The PNW Chronicles: The Mountains

In PNW, Travel by jfischer1 Comment

For a Texas born and raised photographer, I consider the Pacific Northwest my second home.  I traveled west most of my young life, most of my relatives lived in California or Oregon, so every year we almost always boarded the first flight headed that direction after the end of the school year.  And while I’ve visited Southern California enough for all the Hollywood glamour to more than fade from my eyes, the Pacific Northwest has done more than an equal amount to capture my soul.  From the coasts to lush forests to towering mountains, it is as unlike my home in North Texas as one can really get.  So it’s no wonder I find myself boarding a plane headed west, though a bit more northwest, as often as I can, even today.  In this series I recount some of my favorite locations and the times I got to shoot them.

Mt. St. Helens

Valley below Mt. St. Helens – 2016

I’ve visited Mt. St. Helens twice in my travels to Washington State and Oregon.  Both times it wasn’t under ‘ideal’ conditions as it was either the very beginning or the very end of a trip either on the way to other locations higher on my list, or as a parting shoot before racing for an urban center for a flight back home.  While it has been well over 30 years since the eruption that transformed the landscape for miles in every direction, the affects of that fateful morning in 1980 can still be seen almost everywhere you go if you know what to look for.

I haven’t made it all the way to Johnson Ridge Observatory in the years since picking up a camera, though that’s a goal for my 2019’s trip.   Both times up Spirit Lake Highway I had to stop before making the full trip, though any length of this amazing ribbon of tarmac is worth exploring for the detour off Interstate 5 if you have the time.

St. Helens

Mt St. Helens, 2014 in the distance with the valley it forever changed reaching out before it. – taken from one of the many turn off overlooks along the Spirit Lake Highway leading to Johnston Ridge Observatory

Mt. Hood

Anyone who has seen more than a half-dozen photos from Oregon has probably seen a photo of Mt. Hood.  It is the dominate peak in the northern half of the state, which happens to also be where one of the largest cities is situated – Portland.  Views of Mt. Hood are seen from the city itself, along the spectacular Columbia River Gorge, towering over the small lakes fed by the run-off from the mountain itself, and always playing peak-a-boo with travelers as they wind their way through the region.  That is, if the mountain isn’t completely shrouded by low clouds.  Which it very much often is, just like its northern cousin Mt. Rainier.  Most of my time shooting this majestic peak have been from one of three locations: Trillium Lake to the south of the mountain, a fantastic opportunity for reflection shots of the entire mountain frame front and center; Lost Lake to the north of Mt. Hood, an excellent option for capturing the Milky Way if weather cooperates; and from Timberline Lodge up on the mountain itself.

Mt. Hood in the morning
Mt. Hood in the morning from Trillium Lake, 2014 – the fishing dock seen in this photo was too busy for most of the time I was there to use as a shooting location, and I prefer to get down closer to the water to have a stronger foreground.

The photo at the top of this post is from Trillium Lake in the late evening, during my 2014 trip.  The 25 second long exposure, without any clouds in the sky to show movement, and the pine trees too far to really show any minor blur, left only the water to be smoothed out into a nice reflective surface.  If you want a shoot with a perfectly mirror perfect reflection, you’re going to have far better luck at dawn.  The shot just above is also from the 2014 trip, showing a bit shorter of an exposure and thus not quite as silky of a water’s surface, but does get a fair bit of color in the sky during the early morning sunrise hours. The 2016 trip had perfectly clear skies at sunset and into the early blue hours at Trillium Lake. Below is a shot from a bit further down the shoreline than I had shot from in 2014, getting further back from the busy fishing pier and getting the mountain a bit better framed up in the middle of the lake.

Blue Hour on Trillium Lake

For shooting at Trillium Lake, a wide to ultra-wide angle lens is ideal. Most of my shots are in the 20-30mm focal length range on a Full Frame Sensor, and unless you’re very very lucky with the reflection, I suggest a tripod and at least 6-stop ND filter to help get the best reflections out of the water’s surface as you can. Getting down low helps, the water nearest the shore line is going to be the calmest in most cases, so if you can get the mountain’s reflection in the first few feet of water, all the better.

Mt. Hood from Lost Lake

On the opposite side of Mt. Hood looking back to the south, is Lost Lake. I can’t tell you a lot about this location beyond what it looks like in the pitch black because I arrived after sunset and left well before sunrise. What I can tell you is that it’s better to get there before sunset, locating the ideal spots to shoot the reflection of the mountain peak and surrounding hills from, and staking your claim to the spot before other photographers arrive. My group did our best to not interfere with other photographers already setup when we arrived, and think we did our best to be polite while finding our way down to the shoreline that night. What can’t be argued with is that the conditions were darn near perfect. For reflections and clear views of the Milky Way and Mt. Hood, you’re going to need both clear skies and calm winds. Something that isn’t a very common in this part of the country, but if you’re sitting down at Trillium Lake and seeing not a cloud anywhere in the sky for sunset, and a star trail shot isn’t what you had in mind, then pile in the car and aim it north. It’s a bit of a drive around the side of the mountain and up to Lost Lake, but as always – Adjust and Adapt.

Summer views from Timberline Lodge

Timberline Lodge may not be the most creative name for a ski lodge sitting near the treeline on Mt. Hood, but it does tell you what kind of views you’re going to find when you get there. Depending on when you’re there, you’ll either find lots of rocky hiking trails, or a lot of snow to ski on. Either way, there’s lots of open treeless mountain to explore up here. Back in 2014, early on after starting photography I took some of my first Milky Way photos up here. Honestly most of what I’ve shot up here that I’ve like the most wasn’t Mt. Hood at all, but rather the weathered trees or other near by peaks such as Mt. Jefferson.

From Mt. Hood / Timberline Lodge

Situated at almost 6000 ft elevation, up the mountain, there’s not much other than rock and glaciers are above you, however the sweeping views in very direction make up for that in a hurry.  Several other nearby peaks can be seen from the side of Mt. Hood, including Mt. Jefferson.  Closer by, endless ridges of the lower hills stack themselves neatly, begging for a late evening shot when the sun is low on the horizon.  On a clear night, try using the faint glow from the parking lot to cast light on the trees while taking photos of the Milky Way above.

Blue Ridges – 2014
Milky Way – 2014

Mt. Rainer

I only had two opportunities to photograph Mt. Rainier from a distance back in 2014, though only one panned out.  The first time in June during a short family vacation where I was able to get a couple nice views from Vashon Island in the Puget Sound.  Photography time wasn’t as flexible as it was during my August trip, so here comes more “not in the golden hours” photography that I occasionally have to live with. The second, well, on the second I struck out completely. The only shots I got was on the flight out, quite literally.

One of my primary goals for my 2019 mid-year trip will be to add to my Mt. Rainier collection of images. It’s a mountain that I’m sure will capture my heart and imagination like Mt. Hood has once I get to spend a little time in it’s presence in better light. Look for a late 2019 update to this article in the works.

Rainier from Vashon Island
Rainier on the way out of Seattle


  1. Pingback: PNW Series: Mountains (Part II) | Fischer Photography

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