The summer of 2021 has been challenging, to say the least. Record breaking heatwaves, devastating wildfires, widespread smoke, crowded parks, and the persistent COVID thing. There was so much hope that this summer would offer a return to normalcy. Well, it is better than last year, but not much.
I can usually plan and complete successful photography trips by having various backup locations in mind. Mostly for when conditions are less than optimal. However, this year the wildfire season started much earlier than usual, and by early July thick smoke was present over all my primary and most backup locations. That is except one.
Mount Rainier from Reflection Lake #73103 Purchase
Backup Plans: Mount Rainier
So far NW Washington has been, for the most part, lucky to escape all the wildfire smoke. So that gave me the opportunity to visit some great locations closer to home. In particular I was able to make a long overdue trip to Mount Rainier National Park. For many years I’ve put off photographing in Mount Rainer for various reasons. Mainly because in August I’m usually off on more ambitious trips out of state, or in Canada. But also because of the summer crowds. And the necessity of having to drive through all the Seattle and Tacoma congestion to get there.
In addition to a very successful trip to Mount Rainier several other locations made it on my list. These included Olympic National Park, Diablo Lake, Heather Meadows, and Skyline Divide in the North Cascades. Summer isn’t over yet so hopefully there will be several more trips to be made before fall arrives.
Join me for a two day workshop on creative visualization in the North Cascades. Hosted by the North Cascades Institute, the Pacific Northwest’s premier organization for environmental learning. This will be a hybrid workshop, with the first part being a full day in the field. The second part will be an online Zoom session where we will discuss techniques of photo editing and processing.
The field segment will be a full day photographing in the beautiful Old Growth forests along Baker Lake in the North Cascades. The lake sits below the towering summits of Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan. Along the way we will pass numerous streams flowing through a cool and fragrant forest of giant firs and cedars. Along with an understory lush with ferns and wildflowers there will be plenty of subject matter to work with.
During our time in the field we will discuss and learn composition techniques. We will also explore focus stacking, exposure stacking, macro photography, and more. Above all we will learn to develop and express personal visions of the surrounding environment. The online Zoom session we will discuss and learn various editing and processing techniques to help convey creative your experience.
Although this workshop touches on some basic technical aspects of photography the focus will be on creativity and visualization. Participants should possess a working knowledge of their cameras. Participants should also have a basic understanding of image editing apps.
Due to pandemic restrictions the field portion will be limited to eight participants.
Western Larch (Larix occidentalis) #25781 Purchase
Just about everybody knows that some of the best fall color can be found in New England, or for that matter just about anywhere east of the Mississippi. The Colorado Rockies and California Sierra have their own spectacular displays of aspens, And even the Southwest can put on a good show with their cottonwoods. But in comparison the Pacific Northwest isn’t exactly known for dazzling fall color.
Those not familiar with the Northwest may not know about the magical displays of yellow and gold put on by two kinds of trees. I’m referring to the Lyall’s or Subalpine Larch and the Western Larch. The needles of these two unusual coniferous trees turn a brilliant gold every fall before they are shed. Both varieties are grow in very specific areas. And with the right lighting they can put just about any Vermont forest to shame. But you’ll have to do your homework and legwork to find the best displays. In this post I’ll be concentrating on the subalpine larch variety.
Liberty Bell Mountain North Cascades #64568 Purchase
Locating the Subalpine Larch
The Lyall’s Larch resides in subalpine and alpine areas, generally above 5500′ on colder northeast facing slopes, in a narrow band from the eastern slopes of the North Cascades to the Purcell and Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia. They can also be seen in the Canadian Rockies, with Lake Louise roughly being their northern limits.
In the North Cascades you’ll have to do some hiking to get to see the best displays. Some spots, like the Enchantments of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, demand a strenuous multi-day trek gaining over 5000′ feet of elevation along the way. Although there are some more accessible areas, such as hikes around Rainy Pass and Washington Pass on North Cascades Highway.
