Park, that will challenge you to grow your photographic skill set in ways that will provide downstream benefits when you actually go to the more iconic sites.  The image below if of beautiful Coal Creek Falls in the mid morning light of an Autumn day.coal-creek-falls

The Cougar Mountain Wildland Park is only a little over 3,100 acres and is almost entirely surrounded by suburban communities.  But nestled within this Park are four beautiful waterfalls that can be reached with hikes ranging from just a couple of blocks to about three miles.  In fact if you are ambitious one could hike to all four in one day!  The next image is of North Fork Falls which can be reached by crossing the street from the Red Town Trail head and walking about a couple of blocks along the Coal Creek Park trail to this beautiful gem.  It is only about 20 feet high, but nevertheless looks quite impressive when there is a good water flow.  coal-creek-falls-two

Far Country Falls can be reached by following the Indian Trail from the Red Town Trail Head for about two miles.  I have found that this waterfall looks more interesting from the top down than from the more typical waterfall perspective of looking from the bottom up.  untitled1

The fourth waterfall, Doughty Falls, at Cougar Mountain will take a little longer to get to, about a three mile one way hike.   Doughty Falls is very small, but beauty often comes in small packages!  doughty-falls

Happy Trails!  Start your photographic journey to your local parks today!  Here is a link to access points and maps to trails at Cougar Mountain.   http://www.kingcounty.gov/services/parks-recreation/parks/parks-and-natural-lands/popular-parks/cougar.aspx