The Pacific Northwest is Nirvana for outdoor lovers. Very likely you've heard that once or twice before, indeed it is! Spending three weeks exploring the region gave me a glimpse of its breathtaking beauty. I could easily spend three more months and barely scratch the surface, always in awe of the wonders found there.
I invite you to join me on this adventure that started in Northern California; The journey will take us from Mt Shasta to North Cascades National Park, with stops at Mt Hood, Columbia River Gorge, Mt Rainier, back to Olympic National Park, to drive along the coast of Oregon down to Redwoods, CA to complete a loop.
With so much to cover, I broke the article into 3 parts, each one covering a full week. This is part 2. Read Part 1 here.
Week 2: Columbia River Gorge, OR to North Cascades NP, WA
The Waterfall Corridor is a section of the Historic Columbia River Hyw. It is the only way to access what could be the most popular landmark in the area. To control traffic, a reservation system is in effect during the peak hours of the summer. However, the road is open 24 hours.
Multnomah Waterfall: Standing 620' tall, this double-tier beauty is one of the top 25 most photographed waterfalls in the world and, according to Forbes, it is the 3rd most instagrammed waterfall behind Niagara Falls (#1) and Argentina’s Iguazú Falls (#2).
In order to avoid traffic/parking issues and to limit photobombs, I arrived before 8am (I did have a reservation for 9am though). That was a good move, it gets VERY crowded! and parking is extremely limited.
The morning was overcast which is my preferred weather for waterfall photography to avoid the harsh lights and shadows on the scene. This here is the most popular composition at this location; taken from the fenced deck - access to the bottom is not permitted.
It is a short 1/4 mile hike to get to the bridge but the trail keeps going on for a few miles on a steep slope accessing other waterfalls and view points... which I didn't visit.
Wahkeena Falls and Fairy Falls: Thankfully, this trail was a short walk from where I parked for the Multnomah Falls, that saved me some time from parking complications. The trail was mostly paved up to the Wahkeena Falls, after that, it is a lot of zig-zag going up the hill and then just dirt uneven trail following a beautiful creek, mostly shaded. The full loop is about 3.5 miles with 1,495ft elevation gain.
There were so many cute spots on this trail that by the time I reached the Fairy Falls (about half way in the trail), it was so late in the day! To have a chance to catch the sunset over the river, I had to turn around and go back to the car. Finishing the loop was not an option. Snowflake (my westie) was visible happy with that decision.
Vista House: On the same Historic Columbia River Hwy, and strategically located on top of the hill, is the Vista House. A great spot to catch the sunset over the Columbia River. It is very popular however parking didn't seem to be a problem in spite of the slow traffic. This one here was the last photo of the day and with it, I called a night and drove to my campground to rest.
At 4:30am, I was on my way to the Portland Women's Forum State Scenic Viewpoint, my hopes for a nice sunrise quickly faded away as the sky had 110% cloud coverage with lots of fog. Time to strategize about my day, perhaps something different, perhaps the lavender fields.
The most known lavender field in the area was closed (with no re-opening date yet) however, the Hood River Lavender Farms was also a nice stop with great views of Mt Adams. You can buy products at the store or you can pick you own fresh lavender bunch from the field.
It was past midday and time for us to head towards Washington. Because national parks have limitations on where pets can be, Snowflake had to stay at a pet hotel while I visited the three national parks in Washington.
Mt Rainier National Park: I had been savoring this day, the day I got to visit this gorgeous park again. Images had been running through my mind for months now - memories from my one-day visit in 2021. This time I had planned to spend 4 full days taking epic photos of the lakes and wildflowers specially around Sunrise Point area. I just couldn't get there soon enough!
(images taken 2021)
A thick curtain of fog greeted me, visibility on the road was no more than 30 feet! Fog in this area is not uncommon though it comes and goes quickly thus my hope was that it would clear up enough by the time I reached the Reflection Lake at sunset.
Reflection lake: Medium size lake on the side of the road. Mt Rainier can be seen from here and on a calm day there's a beautiful reflection. Usually people will spend like 30 min or less here because the most beautiful sight is from the parking area. Not this evening, not only the fog was not dissipating but also the ground was covered in snow (i.e. no wildflowers) and the lake was frozen (i.e. no reflections).