Hiking and photographing during the peak larch season on a calm sunny day is an experience you won’t soon forget. The sky at this altitude can be an intense blue contrasting beautifully against the vibrant gold of the trees. Tolkien fans will easily associate this experience with Lord Of The Rings chapter on Lothlorien.
Pasayten Wilderness North Cascades #56448 Purchase
Timing Is Everything
Aside from finding and hiking to the desired location timing and weather is crucial. The Lyall’s Larch generally start turning color in the last week of September. The colors peak in the first week of October, and is gone by middle of the month. The peak of the season can last anywhere from two days to a week, depending on the weather.
Since the needles of this tree are very soft and delicate, once they start changing color they can easily fall off in a wind rain or snowstorm. Of course this is also the time of year when the weather can be very unpredictable. However seeing the larches on a clear day just after a fresh snow can be a very rewarding experience.
A good plan would be to stay in a prime location for several days near some lakes. Clear sunny weather followed by cloudy weather and then a light dusting of snow is optimal. This happened to me one year when visiting the Purcell Mountains of B.C. After six days I came away with a wide variety of alpine landscape images. I was a bit nervous on the last day since it was snowing heavily. I wasn’t sure if my vehicle at the trailhead would be snowed in! It turned out to be a close call, several more inches could have prevented my escape.
Leave No Trace
And now for a short lecture. Larches grow in sensitive easily damaged alpine environments. With an ever growing crush of people seeking them out these areas can soon show signs of overuse. As I’ve been saying in previous posts, don’t even think about visiting a wilderness area unless you are prepared to follow the guidelines of Leave No Trace (LNT). All wilderness areas throughout the world are under incredible pressure from growing amounts of visitors. So please do your part to tread lightly and help preserve these precious areas for future generations!
Last week I made a trip to Manning Provincial Park for winter photography and skiing fun. Weather forecasts were for cold temperatures and a good amount of fresh snow. Perfect conditions to make some new winter photos.
Manning Provincial Park is a large park in southern British Columbia. It encompasses the northern reaches of the North Cascades Mountains, along the U.S. Washington State border. On the U.S. side the mountains present a rugged appearance with high jagged peaks. However, in Manning Park the range mellows out into high mountains with more rounded summits. Just north of the park the North Cascades ends, and gives way to the Thompson Plateau.
In summer hikers in Manning Park can find some great trails offering high views and meadows of wildflowers. In winter the park offers a network of cross country ski trails in addition to the small Gibson Pass downhill ski area. Backcountry skiers and snowshoers can also find fresh snow and solitude on the Fat Dog ski route to the Brothers Mountain group.
On this trip I took advantage of both the Nordic trails and downhill ski runs. Manning Park’s Gibson Pass Ski Area offers a bit of a unique experience in the Pacific Northwest. Most ski areas in this region receive a copious amount of heavy wet snow, often referred to as Cascade Concrete. Manning Park, on the other hand, often has colder powdery snow, due to its more inland location.
A few of other things sets Manning apart. For one it has a laid back retro feel perfect for families, and avoiding adrenaline junkies. Also, while the big resorts like Whistler Blackcomb charge a staggering $180 (Canadian) for a single lift ticket, Manning charges only $59 (Canadian). Plus, there are usually no lift lines. On my recent midweek visit, I skied directly onto the chair each time! The downside to these benefits is that there are only two chair lifts, with only one operating in midweek. The vertical drop is a modest 1400′.
While the Nordic trails are fun, they usually don’t offer much in the way of landscape photography. Therefore I made a point of taking advantage of the views offered from the top of the ski lifts. From the ridge top the views south into the Washington North Cascades are very good. The two dominant peaks in that direction are Hozomeen Mountain and Castle Peak. Further off west are the jagged peaks of the Mount Spickard, Mox Peaks, and the northern Pickets, in North Cascades National Park. To the north are the rounded summits of Three Brothers and Big Buck Mountains.
