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

Oxbow Bend Grand Teton National Park

New Additions Fall 2021

New Additions Fall 2021

Oxbow Bend Grand Teton National Park New AdditionsGrand Teton National Park  #74160  Purchase

After nearly three weeks of editing and processing files from my recent SW trip the first group of new additions is ready to view. It is always fun to relive the trip by processing new images.  Since returning home it has rained nearly every day, with some newsworthy storms causing flooding. So working on photos from the warm dry Southwest provides a nice respite from the soggy weather outside.

This first group of new releases contains images from the following locations.

Red Canyon Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area New AdditionsFlaming Gorge National Monument  #74267  Purchase

New Additions from New Locations

Flaming Gorge was an interesting location in that it was on the very edge of the Colorado Plateau. Since the Red Canyon area was nearly deserted it was also a welcome relief from the crowds of Grand Teton National Park. Crowds are an ever present issue when visiting national parks, especially in the Southwest. Even in the shoulder seasons of spring and fall there is no escape.

Steamboat Rock Dinosaur National Monument New AdditionsSteamboat Rock Dinosaur National Monument  #74439  Purchase

Dinosaur National Monument was another first time visit location for me. It’s always exciting to explore and photograph new territory.  In Dinosaur I was like a kid in a candy store! This was especially true on the thrilling ride to the remote camp at Echo Park. A sometimes rough 13 mile dirt road ends at a beautiful primitive camp alongside the Green River. Along the way are historic ranches and Fremont Petroglyphs. At Echo Park the scene is dominated by the imposing monolith of Steamboat Rock. Overall this was one of the most enjoyable and memorable locations on the entire trip.

Mesa Arch Canyonlands National ParkMesa Arch Canyonlands National Park  #74540  Purchase

More New Images Coming Soon

In several weeks I should have another group of new additions ready for viewing from the following locations.  Also among this group are some new locations as well as with some I’ve photographed in several time before.

  • Bears Ears National Monument Utah
  • Natural Bridges National Monument Utah
  • San Rafael Swell, Crack Canyon
  • Goblin Valley State Park Utah
  • Factory Butte Utah
  • Capitol Reef National Park Utah
  • Coyote Gulch Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument Utah

Aspens in fall color Grand Teton National ParkAspens Grand Teton National Park  #74050  Purchase

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 New Additions Fall 2021 are available for Commercial Licensing and Fine Art Prints. Click on any image to purchase, or contact me for more info!

Weathered and twisted Juniper tree (Juniperus osteosperma) at dawn on rim Green River Overlook, Canyonlands National Park Utah

Fall Southwest Photography Tour 2021

Autumn along the Virgin River, The Watchman in the distance, Zion National Park Utah Fall Southwest Photography TourVirgin River Zion National Park #09187   Purchase

Fall is here and the air is finally free of wildfire smoke! So after delaying several summer photo trips we’re excited to get back on the road for a lengthy photo tour. This year the bulk of the trip will be to locations in Red Rock Canyon Country and the National Parks of Southern Utah. Listed below are some of the locations on the itinerary, generally in order from beginning to end.

If you have any locations or subject matter which interests you in, and we can include them in our itinerary, let us know. Also let us know if you will be in any of these areas in October, it would be great to meet up with you!

  • Craters of the Moon National Monument
  • Grand Teton National Park
  • Flaming Gorge
  • Dinosaur National Monument
  • Arches National Park
  • Canyonlands National Park
  • Cedar Mesa/Bears Ears Wilderness, Anasazi Ruins
  • Capitol Reef National Park
  • Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, slot canyons, and arches
  • Bryce Canyon National Park
  • Zion National Park
  • Great Basin National Park

*This is an ambitious trip so some locations may be omitted due to time and weather considerations.

Buckhorn Wash barrier style pictographs, San Rafael Swell Utah Fall Southwest Photography TourBuckhorn Wash Pictographs, San Rafael Swell Utah #42086  Purchase

Sandstone Monoliths of the Upper Cathedral Valley in evening light, Capitol Reef National Park UtahCapitol Reef National Park #2901  Purchase

Weathered and twisted Juniper tree (Juniperus osteosperma) at dawn on rim Green River Overlook, Canyonlands National Park UtahCanyonlands National Park  #27457  Purchase

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 Fall Southwest Photography Tour 2021 are available for Commercial Licensing and Fine Art Prints. Click on any image to purchase, or contact me for more info!