In my head: Oh no! hopefully the fog clears up or doesn't reach the Sunrise Point (higher altitude), maybe I still can catch a clear night sky. It's about 1.5 hours more of driving and it's dark already, let's get going.
Not even 10 minutes on the road, signs of closed road. Such a bummer! I checked a few days earlier and the road to the Sunrise Visitor Center, which usually closes in the winter, was open. I didn't understand but it was late and I was too tired.
As usual, my alarm rang at 4:30am to get ready for sunrise, however nothing had changed. Clouds blocking the sky, snow blocking the wildflowers, and signs blocking the road. I felt water droplets on my face, either rain or tears, or both. The best I could do at that moment was to go back to bed.
More rested, I had a serious talk that went like this "Lord, you know very well the desires of my heart; you brought me here, at this very moment, for a reason. Your plan is always much better than mine, so let it be your will just guide my eyes and my steps to what you want me to see because I do not want to miss it."
With that assurance, I put on my winter gear, grabbed my camera, and took off, on to discover new trails (so thankful for Alltrails App!):
Snow and Bench Lakes Trail: It is a 2.2 miles out and back trail with about 500 ft elevation gain. Great views (when the fog clears). The lakes were frozen and with the snow cover, I couldn't tell for sure I was not walking on thin ice and then it started raining, my cue that I should be going back.
Trail of the Shadows: This is an easy 0.7 mile loop on the marsh next to the Longmire museum. After all the snow, it was nice to see the growing ferns. There are many exhibits along the trail which also passes by a historical cabin where people used to enjoy the mineral springs.
Carter Falls: 2.6 miles out and back with 550ft elevation gain. It is considered easy but it was more moderate because of the quick elevation gain at some points. To cross the river, people walk on a [very strong] trunk. You better be not afraid of heights. The waterfall is very impressive however the view is somewhat obstructed (thus no photo).
I also stopped at these waterfalls easily accessible from the road: Ruby Falls, Upper Sunbeam Falls
In all, I covered about 8 miles of new (to me) trails. I was so exhausted and the sky was not giving promises of a sunset. Paradise Station was the perfect spot to have dinner and check email. By 9pm I was fast asleep.
Around 11pm, I woke up with a thought: "I should drive to Reflection Lake, maybe the sky will clear up for sunrise" - that's the nice thing about having my camper van, at any time I can just go.
What a surprise to arrive there and see the sky opening up to expose bright stars! What a great opportunity to capture a night scene with Mt Rainier! Quickly grabbed the equipment and started the set up while my eyes adjusted to the darkness. One sample shot to confirm composition showed unusual colors on the sky... Yeah, there is some light pollution however that purple light... it was Northern lights!
Quickly, a few more shots to adjust for lighting - too late, the clouds were back in. This was the best single shot I got, I am aware stars are not in sharp focus but the clouds are not so dominant. It won't win any competition but it won my heart.
Undoubtedly, God brought me to this place at this moment and something this beautiful has to be shared.
Note to photographers, it is critical, when shooting night scenes like this one, to know exactly where each camera button/setting is for two big reasons: 1) to avoid using a light that will mess up your night vision or somebody else's and 2) for speed, for situations like this one.
In the early morning, the clouds were gone. The sky was clear (i.e. no drama on the sky) still I grabbed a couple shots and then returned to Paradise to check out the trails in that area.
Myrtle Falls: A very popular 0.8 mile out and back trail. The view of the waterfall with Mt Rainier as backdrop and the growing wildflowers is unbelievable beautiful - today was a different view though. The paved trail was mostly covered with compacted snow or ice, To get there, crampons are necessary to avoid slipping on the ice - hiking poles are helpful too. The waterfall was covered in snow and ice but I had such a great time observing the morning routine of the resident family of marmots - three of them.
Alta Vista trail: This trail was right next so I just kept going on it. Amazing views of the mountains though it is not an easy hike, continuous elevation gain is one factor, the other is having to walk on this narrow path of snow on the side of the mountain.