To photograph the twin summit towers of Hozomeen and the Pickets you’ll want to be on the ridge top early in the morning. However, unless you hike up to the ridge before dawn you’ll be limited by the ski lift schedule. The lifts open at 9:00 so you’ll miss sunrise. Of course depending on lighting and snow conditions you can still make good photos throughout the day. If you want to get to the top only for the views, you can purchase a one trip lift ticket for $10.
Later in the afternoon both Castle and Frosty Mountains will begin to receive warmer light. Note that until late spring the north faces of Castle and Hozomeen will be mostly in shadow.
While having great light is always imperative in photography, another important consideration for winter photography is timing the snow conditions. In winter most of the landscape will have a blanket of snow over it. However, trees and forests without snow on them will become black holes for light against all that white.
In my opinion and experience the best conditions can be had just after a storm dumps fresh snow on the trees. This sounds simple and obvious, but it can be tricky. Often in the Northwest a warmer wet snowstorm is followed by sunny conditions, which melts snow off tree branches very quickly. That pristine scene can be gone within a few hours!
Colder drier locations such as the Rockies present another dilemma. The snow can be so cold and dry that very little to no snow may adhere to tree branches. Unlike the coastal Northwest where wet snow acts like glue on everything. In cold locations and conditions a slight breeze can also remove the snow as easily as warm sunshine.
In the end winter photography can be much more fickle than photographing spring wildflowers or perfect autumn color. Depending on weather patterns where you live or are able to travel to, there may be only a couple of good opportunities a season. So keep a close eye on those forecasts and be ready to go at a moments notice!
Driving time to Manning Park is about 4.5 hours north of Seattle, and two hours from Vancouver. Winter camping is available, as are RV hookups at Gibson Pass Ski Area. Manning Park Resort also offers excellent lodge and cabin facilities, along with a restaurant grocery store and gas. Cell phone signal is limited to the immediate lodge area.
Want to Learn More?
Would you like to learn more about photographing in Manning Park and or winter photography? I offer full day, half day, and multi-day photo tours and instruction. Check out my Private Instruction/Tours page for more info, or contact me directly. I would love to help you take your photography to the next level and shoot like a pro!
Heather Meadows Recreation Area is located adjacent to the Mount Baker Wilderness in the North Cascades. Magnificent scenery and numerous hiking trails are the highlights of this special place. In summer visitors can drive to Artist Point on Kulshan Ridge for incredible views of Mount Baker in one direction, and Mount Shuksan in the other. Further down is one of the most iconic mountain scenes in the world, Mount Shuksan reflected in Picture Lake.
In winter Heather Meadows is just as popular a place to visit. The adjacent Mount Baker Ski Area is open, and throngs of backcountry skiers and snowboarders search for untouched powder. January usually provides some breaks in the winter storms, so it’s a good time to make the trip up.
I’ve been visiting Heather Meadows in winter for over twenty years. Mostly for photography but also for the pure exhilaration of the views and crisp cold air. Even though I’ve skied up to Artist Point on Kulshan ridge numerous times I always find something new to photograph. Different lighting conditions and reshaping snow pack will always dress up the scene in a new way. All the photos in this post were made a few weeks ago on a crisp day in late January.
Mount Shuksan and snowdrift Kulshan Ridge #64337 Purchase
Up near the ridge you can find wonderful shapes and patterns in the ever changing snowdrifts. If you are lucky enough to visit just after a heavy storm you’ll also see old growth mountain hemlock trees encased in snow and ice. Also, if you are extraordinarily lucky you may get a glimpse of a steam plume from Mount Baker’s volcanic crater glowing in the evening light!
Swift Creek Valley from Kulshan Ridge #64728 Purchase
Winter Travel Gear Tips
If you go there are a few things to keep in mind. Snowshoes, backcountry skis, or split-board snowboards are the most efficient means of getting around. Skinny cross country skis, or booting it in for even a short distance from the parking lot is exhausting in the deep snow, you’ll be drenched in sweat within minutes. Artist Point is less than two miles and 900′ elevation gain from the parking lot. However, with all your extra winter travel gear that distance can seem much longer.
