Mount Baker seen from Goat Lake on Ptarmigan Ridge, Mount Baker Wilderness. North Cascades Washington #73706

Lake Ann Ptarmigan Ridge Mount Baker Wilderness

Lake Ann Ptarmigan Ridge Mount Baker Wilderness

Mount Baker seen from Goat Lake on Ptarmigan Ridge, Mount Baker Wilderness. North Cascades Washington #73706Mount Baker and Goat Lake #73706  Purchase

This post is the next installment of Mount Baker Wilderness Destinations. This time, we will discuss two hikes that start in Heather Meadows, Lake Ann, and Ptarmigan Ridge. These hikes are unusual in the North Cascades since the trailhead is higher up in the sub-alpine. Most trails in the North Cascades involve considerable elevation gain to reach the alpine. Heather Meadows and parts of Mount Rainier National Park are a few areas where trails start high.

Another bonus is that both of these trails lead to close views of Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan. These mountains display two geological features that define the North Cascades, volcanism and complex metamorphic terrane. Even if you’re not a geologist there is plenty of material here to pique your interest in the subject.

Essential Tip: Both of these trails are among the most heavily used in the Northwest. Expect to see plenty of people, every day of the week. Get to the trailhead parking very early in the morning or you may not find a parking spot.

Evening clouds swirling around Mount Shuksan North Cascades, Washington #73588Mount Shuksan seen from Ptarmigan Ridge 73588  Purchase

Ptarmigan Ridge Trail

Length: 9 miles roundtrip to glacier overlook at the Portals
Elevation Gain: 1800′
Getting there:  From Bellingham drive Mount Baker Highway, SR 542, about 58 miles to its end at Artist Point. The last section beyond the ski area usually is not plowed until late June, and some years not until August. If the road is still under snow come back a few weeks later since the trail itself will still be buried in deep snow.

Ptarmigan Ridge is hands down one of the most scenic trails in the Northwest. You would be hard-pressed to find another trail in the North Cascades which travels through the alpine as long as this one. If you hike only the first mile or go all the way to the glaciers of Mount Baker, every step brings fantastic views. That said, this trail is suitable for day-hikes and overnight-night backpacking. It is also one of the approaches for climbing Mount Baker, although it’s probably the longest one. And even in late summer, you’ll see people packing skis and searching for more turns.

Essential Tip:  Due to its elevation and proximity to Mount Baker, the weather maker, this trail is usually deep under snow until mid-August. A few sections never melt out. Crampons or micro-spikes and an ice axe will come in handy for early-season hikers.

Essential Tip:  Do not confuse this trail with the Ptarmigan Traverse. The Ptarmigan Traverse is a climbers-only route which starts south of Highway 20, at Cascades Pass in North Cascades National Park.

Backpackers on Ptarmigan Ridge Trail Mount Baker and Coleman Pinnacle are in the distance. Mount Baker Wilderness, North Cascades Washington #73720Hikers on Ptarmigan Ridge Trail, Mt. Baker (L), Coleman Pinnacle (R) #73720  Purchase

Hiking Ptarmigan Ridge

For the first mile, the trail is mostly level and traverses open slopes below Table Mountain. Soon after is a junction with the Chain Lakes Trail, another outstanding hike. Then the trail drops down a few hundred feet and crosses numerous streams before beginning to climb through a vast slope of volcanic rock. This last section, before gaining the ridge again, is usually under snow until late in the season. Just pick the easiest way to the ridge or follow tracks from other hikers.

Gaining the ridge the trail then begins a grand tour winding along ridges in alpine heaven. At around 3.8 miles the trail takes a sharp right turn and starts up a steep grassy slope below Coleman Pinnacle. This is also where you can leave the trail to visit beautiful Goat Lakes, just to the south.

Mount Baker seen from Ptarmigan Ridge, Mount Baker Wilderness. North Cascades Washington #73714Mount Baker, The Portals are seen as black butte on right #73714  Purchase

The last section crosses a sort of ridge plateau made of volcanic boulders and ash. Some of the best camping spots on the trail are here. Finally, the trail ends just below the Portals, a crumbling volcanic hill. Rough paths climb to the top where there are close-up views of Mount Baker and glaciers in nearly every direction.

This is about as far as a hiker can safely go, and it’s a great spot to have lunch before heading back.

Essential Tip:  Do not attempt to travel on any of the nearby glaciers unless you have the proper equipment and training.

Sunset over Mount Baker at backcountry camp on Ptarmigan Ridge, Mount Baker Wilderness. North Cascades Washington #73634Campsite on Ptarmigan Ridge Mount Baker Wilderness #73634  Purchase

Camping on Ptarmigan Ridge

I can’t imagine anyone hiking this trail without thinking of how great it would be to camp somewhere along the ridge. There are only a few sections on the route which are flat enough to spread out a tent. And some of those are close to heavy traffic areas. The best spots are around Goat Lake, about 4 miles in, and at the trail end on the 5790′ volcanic plateau.

For Goat Lake find a faint path heading down and south where the trail veers to the right below Coleman Pinnacle. The first short section is very steep on loose rock, and it’s essential to make sure you’re on the correct path. Once it levels out there are good sites on the way to the lake. Although the lake isn’t far it’s a longer walk than it looks. Also, keep in mind that this is one of those areas that retain snow long into the summer. Some years the lake doesn’t even completely melt out.

Mount Baker sunset seen from Goat Lake on Ptarmigan Ridge, Mount Baker Wilderness. North Cascades Washington #73622Mount Baker and Goat Lake #73622  Purchase

Photography on Ptarmigan Ridge

There are excellent photo opportunities along the entire length of the Ptarmigan Ridge Trail. Indeed,  only a few steps from the parking area at Artist Point are some of the most iconic views of Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan.

For wildflowers enthusiasts, there are a few areas worth checking out. The first basin beyond the Chain Lakes trail junction has many streams with mossy borders and yellow and purple monkeyflowers. Another good location is the northeast side of Goat Lake. It’s worth mentioning that due to the heavy snowpack, most wildflowers in the area will be late bloomers.

My favorite area for photography is Goat Lake. Spending the night here rewards the photographer with a beautiful evening and morning light. This is also an outstanding location for night photography. Plus, there are plenty of elements around the lake which can you can use in compositions. These include lake reflections of Mount Baker, patterns of ice on the lake, and wildflowers.

I would suggest bringing along a full kit of lenses, from ultra-wide to medium telephoto. A longer focal length lens can isolate patterns of crevasses on glaciers. And if you’re lucky, a telephoto is useful to catch wisps of steam emanating from the crater below Sherman Peak on Baker.

Mount Shuksan seen from partially frozen Lake Ann, Mount Baker Wilderness, North Cascades Washington #58150Lake Ann and Mount Shuksan #58150   Purchase

Lake Ann

Length: 8 miles roundtrip to Lake Ann / 10 miles roundtrip to Mount Ann
Elevation Gain: 1900′ roundtrip to Lake Ann / 2800′ roundtrip to Mount Ann
Getting there:  From Bellingham drive Mount Baker Highway, SR 542, about 57 miles to Austin Pass. The last section beyond the ski area usually is not plowed until late June, and some years not until August. If the road is still under snow come back a few weeks later since the trail itself will still be buried in deep snow.

About a half mile before the road ends at Artist Point is the small saddle of Austin Pass. This is where the trailhead for Lake Ann is. Parking here is more limited than at Artist Point, so get here early.

Mount Baker Wilderness, North Cascades Washington #58134Looking north from summit of Mount Ann #58134  Purchase

The journey begins by dropping about 500′ below the pass into a lovely subalpine basin at the headwaters of Swift Creek. After winding through streams, wildflowers, and rock gardens the trail enters the forest for the next mile or so. The first camping area is at a crossing of Swift creek, where the trail emerges into subalpine meadows.  From here it’s about a 900′ switchback climb to the saddle above Lake Ann. Take your time here as the rocky meadows are very picturesque. This is a perfect place to see and hear pikas among the boulders.

From the saddle, the trail drops into the lake basin. Shortly before arriving at the lake a trail branching off to the left heads to close views of Curtis Glacier. From here you are at the base of Mount Shuksan and can gaze up at its immense walls and hanging glaciers.

Mount Shuksan North Cascades Washington #58136Mount Shuksan and Lower Curtis Glacier #58136  Purchase

Hiking to Mount Ann

While most people only visit Lake Ann on a day hike or camp along its shore, there is more to explore. A worthwhile destination above and to the south of the lake is Mount Ann. From the saddle above Lake Anne climb the steep slope to gain a long ridge. Hike along this ridge to the south side of Mount Ann and pick your way through boulders and up gullies to the small summit.

From the summit of Mount Ann impressive views are in every direction. See Shuksan Creek emerging from lower Curtius Glacier. To the west is Mount Baker and the entire length of Ptarmigan Ridge. Looking south are Mount Blum, Hagan Mountain, and Bacon Peak. And far below is Baker Lake. On a clear day, you can see Glacier Peak far to the south, and maybe even Mount Rainier.

Essential Tip:  Just like on Ptarmigan Ridge this trail is usually deep under snow until mid-August. Lake Ann will often have ice on it well into autumn. Crampons or micro-spikes and an ice axe will come in handy for early-season hikers.

Backcountry camp above Lake Ann, Mount Shuksan in the background, Mount Baker Wilderness North Cascades #58125Tent on Ridge above Lake Ann #58128   Purchase

Camping at Lake Ann

An overnight trip to Lake Ann is truly something special. From camps along the lake, the imposing face of Mount Shuksan is so close you can almost touch it. But to find a spot to set up your tent will require some planning and flexibility. The few campsites at Lake Ann are among the most heavily used in the Mount Baker Wilderness.

Essential Tip:  Your best bet would be to arrive on a Sunday or Monday morning, when people are heading home for the week. For a weekend stay, you’ll need to arrive at the lake very early on Friday morning. Later on Friday and Saturday, you’ll probably be out of luck.

Most of the established sites are on the east side of the lake and near its outlet. However, I feel the best sites are on the long ridge of Mount Ann above the lake. I like the view of looking down on the lake with Shuksan as a dramatic backdrop. There are several bare dirt sites on the ridge, and plenty of flat areas on snowpack to set up a tent. As a bonus, you may have the ridge to yourself compared to down at the lake.

Mount Shuksan, Mount Baker Wilderness, North Cascades Washington #58162Mount Shuksan #58162  Purchase

Photography at Lake Ann

A combination of Lake Ann and Mount Shuksan are the main elements for photography. Ice floes on the lake offer some interesting abstract patterns, and there are some small areas of wildflowers. You’ll definitely need a wide-angle lens of around 20mm to fit all of the lake and Shuksan into the frame.

From the ridge above the lake, you also have great views and compositions of Mount Baker. While most hikers prefer sunny blue sky days, clouds and weather can be a photographer’s friend. An ideal situation would be to photograph at Lake Ann, or on Ptarmigan Ridge, as a storm or weather patterns begin to clear. Clouds and fog swirling around jagged peaks give the North Cascades its trademark mysterious and primordial look.

Misty clouds swirling around peaks of the North Cascades in Heather Meadows Recreation Area, Washington #73538bClearing storm over North Cascades #73538b2  Purchase

More Info for Lake Ann Ptarmigan Ridge

When to go:  Both of these hikes and the North Cascades generally receive more snow than just about anywhere else in the lower 48 states. Most higher elevation trails are under the snowpack until early to mid-July. Of course, you can go sooner but be prepared for some route-finding. Some steeper slopes higher on the ridge may need crampons and an ice axe to negotiate safely.

Most wildflowers don’t appear until late July or early August. The exception would be avalanche lilies that begin to shoot up while still under snow.  By mid-August, most of the snow will be gone and water sources may be an issue for some overnight trips. Late July through August is also the buggiest time of the year.

Both Ptarmigan Ridge and Lake Ann are very popular destinations and receive heavy use. It’s always a good idea to get an early sunrise start if possible. That way, you’ll have the trail to yourself and avoid the day’s heat and bugs.

Permits:  A Northwest Forest Pass or America the Beautiful Pass is required for parking at the trailhead. However, Washington State Discover Passes are not valid. There are currently no additional permits needed for day-hiking or overnight trips.

Gear:  Check my post Backpacking Photography Gear Tips for suggestions and tips on hiking, backpacking, and photography gear.

Photography tips:  Check my post Backpacking Photography Tips for suggestions and tips on what camera gear to bring and for tips on making better photos during your trip.

More information about these hikes can be found on the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest website.

For more hikes in the Mount Baker Wilderness and North Cascades National Park check out these posts:
Mount Baker Wilderness Destinations
Hannegan Peak Ruth Mountain Mount Baker Wilderness
Whatcom Pass Tapto Lakes North Cascades National Park

Backcountry camp on Ptarmigan Ridge, Mount Baker Wilderness. North Cascades Washington #73641The author at camp on Ptarmigan Ridge #73641

Leave No Trace in the Mount Baker Wilderness

Please Please Please!  Don’t plan a trip to this or any other wilderness area unless you are willing to follow the guidelines of Leave No Trace (LNT). Mount Baker Wilderness and all other wilderness areas throughout the world are under incredible pressure from growing amounts of visitors. Please do your part to help preserve these precious areas for future generations!

To learn more about the principles and practicing LNT please take a few minutes to visit the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. Your children, grandchildren, and the Earth will thank you!

Seven Leave No Trace Principles

  • Plan ahead and prepare.                                       
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces.                 
  • Dispose of waste properly.                                                                         
  • Leave what you find.                                            
  • Minimize campfire impacts (be careful with fire).
  • Respect wildlife.  
  • Be considerate of other visitors

Thanks for reading, feel free to share this post with your friends and colleagues!

Want to learn more, or have a professional photographer guide you in the field? Then take your Creative Photography to the next level with  Private Instruction and Guided Photo Tours.

Photos appearing in Lake Ann Ptarmigan Ridge Mount Baker Wilderness are available for Commercial Licensing and Fine Art Prints. Click on any image to purchase, or contact me for more info!

Lake Ann Ptarmigan Ridge

Ruth Mountain and Hannegan Peak Wildflowers North Cascades Washington #54332

Hannegan Peak Ruth Mountain Mount Baker Wilderness

Hannegan Peak Ruth Mountain Mt Baker Wilderness

Ruth Mountain seen from Hannegan Peak, Mount Baker Wilderness North Cascades #54364Ruth Mountain seen from Hannegan Peak #54364  Purchase

The North Cascades is a mountain range with some of the most rugged and dramatic scenery in the lower 48 states. In its northwest corner is the Mount Baker Wilderness. And within this wilderness are two destinations that represent the best of the North Cascades, Hannegan Peak, and Ruth Mountain. Both routes pass among old-growth forests, wildflower meadows, and rushing streams and waterfalls. Both peaks have tremendous open views of rugged mountains and glaciers. And while Hannegan Peak is a moderate hike, Ruth Mountain is more difficult, adding some mountaineering adventure to the mix.

Both destinations utilize the scenic Hannegan Pass trail for access, the starting point for many wilderness adventures. Among them include ascending Hannegan Peak, Ruth Mountain, or continuing on into North Cascades National Park. The latter option leads into some of the wildest parts in the North Cascades. In this post we’ll explore the first two options.

Essential Tip: In summer the Hannegan Pass Trail can be one of the buggiest in all of the North Cascades. I’ve been on this trail several times when the black flies are so thick it’s like something out of an Arctic horror story. While other times there were very few flies. It’s usually best to start out very early in the morning to beat the heat and flies.

Essential Tip: The area around Hannegan Pass has a long history of encounters with black bears. Hang your food or better yet use bear-proof canisters.

Ruth Creek Valley from Hannegan Pass Trail, North Cascades Washington #58067Ruth Creek Valley from Hannegan Pass Trail #58067  Purchase

Hiking the Hannegan Pass Trail

Access to the trailhead is via Hannegan Pass Road, Forest Service Road 32. Towards the end of the road you get a real sense that the Ruth Creek Valley is something special. In the last mile the road passes avalanche gullies with glimpses up to rugged Nooksack Ridge. Early in the season the road here is often blocked with piles of snow and huge trees brought down avalanches. Check with the Forest Service in advance for road conditions.

The large trailhead parking area is usually filled with cars and is often a bustle of activity. Even before daybreak there are often parties sorting through gear for the long climb up to Ruth Mountain and other destinations. You’ll also see groups with large packs giddy with excitement ready to start long trips into the National Park.