Squaretop Mountain Wind River Range Wyoming

Rocky Mountains Photography Tour

Rocky Mountains Photography Tour

Backpacker on Titcomb Basin Trail Wind River Range Rocky Mountains WyomingBackpacking Wind River Range #66803

Update 8/162021: Due to wildfires and heavy smoke and haze, this trip has been delayed.

This summer’s Rocky Mountains Photography Tour will start on July 9. I was once again hoping to head north to Alaska and the Yukon Territory. But since it looks like the border won’t be open in time, it is on to Plan B. So this year I’ll be revisiting some locations from 2019 and 2020.

These locations will mainly the Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness in Idaho, and the Wind River Range of Wyoming. I’m also planning a lengthy backpacking trip to the Chinese Wall in the Bob Marshall Wilderness of Montana. That location was on my itinerary last year but I swapped it out for Glacier National Park instead.

White Clouds Wilderness Rocky Mountains IdahoBoulder White-Clouds Wilderness  #68945  Purchase

Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness Idaho

On last summer’s visit to the White-Clouds I was only able to visit the north section. This year I’ll be backpacking in to the south half to photograph the Boulder Chain Lakes Basin and the some of the highest peaks in the wilderness. This area is also part of the popular White Clouds Wilderness Loop. For my purposes though I will be doing an out and back trip instead of the loop. I’ll also have plenty of time budgeted for layovers at the best locations along the route.

Squaretop Mountain Wind River Range WyomingSquaretop Mountain Wind River Range #66997 Purchase

Wind River Range Wyoming

Ah, what can I say about the Winds? This will be my seventh trip there and I still can’t get enough of this spectacular mountain range. It’s a backpackers’ dream. Thousands of lakes, 40 peaks over 13,000′, miles and miles of trails in the subalpine along the Continental Divide, plus easy cross country travel to boot!

This year my plans will include parts of the Hailey Pass-Washakie Pass Loop, Desolation Valley, and Baptiste Lake. Also on the itinerary will be a return to Cirque of the Towers and Deep Lake. I’ll also be returning to the Green Lakes area for more new photos of the Green River and Squaretop Mountain.

Castle Reef Mountain Sun Canyon Rocky Mountains MontanaCastle Reef Mountain Montana  #68136  Purchase

Bob Marshall Wilderness Montana

Known among locals and avid backpackers as “The Bob”, this wilderness destination in the northern Rocky Mountains has been on my must photograph list for decades. The Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex is a huge swath of land straddling both sides of the Continental Divide. An important part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem it is home to the largest intact population of Grizzlies in the lower 48.

Last year It was on my itinerary but I took a pass due to an unusual opportunity to obtain backcountry permits in Glacier National Park. The destination on this trip will be a multi-day backpack to the famous Chinese Wall. This is arguably the signature feature of the Bob Marshall Wilderness, a 12 mile long 1000′ high limestone escarpment on the Continental Divide.

U.S. Highway 93 Lost River Range IdahoU.S. 93 Idaho #68984  Purchase

A Flexible Itinerary

For an ambitious trip like this several caveats need to be mentioned. First of all if it becomes clear the Canada border will open before the end of July it will be back to Plan A, as in A for Alaska.

Secondly, as with all of my trips that include multiple long backpacking excursions, some locations may be modified due to weather or time constraints. There are already indications of a major wildfire season in the making, so smoky conditions or closed off areas may change my plans.

Finally, if you are in any of these areas in July or August and would like to meet up in the wilderness, or in town for a coffee or beer, feel free to contact me!

If you enjoyed reading Rocky Mountains Photography Tour please share it with your friends, colleagues and family.

Photos appearing in Rocky Mountains Photography Tour are available for Commercial Licensing and Fine Art Prints. Click on any image to purchase, or contact me for more info!

Rocky Mountains Photography Tour

Shore Acres State Park Oregon.

Photo Highlights 2020

Photo Highlights 2020

The infamous 2020, it’ll go down in history as the year everyone, including me, wanted to bludgeon to death, and bury in the molten core of the earth where it would be incinerated into oblivion. Yes, it sucked beyond belief, all the way to its ugly end. Let’s all get down on our knees and pray 2021 will be better!