Don’t even think of going during poor weather! Whiteout conditions, heavy wet snow, and increased avalanche danger does not make for an enjoyable outing. It seems every year there a couple of fatalities directly attributed to those types of conditions. The main route up to Artist Point and Kulshan Ridge is usually safe from avalanches. However, under certain conditions a few areas can be dangerous.
I won’t get into too much detail regarding essentials, but make sure you take the following:
Extra warm clothes, it can be windy and much colder on the ridge.
Plenty of liquids to stay hydrated
High energy snacks
Insulated pad to sit on
Avalanche beacon, probe, shovel, and knowledge of how to use them.
A partner, especially important if you’re new to the area in winter, or venture beyond Artist Point
Nooksack Ridge from Heather Meadows #64748 Purchase
Photo Gear and Tips
Just like photographing wildflowers in spring or colorful fall foliage, winter photography is all about timing. Maybe even more so. I’m always on the lookout for good conditions. Such as after a good storm covers the trees and peaks in a fresh blanket of snow. Of course it must not be too warm or the snow will quickly melt off the trees and leave them black silhouettes against the white snow.
Photographing from Artist Point, Mount Baker is best photographed in the early morning. Mount Shuksan is best photographed in late afternoon to evening. For Shuksan late winter or early spring is preferred, since the angle of the sun won’t be as low. You’ll get more light on the glaciers then.
For lower down in Heather Meadows morning light can be optimal. Some of the best conditions I’ve seen here are when low clouds or fog are just beginning to lift.
Backcountry skier and tracks North Cascades #64732 Purchase
If you are envisioning untouched pristine snow in your photos you’ll have to get there very early, and immediately after a good snowfall. Backcountry skiing and riding has exploded over the years. Therefore, even the most remote and steepest backcountry terrain is tracked out by midmorning. It’s now nearly impossible to make a photo anywhere in the Heather Meadows area without numerous tracks everywhere.
Before digital I often trekked the meadows and up to the ridge with a 4×5 large format camera, and all its the weighty accessories. Several times I even did it with a full overnight winter pack! Digital has simplified and lightened the load somewhat. Here are a few basic items I always bring along.
Some form of remote release
Plenty of microfiber lens cleaning clothes, you will drop things in the snow!
Want to Learn More?
Would you like to learn more about winter photography? I offer full day, half day, and multi-day photo tours and instruction. Check out my Private Instruction/Tours page for more info, or contact me directly. I would love to help you take your photography to the next level and shoot like a pro!
Canadian Border peak and Larrabee Peak #64754 Purchase
Liberty Bell Mountains, North Cascades #64469 Purchase
My final group of images from 2018 is now online and ready for viewing. As with the past several new releases I have added a selection of highlights to the New Images Gallery. You can see even more by visiting the Washington Galleryor searching by keyword/location.
This past year I have been very fortunate to have been able to visit some exciting new locations in the Midwest and Appalachian Mountains. However, it somehow seems fitting that the year is finishing up with a successful fall trip on my home turf. Washington Pass and Rainy Pass along North Cascades Highway are two of the most scenic sections of the state. This area holds many fond memories for me, so I’ll jump at any chance I can get to photograph there. On this most recent visit in early October I was lucky to have both fresh snowfall and sub-alpine larches at their peak color.
Liberty Bell Mountain from Washington Pass Overlook #64568 Purchase
The other location included in this set is even closer to home, Heather Meadows Recreation Area. Just an hour up the road, I’ve been their many dozens of times, for photography, skiing, and hiking. This area of easy access can be very crowded in every season. So on this occasion I hiked the Ptarmigan Ridge trail on a quiet Monday in spectacular fall weather. The next morning I photographed near the ski area just as a few clouds drifted in to herald a change of weather.