Hannegan Pass Trail, Mount Baker Wilderness, North Cascades Washington #61790Backpackers on Hannegan Pass Trail #61790  Purchase

It’s a little less than a five-mile hike to Hannegan Pass on a well-maintained trail. Along the way, there are plenty of opportunities to pause and take in the scenery. Most notably is a spot about two miles in which traverses through an open rocky area with cascading streams. This is where the snowy bulk of Ruth Mountain first comes into view. Somehow the view up and down the wild valley has a primordial feel to it. Unless you are in a hurry, and you definitely shouldn’t be, this is a prime spot to take a short rest.

The last mile or so the trail re-enters the forest and begins climbing to the Hannegan Pass. About a half-mile below the pass is a small camp area among streams and small meadows. The trail then switchbacks up through a few open meadows thick with wildflowers. The pass itself can be a bit of a let down though since it has a limited view. However, this is where the real adventure begins!

Ruth Mountain and wildflower meadows on Hannegan Peak, North Cascades Washington #54332Wildflowers on summit of Hannegan Peak #54332  Purchase

Hannegan Peak

Continuing on the trail beyond the pass will take you to the Copper Ridge trail, or down the Chilliwack River trail, and on to Whatcom Pass. Both of these destinations are in the North Cascades National Park and will require permits for overnight trips.

For Hannegan Peak take the path which branches off to the left at Hannegan Pass. This steep but easy trail climbs 1000′ in a little over a mile to the summit of Hannegan Peak.  Soon after leaving the pass the trail opens up into beautiful meadows thick with wildflowers. Also along the way are those stupendous views you were expecting below at the pass.

Mount Shuksan and pink heather on Hannegan Peak, North Cascades Washington #54307Pink Heather on Hannegan Peak #54307  Purchase

Upon arriving at the summit of Hannegan Peak you are greeted by amazing views in every direction. Looking south is the snowy pyramid of Ruth Mountain. To the right of Ruth is Mountain Shuksan and sprawling Jagged Ridge above Nooksack Cirque. Following the crest of Nooksack Ridge to the southwest is Mount Baker and its cloak of glaciers.

Copper Ridge and Copper Mountain are north of the summit in the National Park. Beyond them, across the border in British Columbia is the fantastic fang-like Slesse Mountain, Mount Rexford, and the Illusion Peaks. They are part of the northern limit to the North Cascades. Finally to the east is Mount Redoubt, then Mount Challenger, and the northern part of the Picket Range.

One can sit here all day with a map attempting to identify all the mountains in these views. Another fun pastime is to watch climbers slowly ascend the snowy slopes of Ruth Mountain. It’s also common to watch some of them ski back down in summer.

Backcountry camp on Hannegan Peak overlooking Mount Shuksan, North Cascades Washington #54316Camping on Hannegan Peak #54316  Purchase

Camping on Hannegan Peak

While most people day-hike to the summit of Hannegan Peak, overnight trips are extremely rewarding. Although the summit and adjacent ridge are fairly broad, established campsites are sparse. The best site is within a circle of stunted trees on the summit. However, this site is almost always taken. It can also be busy since this is where most day-hikers stop to have lunch.

Follow the ridge west below the summit for several more established sites. If you can’t find any open sites then your best option is to set up camp on snow or scree. There are also one or two spots halfway down the trail to Hannegan Pass. Snowfields are the only source of water anywhere above Hannegan Pass.

Ruth Mountain Mount Baker Wilderness North Cascades Washington #54325Ruth Mountain, Point 5930′ bottom left  #54325 Purchase

Ruth Mountain

Looking out to Ruth Mountain from Hannegan Peak, it is easy to dream of a visit to its summit. And standing on top of Ruth Mountain is an experience you’ll remember your entire lifetime. Ruth is also one of the few peaks in the area that is within the reach of the average hiker with the proper gear.

Essential Tip:  Hiking to the summit of Ruth, or even only to the ridge below the glacier, traverses some difficult sections. Turn around when the terrain goes beyond your comfort level.

If you have time and energy after Hannegan Peak you can also include a climb up Ruth Mountain as part of your trip. Some people summit both Hannegan and Ruth as part of a day trip but that’s a lot to take in for one day. I would recommend an overnight camp on one and do the other the next day. Or you can always come back on a separate trip.

This trip starts at Hannegan Pass. But some parties opt to begin from the small camp area just before reaching Hannegan Pass. Route-finding and complex terrain make this approach more difficult.

From Hannegan Pass travel south about a 1/4 mile on a path to the first obstacle, a wickedly steep climb below Point 5930′. This short section will test your mettle as it ascends straight up a muddy rocky slope. Branches and roots are often needed to pull yourself up. At the top you’ll traverse east across and over the north side of Point 5930′. There is some mild exposure on this stretch and is usually covered in snow late into the season. This is a good place to use your crampons and ice axe. As you cross over to the south side of Point 5930′ a good trail appears which you can follow all the way to the base of Ruth’s snowfields.

Ruth Mountain and Mount Shuksan from Point 5930 North Cascades Washington #17110Ruth Mountain and Mount Shuksan from Point 5930′   #17110  Purchase

Camping and Climbing Ruth Mountain

There are good campsites along the open ridge extending between Ruth and Point 5930′. But perhaps the best site is at the summit of the Point itself. From there you’re close to Ruth and can also take in a better view of Mount Shuksan than from Hannegan Peak.

The climb/hike up Ruth is fairly straightforward. There is about 1400′ of ascent from the base ridge to the summit. Basically, you follow the pick the easiest way straight up to the summit pyramid, on a sort of spine on the snow. Traveling too far to the right or left crosses more dangerous areas on the glacier. Stay clear of a large wedge-like rock which usually has some hidden crevasses and bergschrunds nearby.

Most descriptions of climbing Ruth advise crampons, ice axe, and ropes due to hidden crevasses. On my solo trip, I wore crampons and carried an ice axe. However, I saw people ascending without either, and none were roped together. And at least one person was wearing just running shoes.

Mount Shuksan with view of the Nooksack Cirque seen from summit of Ruth Mountain, North Cascades #17151Mount Shuksan and Nooksack Cirque #17151  Purchase

The summit offers some of the most eye-popping jaw-dropping views in the North Cascades. Dominating the view is the incredible Nooksack Glacier below Jagged Ridge, tumbling into the wilds of Nooksack Cirque. From here Mount Shuksan with its hanging glaciers and Nooksack Tower is even more awe-inspiring than the classic view from Heather Meadows. Closer up is Icy Peak, a kind of compact version of the bigger peaks of the range. West is the fantastic Picket Range and Mount Challenger. Looking north is Hannegan Peak and Slesse Mountain in the distance.

Slesse Mountain and Hannegan Peak, North Cascades Washington #17196Slesse Mountain (L) and Hannegan Peak (R, foreground) #17196  Purchase

If you enjoy a threadbare bivouac there is just enough room on the summit to spend the night. But make sure the weather is in your favor. On your way down make sure to follow the same route and don’t stray left onto the broad glacier face.

Icy Peak and Mount Blum from Ruth Mountain, North Cascades Washington #17168Icy Peak, Mount Blum (L), and Glacier Peak (L, in distance) #17168

If You Go

Hannegan Peak
Length:  From trailhead parking,  10.5 miles roundtrip to summit
Elevation Gain:  3100′ to summit

Ruth Mountain
Length:  From trailhead parking,  12 miles roundtrip to summit
Elevation Gain: 4000′ to summit
Essential Tip:  This trip is best made in late spring or summer. After the winter snowpack has melted the bare ice of the glacier makes travel more dangerous. Also, on cold nights the snow can harden up and become very icy.

Getting there:  From Bellingham drive Mount Baker Highway (SR 542) 46 miles to Hannegan Pass Road (FR 32),  just before the Nooksack River bridge.  At 1.3 miles take a left and follow the road 5.4 miles to the Hannegan Pass trailhead parking lot. There are some primitive campsites and a shelter at the trailhead.

Full moon rising over Mount Challenger, North Cascades National Park Washington #54366Full moon over Mount Challenger #54366  Purchase

Hiking and Photography Info for Hannegan Peak and Ruth Mountain

When to go:  Both of these hikes and the North Cascades generally receive more snow than just about anywhere else in the lower 48 states. Most higher elevation trails are under the snowpack until early to mid-July. Of course, you can go sooner but be prepared for some route-finding. Some steeper slopes higher on the ridge may need crampons and an ice axe to negotiate safely.

Most wildflowers don’t appear until late July or early August. The exception would be avalanche lilies that begin to shoot up while still under snow.  By mid-August, most of the snow will be gone and water sources may be an issue for overnight trips. Late July through August is also the buggiest time of the year.

The Hannegan Pass Trail is very popular and receives heavy use due to the multiple destinations it accesses. It’s always a good idea to get an early sunrise start if possible. That way, you’ll have the trail to yourself and avoid the day’s heat and bugs.

Permits:  A Northwest Forest Pass or America the Beautiful Pass is required for parking at the trailhead. However, Washington State Discover Passes are not valid. There are currently no additional permits needed for day-hiking or overnight trips.

Gear:  Check my post Backpacking Photography Gear Tips for suggestions and tips on hiking, backpacking, and photography gear.

Photography tips:  Check my post Backpacking Photography Tips for suggestions and tips on what camera gear to bring and for tips on making better photos during your trip.

More information about these hikes can be found on the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest website.

Information on climbing Ruth Mountain can be found at Summitpost.org

For more hikes in the Mount Baker Wilderness and North Cascades National Park check out my posts:
Mount Baker Wilderness Destinations
Lake Ann Ptarmigan Ridge Mount Baker Wilderness
Whatcom Pass Tapto Lakes North Cascades National Park

Ruth Mountain and Mount Shuksan Hannegan Peak, North Cascades Washington #54339Pink Heather on Hannegan Peak #54339 Purchase

Leave No Trace in the Mount Baker Wilderness

Please Please Please!  Don’t plan a trip to this or any other wilderness area unless you are willing to follow the guidelines of Leave No Trace (LNT). Mount Baker Wilderness and all other wilderness areas throughout the world are under incredible pressure from growing amounts of visitors. Please do your part to help preserve these precious areas for future generations!

To learn more about the principles and practicing LNT please take a few minutes to visit the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. Your children, grandchildren, and the Earth will thank you!

Seven Leave No Trace Principles

  • Plan ahead and prepare.                                       
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces.                 
  • Dispose of waste properly.                                                                         
  • Leave what you find.                                            
  • Minimize campfire impacts (be careful with fire).
  • Respect wildlife.  
  • Be considerate of other visitors

Thanks for reading, feel free to share this post with your friends and colleagues!

Want to learn more, or have a professional photographer guide you in the field? Then take your Creative Photography to the next level with  Private Instruction and Guided Photo Tours.

Photos appearing in Hannegan Peak Ruth Mountain are available for Commercial Licensing and Fine Art Prints. Click on any image to purchase, or contact me for more info!

Hannegan Peak Ruth Mountain Mt Baker Wilderness

Coyote Gulch, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area Utah #76072or

Coyote Gulch Backpacking Photography

Coyote Gulch Backpacking Photography

Coyote Gulch, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area Utah #76072orCoyote Gulch  #76072or  Purchase

Southwest Utah has some of the finest desert backpacking opportunities in North America. The area boasts 5 national parks, 8 national monuments, and 7 state parks. In addition, it has the largest concentration of natural arches, bridges, and slot canyons in the world. If that’s not enough for you many of these features also spill over into Northern Arizona.

So, where to start? Well, that depends of course not only on your interests, but also on your fitness, experience level, and time available. Some of the best trips are into the mazes of canyons. These trips usually offer more shade and dependable sources of water, two very important considerations in the desert. At the top of the list for many is a trip into Coyote Gulch in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

Waterfall in Coyote Gulch Glen Canyon National Recreation Area Utah #76147aCoyote Gulch Waterfall  #76147a  Purchase

A Coyote Gulch backpacking trip has all of the best features of the Southwest packed into one trip. High canyon walls, arches, natural bridges, lush riparian areas, and waterfalls, are a desert rarity. In addition, a trip into Coyote Gulch is doable by most backpackers and requires no canyoneering experience.

In addition to Coyote Gulch being an outstanding backpacking trip, it can be a trip of a lifetime for photographers. All of the features mentioned above are also prime subject matter for landscape and nature photographers. And as I mentioned in my previous post, Southern Utah Photography Tips, the quality of reflected light in Coyote Gulch is outstanding.

For this post I’ll be giving tips for the average backpacker and photographer. Depending on the source, entry point, and length of trip, a multi-day Coyote Gulch Backpacking trip is rated moderate to difficult.

Jacob Hamblin Arch in Coyote Gulch, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area Utah #7599Jacob Hamblin Arch #75998  Purchase

Highlights of Coyote Gulch

One of the best, if not the best, attractions of a Coyote Gulch visit is Jacob Hamblin Arch.  This large arch is located in a horseshoe bend amidst high sandstone walls. While not the largest arch in the Southwest its setting makes it one of the most impressive, and a must-see for any visitor. Adjacent to the arch is an enormous alcove with some pretty impressive acoustics.

Further downstream Coyote Natural Bridge is another interesting attraction. And a mile or two further is Cliff Arch,  a spectacular area which includes some beautiful waterfalls. If you venture to the end of Coyote Gulch the final coup de grâce is the confluence with the Escalante River and a view of Stevens Arch, high above the canyon floor. Aside from these attractions are the wonderfully sculpted sandstone canyon walls painted with streaks of desert varnish.

With these features alone Coyote Gulch would be worth a visit. But it’s the lush vegetation that adds a finishing touch to the masterpiece. In fall the cottonwood trees blaze yellow, making a trip into Coyote Gulch a near-mystical experience.

Steam flowing through giant alcove adjacent to Jacob Hamblin Arch in Coyote Gulch, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area Utah #76338Coyote Gulch #76338  Purchase

Photographing during a Coyote Gulch Backpacking Trip

All of the highlights in the above section are great subject matter for photographers. For a photographically successful trip, there are a few things you’ll need to keep in mind.

First, reflected, or bounced light, is one of the hallmarks of canyon country photography. This is when the sun hits one side of the canyon then reflects on the opposite side, giving a beautiful warm natural glow to sandstone rock. Without it the walls of slot canyons and many other formations would appear dull and lifeless.

In most instances, a sunny cloudless sky is usually not favorable for landscape photography. But when you’re working in a canyon with high walls it’s just the thing you need.

Sand and mud patterns resembling a horshoe crab in Coyote Gulch, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area Utah #76326Mud patterns in Coyote Gulch  #76326  Purchase

Another element to be aware of when photographing in Coyote Gulch are its wonderful shapes and patterns. The curving walls and ceilings of alcoves, streaks of desert varnish on sandstone walls, and ripple marks in mud and sand all make for unique and interesting compositions. Add to this trees blazing in fall color and you have all the elements of great landscape and nature photography.

Essential Tip:

Always be observant and look around for interesting photo opportunities. Slow down, give yourself plenty of time, and be willing to stop to take photos.

Essential Gear Tips:

Towards the end of this post, I’ll suggest some camera gear to bring along. But one of the most important items you’ll need is a good wide or ultra-wide angle lens. If you want to make some great photos of Jacob Hamblin Arch and the nearby alcove you’ll need an ultra-wide lens to fit it all in.

Secondly, you’ll need to bring along a good tripod. Alcoves and other areas in deep shade will require long exposures which are difficult to achieve handheld. Similarly, achieving the silky texture of waterfalls will require a tripod for long exposures.

Cottonwood tree in Coyote Gulch, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area Utah #76078Cottonwood tree in fall color Coyote Gulch #76078  Purchase

Best Seasons for Coyote Gulch Backpacking Trips

Spring and Fall are the two best seasons for a Coyote Gulch backpacking trip. The temperatures are mild and the dangers of flash flooding are minimal. Mosquitoes and flies can be irksome in summer but are at their minimum during spring and fall. In spring the vibrant greens of trees and bushes are an outstanding contrast to the warm hues of the sandstone canyon walls. Of course, the reason is similar in fall, when the yellow leaves of cottonwood trees are providing the drama.

Summer isn’t the best season for a Coyote Gulch Backpacking trip. The two biggest reasons are heat and flash floods. With temperatures regularly in the triple digits, even shade in the canyons can provide little relief from the heat. Late June to early September is also the monsoon season in the Southwest. During monsoon season flash floods can be frequent, and deadly when traveling in canyons. Sunny days are no guarantee of safety. Storms and heavy rain can occur many miles from a canyon. But eventually all that water will come rushing down into the canyons. Never forget that canyons, especially slots, were formed by these floods.

Cliff Arch in Coyote Gulch, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area Utah #76201Cliff Arch Coyote Gulch  #76201  Purchase

Winter is also not the best season to visit Coyote Gulch. Temperatures can be cold to freezing, although doable. However, access roads can present a major problem. Nearly all unpaved roads in Southern Utah are impassable when wet. Even 4×4 vehicles can easily get stuck. The main access road to Coyote Gulch is Hole in the Rock Road. This gravel road is well maintained, although often covered with miles of bone-jarring washboards. However, side roads branching from it generally are not. If you do go in winter it is necessary to check with the local visitor center for road condition updates.