Despite all the endless lows I’m sure there were a at least a few high points for everyone. For example, during the spring lockdown Coleen and I got to do a bit of virtual traveling by binge watching a bunch of British Drama shows on Britbox. After watching Shetland we began to dream of visiting that hauntingly beautiful part of Scotland! Also, we were able to complete a load of long overdue home improvement projects. So all was not lost.

The photography part of the year was certainly very memorable for me. Since most of my subject matter takes me to remote wilderness areas I was able to get out and photograph while respecting safety guidelines. So let’s dig into some of my favorite photos made in 2020.

Vote For Your Favorite

As always feel free to vote and comment on your favorite photos. And also, check out the New Images gallery to see even more photos made this year!

Whatcom Falls Bellingham Washington Photo Highlights 2020# 1  Whatcom Falls Bellingham Washington #68412  Purchase

Shore Acres State Park Oregon Photo Highlights 2020#2  Blue hour at Shore Acres State Park Oregon  #68598  Purchase

Shore Acres State Park Oregon Photo Highlights 2020#3  Shore Acres State Park Oregon  #68501  Purchase

Shore Acres State Park sunset, Oregon Photo Highlights 2020#4  Eroded sandstone formations at Shore Acres State Park Oregon  #68579  Purchase

Shore Acres State Park Oregon#5  Eroded sandstone formations at Shore Acres State Park Oregon  #68560  Purchase

Eagle Cap and Mirror Lake Eagle Cap Wilderness Orergon#6  Mirror Lake Eagle Cap Wilderness, Wallowa Mountains Oregon  #68794  Purchase

Sunset storm clouds Bridger-Teton National Forest Wyoming#7  Storm clouds at sunset, Scab Creek trailhead, Wind River Range Wyoming #69049 Purchase

Mud Volcano Yellowstone National Park#8  Clearing fog at sunrise, Mud Volcano Yellowstone National Park #69423  Purchase

Lake McDonald Glacier National Park#9  Sunrise over Lake McDonald Glacier National Park #69738  Purchase

Boulder Pass wildflowers Glacier National Park#10  Wildflowers at Boulder Pass Glacier National Park #69970  Purchase

Subalpine Larches North Cascades#11  Subalpine Larches at Stiletto Lake, North Cascades National Park #70206  Purchase

Liberty Bell Mountain North Cascades#12 Sunset over Liberty Bell Mountain North Cascades #70526  Purchase

If you enjoyed reading Photo Highlights 2020 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 Photo Highlights 2020 are available for Commercial Licensing and Fine Art Prints. Click on any image to purchase, or contact me for more info! 

 

 

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.

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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
Stormy sunset from Scab Creek Trailhead. Bridger-Teton National Forest Sublette County, Wyoming

New Images: Washington Oregon Idaho Wyoming

New Images: Washington Oregon Idaho Wyoming

Stormy sunset from Scab Creek Trailhead. Bridger-Teton National Forest Sublette County, Wyoming New Images: Washington Oregon Idaho WyomingStormy Sunset from foothills of Wind River Range  #69049  Purchase

I’m happy to announce that the first group of new images from my recent summer trip is now online! This group represents the first half of the trip which includes locations in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Wyoming. Also included in the gallery are some floral photos, along with images from the recent Oregon Coast Trip.

Locations Included

  • Palouse Region Washington
  • Eagle Cap Wilderness, Wallowa Mountains Oregon
  • Cecil D. Andrus-White Clouds Wilderness Idaho
  • Snake River Plains Wheat Fields SE Idaho
  • Bridger Wilderness, Wind River Range Wyoming

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Aside from the photos from the Palouse Region of Washington all of the new image are from locations I’ve never visited or photographed in before. Although I’ve been to the Wind River Range of Wyoming many times this was my first trip to Upper Middle Fork Basin.

A selection of highlights is ready for viewing, licensing and print purchases in the New Images Gallery.  To see all the new images please visit my Archives at the following links: Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming. Of course you can also Search the Archives by location and or keywords.

