North Cascades Photography – Winter on the Cascade Loop

North Cascades Photography – Winter on the Cascade Loop

The severity of winter in Western Washington is all about elevation. The lowlands usually get very little snow, not counting this year of course! And the mountains get slammed. Several of the mountain passes in Washington close in winter due to snow avalanche conditions. The North Cascades Highway, SR 20, is one of them.

North Cascades Highway, Diablo Overlook

Crossing the North Cascade range at Washington Pass (5,477 ft el.) the North Cascades Highway closes each fall, usually mid November, and reopens each spring mid to late May.

On the west side the highway is gated for the winter at Colonial Creek Campground (milepost 131). Depending upon the severity of the snow it is usually gated about a mile further east, just past the parking area for the Diablo Lake Overlook.

As I drive up the valley quick peaks of the mountains pop into view. This is from a spot near Cascadian Farms.

Skagit River

The main visitors center for the North Cascades National Park is in Newhalem. Just behind the visitors center is a short trail to a great view of the Picket Range, a particularly rugged section of the Park.

Diablo Dam and Pyramid Peak make a perfect spot for sunset images!

The road is gated just beyond Colonial Creek Camp Ground. There is plenty of parking and easy access for snowmobiles and anyone wanting to hike along the snow covered (and closed) highway.

Its a winter wonderland out there, but I can’t wait for warm temps and wildflowers!

Lake Ann from the Maple Pass Trail

North Cascades Photography – Skagit Valley Snow Geese

North Cascades Photography – Skagit Valley Snow Geese

Winter tends to be a bit wet and gray. But then the Snow Geese arrive! If you’re out and about on the Cascade Loop in the winter months, be sure to come for a visit!

They tend to flock together as they move from field to field in search of food. According to this article Snow Geese of the Pacific Flyway “most of the Snow geese wintering in the Skagit were born abroad on Russia’s Wrangel Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the northernmost nesting ground for 100 migratory bird species. The island also has the largest population of Pacific walruses and the highest concentration of polar bear dens in the world.”

There is also a simple map of the locations:

Their size and bright color makes them stand out against any background. Getting a decent shot is harder than it looks, trying to catch both the close up features of an individual Snow goose while also conveying the size of the flock as well as the sky and background…

One great place to go see all sorts of birds is Fir Island. “A major component of the Skagit River Delta, the island is an important habitat for wildlife. Migrating from the northern portion of Wrangel Island in Russia, 30,000 to 70,000 snow geese spend the winter on the Skagit River Delta and the Fraser River Delta of British Columbia.[1] Important internationally, this population and one that winters in California, are the only snow geese that migrate between Eurasia and North America and the only remnant still extant in Eurasia.[2][3]

Other migratory waterfowl include tundra swans, trumpeter swans and the bald eagle. Over the course of a year, 180 species of birds have been recorded at Skagit Wildlife Area, 13,000 acres (53 km2) of mostly tidelands and intertidal marsh, the largest section of which is located on the southern margin of the island.[4]

These image are from Padilla Pay in Feb, 2019.

There is a trail along the shoreline, maintained by the county. Check out the Padilla Bay Foundation, their web site is awesome!

Really its just hit or miss and a lot of driving about the valley to find where they are at any particular time. Last night at sunset there was a huge group at Padilla Bay, but then I went back there for sunrise, I did not see one Snow Goose!

IF you are interested in Photography Tours, check out my web site.

Skagit Valley Tulip Tours, Night Sky Photo Tours and North Cascades Photo Tours are all available.


North Cascades Photography- Diablo Dam Tour

North Cascades Photography – Diablo Dam Tour

As you drive along the North Cascades Highway section of the Cascade Loop there plenty of wonderful vistas and things to see. There are three dams along the Skagit River, Diablo Dam is one of them, part of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project that supplies Seattle with a large proportion of its power needs.

You can stop at the overlooks and admire them from afar, OR you can take the Diablo Dam Tour and see the operation up close.

Here is a view of Diablo Lake, from the Diablo Overlook.

Diablo Overlook Panorama

The unique, intense turquoise hue of the lake’s water is attributed to the surrounding glaciers that grind rocks into a fine powder that is carried into the lake through creeks. That fine powder, also called glacial flour, stays suspended in the lake, giving the water its brilliant color.

Seattle City Light Diablo Lake Boat Tours

Seattle City Light offers tours of Diablo Dam. The tour includes a look at the Powerhouse, a walking tour of Ladder Falls, lunch and a Boat Ride! I was lucky enough to get invited on one of the tours and managed to capture a few images along the way.

We started off the tour in Newhalem.

The tour of the Powerhouse and Ladder Creek Falls was awesome. There is a night time program at Newhalem, Dam Good Chicken Dinner & Ladder Creek Falls by Night which I am definitely coming back for!

Then we were off for a boat ride!