Routes into Coyote Gulch

There are four different entry and exit routes in Coyote Gulch. All four have their advantages and disadvantages. I’ll briefly describe them from north to south.

Dry Wash in Upper Coyote Gulch Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument UtahUpper Coyote Gulch #75937

Red Well:

This entry will take you down the entire length of Coyote Gulch. To date, this is the route I took on my only Coyote Gulch backpacking trip. A round trip would be about 28 miles. I think this entry is interesting in that the gulch starts in a wide shallow dry wash with low walls and little vegetation. Over the miles it gradually transforms into a deep canyon with high walls, a running creek, and lush vegetation. The upper reaches are less traveled and the vegetation can easily turn into a fatiguing bushwhacking trek.

The trailhead is 30 miles south on Hole in the Rock Road, then 1.5 miles down BLM 254. Parking is at the end of the road.

Hurricane Wash:

The entry point will bring you into the scenic heart of Coyote Gulch.  At around 27 miles roundtrip it is only slightly shorter than Red Wells. The advantage is that the less scenic upper parts are bypassed. The big disadvantage is that for the first several miles the route crosses over uninteresting open terrain with deep sand. On a hot sunny day this section can be difficult.

The trailhead is 33 miles south on Hole in the Rock Road.

Red Well Trailhead into Coyote Gulch, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area UtahRed Well Trailhead Sign  #76354

The Sneak Route, or Jacob Hamblin Arch Water Tank Route:

This route provides the shortest access directly into and out of the most scenic area of the gulch. It has gained much popularity over the years, and some will say it is the best route. However, it is definitely not the easiest route for the inexperienced! The last short section is over a 200′ descent on a 45º Slickrock slope with significant exposure. And for all but the most experienced, or foolhardy, a climbing rope is necessary for a safe ascent or descent, especially with a heavy pack. Do your research and know your limitations before choosing this potentially dangerous route.

Go 36.25 miles south on Hole in the Rock Road. Turn left on Fortymile Ridge Road BLM 270, follow 4.5 miles and park at the corral and water tanks.

Crack in the Wall:

This may be the most popular route into Coyote Gulch, and probably will be the entry point for my next visit. It enters the gulch at its lower reaches, not far from the confluence with the Escalante River.  From here you can hike the entire length of the gulch and exit at Red Well. This entry also involves the longest drive to the trailhead, with the last four or five miles on rough Fortymile Ridge Road. After hiking about two miles the route descends into the gulch via a tight crack in a cliff. You’ll most likely need a rope to lower your pack separately down this section. There is a larger sand dune below the crack which may be strenuous to climb on the way out.

Go 36.25 miles south on Hole in the Rock Road. Turn left on Fortymile Ridge Road BLM 270, follow 6.8 miles. The last two miles can be sandy.

Navigating in Coyote Gulch

While at its most basic navigating through the gulch is simply following the stream up or down through the canyon. However, in some sections like in the mid to upper reaches navigation can be more difficult. Less traveled parts have few obvious trails and can be a tangle of brush. And sometimes there are too many trails that try to follow the path of least resistance. While other areas can be confusing with side canyons that can lead to dead ends. A GPS may or may not be helpful if the signal is lost among the tall canyon walls. Topographic maps are helpful but some do not have enough detail to pick out the correct route. Coyote Gulch is one of the few areas where I was mostly relying on my route-finding instinct.

Giant sandstone alcove adjacent to Jacob Hamblin Arch, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area UtahGroup Camp in Coyote Gulch  #75969

Camping and Regulations in Coyote Gulch

The best places for camping in Coyote Gulch area in the vicinity of Jacob Hamblin Arch, Coyote Natural Bridge, and near the Crack in the Wall. All of them are at or near the most scenic spots and have access to water in the creek or seeps from walls.

The most important thing to keep in mind when selecting a campsite is the potential for flooding. Look for established sites that are at least fifteen feet above the canyon floor. In addition, search the site for obvious signs of previous floodings, like debris wrapped around the base of trees.

    • Fires are not permitted anywhere in Coyote Gulch.
    • All human waste must be bagged and carried out. Restop2 bags are recommended
    • Food Storage. Small rodents are the problem here, they can peck through bags, packs, and tents. Hang food or better year use a bear canister.
    • Water is available from the stream but can be very silty. There are two natural springs, one near Jacob Hamblin Arch. Regardless if you use the spring or stream, treat or boil all water.
    • Permits are required for all overnight visits. They can be obtained at the trailhead or in the visitor center in the town of Escalante.
    • Pets are not permitted in Coyote Gulch, nor are any form of a pack animal.
    • Rangers regularly patrol the gulch so make sure you have your permit ready and are following all the rules.
    • Stop by the Escalante Interagency Visitor Center for current conditions, permits, maps, and waste disposal bags

Essential Tip:  Every year visitation is increasing dramatically, rules and regulations can change every year or even season. Always check in advance for changes in regulations, permits, and road and trail conditions.

Backcountry camp with red tent in Coyote Gulch, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area UtahCoyote Gulch campsite  #76082

Safety during a Coyote Gulch Backpacking Trip

As mentioned earlier, flash flooding and heat are the main, but not the only, safety concerns while in Coyote Gulch. If you go in spring or fall these concerns will be at a minimum.

    • Flash Floods and rain. If you do get caught in heavy rain or flash flood situations, immediately move to higher ground. Be prepared to wait it out until water levels have dropped to a safe level.
    • Always check multiple weather forecasts before heading out to the trailhead. If conditions aren’t optimal choose another destination.
    • Quicksand. Yes, it does exist, but in my experience, it’s not like what you see in old western tv shows and movies. You will encounter it mainly along streams in canyons, especially after a heavy rain, or flood. If you’re walking on a bank along a creek that suddenly quivers like jello and liquifies under your foot that’s quicksand. It’s easy enough to extract your foot if you’re alert and don’t proceed any further. If you get both feet in it you’ll have more trouble extracting yourself and you may lose a shoe. But you won’t slowly sink to your death like in the movies.
    • Make sure you have a full tank of gas and plenty of extra water before heading out to the trailhead.

Coyote Natural Bridge Coyote Gulch Glen Canyon National Recreation Area Utah #76235Coyote Natural Bridge  #76235  Purchase

Backpacking Gear Suggestions

Backpacking gear for Coyote Gulch is pretty similar to that for most other backpacking locations. The main difference would be footwear.

    • Footwear: You most definitely be walking in and out of the water all day long in Coyote Gulch. Trail runners, hiking shoes, neoprene river shoes, or cheap sneakers work best. Between the constant wetting and abrasive sand and mud, whatever you wear will take a serious beating. Leather hiking boots are not a good choice.
    • Tent: Lightweight three-season tent or bivy. I use a Big Agnes Copper Spur HV UL2
    • Tent Liner: This will protect the bottom of your tent from abrasive sand. Don’t buy an expensive liner to match your tent. A thick plastic sheet costs pennies and will do the trick. I bought a large sheet from a hardware store, and cut it to size. I’ve been using it for nearly 20 years!
    • Backpack: Well-fitting and large enough for all your gear. My preference is Osprey packs, they’re well designed and well made.
    • Sleeping bag: Unless it’s a mid-winter trip a bag rated to 30º or 40º is sufficient. My preference is Western Mountaineering down bags.
    • Sleeping Pad: I prefer a Therma-Rest inflatable pad. They are more comfortable, offer better insulation, and pack small than currently closed-cell foam pads.
    • Stove:  Fires are not permitted in Coyote Gulch, so a camp stove is essential. Bring whatever you have as long as it’s reliable. I recently switched over to an MSR Reactor Stove System and am extremely happy with its performance.
    • Water Purification: I boil all my water, the weight of extra fuel required to boil water with my Reactor stove is incredibly negligible. I’ve estimated the weight is less than that of a filtration pump. Online reviews report that UV Pens can be unreliable. I’ve also used filtration pumps and found them a pain to use and maintain, especially with very silty canyon water.
    • Headlamp: and batteries
    • Food: Whatever floats your boat. But make sure to bring some trail snacks or energy bars, also pack a drink mix to replenish electrolytes. I think most powders sold in outdoor stores are way overpriced and taste horrible, so I stick with good old Gatorade.
    • Clothes: Lightweight quick-drying pants and t-shirts are best. Avoid cotton, it has little insulation when wet and dries slowly. My preference for baselayers and a pullover sweater is Merino wool. It’s very warm, lightweight, quick-drying, and also doesn’t smell as bad as synthetics after a few days. I also bring a light down jacket, and a rain shell if the weather is uncertain.
    • First aid kit
    • Maps and compass
    • Parachute cord 50′ length, for hanging food or lowering packs
    • Hat
    • Bandana
    • Multi-tool

Essential Tip:  Whenever possible please support local outdoor recreation stores over big online retailers. For Coyote Gulch Escalante Outfitters is a good source for gear, current conditions, and dining.

Giant sandstone alcove adjacent to Jacob Hamblin Arch, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area Utah #76264Coyote Gulch Alcove #76264  Purchase

Photography Gear for a Coyote Gulch Backpacking Trip

What type of camera gear you bring depends of course on your goals. For small prints, blogs, and social media posts a smartphone or pocket camera may be sufficient.

Listed below is my standard kit while on a multi-day backpacking trip. It has been sufficient for all my needs in nearly every situation. The camera body and lenses in my kit are a little heavy, but the resulting image quality is what I require.

    • Nikon D850 with 3 extra fully charged batteries
    • Nikkor Lens:
      14-24mm 2.8G ED
      24-70mm 2.8E ED
      70-200mm 2.8E FL ED
    • Gitzo 1532 Tripod
    • Really Right Stuff B-55 Ball Head
    • B+H Polarizing Filter
    • Vello FWM-N2 Remote Shutter Release
    • Microfiber cleaning cloth
    • Lowe Pro 75 Toploader  camera case*

*I always carry my camera in a top-loading case with a chest harness. That way I don’t have to remove my backpack for a quick photo. In addition, this case has extra compartments and room for things like a map, snack, sunglasses, etc.

Steam flowing through canyon walls of Coyote Gulch, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area Utah #76250Coyote Gulch  #76250  Purchase

Leave No Trace

Please Please Please!  Don’t plan a trip to this or any other wilderness area unless you are prepared to strictly follow the guidelines of Leave No Trace (LNT). Coyote Gulch and all other wilderness areas throughout the world are under incredible pressure from growing amounts of visitors. Please do your part to help preserve these precious areas for future generations!

To learn more about the principles and practicing LNT please take a few minutes to visit the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. Your children and grandchildren will thank you!

Seven Leave No Trace Principles

    • Plan ahead and prepare.                                       
    • Travel and camp on durable surfaces.                 
    • Dispose of waste properly.                                                                         
    • Leave what you find.                                            
    • Minimize campfire impacts (be careful with fire).
    • Respect wildlife.  
    • Be considerate of other visitors.

Giant sandstone alcove adjacent to Jacob Hamblin Arch, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area Utah #75967Coyote Gulch Alcove #75967  Purchase

For more tips on Backpacking Photography check out these posts:
Backpacking Photography Tips
Backpacking Photography Gear Tips

Thanks for reading, and feel free to share this post with your friends and colleagues!

Want to learn more, or have a professional photographer guide you in the field? Then take your Creative Photography to the next level with  Private Instruction and Guided Photo Tours.

All photos appearing in Coyote Gulch Backpacking and Photography are available for Commercial Licensing and Fine Art Prints. Click on any image to purchase, or contact me for more info!

Steam flowing through giant alcove adjacent to Jacob Hamblin Arch in Coyote Gulch, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area Utah

Southern Utah Photography Tips

Southern Utah Photography Tips

Steam flowing through giant alcove adjacent to Jacob Hamblin Arch in Coyote Gulch, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area Utah Southern Utah Photography TipsGlen Canyon National  Recreation Area #76338  Purchase

The quality of light and subject matter in Southwest Utah has been attracting photographers since the earliest days of photography. Photographers from all over the world come to photograph its deserts, canyons, hoodoos, wildflowers, and open vistas. In this follow-up to my recent post, Southern Utah Travel Tips, I hope to offer some practical advice for a safe and successful Southern Utah Photography tour. Much of the information in this post can be applied to many other areas of the Southwest as well.

Leprechaun Canyon, one of a group of canyons called the Irish Canyons near Hanksville Utah Southern Utah Photography TipsReflected light in Leprechaun Canyon #74983  Purchase

Make Use of Reflected Light

Canyons

Reflected, or bounced light, is one of the hallmarks of Southern Utah Photography. This is the light that gives such a beautiful warm natural glow to sandstone rock. Without it, the walls of slot canyons and many other formations would appear dull and lifeless.

In most instances, a sunny cloudless sky is usually not favorable for landscape photography. But when you’re working in a canyon with high walls it’s just the thing you need. When the sun hits one side of the canyon it’s reflected on the opposite side.  Since the rock of Southern Utah is mainly sandstone with various tones ranging from cream to red it is that light that gives it a warm glow.

Twilight afterglow view from Panorama Point Capitol Reef National Park Utah Southern Utah Photography TipsPost-sunset glow over Capitol Reef National Park #75454   Purchase

Clouds

Clouds in the morning and evening also offer another opportunity to photograph this glow. Under the right conditions during the golden hour, the sun can reflect its rays off the bottom layer of clouds, giving them a warm tone. The light from the clouds then bathes the landscape below in that glow.

If you are lucky enough to be there sometimes the sun briefly breaks through heavy clouds just minutes before sunset. In these instances, it is imperative to have your composition ready and exposure calculations ready. These special instances can last only minutes before they are over.

Clearing storm at sunset over Cedar Mesa Bears Ears National Monument UtahCedar Mesa #74750  Purchase

Then there are times when the light continues to intensify on clouds even after sunset. Just when you think it’s time to pack it in it starts getting better and better. These instances are fairly rare and it takes a bit of experience to gauge when they may occur. So always wait until it’s obvious the light show is over.

Essential Tip:  When photographing in narrow canyons check out the lighting conditions throughout the day. One side may look great and offer good compositions in the morning, and the other side may look even better later in the day. Also, don’t overlook midday light, it all depends on the height of the walls and their orientation of them to the sun.

Scout Relentlessly

I can’t overemphasize the importance of scouting. Good location scouting makes the difference between coming away with great photographs and missing out on golden opportunities. There’s not much worse than being in a location during excellent lighting conditions and not knowing where the good compositions are.

Wild Horse Window, a natural arch inside a snadstone alcove. San Rafael Reef UtahSan Rafael Reef #75102  Purchase

Good location scouting begins long before you even head out. There are many sources available today to help ensure that you’re successful in the field. Some of the best and most obvious are websites of National Parks and Monuments, Google Earth, Google Image Search, adventure websites, and blogs, to name a few.

Good topographical maps are essential for not only route-finding but also for identifying landforms and angles of light. Whether you prefer actual physical maps or their digital counterparts they can help guide you to and pinpoint a location you first came across on Google Earth or elsewhere.

As soon as I settle in at a location I like to head out to explore the most obvious possible areas for compositions. I’ll walk around the subject matter and make mental notes of angles of interest and how and where light may strike it at different times of the day. After that, I’ll move on to the next subject or slowly expand in a circle from the first.

Checkerboard Mesa Zion National ParkZion National Park #76996  Purchase

After feeling I’ve covered all the possibilities available I’ll then assign priorities. Then, returning when the light is good I’ll work my way down the list. Often during the hectic period of golden hour priorities can and will shift. Sometimes a mundane or unnoticed composition from early scouting may turn out to look quite different and interesting under the right conditions.

Essential Tips:

    • Always research before you head out.
    • Thoroughly walk through your location in advance.
    • Seek out compositional elements, leading lines, foreground subject matter, unusual rock formations, plants, etc.
    • Always be observant, look up, down, low to the ground, and behind you.
    • Previsualize your subject, think of how it may look in a different light and how you want the final image to appear.
    • Prioritize subject matter and compositions.
    • Don’t make the mistake of thinking that good photos can be made only during golden or blue hours. Under the right conditions, you can make great images any time of the day!

Petrified Dunes slickrock formations, Snow Canyon State Park UtahSnow Canyon State Park #77042 Purchase

Start Early and Stay Late

Most serious photographers know that a key to success is being at the right place at the right time. The previous tips helped you to identify the right place. Now you need to be there at the right time. Get used to setting your alarm early, very early. If you’re not an early riser by nature it helps to start getting into the habit before you actually start your trip.