Eagle Cap and Mirror Lake Eagle Cap Wilderness OregonEagle Cap Wilderness Oregon  #68776  Purchase

White Clouds Wilderness IdahoWhite Clouds Wilderness Idaho  #68945  Purchase

Pronghorn Peak and Lake Donna. Bridger Wilderness, Wind River Range WyomingPronghorn Peak Wind River Range  #694198  Purchase

New Images Coming Up Next

The next group of new images from the second half of the trip will be coming soon. Locations in that set will include photos from the following locations:

  • Grand Teton National Park
  • Yellowstone National Park
  • Beartooth Pass/Highway
  • Upper Missouri River Breaks Montana
  • Glacier National Park

In the coming weeks I’ll also be writing multiple post detailing all the locations.

All photos appearing in New Images: Washington Oregon Idaho Wyoming are available for Commercial Licensing and Fine Art Prints.

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

Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area

Oregon Coast Photography Trip

Oregon Dunes National Recreation AreaOregon Dunes National Recreation Area #44164  Purchase

This week we will be leaving for a ten day photo shoot on the Oregon Coast. Our usual plan is to photograph coastal locations in April or early May but this year we had to postpone it for obvious reasons. However after several months of enduring Stay At Home orders filled with endless home improvement projects we can’t wait to hit he road again and get back to work!

At this writing only about half of Oregon State parks along the coast are open for camping. So we’re a bit limited on our options. Fortunately a few choice locations are open, enabling us to photograph some areas we haven’t visited in a number of years.  We will be starting at Shore Acres State Park with its whimsical sandstone cliff formations, and Bandon Beach‘s iconic sea-stacks. Then we’ll move north to the Oregon Dunes, and finally on to the Cannon Beach area.

Shore Acres State Park OregonShore Acres State Park Oregon #48703  Purchase

If you’re also visiting any of these areas at the same time let me know, I’d love to meet up and chat!

While this long awaited trip to the Oregon Coast is exciting in its own right, it’s only just the beginning. Several days after returning home I’ll be leaving on an extended photo tour of the Rocky Mountains. In some ways it will be a continuation of last year’s epic trip to the Idaho Sawtooths and Wyomings Wind River Range.

Bandon Beach OregonBandon Beach Oregon #48491  Purchase

This trip will be backpacking oriented and destinations are still in the planning stage.  However they most likely will include the White Cloud Wilderness of Idaho, Wind River Range, and Bob Marshall Wilderness of Montana. If time and conditions allow a few backcountry spots in Glacier National Park may be included. After returning from the Oregon Coast I’ll post a formal announcement for this trip.

Cannon Beach from Ecola State Park OregonCannon Beach from Ecola State Park Oregon #5627b  Purchase

All photos appearing in Oregon Coast Photography Trip 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.

 

Hannegan Peak backcountry camp North Cascades

Backpacking Photography Tips

Backpacking Photography Tips

Hannegan Peak backcountry camp North Cascades Backpacking Photography TipsMount Baker Wilderness North Cascades #54316r  Purchase

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.

Mount Robson Canadian Rockies Backpacking Photography TipsMount Robson British Columbia  #54646  Purchase

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.

Backpacker Wind River Range, Wyoming Backpacking Photography TipsBackpacking in the Wind River Range #66330  Purchase

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.

Glacier Peak Image Lake North CascadesGlacier Peak and Image Lake North Cascades #58239  Purchase

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.

Mount Baker Wilderness campsite Backpacking Photography TipsBackcountry Camp Mount Baker Wilderness #53372  Purchase

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.

Backpacker Baker Lake Trail North CascadesBackpacker North Cascades #65027 Purchase

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.

Limestone Lakes Basin Height-of-the-Rockies Provincial Park British ColumbiaLimestone Lakes British Columbia #46236  Purchase

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.

Glacier Peak backcountry camp North CascadesGlacier Peak Wilderness #58315  Purchase

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

Backpacker Bugaboo Provincial Park

Backpacking Photography Gear Tips

Backpacking Photography Gear Tips

Backpacker Bugaboo Provincial Park Backpacking Photography Gear TipsBugaboo Provincial Park British Columbia 

For most people bringing back photos from a backpacking trip is essential. Who doesn’t want to share their adventure with friends and family on the social media beast?

The big question is what is the end use for those photos, and what photo gear should you take to meet that end? Ask 100 photographers that question and you’ll get 100 different answers. And there really are no wrong answers here.

For the purpose of this post, I’ll focus on backpacking photography gear tips for photographers that may be in the advanced amateur to aspiring pro levels.