Tapto Lake North Cascades National Park #61501 Purchase
Here are a few more images from last year’s trip to Whatcom Pass in North Cascades National Park. After going through my files recently I noticed that these images were still in the “sketching” phase of processing. Sometimes looking back at images over time sheds new light on interpreting the feel of subject matters.
To read more about this special place read my earlier post on Whatcom Pass and Tapto Lakes. Now I’m off for several day photographing back at Washington Pass along North Cascades Highway.
Whatcom Peak North Cascades National Park #61502 Purchase
Tapto Lakes Basin North Cascades National Park #61515 Purchase
Whatcom Pass Tapto Lakes North Cascades National Park
Mount Challenger, North Cascades National Park #61740 Purchase
Several weeks ago I was finally able to make a return visit to Whatcom Pass and Tapto Lakes. In the heart of North Cascades National Park, Whatcom Pass is quintessential North Cascades wilderness. It rises out of deep untouched forest valleys to jaw dropping views of rugged glacier clad peaks. From Part 1
Exploring Tapto Lakes Basin
Tapto Lakes is one of those locations that many hikers dream about visiting. Remote, high in the subalpine, and surrounded by rugged snowcapped peaks, the lakes have all the features of a classic backpacking destination. Tapto Lakes sit in a basin about 800′ above Whatcom Pass. The basin contains on large lake and several smaller lakes set in a heather filled subalpine meadow. The basin is shaped somewhat like an amphitheater, with the main show being the stupendous views of Mount Challenger and Whatcom Peak. Situated in a designated cross-country zone by the park service, with a permit you are free to camp anywhere among the lakes, though with a few caveats.
After investing two days of hard work reaching the lakes I woke up rested and refreshed. Content on not having to hike anywhere with a full pack I took in the view and planned my day. Of course since my main reason for being here was landscape photography I woke up early to survey the light. I had already identified several excellent spots to run to in the event of some great morning light. Unfortunately this wasn’t the case on my first morning, so I had lots of leisure time to explore all the lakes. My usual modus operandi is to spend most of the day scouting out and lining up possible compositions. I then try to assign a priority to them and work from top down when the lighting becomes appropriate. My first evening had some very nice light, enabling me to photograph some classic reflections of Whatcom Peak.
Whatcom Peak, North Cascades National Park #61499 Purchase
The View North
On my second day I decided to move camp to a higher location. My map showed a very small lake not far away in its own small talus fringed basin on Red Face Mountain. It appeared to offer even more commanding views, along with quick access to a ridge on Red Face Mountain. The short hike up was definitely worth it. The lake still had some snow along one side and also had some good composition qualities. I quickly found an excellent spot to set up camp, after which I hiked up to the ridge.
Bear Mountain and Reveille Lakes, North Cascades National Park #61536 Purchase
As I crested the ridge I was presented with incredible views of the wild peaks to the north. Dominating the view was Bear Mountain and the jagged needle-like spires of Mox Peaks and Silver Peaks. Far below the precipitous and crumbling ridge were the turquoise colored Reveille Lakes. All of this territory was completely devoid of trails, a true wilderness only accessible to the most determined mountaineers. I sat there for quite some time, contemplating how fortunate I was to be in such a special place. I got up after a while and headed back down the slope, wondering if I’ll ever return.
Waiting for Light
Back down at the lake the day was wearing on and it was time to set up some compositions. Some clouds had moved in and were swirling arounds the summits of nearby peaks. I was hopeful they wouldn’t completely sock in everything before sunset. I moved to the back of the lake where Whatcom Peak cast a nice reflection in the still waters. Waiting to see what would happen I photographed a series of images in which the clouds and reflection created a sort of Rorshach effect. Although the light didn’t have a dramatic saturation of color, I did like some of the subtle pastel tones. All in all it was a very satisfying day.