How early you need to rise depends on how far you are from your subject matter. A disadvantage of staying in motels or lodges is that you may have a long drive ahead of you to get to your subject in time. Part of your research and scouting should have been to identify a base camp in close proximity to your subject.

Ideally, you should arrive and be in place at least an hour before sunrise. Longer still if you plan on photographing morning blue hour. Some sunrise locations are notoriously popular with photographers. For those places arriving even earlier is essential.  For example, at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park photographers will vie for a prime spot hours before it even gets light out. Some may even camp out the entire night to ensure an optimum spot.

Moki Dugway Bears Ears National MonumentCedar Mesa Afterglow #74762  Purchase

In the evening be prepared to keep working past sunset. And don’t give up if clouds moved in before sunset canceling out any good light. All you need is a last-minute break in the clouds to bring the drama back. Often in the Southwest clouds tend to dissipate around sunset. This can set up the elements for some spectacular afterglow or alpenglow lighting conditions.

Essential Tips:

    • Always have a good headlamp, preferably an LED one with multiple settings and a red light option.
    • Autofocus on your camera may not be accurate in low light. Always switch to manual focus, make test exposures and check focus on your camera’s monitor.
    • Make sure your headlamp has fresh batteries
    • Scout your location well beforehand, so finding it in the dark will be easier.
    • Use extra caution around hazardous areas when it’s dark, straying from the path can lead to cliffs.
    • Be Patient and persistent
    • Don’t pack it in at sunset, excellent light can be had after sunset during the Blue Hour, see next segment.

Factory Butte UtahFactory Butte during Blue Hour #75293  Purchase

Utilize Blue Hour Light

Although blue hour photography has gained in popularity in recent years it is still overlooked by some. Blue hour is simply the period of twilight both before sunrise and after sunset. The length of the blue “hour” varies throughout the year and with atmospheric conditions.

Why photograph during the blue hour? There are a few reasons, one of which is the beautiful soft glow and tones the light has. In the morning it starts out with deep blues then changes to purples, pinks, reds, and oranges. In the evening of course the sequence reverses, with purples and blues to be the last in the show.

Another reason the blue hour is so special is the soft contrast present due to the diffused light. It’s very easy to bring both highlights and shadows into the range of one exposure. There also is a lovely amount of color saturation spread out over the scene. In most instances, you won’t need to add any additional saturation in post-processing.

Virgin River at Court of the Patriarchs Zion National Park UtahMorning Blue Hour in Zion National Park #76937b  Purchase 

Finally, during the blue hour, the long exposures necessary will give a silky feel to moving water and clouds. Although it’s all down to personal taste this effect can accentuate the mood of your images.

Essential Tips:

    • You will definitely need to use a good sturdy tripod
    • Autofocus on your camera may not be accurate in low light. Always switch to manual focus, make test exposures and check focus on your camera’s monitor.
    • Some means of remote shutter release will definitely help reduce vibration
    • For very long exposures use a stopwatch, or use this feature on your smartphone.
    • As mentioned in the previous section be prepared to arrive early and stay late
    • Always have a good headlamp, preferably an LED one with multiple settings and a red light option.
    • Make sure your headlamp has fresh batteries

Eroded sandstone walls and overhangs resembling Swiss Cheese in the"subway" slot portion of Crack Canyon San Rafael Reef Southern Utah Photography TipsSan Rafael Reef #75122  Purchase

Be Creative See Differently

Don’t be a copycat! Be yourself and utilize your own creative instincts. You will have undoubtedly seen some great images online during your research stage. While I encourage you to be inspired by them don’t simply try and mimic their style.

There are some well-known photographers with a dramatic, moody, painterly style. Every photographer on earth seems to be clamoring to copy every pixel of their technique. Ughh! The result is a homogenous sea of look-a-like knock-offs. One thing is for sure, chasing likes on social media definitely will stifle your creativity!

Sandstone canyon wall patterns resembling an archaeopteryx fossil in Coyote Gulch, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area UtahEroded sandstone resembling Archaeopteryx fossil #76313  Purchase

Southern Utah photography has many different elements which can be used to expand your creativity. One of my favorite subjects is the abstract quality that eroded sandstone takes on. A key to creating your own personal vision is to know your subject matter intimately. Learn to love and appreciate its moods and what makes it tick. This kind of understanding doesn’t come to fruition in one quick visit. It can take years of return visits to learn to appreciate all its subtle nuances.

I mentioned this earlier and it’s worth repeating. Don’t make the mistake of thinking good photos can be made only during golden or blue hours. Under the right conditions, you can make great images any time of the day!

Southern Utah Photography Safety

Southern Utah photography demands some extra safety and preparation considerations. My previous blog post addressed some of these concerns, but I will repeat some of them. I’ll also add a few photography-specific ones.

The tips offered below are fairly basic starting points to get you thinking. They are not all-inclusive of hazards you need to be aware of on a trip to the desert.

Halfway Hollow trailhead to Harris Wash and Zebra Slot Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument UtahA trailhead sign to be taken seriously #75933

Water:

Always, always carry water, everywhere you go. It’s frightening how easy it is to get quickly dehydrated in the desert. I carry a hard-sided 7-gallon water in my vehicle and top it off every chance I get. On hikes, I carry a 3-liter hydration reservoir in my pack filled with a sports drink.

Weather:

To ensure a safe and enjoyable trip carefully monitoring the weather is essential. This is especially true when hiking in any slot canyon or dry wash. Flash floods can occur from storms many miles away. Just like filling up on water and gas before you head out to a remote spot you should load up on several weather forecasts.

Sun: 

Even on a mild spring or fall day, the sun can feel burning hot. Unless you’re hiking in a deep canyon with tall walls it can be difficult to find shade. Always carry and use plenty of good sunscreen. Heat and sunstroke are serious issues that can come on very quickly in the desert. Know the warning signs and immediately get in the shade and drink plenty of fluids if you or your companions are in danger.

Quicksand:

Yes, it does exist, but in my experience, it’s not like what you see in old western tv shows and movies. You will encounter it mainly along streams in canyons, especially after heavy rain. If you’re walking on a bank along a creek that suddenly quivers like jello and liquifies under your foot that’s quicksand. It’s easy enough to extract your foot if you’re alert and don’t proceed any further. If you get both feet in it you’ll have more trouble extracting yourself and you may lose a shoe. But you won’t slowly sink to your death like in the movies.

Steam flowing through canyon walls of Coyote Gulch, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area UtahThis sandbar most likely hides quicksand #76253  Purchase

Be Alert and Use Common Sense: 

When you’re out photographing it’s very easy to be so focused on your work that you lose track of your surroundings. This is especially true during the fast-changing golden hours.

    • One easy way to get in trouble is falling into the “just one more photo” or “there’s probably a great photo just around the bend” mentality. For example, the Escalante River is a labyrinth of canyons and washes. If you’re not paying attention you can very easily get lost here, where much of the terrain looks very similar.
    • Don’t get in over your head for that one special photo. This can literally be true in some slot canyons filled with water. I’ve been wanting to photograph Zebra slot canyon for years. Last fall I finally had a chance when I was in the area. There was a pool of water at the entrance, and reportedly several more pools further on where the best photos were. I didn’t know when or if I would return for another chance so it was tempting to give it a shot. Fortunately, two hikers appeared and cautiously tested the water. Before reaching the end of the first pool the water was chest-deep. At the very least I would have risked ruining my camera gear. With a camera pack on my back, I could have drowned if it got too deep.
    • Pour-offs in canyons can be a trap. That great photo may be reached by an easy slide down a short section of slickrock at a canyon pour-off. But will you be able to get back up? If you’re on your own maybe not, and there might not be someone around to help.
    • Crumbly sandstone cliff edges are another quick way to say goodbye forever. There are many different types of sandstone in Southern Utah and some are much stronger than others. Check carefully before you lean over the edge!
    • Possibly the biggest danger is ignoring the weather to get that trophy photo. Again, you may have only this one opportunity to photograph a slot canyon. However, the weather forecast calls for severe thunderstorms miles away in the mountains. Slot canyons were created by flash floods. Think carefully if that one single photo is worth your life. It is a fact that people have lost their lives in canyons ignoring flash flood warnings.

Mesa Arch Canyonlands National Park Washer Woman Arch, Monster and Airport Towers are in the distance. Southern Utah Photography TipsMesa Arch Canyonlands National Park #74554  Purchase

Camera and Travel Gear for Southern Utah Photography

In a nutshell, my advice is to take whatever you have. Obviously, if you’re strictly a landscape photographer you’ll probably not need long telephoto lenses. My kit is pretty basic and has been quite sufficient for all my needs for many years. It consists of three lenses, a DSLR body, a tripod, and a few accessories.

Here is a partial list of some of what I personally consider essential.

    • Ultra-wide to short telephoto zoom or prime lenses. 14mm-200mm on a full-frame sensor camera is generally sufficient.
    • DSLR or Mirrorless body, and a backup body if you have one
    • Several extra batteries and charger
    • A good sturdy tripod with a ball head and quick release plate
    • Remote shutter release
    • *Polarizer filters to fit all lenses  *You’ll probably use this filter less in the Southwest than in other regions.
    • Lens cleaner and microfiber cloth
    • Memory card reader
    • Laptop or some sort of hard drive to download and store files on
    • Method to recharge camera batteries, laptop, etc. Solar panels are ideal and reduce the risk of draining your vehicle battery.
    • Dedicated camera pack for short distances
    • Backpack for all-day excursions. One that is big enough to hold all your camera gear, a 3-liter hydration reservoir, snacks, and the ten essentials. It also must be well-fitting and comfortable. Most camera backpacks currently available are way overpriced and lacking in essential features. I prefer Osprey packs, they are well designed, comfortable, durable, and reasonably affordable.
    • Hydration system. Again I use an Osprey reservoir. I’ve tried several others and this one works best for me. And no, they aren’t paying me to endorse them.
    • Hiking or trail running shoes. Heavy leather hiking boots aren’t really suitable. Consider neoprene water shoes if you’ll be crossing canyon streams often.
    • Large cotton bandana and hat

Southern Utah Photography in Conclusion

Hopefully, this along with my tips in my previous post should be enough basic information to get you excited about planning your own trip, and safely come back with some excellent images.

Thanks for reading, feel free to share this post with your friends and colleagues!

Coyote Gulch, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area Utah Southern Utah Photography TipsCoyote Gulch #76073  Purchase

Also check out: Southern Utah Travel Tips for more practical advice for your next trip!

Coming Up Next:  Backpacking and Photography in Coyote Gulch

Want to learn more, or have a professional photographer guide you in the field? Then take your Creative Photography to the next level with  Private Instruction and Guided Photo Tours.

All photos appearing in Southern Utah Photography are available for Commercial Licensing and Fine Art Prints. Click on any image to purchase, or contact me for more info!

Southern Utah Photography

Sunrise from Panorama Point, Capitol Reef National Park Utah

Southern Utah Travel Tips

Southern Utah Travel Tips

Sunrise from Panorama Point, Capitol Reef National Park UtahCapitol Reef National Park #75488  Purchase

*This post is a fairly long read

Have all my recent  Southwest Utah image additions inspired you to visit some of these locations? Are you thinking of just a leisurely vacation, or maybe a full-blown photography expedition? Well, read on, in this post I have some practical advice on how to make your trip more enjoyable and less stressful! And just as importantly how to responsibly visit these special places.

*Most of the tips in this post are for camping and adventure-oriented trips. Since I rarely stay at motels or lodges on my excursions I can’t offer reliable advice on them.

There are two things you must keep in mind when visiting Utah’s national parks and monuments.  The first is, THEY WILL BE CROWDED! Secondly, all those people are putting incredible stress on every aspect of the environment. From litter, vehicle air pollution, traffic jams, crowded trails, souvenir hunting, and even unsightly graffiti and vandalism, all our parks are under extreme pressure.

Zion Shuttle Bus at Court of the Patriarchs Zion National Park UtahZion National Park Shuttle Bus 

To meet these challenges the National Park Service, Forest Service, and many state parks now employ reservation systems, entrance quotas, and even lotteries to enter, camp, and hike in popular areas. Also, many parks are now on a shuttle bus-only system for getting around. Gone, perhaps forever, are the days when you can just arrive at a national park have your pick of a campsite, and drive your car to an uncrowded scenic vista at leisure.

Of course, there are still plenty of spectacular areas that are wide open for random camping and exploration and are also free from entry fees and reservations. Just keep in mind that many of those off the beaten path destinations can be more difficult to get into, and out of. For these areas advanced research and planning are essential. Know your limitations before you head out!

Autumn sunset on The Watchman Zion National ParkZion National Park #76741  Purchase

Limit Your Southern Utah Destinations

Yes, the Golden or Grand Circle tour of national parks is a spectacular must-do trip for many. While on the road I’ve often overheard people talking about how they are doing the entire tour in five days, or less. To me that’s insane! With an itinerary like that you’re pretty much spending all your time driving from park to park every day with little time left to stop and actually enjoy the parks.

Limit your destinations to within the time you have available. Southern Utah has so much natural beauty to explore that it would be a crime to try and cram everything into one trip. Pick one or two destinations and set aside enough time to really enjoy them. You can always come back on another trip for new experiences.

Recreation.gov Love it or Hate it

There is no way around it, you will need to use Recreation.gov for reserving just about everything on your trip. It covers campsites, trail and climbing permits, lotteries, museum entrance fees, and lots more. Recreation.gov can make your trip less stressful, or incredibly stressful.

Many people including me see Recreation.gov as a monopoly akin to Ticketmaster for outdoor recreation. For one there mostly are no alternatives to you can use for making reservations. Secondly, they charge service fees for all transactions which are often more than the actual fee for the activity. So planning a visit to Arches or Zion is now comparable to getting tickets for a popular concert.

Emerald green pools in The Subway, Left Fork North Creek, Zion National Park UtahA Lottery/Permit system is in place for the Subway hike in Zion #76842  Purchase

Recreation.gov is great if you plan every detail and day of your trip far in advance. With reservations in hand, you just show up at the park or campsite worry-free. But if you’re like me and you require flexibility in your itinerary then you’re in for a bit of a challenge. This is not only due to limited availability but also to accessing the Recreation.gov app. while on the road. Even with an excellent cell signal, the app can be excruciatingly slow. Of course, you can also call Recreation.gov directly but the waits can be frustratingly long to speak to an actual human. Also when you’re on the road there are often huge dead zones where you’ll be out of luck.

Essential Tip:   Always check out in advance the websites of the parks or monuments you plan to visit. Entrance fees and reservations policies are changing nearly every year. For example, in January 2020 Zion National Park implemented a lottery system for hiking the popular Angel’s Landing trail. Park websites will also prominently post any alerts to road and trail closures.

Sunrise view of Thor's Hammer and colorful hoodoos seen from below the canyon rim at Sunrise Point, Bryce Canyon National Park, UtahBryce Canyon National Park #76510 Purchase

BLM Options in Southern Utah

If your trip relies on camping and you’re out of luck in the reservation system don’t despair! The BLM (Bureau of Land Management) manages huge tracks of the desert southwest. Most BLM land offers free campgrounds and random camping. In fact, some of my favorite camping spots are on BLM land and are often my first choice. With good maps and instinct, you can often find a free campsite all to yourself in spectacular surroundings.

But just remember these spots are almost always primitive, with no water, restrooms or outhouses, picnic tables, or garbage receptacles. Always be prepared, and make sure you have plenty of water and a full tank of gas.

And don’t forget, if you can pack it in full you can pack it out empty!

Learn the Rules & Beat the Crowds in National Parks

You’ve made your reservations, arrived at the park, paid your entry fees, set up camp. Now you are ready to have fun and explore. Great, but here are a few tips before you head out.

The first thing I do after arriving at a national park is to read the park newspaper and pay a visit to the visitors center. As I’ve mentioned many times already, all National Parks are in a constant state of change to keep up with the ever-increasing amount of visitors. You’ll need to get all the current information available regarding trail and road status, shuttle bus schedules, COVID policies, and more. It’s also a good idea to visit any interpretive exhibits to gain a better understanding of the park’s natural environment. You may also need further permits and reservations for certain trails and areas only available at the visitor center.

Sunrise at Towers of the Virgin Zion National Park UtahSunrise Zion National Park #76619  Purchase

The Early Bird and Late Bird Beats the Crowds!

To beat the crowds it’s a good idea to adopt the methods of professional photographers, get up early, really early.  You will definitely not regret this tip. The busiest times in any national park are between 10:a.m. and 5:00 p.m., give or take. Those hours are also the worst times of day to view wildlife.

If you want to enjoy that amazing scenic vista or trail and have it all to yourself then you need to be up and about before sunrise. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a crowded park and enjoyed a gorgeous sunrise with hardly anyone else around. Several hours later the light will be all washed out. Plus you’ll be in a mosh pit of other gawking visitors.