After about 1.5 miles in, I stopped to take a few shots and started a conversation with a ranger. She clarified the path I followed was not the "official" trail. That explains it! Also, the road from Paradise to Sunset was interrupted due construction but the road to Sunrise Visitor Center was open and accessible from the southeast entrance... my eyes opened wide and I turned around (after thanking the ranger) ... it was a longer drive but I still could make sunset.
Sunrise Visitor Center: The visitor center itself was closed and there were only 4 other cars in the parking lot. With so many trails in a cute picnic area, this is usually a very crowded place. Not today though. Everything was covered in snow and the trails were not visible. The views were amazing nonetheless. Did you know Mt Rainier is an active volcano? It is 14,410' above sea level and its is the most glaciated peak in the contiguous USA.
It was 5:40pm , sunset would be at 8:22pm. The sky looked good. I started looking for possible compositions when I saw a guy walking on my direction, I could tell he was a photographer - the tripod on his backpack was obvious. He started talking to me about his annual trip to Mt Fremont lookout for astrophotography. He encouraged me to give it a try and left.
I am always very hesitant about hiking in the dark but he sounded so convincing. I went back to the van to grab snacks, more gear, and bundle up.
Mt Fremont Trail: It is a 5.7 miles round trip on this "moderately challenging" route - that is without the snow. If I were to catch the sunset, I had to pick up the pace.
The hike was so intense (and I was carrying about 20 lbs of camera gear!), I could feel the sweat running on my back but the views were incredible.
Those clouds were concerning though and sure enough, in a blink of an eye, Mt Rainier was gone again. I still had hopes.
Mt Fremont Fire Lookout is a two-story wooden tower build in the 1930's, it was used by watchman guarding the forest. It is strategically located so it has a 360 panoramic view. Today the forest was not on sight but the clouds with the setting sun.. oh my! I was literally walking on clouds. Much better than the scene I had in mind, so gorgeous!
10 minutes later, the sun was gone and I could star feeling the cold. It was time to make a decision, should I stay overnight and hope for clear sky for some night photos or take advantage of the last sliver of light to go back; I wished in my heart to stay but my brain said otherwise. I packed the gear and started the trek back.
Not even 200 yards later, God had mercy and cleared the sky to expose this glorious view for about 5 minutes.
A thicker fog than the one earlier came and quickly swallowed everything around me, my visibility was limited to a couple of feet. It was midnight by the time I was back in the van.
On my way to Sunrise Point Overlook, where I was planning to welcome the new day, I stopped to attempt some shots of the Milkyway the lazy way, right on the side of the road - usually a no-no because of the lights of the passing cars. I just love those dark skies specially in cold weather - warmer weather has more haze in the air.
Typically, Milkyway photos require a very high ISO, which introduces too much noise. To reduce the noise, a stacking technique is used. That is, 10-15 similar photos are taken, with the same settings, one after the other, and merged in post-processing.
Sunrise Point Overlook: In addition to the amazing 360 panoramic views and the great trails nearby, this place has good reception. It was the ideal place for taking a day at the office with a view... but first some sunrise shots!
Dege Peak Trail: During lunch time I took this trail from Sunrise Point, it is about 3 miles round trip with 800 ft elevation gain and is considerate moderately challenging. Because of the snow, it was a bit harder though the views are amazing. Unfortunately I couldn't finish it, after a mile in, I had to turn around. Maybe next time with less snow.
After work, I started driving towards Seattle via 410. I found a rest area on 5N with dump station and water supply. It was very busy but I was so exhausted...
Kerry Park: With the blue hour, I drove to Seattle, although cityscapes is not my thing, who could say no to the Space Needle? Kerry Park is open 24 hrs and offers great views of the city. In this long exposure photo, you can see Mt Rainier peaking from behind the clouds.
The park became my office for the rest of the day and I got to enjoy this view all day long. That night, I dressed up and treated myself to a fancy dinner with a good steak and a glass of wine, it was soooo good!
And that is the end of week 2. It was so intense yet so rewarding! By letting God take control, a heavy burden fell off my shoulders allowing me to experience so much more beauty than I had imagined.
Now, you can also read about week 3: North Cascades to Olympic NP and the Coast of Oregon.
Meanwhile, share in the comments your thoughts about taking a solo-trip. Have you done it?