Mount Baker Wilderness campsite North Cascades Washington Backpacking Photography Gear TipsMount Baker Wilderness North Cascades

It’s All About Weight

Get used to it, if you’re into serious photography while backpacking your pack will be heavy, period.

Only you can determine how much weight you can comfortably carry and for how far. There are endless variables that determine what you should or shouldn’t bring, such as photography goals, trip length, elevation gain, trail or off-trail routes, and seasons, to name a few.

Basically though, carrying too much weight can turn your trip into a grueling muscle cramping ordeal. And at the end of the day, you won’t have any energy left for photography. Believe me, I know what I’m talking about here. For 20 years I lugged around a 4×5 film camera with four lenses, 18 film holders, a film changing tent, extra film, light meter, tripod, filters, etc. All this photo gear alone was well over 35 pounds.

So here are my gear tips for helping to make your backpacking photography trip more successful and enjoyable.

Disclaimer: The following tips are offered from my personal experience and preferences after many years of backpacking photography. What works for me may not work for you.

Backcountry camp North Cascades National ParkBackcountry camp North Cascades National Park

Photo Gear

There isn’t much you can do here for weight savings. You can’t shave off pieces of your camera or lens to cut down on weight. And this isn’t the category for scrimping on quality to save weight. My choice of photo gear may be on the heavy side, but it ensures high-quality results.

  • Camera:

    One camera body. The best you can afford. It doesn’t matter if it’s digital or film or, which brand, as long you can change lenses. Make sure it has a high-quality sensor with enough megapixels sufficient for your end-use. A 20-megapixel body may be good enough for social media sharing, but not probably for making large-format fine art prints.

    Pro Tip:   Pro or Prosumer level cameras are much more rugged, and have better weather seals than consumer-level cameras. Something to consider if you regularly visit dusty, and or rainy environments, or are hard on your gear.

My Gear:
Nikon D850 Yes, it’s heavy, but it’s well built with all the features I need and more. Its 45.7-megapixel sensor is outstanding for night sky photography and mural-size prints.
Really Right Stuff L Plate Used for quick release in conjunction with Really Right Stuff Tripod Ballhead.

Alice Lake camp Sawtooth MountainsIlluminated tent, Sawtooth Mountains Idaho

  • Lenses:

    Wide or ultra-wide to short telephoto lenses will cover most situations. Again, go with the highest quality you can afford. It would be ideal to bring just one zoom lens with a focal length from 20-200mm. However, the quality of such a lens may not be optimum.

    Many photographers will swear by the quality of prime lenses, but for our purpose bringing an armload of them isn’t practical. One wide-angle zoom lens, plus a normal to short telephoto zoom lens would be a good option.

    Pro Tip:  High-quality lenses are always more important than the camera body. The most expensive camera or post-processing editing app can’t make up for an inferior quality lens.

My Gear: 
Nikon 14-24mm 2.8 This lens is considered by many landscape photographers to be the gold standard of wide-angle zooms. I can attest that it is extremely sharp, and has minimal distortion and chromatic aberration.
Nikon 24-70mm 2.8E ED VR  There are arguably smaller, lighter weight, and cheaper lenses in this focal length. But for me, this lens has proven it’s worth many times over. It’s tack sharp, and the VR feature is outstanding for handheld work.
Nikon 70-200mm 2.8E FL ED VR  Again, it’s a heavy and expensive lens, but for me, it’s high-quality glass and features are worth every ounce.

  • Tripod:

    A tripod is an essential piece of photo gear. Night photography would be absolutely impossible without it. So would close-ups of flowers, long exposures of flowing water, and techniques such as focus stacking.

A tripod is also one item where you may be able to get away with choosing a lighter-weight model. This is especially true if your camera body and lens combination is on the lighter side.

Many manufacturers offer tripods with three or four-section legs. I prefer three, simpler, fewer parts that can fail. Also, make sure your tripod is tall enough for your needs. Carbon fiber tripods are your best option, they’re slightly lighter than metal and very durable. They also won’t freeze your hands in cold weather light metal does.

In recent years ball heads have become the standard, and I find them to be a vast improvement over older-style handles and knobs.