This also, for the most part, goes for sunset. Most people are back in camp or town having dinner while the light warms up again for the evening show. My standard schedule is to be at my desired location at least an hour before sunrise or sunset. I’ll spend the middle part of the day scouting or relaxing before heading out again for sunset.

Essential Tip: If you’re planning on visiting several national Parks or Monuments over the course of a year then an annual America the Beautiful pass is a good investment. Most park entrance fees are in the $35 range, so you can save quite a bit on a Utah parks tour.

Best Times to Visit Southern Utah

This of course depends on the nature of your trip. I plan my trips for photographing seasonal events like fall color or peak wildflower blooms. I need to be in specific areas within a specific time frame and have a flexible schedule. Others may simply want a leisurely sightseeing vacation. However, the parks will be very busy in whatever season you choose.

Devils Garden, Arches National Park, UtahLa Sal Mountains from Arches National Park #57917  Purchase

Spring in Southern Utah

This is one of the best seasons for visiting Utah’s Parks. In spring the temperatures are relatively mild and comfortable. Desert wildflowers are out and new green leaves on trees are a brilliant contrast to the red rock of the region. Also, in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, the snow-covered La Sal Mountains provide a stunning backdrop. For these reasons, spring may also be eclipsing summer as the busiest time of year.

Spring comes early in the Southwest and I personally think March to mid-April are the best months to visit in the spring. February can still be pretty chilly, especially in the high altitudes of Bryce Canyon. And by the end of April, it’s already beginning to get uncomfortably hot.

Cottonwood trees in fall color Zion National Park UtahFall color Zion National Park #76599  Purchase

Fall in Southern Utah

My favorite time to visit Southern Utah is in the fall. Like spring the temperatures are mostly mild and the fall colors are spectacular. Fall is also one of the best seasons for canyoneering. The weather is much more settled, reducing the threat of flash flooding.

Fall comes late in the Southwest. Early to mid-October can still be quite warm, and color doesn’t reliably arrive until mid-to-late October. In fact, the best time to see fall color in Zion National Park is during the first weeks of November. Of course, elevation plays a key role here. At higher elevations groves of aspens can be at their peak color in late September.

Sunset Arch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument UtahGrand Staircase-Escalante National Monument  #76373  Purchase

Summer in Southern Utah

Personally, I would avoid a trip anywhere in the Southwest during summer. The heat is nearly always oppressive, and it can be deadly if your trip involves hiking or backpacking. Despite the heat, summer may be the only option for some, especially those with families. For this reason, this summer is usually the most crowded season in the Southwest.

Summer is also the monsoon season in the Southwest. Summer monsoon season is not recommended for those planning canyoneering trips. Slot canyons in particular are extremely hazardous this time of year. A calm sunny day is no guarantee of safe travel. Storms can form many miles away and dump huge quantities of rain in minutes. All that water creates deadly flash flooding in canyons, which of course is how they were formed in the first place.

Fresh dusting of snow on Red Canyon, Dixie National Forest UtahFresh snow in Red Canyon #32093  Purchase

Winter in Southern Utah 

This is rapidly becoming the new popular season among those desperate to escape the crowds. Some locations like Bryce Canyon, which sits at around 8000′, can be magical with a fresh dusting of snow on the red and orange hoodoos. Lower elevation areas can still be chilly but not uncomfortably cold.

Road conditions can be the biggest concern for a winter visitor. Main roads and highways are generally well maintained. However, it’s the unpaved gravel, dirt, and sand roads that are a problem. All of those roads turn into an inescapable quagmire after heavy rains. While the winter rains and snow are more moderate than the summer monsoons, there is not enough solar energy to dry them out enough for safe travel.

Halfway Hollow trailhead to Harris Wash and Zebra Slot Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument UtahTrailhead Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument #75933  

Safely Visiting Southern Utah

Any trip to the desert Southwest can easily turn into a disaster. As the legendary polar explorer Roald Amundsen once wisely said:

“Adventure is just bad planning*”

*Unlike today back then the definition of adventure was not synonymous with fun, e.g. the Donner Party had an epic adventure.

Although you’re unlikely to fall into a glacial crevasse or die in a blizzard, there are some serious life-threatening conditions to be aware of. The tips offered below are fairly basic starting points to get you thinking. They are not all-inclusive of hazards you need to be aware of on a trip to the desert.

Water: Always, always carry water, everywhere you go. It’s frightening how easy it is to get quickly dehydrated in the desert. I carry a hard-sided 7-gallon water in my vehicle and top it off every chance I get. On hikes, I carry a 3-liter hydration reservoir in my pack filled with a sports drink.

Buckskin Gulch Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness ArizonaFlash flood debris high in a slot canyon #37342 

Weather: To ensure a safe and enjoyable trip careful weather monitoring is essential. This is especially true when hiking in any slot canyon or dry wash. Flash floods can occur from storms many miles away. Just like filling up on water and gas before you head out to a remote spot you should load up on several weather forecasts.

Sun:  Even on a mild spring or fall day the sun can feel burning hot. Unless you’re hiking in a deep canyon with tall walls it can be difficult to find shade. Always carry and use plenty of good sunscreen. Heat and sunstroke are serious issues that can come on very quickly in the desert. Know the warning signs and immediately get in the shade and drink plenty of fluids if you or your companions are in danger.

Coyote Gulch BackpackerThe author after a tussle with mud and quicksand in Coyote Gulch #76355

Quicksand: Yes it does exist, but in my experience, it’s not like what you see in old western tv shows and movies. You will encounter it mainly along streams in canyons, especially after heavy rain. If you’re walking on a bank along a creek that suddenly quivers like jello and liquifies under your foot that’s quicksand. It’s easy enough to extract your foot if you’re alert and don’t proceed any further. If you get both feet in it you’ll have more trouble extracting yourself and may lose a shoe. But you won’t slowly sink to your death like in the movies.

Essential Tip:  Always know your limits, do your research, and don’t get in over your head. Online trip reports can easily mislead you, The experience level of whoever wrote the report can be very different from your own. I’ve read some trip reports promoting the Sneak Route into Coyote Gulch as an easy alternate entry point. In reality, it is close to a technical canyoneering route with a great deal of exposure, and it usually needs ropes for a safe entry and exit.

Utah State Route 95 in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area UtahUtah State Highway 95  #74968  Purchase

Cell Signals in Southern Utah:

It should be obvious, but don’t depend on being able to get a good cell phone signal in Southern Utah. There are huge dead zone areas, especially in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Glen Canyon Recreation Area. Mountains, buttes, and canyon walls can easily cut you off from a signal. Even in some small towns and national parks the signal can be spotty.

Unpaved Roads in Southern Utah

As I mentioned above unpaved roads can easily become a trap for you and your vehicle. Nearly all dirt roads are completely impassable after rain and during winter. When wet these roads become a gooey mess of mud that even a monster 4×4 would have difficulty getting out of. Even a small puddle in an otherwise dry dirt road can get you stuck.

Some roads cross deep sand which can trap all but 4x4s and some cross very rough sections of slickrock. Even some of the best-maintained gravel roads can be challenging. Hole in the Rock Road, a wide heavily traveled road south of Escalante, is routinely covered in bone-jarring washboards. After I drove over 20 miles of washboard on this road I thought my truck would fall to pieces when I stopped.

Moki Dugway Bears Ears National MonumentMoki Dugway, some roads have steep unguarded drop-offs #74769

Essential Tip:  This should be common sense but if there is a road sign that states “4×4 vehicles only” it means it! Getting a tow truck out to a remote area can cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars, assuming you can find a ride back into town to get one!

Hiking in Southern Utah with Maps and GPS

I’m not a big fan of GPS devices, I don’t use them and have always relied on physical maps on hikes. When hiking in some complex canyons such as those in the Escalante drainage it is extremely important to not completely rely on maps or GPS. While both can be important navigation aids you will definitely be using your own navigation skills and common sense to find the correct route.

Cairn on trail in The Needles, Canyonlands National Park UtahCairn marking route on trail Canyonlands National Park  #74696

Many of these areas can be a maze of side canyons obscured by thick vegetation, losing the correct route is much easier than you may think. Even the most detailed maps and GPS may not contain the info needed to make a wise choice in navigating them. The tall narrow walls of some canyons can also block out a good signal for your GPS. Also, trails in canyons marked on a map or in a guidebook can be nonexistent by the time of your visit. A well-marked easy-to-follow trail can disappear overnight in a flood.

Essential Tip:   In some areas, small rock cairns are necessary to mark the correct route. Do not remove them. And don’t add additional decorative cairns.

Essential Tip:  Before heading out to a remote area pay a visit to the nearest ranger station for the latest weather report and current info on road and trail conditions. You can also check in with the local outdoor store or guide service for a second opinion. These folks live work and play in the area and could offer valuable info not available elsewhere.
* However it’s been my experience that the young clerk at the local gas station doesn’t have a clue to offer.

Leave No Trace, Physical  Digital & Archeological

I’ve been adding this topic to the end of many of my posts. However, in light of my recent firsthand experience, I’m bumping it up and expanding it. In addition to traditional LNT I want to talk about Digital LNT and Archeological LNT here.

If you’ve never come across this term you definitely will on your next SW trip. Its most basic definition means to take only pictures, leave only footprints. Sounds like common sense and common courtesy to the environment and future visitors right? In the Desert Southwest, the leave only footprints part has an important twist to it.

Cryptobiotic SoilCryptobiotic Soil  #74929 

Cryptobiotic Soil:

If you haven’t heard of LNT then you probably haven’t heard of Cryptobiotic Soil. In the desert, this crusty popcorn-like soil is everywhere. It is the key to preventing the desert from being blown away into oblivion by wind and washed away by rain. The term relates to the thin crust of soil held together by fungi, lichens, cyanobacteria, and more. Undisturbed on its own it prevents the loose soil and sand beneath it from being eroded away. It’s this soil that also gives plants a foothold in a tough environment.

This soil is incredibly fragile and can be destroyed by the slightest footprint. Regeneration can take decades under optimum conditions. So stay on the trail and don’t be a Crust Buster. If you absolutely must leave the trail where this soil is present then walk on durable surfaces like stones or slickrock.

To learn more about the principles and practicing LNT please take a few minutes to visit the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. Your children and grandchildren will thank you!

Seven Leave No Trace Principles

    • Plan ahead and prepare.                                       
    • Travel and camp on durable surfaces.                 
    • Dispose of waste properly.                                                                         
    • Leave what you find.                                            
    • Minimize campfire impacts (be careful with fire).
    • Respect wildlife.  
    • Be considerate of other visitors.

House on Fire Ruins Mule Canyon Cedar Mesa Bears Ears National Mounument UtahRuins in Bears Ears National Monument #74879  Purchase 

LNT for Archeological Sites:

The Southwest is home to many fascinating archeological sites that are both historically important and culturally sacred. It is awe-inspiring to see these sites in person, and it’s extremely important to make sure they remain intact for future generations. Learn more about them at the Bears Ears Education Center

    • Leave All Artifacts in Their Place
    • Don’t Disturb Fossils or Bones
    • Don’t Touch Rock Art or Add Your Own
    • Stay Off Walls and Structures
    • Dogs and Archeology Don’t Mix
    • Camp & eat Away From Archeology
    • Avoid Building Cairns
    • Don’t Reveal GPS Info

Giant sandstone alcove adjacent to Jacob Hamblin Arch, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area Utah #76264Glen Canyon National Recreation Area #76264 Purchase

Digital Leave No Trace

While the principles of LNT are pretty easy to understand and practice, DLNT is more difficult to implement for some. The basic idea is in response to the onslaught of crowds, resulting from everyone posting pictures on social media of locations from their latest trip. DLNT offers some guidelines to help moderate this trend, or at least make people a bit more aware of their actions.

For me, this is a tough one to deal with. I am painfully aware that I’m definitely part of the problem. I have been wrestling with my response for quite some time. Since my livelihood is landscape and nature photography it’s just not that simple for me to stop posting pictures and writing posts like this. If I stop marketing my photography then eventually my family and I are living on the street.

So what to do? At the very least I will be vaguer when applying captions and titles to social media posts. For example, the above photo was captioned Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which is a huge area of complex canyons. Using just this caption info you’ll probably never be able to identify the location where the photo was made. However, a determined reader would probably find a few clues as to where it is both from this post and elsewhere online.

Below are some digital leave no trace guidelines offered by the folks at Leave No Trace. I encourage you to click the link to learn more about the guidelines below.

    • Think Before You Geotag
    • Be Mindful of What Your Image Portrays
    • Encourage and Inspire Leave No Trace on Social Media Posts
    • Give Back to Places You Love
    • Shaming is Not the Answer

Owachomo Bridge Natural Bridges National Monument UtahNatural Bridges National Monument #74920 Purchase

Next Up: Southern Utah Photography Tips

Thanks for reading, feel free to share this post with your friends and colleagues!

Want to learn more, or have a professional photographer guide you in the field? Then take your Creative Photography to the next level with  Private Instruction and Guided Photo Tours.

All photos appearing in Southern Utah Travel Tips are available for Commercial Licensing and Fine Art Prints. Click on any image to purchase, or contact me for more info!

Southern Utah Travel Tips

Tatoosh Range, Mount Rainier National Park

Photographing in Paradise Meadows Mount Rainier

Paradise Meadows Wildflowers Mount RainierParadise Meadows Wildflowers Mount Rainier #73268  Purchase

This post is the second of a two-part article about planning and photographing in Mount Rainier National Park Paradise Meadows. Read part one here.

A trip to photograph in Mount Rainier National Park or any other national park can be a very rewarding experience. It can also be a disappointing exercise in frustration. Good planning and having enough time available to meet your photography goals will increase your chances of success.

Since I’ve already given some tips on trip planning in my previous post, let’s start talking about locations and how best to photograph them. Mount Rainier is a big park with lots of great areas to photograph in. However, for this article, I’m going to focus only on the Paradise Meadows area and a few adjacent locations.

Essential Tip #1:  All of the locations in the Paradise Meadows area provide excellent opportunities for both sunrise and sunset. In summer the sun will rise and set a bit further in the north. There will be slightly more light hitting the glaciers on Mount Rainier at sunrise than there will at sunset. Both times can provide some excellent side-lighting to wildflowers.

Paradise Meadows Skyline Trail Mount Rainier Skyline Trail Mount Rainier #72892 Purchase

But First a Lecture

Mount Rainier National Park receives over 2,000,000 visitors every year, and that number will continue to grow every year. The park service has gone to great lengths and expense (your tax dollars!) to make the meadows accessible for everyone, while also trying to keep them from getting trampled into oblivion.

Please take a minute to read the park’s Meadow Preservation page.

Many trails are paved and roped off, and all have numerous signs to keep people on the trails. Please be thoughtful and considerate to the plants and future visitors, stay on the trails!

It is 100% possible to get great images while staying on the trails. But every time I photograph here I see other photographers going off the trail and trampling the flowers just to get that seemingly better photo. If everyone did that then Paradise Meadows would be nothing more than Paradise Dust Pit.

I wish I didn’t need to say this but here it goes. Do not even think of visiting Paradise Meadows unless you plan on strictly photographing only from established trails and keeping off the meadows. If you can’t do that then you should probably stay home!!

Paradise Meadows Wildflowers Mount RainierParadise Meadows Wildflowers #73347  Purchase

Paradise Meadows Trails and Locations

There are numerous trails in the Paradise Meadows area that give access to all the best photo locations. I like to divide the trails in the area between the west and east halves of the Paradise Meadows area. Both sections have excellent photo opportunities, but the western half has a better-unobstructed view of Mount Rainier. I also feel that the west half often has better groupings of flowers and opportunities for compositions.

Download the Paradise Meadows Hiking brochure and map here.

Essential Tip #2:  Scouting is an essential technique for better photography. Always scout out the best locations in advance by spending the day hiking as many trails as possible. Make notes of the best spots and how long it will take to reach them in the morning and evening golden hours.

Essential Tip #3:  Keep in mind that to reach most of the best flower meadows there is an elevation gain of several hundred feet from the parking area. While the trails aren’t steep or difficult it will take some effort to reach the best spots, especially if you’re racing against time and chasing light.

Essential Tip #4: Photo compositions in the west and east sections of Paradise are sufficiently far enough apart as to exclude photographing in both areas during the same morning or evening golden hour. Stick to one area and come back the next morning or evening for the other.

Tatoosh Range, Paradise Meadows Mount Rainier National ParkTatoosh Range Paradise Wildflower Meadows #73159  Purchase

Skyline Trail: This is the main trail that makes a loop through the entire Paradise area. This scenic trail makes an excellent leisurely all-day loop. However, be aware that the higher elevation part of this trail traverses mostly rocky alpine terrain. Nearly all of the best flower meadows are at middle elevations on the western parts of this trail.