Whatcom Peak cloud reflection, North Cascades National Park #61603 Purchase
Whatcom Peak cloud reflection, North Cascades National Park #61630 Purchase
The next day feeling that I accomplish my goals and not wanting to overly duplicate images, I packed up and moved on. A bit east of Tapto Lakes are a few more small lakes, the most accessible being Middle Lakes. I decided to spend my last day here before heading back. Climbing back up to the ridge I turned and bid a somewhat sad goodbye to the lakes I had dreamed of revisiting all those years.
Middle Lakes turned out to be an easy short mile or so further, there was only a steep rock slope to cross to add a bit of excitement. When I reached upper Middle Lake I found the setting to be somewhat desolate. Surrounded by steep slopes on three sides and a boulder filed at the outlet, there didn’t seem to be any good campsites. I moved on to check out the lower lake. The lower lake was more attractive, but it too afforded little flat ground for camping. However, when scouting for campsites I noticed an odd mound near the lake outlet with intense iron red soil. There appeared to be springs emanating from the mound. The main spring had formed small red mineral terraces similar to Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone. I felt the water but it was cool to the touch.
Mineral Spring, North Cascades National Park #61666 Purchase
Swirling clouds over Challenger Glacier, North Cascades National Park #61711 Purchase
I ultimately found a nice spot for the night among boulders and heather meadows with a commanding view of Mount Challenger. For a mountain with such an imposing glacier it seemed that its elevation should be more than 8236′. During my entire stay in the area I noticed a nearly constant flow of clouds near its summit. Apparently for such a modest height Mount Challenger tends to make its own weather, partly explaining the huge glacier. Most of that afternoon and evening I enjoyed and photographed a show of mists whimsically curling around the summit. To commemorate my trip to this special place I made several photos of my campsite, including a couple with the tent illuminated.
Illuminated tent and Mount Challenger, North Cascades National Park #61751 Purchase
The next day it was time to head out, retracing my steps down to Whatcom Pass and into the Chilliwack River Valley. Although I was filled with a deep sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, I was also sad to say goodbye. I faced a long day of hiking filled with retrospection on this and my first trip to Whatcom Pass many years back. Once again a highlight was riding the cable car across the river. After around ten miles I reached Copper Creek Camp, tired with plenty of hot spots on my heels and toes. The next day I faced the stiff climb back up to Hannegan Pass and then the final miles out to the trailhead where my truck waited.
Nearing the pass I began to meet more hikers. Many of them were just beginning trips similar to mine. You could easily see the excitement in their faces, anticipating the wonders that were waiting for them. Of course I stopped to chat and helped stoke their excitement by passing on some of the highlights from my own trip. Then it was down the pass for the last five miles of the trip. Although I was out of North Cascades National Park and in the Mount Baker Wilderness, it was easy to sense civilization was close. I began to see more people on a wider well maintained trail. I got back to my truck in a few hours, in a parking lot that had dozens of cars in it.
Tired but happy I began to drive home. I began thinking how soon I might get a chance to go back to Whatcom Pass.
Campsite on Red Face Mountain, Whatcom Peak in the distance, North Cascades National Park #61589Purchase
Whatcom Pass Tapto Lakes North Cascades National Park Part 2
Whatcom Peak reflected in Tapto Lake # 61497 Purchase
A Long Awaited Journey
Everyone has a place they dream of, somewhere that holds a special spot in their heart. At some point in their lives, usually at a young age, they see a picture or read a story about a place that for various reasons grabs their imagination. They carry it with them over the years and hope someday for the chance to visit it in person. For me it has always been mountain wilderness. And not just any run-of-the-mill mountain wilderness. It had to have a primordial feel. Dark mysterious forests, raging rivers, and rugged peaks with jagged rock summits jutting out from expansive glaciers. For me the North Cascades fit the bill perfectly. It was this vision that drew me to Whatcom Pass many years ago.