Pro Tip:   Do not opt for an inexpensive poorly made tripod with plastic components! They are not stable and break very easily. I was once in desperate need of a replacement tripod while on location. All I could purchase was a cheap lightweight model. Even with everything locked down as much as possible, it was like using a wet noodle to support my camera!

My Gear:
Gitzo GT 1532 Mountaineer Series 1
Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ballhead with quick release plate.

Backcountry camp North CascadesMount Baker Wilderness North Cascades

  • Filters:

Polarizing Filter. Probably one of the most indispensable filters to bring along. Just be careful not to overdo the effect of darkening a sky. Also, keep in mind their limited effect when using wide-angle lenses.
Graduated Neutral Density Filters. I still find them extremely useful. But If you’re looking to save weight you could leave these at home, and produce their effect in post-processing. They are not always the best option in certain circumstances. However, when possible I will always prefer to use them to make the best exposure in the field, and not rely on post-processing techniques.

My Gear:
B+H Polarizing Filter
Lee Graduated Neutral Density Filters: Four filters; 1 & 2 Stop soft and hard edge.
Lee SW150 Mark II Filter System, necessary to accommodate Nikon 14-24mm lens

  • Miscellaneous Gear

    Extra Batteries. I always take three fully charged batteries, one in the camera and two extras. On a recent 10 day backpack, I still had about half power left on my last spare. Be aware that mirrorless cameras may consume more battery power.
    Extra Memory Cards. 
    Remote Shutter Release. Weighs next to nothing and helps in reducing camera shake.
    Micro Fiber Cleaning Cloth. Essential for cleaning lenses and filters
    Camera Chest Pack. I find this optional item to be extremely useful. Not only does it give me quick access to my camera while on the trail, it also has room for small items such as trail snacks and maps.
    My Gear:
    Lowepro Toploader Pro 75 AWII

Backpacker Glacier Peak Wilderness Backpacking Photography Gear TipsBackpacker Glacier Peak Widerness

Backpacking Gear

Here is where you’ll have the most opportunities for saving weight while on the trail. It’s also where you can spend or save lots of money. Once again how light you go depends on your destination, how long you will be out, and what season you’ll be backpacking in.

Going Ultralight is the catchword of the day, and gear manufacturers are cashing in on it big time. Just be aware that that ultra-expensive ultralight gear may not be ultra-durable, especially when the weather turns nasty, and after a few seasons of use.

Absolutely nothing is worse than sitting out wind, rain, and or snow for days at a time in a flimsy leaking tent.

Nearly every tent, backpack, or rain jacket on the market today will perform well in adverse conditions, at least for their first season. What gear reviewers won’t tell you is how well they hold up after a few seasons of use!

  • Backpack

    A high-quality good fitting backpack is one of the most essential pieces of gear you’ll need for a successful and enjoyable backpacking trip.

    Pro Tip:   Forget that fancy expensive photo gear backpack. They are designed foremost to protect your camera and lenses while on the trial, everything else is secondary. You’ll quickly find that out when you’re several miles into a steep climb when that backpack has suddenly turned itself into a medieval torture device.

    Go with a pack specifically designed for backpacking. Use soft items in your pack, like clothes to protect your gear. Visit a reputable outdoor gear store and try on different packs. Speak with a knowledgeable salesperson about what you need, a good one will help choose and fit the ideal pack. Keep in mind that to accommodate all your photo gear you may need a larger pack than you initially think.

    Pro Tip:   Do not buy a backpack from an online retailer until you have already physically checked it out and tried it on! Ideally, borrow a friend’s for a short trip first to see if it works for you.

    My Gear: 
    Osprey Zenith 88 Osprey makes high-quality packs for every type of adventurer. This is the most comfortable pack I’ve ever used.  Its suspension system is much more comfortable for carrying heavier loads than its popular Aether 85. Perfect size for trips over three or four days in length. Although it is a bit on the large size for a weekend trip.

North Cascades backcountry campBackcountry camp North Cascades

  • Shelter

    A good shelter is the next most important piece of backpacking gear.

    If you’re traveling light and fast, and are only concerned about making miles in gorgeous summer weather without any flying insects to bother you, then even a thin nylon tarp will do.

    But it’s a different story when you’re out for a week and the weather turns sour, with mosquitoes, flies, and gnats out in biblical proportions. Then you’ll wish for something a bit more substantial to protect you and your camera gear.