There are many great compositions to be had around 5800′ elevation by using the trail network between Skyline and Deadhorse Creek Trails.

Deadhorse Creek, Moraine,  Nisqually Vista Trails: The main attraction for all of these trails are the views of Mount Rainier and the yawning chasm below the Nisqually Glacier. Deadhorse Creek trail connects with the Skyline trail so a loop will offer both glacier views and great wildflower photos.

Golden Gate Trail: This mile-long trail begins on the lower Skyline at Myrtle Falls, and ends at the upper Skyline Trail on Mazama Ridge. There are some great flower groupings all along this trail, especially near Myrtle Falls. Make sure you check out classic compositions of both Edith Creek from the footbridge and Myrtle Falls from the lower overlook.

The downside of the Golden Gate trail is that views of Mount Rainier are partially obscured by Panorama Point Ridge. However, this trail is great for including the Tatoosh Range in compositions instead. There are some wonderful flower groupings on the upper section switchbacks for use in such compositions.

Tatoosh Range and Skyline Trail Paradise Meadows Skyline Trail Mount Rainier Tatoosh Range from Mazama Ridge #73153

Mazama Ridge Paradise Meadows 

Mazama Ridge can be accessed by several different trails. It can be reached via the Skyline Trail from the Paradise Meadows parking area, or from below at Reflection Lakes. Keep in mind that if you are starting from Reflection Lakes you will have a considerable amount of elevation to gain before reaching the best areas.

Due to the nature of the snowpack melting out many of the best wildflower displays on Mazama Ridge often bloom a bit later than elsewhere in Paradise.

Skyline Trail on Mazama Ridge:  Access is either part of the Skyline Loop or from the end of the Golden Gate Trail. I feel the upper part of Mazama Ridge on the Skyline Trail offers the best photo opportunities. This is mainly due to the more open views of the Tatoosh Range.

Lakes Trail:  While there are some good photo ops on this trail they are mostly the upper half. One of the benefits of this trail is that the views of Mount Rainier are set back a bit.

Paradise Glacier Trail: This trail begins on the upper part of Mazama Ridge. For the most part, it travels through fairly barren rocky terrain. But there are some decent flower displays along the first half mile or so. The attraction on this trail is viewing the raw landscape that not too long ago was beneath glaciers.

Some of the best displays of Lewis’s Monkeyflowers are near the junction of the Paradise Glacier and Skyline trails. Here they grow alongside streams thick with bright green mosses. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to include a satisfactory view of Mount Rainier or the Tatoosh Range in photos from this spot.

Mount Rainier and Edith CreekEdith Creek Mount Rainier #3522  Purchase

Myrtle Falls Edith Creek Paradise Meadows

These classic locations are only a half-mile from the Paradise parking area on the Skyline Trail. Both photograph well in morning or evening light with a preference for sunrise.

Be aware that this is one of those locations that can be crowded not only during the day but during golden hour light. This is a very popular spot for photo workshops and wedding photographers. Please be considerate of other photographers, especially those photographing newlyweds.

Myrtle Falls Mount Rainier National ParkMyrtle Falls Mount Rainier #72865  Purchase

Also, use caution at the overlook to Myrtle Falls. It’s a small cliffside viewing area which can be a bit dangerous for you and your gear when surrounded by overzealous visitors. Early in the season dangerous snow bridges and slippery snowpacks can prove fatal, exercise extreme caution or avoid the overlook completely at this time!

Mount Rainier sunrise from Reflection LakeReflection Lakes Mount Rainier #73126  Purchase

Reflection Lakes

The roadside view of Mount Rainier from Reflection Lakes is one of the classic photographic vantage points in the park. One can easily argue it’s one of the most classic views in the entire Pacific Northwest!

To get here just take the road turnoff to Stevens Canyon just below Paradise Meadows, or follow Paradise Valley Road east from the Visitor’s center parking lot.

Essential Tip #5: This is a primarily sunrise location. Like many classic national park photo locations, it attracts hordes of photographers and workshops. Plan on setting up in the best spot at least an hour before sunrise. Bring a headlamp and a thermos of coffee! And of course please heed the signs and help preserve fragile areas by staying out of closed areas.

Landscape photography doesn’t get much easier than at Reflection Lakes. Parking is right alongside the lake so theoretically, you don’t even need to get out of your car! Of course, getting the best photos will involve a bit more than that. It will be to your advantage to scout out the best spots the day before so you won’t be guessing in the dark the next morning.

Mount Rainier sunrise from Reflection Lake Paradise MeadowsReflection Lakes Mount Rainier #73103  Purchase

I feel the best spots are on the eastern end of the lake where small groups of wildflowers can be used in the foreground. This is also one location that will provide great photos whether you are there during or after wildflower season. On a cold fall morning, there are often thin sheets of ice on the very photogenic lakes.

Essential Tip #6:  Don’t make the mistake of setting up your tripod and photographing only one composition. Pick out the best primary spot and wait to photograph it in the best light, then move on to other compositions.

Bench Lake Mount Rainier National ParkBench Lake Mount Rainier #73143  Purchase

Bench Lake

This is a great sunrise location with wonderful views of Mount Rainier that not many photographers visit. The view of Rainier from Bench Lake shows more of the lower part of the mountain than at Reflection Lake. However, you are limited to a tiny stretch of sand along the lake for compositions.

Bench Lake is an extra doable location after photographing sunrise at Reflection Lake if you still have some nice early morning light to work with. Drive about 1.5 miles east of Reflection Lakes to reach the trailhead to Bench and Snow Lakes. The lake is about 1.25 miles along the trail with some minor ups and downs along the way.

Pinnacle Peak Trail Mount Rainier National ParkPinnacle Peak Trail Mount Rainier #72992  Purchase

Pinnacle Peak

If you have extra time during your trip a hike up to Pinnacle Peak is definitely worth the effort. The trail starts across from Reflection Lakes and is about 1.25 miles in length with about 1400′ of elevation gain. It feels longer than 1.25 miles but the increasingly dramatic views of Mount Rainier keep your mind off the work.

There are several good spots along the trail for photos which include wildflowers or hikers on the switchbacks. Just west of the saddle at the trail’s end there are a few spots to sit and get some pics. If you’re up for it you can continue the steep route to Plummer Peak. For the adventurous photographer continue hiking east on a rough semi-exposed trail to a saddle above Pinnacle Glacier. The views of Mount Rainier from there are wide open.

Essential Tip #7:  Photography from the Pinnacle Peak trail is best in the evening light. Bring water and wear a hat, this trail can be very hot in the afternoon during the summer. Make sure to bring a headlamp for the way down if you’re planning on golden hour photography.

Christine Falls Mount Rainier National ParkChristine Falls #73210  Purchase

Christine and Narada Falls

These two waterfalls are an absolute must photograph when you’re in the area. Both are very easy short walks from the road and both offer perfect compositions from the viewing areas. As with most waterfalls, they are best photographed on an overcast day, or in the early morning or evening when they are in shade.

Essential Tip #8:  Like nearly every location in a national park try to avoid photographing these waterfalls during the crowded busy part of the day. Before 9:00 am or after 5:00 pm is best, then you’ll probably have them all to yourself.

Narada Falls Mount Rainier National ParkNarada Falls #72871  Purchase

Camera Equipment Suggestions 

What camera gear should you bring on a Mount Rainier photography trip? In a nutshell, everything you have. Ok, maybe not everything, especially if you’re a gear junkie with dozens of lenses and camera bodies. 

If you’re using a camera with a full-frame sensor the most useful focal lengths are 14mm-70mm. So basically ultra-wide to very slight telephoto should cover most compositions. The only time I used my telephoto lens was to zoom in on some glacier details.

Basic Essentials:

    • Tripod
    • Wide to ultra-wide lenses
    • Normal range lens
    • Telephoto lens; for landscapes up to 200mm would be good enough. Paradise Meadows isn’t known for wildlife photography so long telephotos aren’t necessary.
    • Polarizing filter
    • Graduated Neutral Density Filters;  I still use these in the field in certain circumstances instead of creating the effect in post-processing. Although they are not always the best option.
    • Remote shutter release
    • Bug Spray!

Essential Tip #9:  Brush up on your focus stacking techniques. Since you’ll probably be photographing wide-angle compositions with wildflowers in the foreground and Mount Rainier in the background you’ll need to use methods that increase your depth of field.

Essential Tip #10: Mosquitoes, gnats, and other flying insects will be especially bothersome during times around sunrise and sunset. The same time when you will need to concentrate on your photography. Bring insect repellant or wear netting.

Essential Tip #11:   BE CREATIVE! Use your own eyes and mind. Just because 20 other photographers are photographing the exact same scene, in the exact same position, with the exact same gear and settings, doesn’t mean that you have to follow suit. Photographing something uniquely and creatively could be as simple as just turning around to see what’s behind you!

Mount Rainier sunrise from Reflection LakeReflection Lake Sunrise Mount Rainier #73082  Purchase

In Conclusion

Combining all the information and tips in this post and Paradise Meadows Mount Rainier Photography Trip Planning, you now should have everything you need to know to have a productive, safe, and enjoyable trip to Paradise Meadows. Now get out there and have fun!

Thanks for reading, feel free to share this post with your friends and colleagues!

Want to learn more, or have a professional photographer guide you in the field? Then take your Creative Photography to the next level with  Private Instruction and Guided Photo Tours.

All photos appearing in Photographing in Paradise Meadows Mount Rainier are available for Commercial Licensing and Fine Art Prints. Click on any image to purchase, or contact me for more info!

Mount Rainier, Paradise Meadows Wildflowers

Paradise Meadows Mount Rainier Photography Trip Planning

Mount Rainier, Paradise Meadows WildflowersParadise Meadows Mount Rainier #3485  Purchase

This post is part one of a two-part article about planning and photographing in Mount Rainier National Park Paradise Meadows. Jump to part two here.

One of the most popular locations for photographing wildflowers in the Pacific Northwest is Paradise Meadows Mount Rainier National Park. There are few mountain locations that have such an abundant display of wildflowers along with easy access to them. But at Mount Rainer, there are more than just subalpine meadows bursting with color. The views of the meadows include the hulking mass of a 14,411′ volcano and some of the largest active glaciers in the lower 48 states.

What is even more impressive is that there are numerous meadows of wildflowers around the entire circumference of the mountain. Some of them, like those at Paradise and Sunrise, are just a short walk on paved trails from the parking lot. While other locations like Spray Park are only accessible as longer day hikes or overnight backpacking excursions.

The most extensive and luxurious wildflower displays by far are found in the Paradise Meadows area. It is at this and adjacent locations I’ll be talking about in this post.

Mount Rainier, Paradise Meadows WildflowersParadise Meadows Mount Rainier #3499  Purchase

But First a Lecture

Mount Rainier National Park receives over 2,000,000 visitors every year, and that number will continue to grow every year. The park service has gone to great lengths and expense (your tax dollars!) to make the meadows accessible for everyone, while also trying to keep them from getting trampled into oblivion.

Please take a minute to read the park’s Meadow Preservation page.

Many trails are paved and roped off, and all have numerous signs requesting people to stay on the trails. Please be thoughtful and considerate to the plants and future visitors, stay on the trails!

Skyline Trail Mount Rainier National ParkSkyline Trail Mount Rainier #72982

It is absolutely 100% possible to get great images while staying on the trails. But every time I photograph here I see other photographers going off the trail and trampling the flowers just to get that seemingly better photo. If everyone did that then Paradise Meadows would be nothing more than Paradise Dust Pit.

I wish I didn’t need to say this but here it goes. Do not even think of visiting Paradise Meadows unless you plan on strictly photographing only from established trails and keeping off the meadows. If you can’t do that then you should probably stay home!!

Paradise Wildflower Meadows Mount RainierParadise Meadows Mount Rainier #73244  Purchase

Planning A Paradise Meadows Photography Trip

You can spend as little as a day in the park and come away with a few good photos. But if your goal is portfolio quality images you’ll need to schedule more time. So I would recommend at least three days. That way you can explore all the trails and photo opportunities in the area.

Ideally a better trip length might be 5-7 days. With a week available you’ll be able to scout out all the best locations and be able to photograph them in multiple lighting events. On my last trip to Mount Rainier, I photographed every day for a week but had only one morning and one evening of outstanding light. Because of this, I stayed in the Paradise area the entire trip to make sure I got the images I wanted.

Essential Tip #1: Always give yourself enough time and be flexible with your itinerary.

Tatoosh Range in winter, Mount Rainier National ParkTatoosh Range in Winter #5019  

Seasons in Paradise Meadows Mount Rainier

The road to Paradise Meadows and the parking area are open year-round. Although summer sees the most visitors, the winter season which stretches from November until May is also very popular. During those months Paradise is a magnet for backcountry skiers and climbers training for Alaskan or Himalayan expeditions.

For landscape and nature photographers late July to mid-August is the best time to plan a trip. However, timing varies every year due to the amount of snowpack.  But generally you can usually be sure of hitting the peak wildflower bloom in the first weeks of August.

Keep in mind that all species of flowers don’t bloom at the same time. Glacier and Avalanche Lilies are the first to bloom as soon as the snow melts away. Shortly after Lupines, Sitka Valerian, Paintbrush, Pink  Mountain Heather, and Western Anemone dominate the scene. After the Lupines begin to fade Asters and Arnica take over the show.

Essential Tip #2: Check out the Park Service’s Wildflower Status page to see what is currently in bloom.

One of my favorite wildflowers is Lewis’s Monkeyflower. These brilliant purple flowers grow in dense clusters along streams and marshy areas in the subalpine. You can often see them among mats of vibrant green moss. Note that Lewis’s Monkeyflower is often in full bloom later in the season.

Mount Rainier sunrise from Reflection LakeReflection Lakes Sunrise #73114  Purchase

Guided Workshop Or Solo Trip

At some point, you’ll need to decide whether to go with an established workshop/photo tour or do the trip on your own. There are many advantages and disadvantages for either option.

Photo Tour/Workshop Advantages:
-Led by a seasoned professional photographer with intimate knowledge of the park and the opportunity of learning new techniques from a pro.
-Meals, lodging, and transportation are usually included, someone else does the driving for you.
-Being part of a group dynamic can be creatively beneficial.

Photo Tour/Workshop Disadvantages:
-Limited freedom to photograph where and when you want.
-Inability to postpone trip or change schedules due to weather considerations.
-Daily schedules can be very rigid, there may not be any flexibility to stay longer in one location.
-Travel times and distances from lodging to locations can be great, making for very long days.
-Cost can be prohibitive

Solo Photo Tour Advantages:
-Unlimited freedom, photograph where you want when you want.
-Ability to postpone trips or change schedules due to weather considerations.
-Ability to lodge or camp where you choose, cutting down on travel time to locations.
-Huge cost savings.

Solo Photo Tour Disadvantages:
-Extra research is needed to find the best locations.
-Finding lodging on the fly on a daily basis can be difficult.
-Lack of assistance and input from a leader or group members.
-No one to share ideas or experiences with.

During my entire career as a professional photographer, I’ve traveled mostly solo. I love the freedom and flexibility associated with this mode of travel. And I know for a fact that I’ve been able to get better photos because of it. But of course, this is just my preference and it certainly won’t work for everyone. It’s up to you to decide.

Paradise Road Mount Rainier National ParkRoad to Paradise Mount Rainier #72878  

Trip Logistics Paradise Meadows Mount Rainier

Location, location, location. It’s all about location, and Mount Rainier National park is no different. Generally, you’ll have time to photograph only one location during the morning or evening golden hour. By the time you can reach the next spot the light will most likely have faded until the evening or next morning. And remember this isn’t a race or contest, slow down and appreciate where you are!

Keep in mind that it is about an 18-mile drive from the Nisqually entrance to Paradise Meadows. Since it is a slow winding mountain road allows about an hour for the drive. The closer you stay to your subject matter the better chance you have of being in right place at the right time. And you will be more relaxed and focused when you get there.

Essential Tip #3:  Set your alarm and get used to rising very early. Absolutely nothing is worse than planning on being at a certain spot before sunrise than being late because of hitting the snooze alarm one last time and then having a long drive ahead. Stopped for speeding, or worse, hitting a moose in the dark during your haste? Ughh!

Sunset over Paradise Mount Rainier National ParkParadise Sunset Mount Rainier #73203  Purchase

Lodging and Services

No matter where you stay, be it in a national park, a forest service campground, or a motel or resort, be prepared to make reservations well in advance of your trip, if possible. Even in the shoulder seasons vacancies in lodging and campgrounds can be difficult to find. Popular campgrounds will fill by early morning. Research and plan ahead. It’s no fun driving around in the dark after a long day trying to find a place to sleep.