The pictures speak for themselves, the tour was interesting and a lot of fun. Here is the main page for Seattle City Light – Skagit Tours. Tours start at the end of June and reservations are required, so book your trip today!

Be sure to visit the Diablo Lake Overlook, its a great place for sunsets and also for capturing images of the night sky!

North Cascades Photo Tours

Mt Shuksan, Mt Baker Highway

Access to the back country of the North Cascades starts in July. Each years winter snowfall melts faster or slower and its usually not until mid to late July that you can access the passes and higher elevations of the park.

Washington Pass

Day Photo Tours are available, we can visit places along the North Cascades Highway, like the Washington Pass Overlook and at the end of the Mt Baker Highway, Artist Point

These highways are closed in winter due to snow and open in late-May/June and even some years in July!

Overnight Photo Tours are overnight backpacking trips to special places in the North Cascades like one of the Fire Lookouts, or Sahale Camp.

More info is available here, or feel free to email me with questions.



North Cascades Photography – Baker River

North Cascades Photography – Baker River

The Baker River drains an area of 270 square miles in a complex of deep valleys partially inside North Cascades National Park.

Access is year-round via the Baker Lake Road. To get there travel east from Sedro-Woolley on Highway 20 about 15 miles. Baker Lake Road is well marked, its about 26 miles (20 paved, 6 gravel) from Highway 20 to the end of the road at the parking area for the Baker River Trail.

Baker River makes a great destination for anyone traveling along the Cascade Loop. There are great hikes, camping, boating and more along Baker Lake!

Along the way there are some wonderful views of Mt Baker.

At the end of the road there is a large parking area with rest rooms. You MUST have NW Forest Service Parking Pass to park there! You can buy one in Sedro-Woolley and sometimes at the gas stations along Highway 20, near the intersection with Baker Lake Rd.

Most of the trails in the North Cascades involve going up and down a lot. Seems like mostly up… But the Baker River Trail gently meanders its way along the river. There are some wonderful old-growth trees along the way.

About a quarter mile from the parking area there is a junction with the Baker Lake Trail. This trail crosses the big suspension bridge and heads back south, along the east side of Baker River and then Baker Lake.

The Baker River Trail continues alongside of the river. Here and there are a few spots where you can scramble down to the gravel bars.

Each year spring floods carve a new path. There is good camping, out in the open with views of Hagan Mtn and Ragged Ridge to the north.

Any season or weather is good for a hike here.

Fall can be spectacular along the Baker River. Often the side channels are filled with salmon.

I have camped on the gravel bars many times and have found that its a great place for night sky images. If you can manage to get both no moon and no clouds, the Baker River provides some wonderful south facing views. Here are a few.

If you’re interested in a guided photo tour of the North Cascades, here is the link:  North Cascades Photo Tours

North Cascades Photography – Hike to Stehekin

North Cascades Photography – Hike to Stehekin

The hike from Skagit Valley, over Cascade Pass and down to the remote village of Stehekin on the shores of Lake Chelan is one of the classic hiking routes in Washington State. The trail follows an old Native American path used for millennia to cross the mountains.

Cascade Pass

Cascade Pass

It is a 23 mile (37 km) hike from the Cascade Pass parking lot to High Bridge, where shuttle service is available to Stehekin.

Cascade River Road

Cascade River Road

Driving up the North Cascades Highway, which is a part of the much longer Cascade Loop Scenic Highway,  to Marblemount and up along the Cascade River Road my heart always revs up with excitement. We made an early start and schlepped up the 40-something switchbacks to Cascade Pass.

The day promised to be a hot one and after a short rest we hoisted our packs and headed down, down, down…

I have hiked most of the trails in North Cascades National Park with the notable exception of the section we would cover today: From Cascades Pass east to Basin Creek (and Horseshoe Basin!)

Stehekin Valley Trail and Doubtful Creek, North Cascades National Park

Dropping from Cascade Pass the trail navigates around the upper basin and soon passes the Pelton Basin campground. It’s not long before the switchbacks start. Whereas the trail up to the pass from the Skagit side is completely in forest, here the trail is exposed to the hot sun. Hiking down here I am already dreading the trip back up!

One nice surprise was the waterfall along Doubtful Creek as it bisects the trail on the east side of Cascade Pass, where there are small pools providing a much needed break and swim.

Many people who make the sojourn from Cascade Pass to Lake Chelan make a straight trip from the parking area to Stehekin, with no side trips. But there are two of the most awesome valleys in all the North Cascades (Horseshoe Basin and the North Fork of Bridge Creek) that you should not pass up as you make your journey.