Look for a lightweight tent with a silicone-treated rain fly. I also like a tent with a vestibule large enough to protect items you don’t want inside the tent. Like boots and a dirty backpack.

My Gear:
Big Agnes Copper Spur 2. Super lightweight, easy to pitch, with two doors and large vestibules. This tent also comes in a one-person size, but I like a little more elbow room.

  • Sleeping Bag and Pad

    For years I steered clear of down bags, mainly because  I felt they were a poor option in the rainy Pacific Northwest. However, now I’m an enthusiastic supporter of down. They’re like sleeping enveloped in a warm cloud. And they’re generally much lighter and more compressible than synthetic bags. A high-quality down sleeping bag is not cheap so look at it as an investment. However, with proper care, a well-made bag will last for many years. Feathered Friends and Western Mountaineering make some of the finest bags around.

    Sleeping pads are essential for keeping those roots from poking into your back while sleeping, or for insulation when camped on snow. Options here are either a foam pad or an inflatable. I’ve used Therm-a-Rest pads exclusively for many years. They are incredibly comfortable with adjustable firmness, are lightweight, and compress down very well.

    My Gear:
    Western Mountaineering Badger 
    Therm-a-rest Classic

Backcountry Camp North Cascades National Park Backpacking Photography Gear TipsNorth Cascades National Park

  • Stove

    Another essential item for any overnight trip. The days of preparing your meals over an open campfire are long gone. Campfires above timberline are banned just about everywhere, and for many good reasons. Besides, cooking over an open fire takes an awfully long time and is messy and dangerous.

    The two options are liquid white gas (Coleman Fuel) and butane mix canisters. Canister stoves are all the rage right now and some are much better than others.  The biggest drawback with canister stoves is that they lose their power output in colder weather. You’ll need to keep the canisters warm for maximum performance.

    Liquid fuel stoves perform well at any temperature and do so to the last drop of fuel. For this reason  they are the better option for winter trips. They weigh only slightly more than canister stoves, and there are no empty canisters to dispose of. However, canisters can be recycled in some areas if prepared properly. Check with your local recycling facility for regulations.

    My Gear:
    MSR Reactor I recently switched from my trusty MSR XGK stove to the reactor, and so far I have been very pleased. This stove system with fuel canisters is lighter weight, and it boils water very quickly. However, one drawback is that in cold weather it is necessary to keep fuel canisters warm. Ideally, you can accomplish this by keeping them in your sleeping bag at night.

Titcomb Basin backcountry campWind River Range

  • Footwear

    Proper footwear is only second to a good backpack for comfort on the trail. There is a strong debate on leather boots vs lightweight trail runners. For years I’ve sworn by stiff leather boots with lugged soles. But on recent trips, I’ve gone with lighter-weight boots, and will probably move more towards trail runners in the near future.

    Pro Tip:  Be aware that if you’re backpacking in the mountains early in the season lightweight shoes may not be the best option. Hiking in snow for only a few minutes will result in very wet cold feet. On steep snow slopes, you also won’t get much traction, and step kicking will be very difficult.

  • Other Gear

    Here is a list of other necessary items. They’re all important, but I won’t go into detail about them since it would require a separate article.

    Weather appropriate clothing
    Cookware
    Water bottle or hydration bag
    Water filters or other purification methods
    Food, including trail snacks
    Map
    Headlamp
    Ten Essentials

Limestone Lakes Basin Height of the Rockies Provincial Park British ColumbiaHeight of the Rockies Provincial Park

In Conclusion

This should provide you with enough gear tips to begin planning for your next backpacking photography trip. As I mentioned many times in this article, cutting down on weight is important. But so is your personal comfort level. This isn’t a contest to see who can have the lightest pack and hike the farthest. So what if you choose a slightly beefier tent, or need to bring another lens? It’s your trip and you can always make adjustments to your preferences in the future.

Now get out there and have 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

Thanks for reading, feel free to share this post with your friends and colleagues! And make sure to check out my next post in this series: Backpacking Photography Tips

Backpacker on Titcomb Basin Trail Wind River Range Wyoming Backpacking Photography Gear TipsTitcomb Basin Wind River Range

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

All photos appearing in Backpacking Photography Gear 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.

Backpacking Photography Gear Tips