Essential Tip #4: Plan and reserve accommodations far in advance.

Lodging: There are several options for lodging when photographing in the Paradise Meadows area. If you can afford it the most convenient option would be to stay at the historic Paradise Inn. Situated right at Paradise all the best locations are literally right outside your door! For this option, you’ll need to book well in advance. There is also the National Park Inn located lower down the mountain in Longmire.

Between the town of Ashford and the Nisqually entrance, there are several options for cabins and motels. For camping, the best and closest option is Cougar Rock, about a half-hour drive from Paradise Meadows. Reservations are recommended but you can usually get a site if you arrive before 9:00 am.  

Services: Gas and groceries are basically limited to Ashford which has one gas station and a couple of small convenience-type stores, and a small laundromat. In the park, Longmire has a small general store with limited supplies. So it is best to plan in advance and arrive with all the food you need for your stay.

Cell Signal:  While in the park cell service is limited to the Paradise area, where there is a pretty strong signal. Otherwise, you’ll have to travel all the way back down to Ashford.

Paradise wildflower meadows Mount Rainier National ParkPink Heather Mount Rainier #72905  

Fees Passes

The entrance fee to Mount Rainier National Park as of this date is $30 for a private vehicle and passengers and is good for seven days. An annual pass exclusive to Mount Rainier National Park is $55.

Consider purchasing an America The Beautiful annual pass if you photograph in many national parks and federal recreations areas throughout the year. This pass costs $80 and is good for National Parks, BLM lands, National Forests, and more.

Thanks for reading, please feel free to share this post with your friends and colleagues!

Next up, is part two of this article, Photographing in Paradise Meadows Mount Rainier.

Want to learn more, or have a professional photographer guide you in the field? Then take your Creative Photography to the next level with  Private Instruction and Guided Photo Tours.

All photos appearing in Photographing Paradise Meadows Mount Rainier are available for Commercial Licensing and Fine Art Prints. Click on any image to purchase, or contact me for more info!

Paradise Meadows Mount Rainier Photography Trip Planning

Nooksack Ridge in winter North Caascades Washington

Essential Winter Photography Tips

Essential Winter Photography Tips

Nooksack Ridge in winter North Cascades Washington Winter Photography Essential TipsHeather Meadows North Cascades #64748  Purchase

Note: This post is a bit longer than some of my others since there is a lot of information to share on the topic.

A successful winter photography trip is all about planning and timing, especially if you’re photographing landscapes. As I outlined in my previous post, winter photography presents some unique challenges to the photographer, but if you can get past them a whole new world rich with rewards will be open to you. Few experiences can match getting out of your tent at dawn after a storm has cleared to photograph a trackless pristine winter scene in perfect light!

Front Country or Backcountry:

When planning a winter photography trip your location options are basically the same as the rest of the year, front-country or backcountry. However, in winter a backcountry photography location involves more risk and preparation.

Icefields Parkway in Jasper National Park Winter Photography Essential TipsIcefields Parkway in Jasper National Park #43396  Purchase

Frontcountry locations can be accessed in a number of different ways. It may be as easy as driving up to a classic viewpoint along a road or in a national or state park. But keep in mind many of those locations may be closed or on unplowed roads in winter.

Utilizing ski area chairlifts is a great method for accessing winter landscapes. They can get you higher up to views usually accessible by hiking trail in summer. They’re also a good way to shave off some miles and elevation when starting a backcountry trip. Some ski areas offer a discounted one-trip-only lift ticket. But if you’re a skier a full day ticket is the way to go. It will enable you to do some early morning photography, have fun skiing all day, then make one last trip up for evening light. Getting on and off a chair lift can be tricky though when you have a pack full of camera gear.

North Cascades winter backcountry camp Winter Photography Essential TipsNorth Cascades Winter Backcountry Camp  #47098  Purchase

Backcountry locations involve more planning, more gear to carry, and efficient means of travel. Don’t even consider getting into a winter backcountry location by just walking in snow boots. Nothing is more exhausting than trudging through hip-deep snow! Snowshoes, skis, or split-board snowboards are the best options.

All the gear for a full-day backcountry photography trip can be reasonably carried in a mid-size backpack. If you’re planning an overnight trip expect to carry at least 25% more weight on your back. But if that seems doable don’t forget that snowshoes or skis can add up to an additional 5-7 pounds on each foot Any way you look at it you’re in for a good workout!

A well-timed overnight backcountry trip will put you in an enviable position. Photographing a pristine landscape at sunrise just after a fresh snowfall is a magical experience, making it well worth all the effort!

*Essential Tip: To photograph pristine landscapes arrive as early as possible when photographing near ski areas, or other popular locations. After a fresh snowfall skiers will flock to the slopes in hordes. Often within an hour after sunrise slopes will be completely tracked out. The popularity of backcountry skiing has exploded over the years. So even relatively remote areas can be tracked out quickly.

Also, be aware of reckless drivers on roads leading to ski areas. Many skiers throw caution to the wind when it comes to getting first lines.

Wells Grey Provincial Park in winter Winter Photography Trip PlanningWells Grey Provincial Park British Columbia #3683  Purchase

Light:

In winter the sun of course is in a lower latitude. And for photographers that means more opportunities for the golden light and side lighting. Also, since the days are shorter there’s a lot less waiting around in the cold for good light. The golden hour lasts longer in the morning and starts earlier in the afternoon. But even in the late morning and early afternoon, the angle of the sun can still present wonderful photographic opportunities.

As a bonus, you don’t need to get up as early in the morning. But if you’re camping out you’re in for nearly fourteen hours of darkness. You’ll also have less travel time available, requiring some locations to be an overnight trip. Of course, waiting until late winter or early spring means longer days and warmer temperatures. However, during the transitions of seasons, the weather will also be more volatile, which could also provide opportunities for dramatic light.

*Essential Tip: Set your camera meter on manual. Camera meters are set for a base exposure of neutral gray. All that white snow will trick your camera into exposing the scene too dark. There are numerous methods of compensating for this, but for me, the easiest is to set the camera on manual and overexpose +1 stop. Also, always check your exposure on your camera’s histogram view, and adjust your exposure accordingly.

Weather:

Ideally, you’ll want to be on location just as a storm cycle concludes, leaving the trees* and landscape covered in fresh snow, with the remnant clouds bathed in glowing morning or evening light.

*Essential Tip: Trees that are free of snow tend to lose detail and become silhouettes against a snowy white backdrop. Try to get on location before the snow melts off tree branches.

Your first challenge is to become a bit of an amateur meteorologist.  You’ll need to regularly keep track weather of patterns and trends for your desired destination. Make sure you use several sources, such as NOAA, Weather Network, AccuWeather, Mountain Weather Forecasts, etc.

Observe storm patterns and satellite images on weather sites. Watch the direction they come from and where and how long they last. Also, take note of temperature fluctuations before during, and after a storm. Winter storms often start out warm and wet, followed by colder dryer conditions. Look at the bigger picture and find out the seasonal patterns of weather. Let’s take a look at why this is important.

Ice encased trees Winter Photography Trip PlanningSnow encased trees North Cascades  #33243  Purchase

Regional Weather and Snow

 
Pacific Northwest storms often dump huge quantities of heavy wet snow in the mountains. Quickly fluctuating temperatures can change the snow to rain in an instant, or vice versa. This is especially true in November and December, the stormiest months of the year. However, January and February have cooler and more consistent temperatures, with more calm periods between storms. Making this a better time to visit locations such as Mount Rainier or Mount Baker. In March the storms ramp up again with more variable temps.
 
Rocky Mountain states and provinces have a completely different scenario. The big difference is temperature. This far inland it’s much colder and dryer. The snowfall amounts will be a lot less, even in major storms. And even more importantly the snow will be dryer and less likely to accumulate on trees. So your window of opportunity to photograph that fresh snowfall may be much smaller.
 
In the Rockies, the cold dry conditions are a great benefit for photographing other winter subjects, such as ice. The consistently colder temperatures freeze waterfalls lakes and rivers, something that is quite rare in the coastal ranges. 

So make sure you educate yourself about the various conditions in different areas, it’ll help get you there at the right time and decide where to go for different subject matter, not to mention when it’s time to high tail it out to the safety of a motel.

Ski Touring Coast Range B.C.Ski Touring Coast Range British Columbia  #50345  Purchase

Route Finding:

Well-groomed summer trails to your favorite mountain vista will be under several feet of snow in the winter. There won’t be any trail markers visible, leaving it up to you to find the route.

White-out conditions are especially dangerous. There will be no visible distinction between sky and snow, and it’s very easy to get turned around in a matter of seconds. When traveling on skis in these conditions there can often be a strange and frightening sensation of sliding backward when you’re actually moving forwards! Even in good weather, a familiar route in winter will look much different than in summer. I’ve been up to Artist Point by Mount Baker dozens of times in summer. But it always amazes me how unfamiliar the route looks in winter.

Check with park rangers for special winter routes and advice, or go online to local winter recreation forums for advice. For example, due to avalanche dangers, the Paradise area at Mount Rainier has different winter routes specified by the park service.

I’m a firm believer in using a map and route-finding skills, and not relying on GPS, cell phones, and other electronic gadgets. In winter especially you must develop a new set of skills and common sense to get around safely. It is unbelievably easy for things to go wrong in winter. Dead batteries, or losing your phone or GPS in the snow mean disaster.

Abraham Lake AlbertaAbraham Lake Alberta  #43646  Purchase

Safety:

Avalanches are the biggest hazard on a winter photography trip in the mountains. Never ever travel alone in any area that is susceptible to avalanches! If you are caught in even a small slide your chances of getting out alive are very slim. However, the science of learning to identify potential hazards is too complex to explain here. 

Visit your local outdoor recreation store to get information on avalanche awareness and safe winter travel in your area. Most likely they will also offer avalanche safety courses or direct you to an organization that does. A good short course will go a long way in keeping you alive and safe. Plus you’ll have fun and probably meet some future travel partners.

Afterward, and before heading into the backcountry, you’ll need to invest in the tools needed for safe travel in avalanche-prone areas. Namely an avalanche beacon*, avalanche probe, and shovel. Expect to pay anywhere from $350-$450 for all three items. Most outdoor retailers sell these items both separately and in a package, which offers a bit of saving on cost.

*Do Not purchase a used beacon that was manufactured before 1990! These older beacons use a different frequency and are not compatible with newer models.

Also, exercise extreme caution on lakes or streams. A snow-covered surface may hide dangerously thin ice.

Frostbite and Hypothermia are the next biggest hazards of photographing in winter. Landscape and nature photography practically requires sitting around in one place waiting for the right lighting conditions. This alone is an invitation to hypothermia. But remember, hypothermia is not limited to winter conditions. It can occur in temperatures of 50º and even higher in windy wet conditions.

When you’re working up a sweat hiking or skiing it is very easy to quickly lose heat and become chilled when resting. Even on a sunny day. Unless you quickly put on dry clothes or insulating layer hypothermia can quickly set in. Learn what the signs are and act quickly to get warm.

Frostbite or frostnip are serious concerns anytime the temperature gets below freezing. Fingers and toes are most susceptible. Tight-fitting boots and gloves are the biggest causes since they hinder crucial circulation. Tingling numbness and loss of feeling are danger signs.

To prevent both hypothermia and frostbite it is essential to stay dry and wear properly fitting clothes. Keep your core body well insulated and warm and your extremities will fare better.

Ski lift Mount Baker Ski Area Winter Photography Trip PlanningMount Baker Ski Area  #53513  Purchase

Dress for Comfort and Safety:

Always dress in layers. to stay warm and dry you’ll constantly be shedding layers when active, and adding layers when sedentary.

Baselayers are the foundation. You wear it all day and it keeps body heat in and wicks sweat and moisture away. Merino wool is preferred over synthetics. It stays fresher longer and retains heat better than synthetics.

Midweight layers can be a synthetic sweater or vest, or a lightweight down sweater. Keep in mind that when you work up a sweat down will absorb that moisture, causing it to lose its insulation properties. For that reason, synthetic is preferred for this layer.

Insulated jacket. This is where you’ll want to invest in a good down product. When taking a break or standing around waiting for the light you’ll lose body heat quickly. A nice puffy down jacket or parka will trap that heat and keep you warm and cozy.

Shell Jacket and Pants. These can be either hardshell or softshell, but hard shells are preferred for stormy conditions. Just make sure they are well made and are both water and windproof. A lightweight article without insulation is the best and most versatile. Look for lots of easily accessed pockets and waterproof zippers.

Gloves and hats. I always carry two pairs, a fleece liner glove and an insulated ski gauntlet glove with leather palms and fingers. Mittens can be better for warmth but they’re difficult for performing minor tasks like buckling and pulling zippers. A good beanie hat is essential to keep your head warm. Use a lightweight version or headband for uphill exertion and a heavier one for sitting around.

Winter dawn over Crater Lake and Wizard IslandWinter dawn, Crater Lake National Park #3180  Purchase

Photography Gear Tips:

Keep it simple and organized: Try and keep your gear to a minimum and keep it organized. One of my absolute biggest frustrations of shooting in winter is dealing with buckles, straps, snaps, and zippers. Every item you’re wearing or carrying seems to latch and get tangled on to these fasteners. Trying to cope with the problem is compounded by the necessity of wearing gloves. Try and choose gear that has a minimum of these things and keep important items in easily accessible pockets or compartments.

Keep it out of the snow: When photographing try and lay your pack, spare jacket, or another large item on the snow, then place needed articles on it to keep them dry and in view. It is incredibly easy to drop a filter or lens cap in the snow right in front of your feet and never find it again!

Keep it dry: Bring along several good microfiber lens wipes and or large cotton bandannas. No matter how hard you try things will get wet or snowy and having an absorbent fabric on hand is indispensable.

Keep Batteries warm: This should go without saying but batteries will quickly lose power in cold temperatures. Modern lithium-ion batteries hold a charge longer and are better than traditional AA or AAA types. Regardless keep them warm in a pocket close to your body.

Keep your camera cold:  Needless to say, your gear will be in cold temperatures for most of the day. Bringing a camera in and out of a car, warming hut, or lodge will quickly warm it up, causing harmful condensation to form on the lens and camera body.  If this happens, always wipe your gear dry immediately. Better yet, protect them in plastic ziplock bags before bringing them inside.

Tripods:  Using a tripod in deep snow can be challenging. Manfrotto makes tripod snowshoes that will attach to the legs of most tripods. I have a pair of these but have never used them simply because they’re a pain to attach and don’t work well in all the various snow conditions I encounter.

When setting up my tripod I cautiously spread the legs only about halfway or less and sink them into the snow almost monopod style. Since this position isn’t very stable I’ll use a remote to trip the shutter. Spreading the legs all the way out increases your chance of bending, jamming, or breaking them. Be warned that this may not be the best technique but it works for me.

Handle with care: The lower the temperature goes the more susceptible everything is to breakage. Plastic items are the biggest concern, but metal items can become brittle too. Never overtighten anything! Not only is it an invitation to breaking but it will be more difficult to unfasten when wearing gloves.

Filters: Polarizing filters should be used judiciously. It’s very easy to darken a blue sky too much against a white landscape. And just like using them throughout the rest of the year, be careful of vignetting on a wide-angle lens.

If you regularly bring graduated neutral density filters you’ll probably use them in a reverse manner in winter. Meaning the land will need to be darkened instead of the sky. I rarely find a need for these filters in winter, and never take their added weight into the backcountry.

Sawtooth Mountains in winter, Idaho Winter Photography Essential TipsSawtooth Mountains Idaho #6211  Purchase

Helpful links for Winter Photography

If you enjoyed reading Winter Photography Essential Tips please share it with your friends and family.

Want to learn more? Take your Creative Photography to the next level with  Private Instruction and Guided Photo Tours.

All photos appearing in Winter Photography Essential Tips are available for Commercial Licensing and Fine Art Prints. Click on any image to purchase, or contact me for more info!

Winter Photography Tips
Trophy Mountains, Wells Grey Provincial Park British Columbia

Gearing up for Winter Photography

Gearing up for Winter Photography

Trophy Mountains, Wells Grey Provincial Park British Columbia Winter PhotographyTrophy Mountains British Columbia  #3962  Purchase

With fall photography wrapping up most of us are beginning to dream of plans for next year’s photography trips. But what about the next several months? There are plenty of photography opportunities and subjects during the winter months too. But I’m not talking about heading down to the Southwest for desert photography. I’m talking about the cold snowy areas of National, State, and Provincial Parks, many of which are nearly deserted in the winter months.