Challenger Mountain, North Cascades National Park #61459 Purchase
Whatcom Pass Tapto Lakes North Cascades National Park Part 1
Several weeks ago I was finally able to make a return visit to Whatcom Pass and Tapto Lakes, in North Cascades National Park. In the heart of the park, Whatcom Pass is quintessential North Cascades wilderness. It rises out of deep untouched forest valleys to jaw dropping views of rugged glacier clad peaks. Far away from any road town or cell signal. My first visit was way back in the late eighties and I’ve been wanting to go back ever since. There have been many reasons for my delayed return, not least of which is the long tiring hike accompanied by swarms of flying insects.
Unlike most backpacking trips this one has a few major ups and downs in addition to covering lots of miles. The first day climbs a pass and then descends deep into another valley. The next day you must climb all the way up to another pass, then higher to the lakes basin. In all you’ll cover around 40+ miles and about 8500′ of elevation, including side trips, before returning to the trailhead. A very strong hiker could make it in two days, most people allow three to four days. My primary goal was for photography and relaxation so I gave six days to accomplish this trip. Aside from the photography thing I always feel that if you work so hard to get some place why hurry to leave? Take your time to relax and enjoy the surroundings!
Hannegan Pass Trail through Ruth Creek Valley, Mount Baker Wilderness #54291 Purchase
Hiking to Hannegan Pass
On the first day I made an early start, hoping to make it through the brushy Ruth Creek Valley before the black flies awoke. It’s about five miles and 2000′ up to Hannegan Pass, along a very scenic trail that sees very heavy foot traffic. I’ve been up this trail to the pass nearly a dozen times and never get tired of the open views of rugged Nooksack Ridge. About halfway up you begin to see snowcapped Ruth Mountain guarding the head of the valley. Ruth Mountain itself is a popular destination for hikers climbers, and skiers in early season. Although I’m not much of a mountaineer I managed to hike up the glacier to the summit several years back. From the top you get an incredible view of Mount Shuksan and it’s glaciers spilling into Nooksack Cirque. Truly awe-inspiring!
On reaching Hannegan Pass I took a rest to have a snack and dry off my sweat soaked shirt. I also chatted with a group of volunteers that were part of a trail maintenance crew. From here it’s all downhill into the wild Chilliwack River Valley, losing all that hard-won elevation. Shortly after leaving the pass I finally entered North Cascades National Park, indicated by a weather beaten-wooden sign. The hike down into the valley is through a beautiful untouched fragrant forest of silver fir, mountain hemlock and grand fir. The feeling here of true wilderness is very tangible, even the trail seems wilder. From the pass I needed to travel another five miles to U.S. Cabin camp, my first night’s destination.
Old growth forest Chilliwack River Valley, North Cascades National Park #61421 Purchase
Ten miles is about my limit for hiking with a full mutli-day pack, so I was glad to reach the camp and set up my tent. Amazingly there were very few bugs so far and I was able to relax and eat dinner along the river unmolested. I was even able to make a few photos of the impressive forest at this camp. That night I turned in early in anticipation of a grueling hike the next day. I had to hike another seven miles and over 3000′ up to my next and ultimate destination, Tapto Lakes above Whatcom Pass.
The next morning I again got up early to hit the trail. The first stop of the day was the unique crossing of the Chilliwack River via a hand operated cable car. I don’t know how common these contraptions are but for most hikers it’s a highlight of their trip. Later in the season crossing the river on foot wouldn’t be very hard, but why pass up such an interesting experience? Two hikers and their packs can fit in the car which is operated by pulling on a rope. It’s pretty easy getting across the first half since the cable sags down a bit. After that you begin to pull your weight up to the opposite side. By the time I got the car docked on the platform my arms were pretty tired from pulling. Of course I had to make sure I got a few photos before moving on.
Chilliwack River cable car, North Cascades National Park #61427 Purchase
Climbing to Whatcom Pass
After the river crossing it’s back to work again on the trail, which now goes through a very brushy section. Years ago, on my first visit, the chest high brush was covered in morning dew. After a half an hour of hiking I was soaking from the waist down. A few miles later the climb to Whatcom Pass begins in earnest. The trail begins to rise from the valley bottom and gradually views open up to rugged Easy Ridge. After what seems like an eternity Whatcom Peak comes into view and the terrain begins to take on a subalpine look. I arrived at Whatcom Pass exhausted and again drenched in sweat from the climb.