But before going into tips and techniques of actually photographing in winter let’s talk about how to stay safe and comfortable.

Winter photography is definitely more challenging than photographing in warm summer weather. However, with a little preparation and the proper gear, it can be safe, comfortable, and extremely rewarding. In this post, I’m going to outline some tips on gear, safety, and getting around in winter.

All the various items of winter clothing and gear are generally pretty pricey, but you need to get the best you can afford. The key here is to not skimp on quality. Some items that perform great in summer easily break or break down in cold temperatures. In particular, gas canister stoves are nearly useless in cold temperatures.

Bow Valley in winter, Banff National Park Winter PhotographyBow Valley Banff National Park #43869  Purchase

Winter Photography Clothing:

  • The rule in outdoor safety is cotton kills. Cotton has no insulation properties, leaving you vulnerable to hypothermia. And when cotton is wet it is nearly impossible to dry off in cold temperatures.
  • Merino Wool is your best option for base layers. Unlike traditional wool, Merino wool is softer and isn’t itchy. It’s warm, comfortable, and stays fresher smelling than synthetics after a few days of wear.
  • Waterproof shell jacket and pants. Look for features such as built-in gaiters, suspenders, articulated knees, hood, and deep pockets with zippers.
  • Down jacket or parka. Absolutely nothing beats down for insulation. Keep it dry and it’ll be your best friend. But get it wet and it’s worse than cotton for insulation. I wear my down jacket when standing around camp or when waiting for the light. However, it’s too warm for heavy exertion, when you risk getting it wet from perspiration.
  • Insulated high top snow boots. You’ll be trudging through deep snow and standing around a lot. Make sure they fit well. Tight-fitting footwear equals cold feet.
  • Two pairs of gloves or mittens. I have insulated ski gloves with leather palms and fingers and a thinner set of synthetic gloves for better dexterity when working.
  • Hat, sunglasses, and or ski goggles. In addition to the hood on your jacket, it’s wise to bring along a wool or fleeces beanie. Also, a good full-face balaclava is essential for when it gets really cold and windy. Goggles are great during windier conditions, they provide better visibility and help keep your face warm.
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Getting Around:

Unless you plan on photographing from your vehicle or on well-packed trails, you’ll need an efficient way to get around in deep snow. How you do that will depend on your goals and location. If you’re photographing in the mountains you’re most likely going to encounter deep snow of varying consistency. Here in the Pacific Northwest, the snow is heavy, wet, and often over 10′ deep. In the Rockies, it tends to be very dry, powdery, and deep too. Regardless of which location it’s no fun post-holing through deep snow in just boots.

  • Snowshoes are a great method for beginners to travel through the snow in a great variety of conditions. They don’t require special skills or boots and are relatively inexpensive. However, don’t assume that you’ll be floating easily on top of the snow. Unless you’re on a packed trail you’ll be sinking in the snow to some degree, and working up a sweat. If you’re hiking through deep, wet, and heavy fresh snow they’re almost as exhausting as post-holing.
  • Backcountry, Alpine Touring (Randonee), Telemark skis, and Split-Board Snowboards. These are, in my experience and personal opinion, the best and most enjoyable ways to access photo subjects in deep mountain snow. You’ll get around easier and faster, and with much better flotation, even going uphill in steep terrain. Plus you’ll have a blast gliding back to your vehicle. The big downsides to these options are the gear can be expensive, and all of them have a much higher learning curve than snowshoes.
  • Cross country skis are an option only if you’re on a groomed trail or have lots of experience. These skinny skis are generally too narrow for deep untracked snow and are nearly useless for going uphill. And they don’t turn very well on the downhill.
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Winter Photography Camera Gear Considerations:

In winter you must, of course, care for your camera gear to a greater degree. It’s quite a challenge to stay dry and keep snow off of your gear.

  • A good backpack-style case is essential If you’re going out for more than a few minutes. A good quality backcountry ski pack is a wise investment. Most traditional camera backpacks don’t have enough room for extra clothes, water, snacks, and other essential items necessary for winter travel.

For day trips I suggest finding a quality pack with around 2000-3000 cubic inches of storage. Dedicated ski packs have the advantage of being designed for winter backcountry travel, with room for essential safety equipment, such as shovels and avalanche probes. They are generally more waterproof and have features that can be accessed with gloved hands.

Another good idea is a camera case with a chest harness. This will give you quick access to your camera when snowshoeing or skiing. And it will keep you from constantly unloading your main pack in the snow whenever you come across a subject.

  • Batteries. Always bring extras and have them fully charged before heading out. Today lithium-ion is far superior and more reliable than standard AA batteries. But they are not immune to cold conditions, keep them warm in your jacket if you can.
      • Microfiber cloths and towels. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe states “A  towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have…” This is also true for winter photography. Despite your best efforts, you will constantly be wiping snow and moisture off your gear. Not to mention the constant fogging lens, filters, and camera bodies will get as you handle them. At least one microfiber cloth is essential, but take three for good measure.

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Safety Considerations:

There are plenty of risks to consider when photographing in a winter environment.  Among them are traveling in avalanche terrain, hypothermia, frostbite, thin ice on lakes and streams, and getting your vehicle stuck. Nearly all of them can be avoided by careful planting, a good amount of caution, and common sense. Listed below are a few basic items you should never leave home without.

  • A Backcountry style snow shovel is a must. They’re strong, lightweight, and are great for a variety of uses. Its main safety purpose is digging out an avalanche victim. But they are also useful for digging out your car after a storm and making a seat or shelter in the snow.
  • Avalanche transceivers and probes are essential if you’re planning on traveling into the backcountry through questionable terrain. However, these items are of absolutely no use if you are not trained in using them.  Always travel with companions and make sure everyone has avalanche rescue and awareness training!
  • Tire chains or other traction devices for your vehicle. Never leave home without these. Conditions can change rapidly throughout the day, and a bare dry road in the morning can have inches or feet of snow on them in the afternoon. Most mountain highways require them during the winter months anyway.
  • Jumper cables and or a portable jump starter are also a must. Imagine charging up camera batteries, smartphone, and or laptop while sitting in your car waiting for the snow to stop, only to find out your car battery is dead. Not a good feeling!
  • Gas camping stove and extra food. After a day in the snow and cold, it’s nice to have a hot drink. It can also be a lifesaver if you’re cold and on the verge of hypothermia. I always carry a large propane tank in my truck along with a two-burner camp stove. To keep it going in cold weather I need to replace the regulator on the stove every year or so. For the backcountry, I always carry a white gas MSR XGK. Unlike today’s popular gas canister stoves, this stove performs flawlessly in the coldest conditions.
  • Extra dry clothes and a sleeping bag. If you worked up a sweat, or all your clothes are wet you’ll appreciate changing into dry clothes back at the car. A sleeping bag is essential if a surprise storm prevents you from driving home.

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Coming up next

The next installment will discuss planning an outing, day trips vs. overnight backcountry trips, weather, and other considerations.

If you enjoyed reading Gearing up for Winter Photography please share it with your friends and family.

All photos appearing in Gearing Up for Winter Photography are available for Commercial Licensing and Fine Art Prints. Click on any image to purchase, or contact me for more info!

Hannegan Peak backcountry camp North Cascades

Backpacking Photography Tips

Backpacking Photography Tips

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Photography has always been an essential element of vacations. Since the first portable roll film camera was introduced people have been taking pictures of their travels. And backpacking trips into wilderness areas are certainly no exception. In this post, I’ll be offering some backpacking photography tips to help make your trip a success.

My previous post, Backpacking Photography Gear Tips, went into some of the details of choosing the proper photography and backpacking equipment. This time I’ll give tips on photography while backpacking on the trail.

For the purpose of this post, I’ll focus on some basic tips for working in the field which can help to free your creativity.

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Set a Goal

Setting a goal for yourself can vastly help in making better photographs. These goals can vary depending on a number of factors, such as:

  • Location
  • Season
  • Weather
  • Subject matter
  • Time available
  • Physical condition

On a backpacking trip you may need to place a limit on and be flexible with your goals. For example, if your goal is action/adventure photography your opportunities for landscape or nature photography will be limited. Or if your goal is to photograph dramatic landscapes but the weather is consistently gray,  consider changing your goal to nature details and or abstracts.

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Know Your Limits

Remember that your pack will most likely be fairly heavy, and will determine how far and fast you can travel. Don’t push yourself beyond your limit. Take it easy and break your hiking distances into manageable lengths. If you arrive at camp physically exhausted you won’t have much energy left to making good photographs. Unless the perfect image is right in front of your tent you’ll need to be on the move until after sunset.

Carefully research your trip in advance. Check out trip reports and maps, and pay particular attention to elevation differences from point to point. You may think that you can easily hike 15 miles in a day. However, that distance will be considerably less when you throw in 3000′-4000′ elevation gain while carrying a full pack.

Also, know your location. Backpacking in Wyoming’s Wind River Range is vastly different from backpacking in the North Cascades. In the Winds, you gain elevation gradually with many ups and downs. In the North Cascades, large amounts of elevation are gained either by endless switchbacks or straight-up endurance tests.

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Know Your Subject Matter

This may be the most important tip I have to offer.

The best portrait photographers will always tell you this. Being keenly aware of, and bringing out the nuances in someone’s personality is the key to great portrait photography. This is also true for other subject matter, including landscape and nature.

One of the best ways of accomplishing this is to just sit and observe, be meditative. Consider the current catchphrase Light And Fast. Going light is good, but why fast, what’s the rush? Isn’t wilderness something to be savored? Aside from photography aren’t you also here to get away from the rush and complexities of daily living?

Slow down and think creatively, you’ll enjoy your trip more and make better images.

It’s easy to backpack into a beautiful area, set up camp, grab your camera and snap your brains out. However, when you get back home you most likely will have only snapshot quality photos.

While on the trail be observant of your surroundings. Take frequent breaks and enjoy the scent of the forest and the sounds of the birds and streams. After setting up camp use this time to relax and restore your physical and mental energy.

Be particularly aware of how the light changes. The position of the sun and the type of light can make the difference between a good and great photo.

See and photograph with your own eyes. Don’t set out armed with GPS coordinates just so you can replicate the other guy’s photo.

Know your subject and photograph deliberately.

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Selecting A Campsite

Ideally, you’ll need to select a campsite or base camp on longer trips, that is in close proximity* to your subject matter. If your campsite is a mile or more from that perfect mountain view or field of wildflowers you’ll need to rush to get there in time to set up.

This is especially important at sunrise. It’s incredibly easy to just sleep in if you need to make a long pre-dawn trek to that great composition. Especially if it’s several hundred feet higher up. In a perfect situation, you should have a variety of compositions to photograph within a quarter-mile of camp.

If you’re backpacking in a National Park or Wilderness Area with camping restrictions your options may be limited. National Parks deliberately, and for good reasons, limit camping proximity to pristine locations. Always do your research and check in advance. In these situations, you may have to plan on some extra legwork.

*Whenever possible camp only on hardened established sites, bare ground, rock, or snow. This may not be an option in very remote or rarely visited areas. Scroll down to read about minimal impact and Leave No Trace Principles.

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Location Scouting

Good location scouting begins at home while researching your trip. Trip reports and guidebooks usually include photos of the area. Poring over topographic maps can give clues to directions of light, and hidden features. Goggle searches of your trip area using different keywords can also reveal little-known spots.

1.    If you planned carefully you should arrive at and set up camp early enough to have time to relax and do some scouting. Aside from obviously finding the best spots for compositions, scouting also gives you an opportunity to get to know your subject better.

2.   Walk through the entire area, and look beyond the obvious. While the big snowcapped mountain may be the obvious dominant element, there may be other compositions more subtle yet just as inspiring. It’s easy to focus your attention on the main scene during golden hour and completely miss something even better in the opposite direction.

3.   Be aware of where the sun will rise and set in relation to the landscape. That perfect composition may be in shadow during morning and evening golden hours. This is particularly true in deep narrow valleys.

4.   Be observant of cloud and weather patterns. Some mountain ranges are prone to dramatic midday storms. However, at sunset and sunrise, the sky may be devoid of any clouds. Of course, in some areas, the opposite may be true. That gorgeous summit may be consistently shrouded in clouds at sunset.

5.   Look for key elements which can you can use in compositions. For a mountain scene, a foreground with a winding stream or a grouping of wildflowers can add movement and depth to the image. Objects such as boulders, a distant tent, or a person can also add scale to the scene.

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Commit to Photographing

Face it, backpacking and the related chores of camping are a lot of work. But it’s only one-half of the work you’ll face when you’re there to make excellent images. While other parties are sitting around camp enjoying the sunset, or sleeping late the next morning, you need to be on the move.

1.    Don’t be in a rush, plan in extra days. Good light and photography rarely happen on your schedule. An extra day or two in an area increases your chance of getting the light you want.

2.   Get accustomed to rising before dawn in the morning. How early you need to get up depends on how far you are from where you need to photograph. You can always get more sleep when you return to camp.

3.   Stick it out until it’s really over. Some photographers pack it up right after the sun sets or rises. Big mistake. I can’t tell you how many times it appeared like all the best light was gone, only for the sun to find a gap in the clouds and come back in full force. Sometimes you’ll be faced with a boring cloudless sunrise when a few minutes later glowing wisps or puffy clouds develop literally out of nowhere.

4.   Wait for the afterglow. Often, hidden beyond your view, there may be some atmospheric elements that create a beautiful long-lasting afterglow.

5.   If the sky is clear of clouds and there is no afterglow it’s always worth waiting to photograph the Belt of Venus and during the blue hour.

6.   Stay up late or wake up earlier for photographing the Milky Way.

7.   With the right conditions excellent images can be made throughout the day, not just during golden hours. Always keep your mind and eyes open to new creative opportunities.

8.   Wait out the weather. You’ve put a lot of time and energy into getting here. Stick it out if you can.

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Eat Well and Smart

Good nutrition is important to maintain the energy you need to sustain a high level of activity. There are endless books, articles, and opinions available to help guide you and confuse you on this topic. Everybody is an expert and will be happy to point out why their research is right and yours is wrong.

I’m not a nutrition expert but I have found out through experience what works for me and what doesn’t. Everybody is different. You’ll need to find a balance of taste, convenience, and nutrition that works for you, preferably in advance of a long trip.

1.    Whatever choice of food make sure you bring enough. You’ll be burning a lot more calories per day than you normally would.

2.   Keep your menu as simple as possible, and look for dehydrated or freeze-dried items to keep the weight down.

3.   For safety in bear country avoid foods with strong odors. Only prepare as much as you can eat, leftovers attract not only bears but also rodents.

4.   Try to bring items that can be prepared by just adding boiling water. The time you save can be spent photographing. You’ll also save weight on fuel.

5.   When on the trail stay well hydrated, and drink an electrolyte replacement instead of plain water. Over the years I’ve tried many, most taste horrible and are ridiculously expensive. I’ve gone back to Gatorade, it tastes better, is cheap, and works for me.

6.   Bring enough energy bars (again, most taste horrible) or trail mix to last the duration of your trip. It’s also a good idea to pack a few special treats to break up the monotony.

7.   Supplements are optional and subjective. I always take a B Complex supplement daily. I find it helps in converting nutrients into energy, but that’s just my opinion.

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Leave No Trace

I’ve recently started to add this extremely important topic to all of my hiking posts. Don’t even think about visiting backcountry areas unless you are prepared to strictly follow the guidelines of Leave No Trace (LNT).

All national parks and wilderness areas throughout the world are under incredible pressure from growing amounts of visitors. Please do your part to help preserve these precious areas for future generations!

To learn more about the principles and practicing LNT please take a few minutes to visit the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. Your children and grandchildren will thank you!

Seven Leave No Trace Principles

  • Plan ahead and prepare.                                       
  • Travel and camp on durable surfaces.
  • Dispose of waste properly.                                                                         
  • Leave what you find.                                            
  • Minimize campfire impacts (be careful with fire), better yet don’t build one in the first place, they are completely unnecessary
  • Respect wildlife.  
  • Be considerate of other visitors.

Now that you have some basic understanding of working in the field, get out there and have some fun!

Also, check out these blog posts for hiking and backpacking and photography destinations:
Mount Baker Wilderness Destinations
Hannegan Peak Ruth Mountain Mount Baker Wilderness
Lake Ann Ptarmigan Ridge Mount Baker Wilderness
Coyote Gulch Backpacking Photography

If you found reading Backpacking Photography Tips to be  enjoyable and informative please feel free to share it with friends and family

All photos appearing in Backpacking Photography Tips are available for Commercial Licensing and Fine Art Prints

Want to learn more? Take your Creative Photography to the next level with  Private Instruction and Guided Photo Tours.

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Backpacking Photography Tips