Whatcom Pass Trail, North Cascades National Park #61764 Purchase
I still had another mile and 800′ feet of elevation to travel to my camp at Tapto Lakes. At this point I was wiped out and wasn’t sure if I could make it. The trail to the lakes is more like a climbers route, with sections so steep you need to pull yourself up by root and branches. While deciding if I had the energy I spoke with a few other backpackers doing the cross-park hike to Ross Lake. Like me they spent the whole morning climbing up to Whatcom Pass. However, they only paused briefly to take in the views before heading down again into the adjacent valley.
Again I though to myself, what’s the point in all the work if you hurry past the best parts? The previous day I met a woman doing the Pacific Northwest Trail. This 1200 mile long trail starts at Glacier Park in Montana and ends at the Pacific Ocean. Like the Pacific Crest, Continental Divide, and Appalachian trails, you need to hike a set number of miles each day to complete it. During our brief conversation I couldn’t help admiring her determination and stamina. At the same time I also felt a bit sorry for her that she needed to hurry through such beauty to stay on schedule.
Challenger Mountain and Whatcom Peak, North Cascades National Park #61443 Purchase
At Tapto Lakes
By this time I felt physically and mentally rested enough slog up to reach my camp at Tapto Lakes. Taking it very slowly, the climb proved easier than I anticipated. Soon enough the views exploded to include Mount Challenger and the imposing rock buttresses of Whatcom Peak. A short 200′ descent into the basin brought me to beautiful Tapto Lakes. The day was still young so I took my time and leisurely explored the area to find the best campsite. The only other people there was a small group staying at the pass below. They had day hiked up to the lakes to take in the views and a quick dip in the frigid lake waters. When they left I had the entire place all to myself!
Time to rest and take it all in, and do nothing but marvel at the rugged beauty that spread before my eyes. At last I returned to the place that held my imagination spellbound for nearly 28 years.
Coming up in part two: Exploring and photographing at Tapto Lakes. Click here to read part two
Tapto Lake, North Cascades National Park #61455 Purchase
Liberty Bell Mountain North Cascades #61304 Purchase
My last post featured a hike up to Maple Pass along the North Cascades Highway of Washington State. This post will feature the second part of that short trip. Not far up the road from Rainy Pass and the Maple Pass trailhead is one of the premier areas of the North Cascades, Washington Pass. Sitting at 5477′ this is the high point of the North Cascades Highway. It also features one of the best views of dramatic mountain scenery in the state accessible by vehicle. During the winter months the pass closes due to deep snows and hazardous avalanche conditions.
Proudly guarding the pass is Liberty Bell Mountain and its attendant peaks, The Minute Man and Early Winters Spires. All of these and surrounding peaks are composed of a pinkish type of granite carved from the Golden Horn Batholith. The quality of rock attracts climbers from all over the globe, and in early spring ski mountaineers.
Kangaroo Ridge from Washington Pass #61316 Purchase
The aesthetic beauty of the area also attracts photographers, me being one of them. Most visitors new to the pass generally head to the dramatic views of the overlook area. However I enjoy the peaceful solitude of the adjacent meadows and the wonderful compositions it offers. The meadows are the headwaters of State Creek and can be classified more as wetlands. Photographing on the spongy ground requires very light steps to protect the delicate plants. Another requirement is a willingness to get your feet wet and a tolerance for swarms of flying biting insects!
Liberty Bell Mountain North Cascades #61365 Purchase
Autumn is also another great time to visit as the subalpine larches fringing Liberty Bell are turning gold. However the sun is then at a lower angle and doesn’t illuminate much of the north face of the mountain. When the road opens in spring you can also get an idea of how the pass looks in winter conditions.