We made it to the trail junction with the spur to Horseshoe Basin, dropped our packs and headed up for a look-see. Having scoured many route guides about the North Cascades I had read about the amazing beauty of Horseshoe Basin, but honestly was not prepared for what we saw there…

Horseshoe Basin, North Cascades National Park

The trail follows the stream up from the trail junction into Horseshoe Basin; it follows a course along the stream, across the stream and in the stream, brushy and wet. Shortly the trail emerges into a clearing where boulders dot the basin floor. Climbing up on the largest, the view is transfixing. The green bowl is surrounded with grandeur, full of color and drama.

The basin was aglow in the afternoon light, orange granite spires surrounding the lip like fangs, too-numerous-to-count waterfalls glistening, their sparkling waters plunging down into the valley. There were wildflowers popping out everywhere, yellows and purples, reds and blues, all accenting the deep green of the basin floor.

Glory Mountain from Horseshoe Basin, North Cascades National Park

We hurried on, racing the sun, heading up the valley, climbing across boulders and scree, on to a snow field, up to the gaping hole of the Black Warrior Mine.

The Horseshoe Basin trail is less than 2 easy miles from the trail junction to the head of the valley and the Mine.

The North Cascades are full of old mining claims; piles of colorful tailings and rusted remains of

Black Warrior Mine

sluices and Pelton wheels littered about. But I had never visited a mine that I could enter and explore.

The Black Warrior Mine operated until the mid-1950′s and is a National Historic Place. There is a sign at the entrance giving a brief history of the mine, the names of the prospectors and misled investors who poured their mostly futile efforts into this hole. There are two main cavernous rooms blasted into the mountain side which make the opening of the mine. One of these “rooms” served as a kitchen while the other was used for workbenches and tools. Wooden supports and floor boards are flooded with water. Old tables and remains of habitation litter the floor. The shaft of the mine runs deep; several miles of tunnel remain, open for any brave person to explore.

Black Warrior Mine

The wonder of the place is still with me. Maybe its the history, all of the people who worked so long and hard here, digging and scraping for naught. Here, as in many of the North Cascade valleys, it was miners who blazed the trails that we now use to visit the high country. The road from Stehekin, long ago, came all the way to the mine entrance. Over time nature has reclaimed the road, now vehicles can only go as far as High Bridge, 17 miles downstream.

The falling sun chased us out of the valley, we camped at Basin Creek camp.

The next morning we started our pleasant hike along the trail to Cottonwood Camp and on towards our rendezvous with the shuttle bus at High Bridge.

Our timing was perfect; we made it to High Bridge (On the Stehekin River Road) and caught the North Cascades National Park shuttle down the valley.

Along the way our jam-packed tourist bus passed a huge black bear and her two cubs foraging for berries; I was disappointed to miss the chance to visit and capture a few images, but my chance would come soon enough!

stehekin pastry companyEvery hike to Stehekin must includes a visit to the Stehekin Pastry Company. Delicious, fresh treats, ice cream, espresso, friendly staff and a comfortable place to relax…we went here first and ate as many pastries as we could hold.

It was a hot day in Stehekin. So we took shelter at the local restaurant and then took the bus back up the valley to visit Rainbow Falls. The 300 foot cataract provided lots of cooling!

Everything about Stehekin is awesome. Its remoteness (you can only reach it by hiking, ferry boat or float plane), the people are cool, scads of awesome things to see and do…even the Post Office is a neat place to just visit!

Rainbow Falls

Rainbow Falls

Next we visited the old Stehekin School house and then the local organic farm. Now we needed to await the last shuttle bus back up the valley, and what better place to while away the time than at the Stehekin Pastry Company!

Lake Chelan

Lake Chelan

The last shuttle was full when we boarded and headed back towards High Bridge. But after the bus stop at Courtney Ranch we were the only ones left for the rest of the trip.

From the “bus stop” at High Bridge we hiked 5 easy miles to the trail junction at Bridge Creek and camped the night. From here you can make a side trip to one of the most remote valleys in the North Cascades National Park. The trail is called the North Fork Bridge Creek Trail and its remote because its a one-way affair, not a through-trail. The round trip from your camp at Bridge Creek along the Cascade River road to North Fork Meadows and the head of the valley is 16 miles, but the hiking is not strenuous. You head east on the Bridge Creek Trail (which is also the Pacific Crest Trail here) to the scenic North Fork Camp.

Goode Mountain, North Cascades National Park

Goode Mountain, North Cascades National Park

The trail climbs a few short switchbacks to a junction with the North Fork Trail, head left, north. SignThe trail passes Walker Camp and soon you’ll get a glimpse of the wonders of the valley. Continuing along the way you’ll pass Grizzly Creek Camp and have to ford the creek. As the trail meanders its way gently upward the trees thin and you’ll break out into a spectacular meadow with views of Goode Mountain (highest peak in the North Cascades National Park) and Mount Logan at the head of the valley. From here the hike is almost all out on the open, the North Fork Meadows is a wonderful green wonderland.

North Fork, Bridge Creek

Wildflowers bloom, bears forage and waterfalls stream down from the glaciers above. The path winds its way up, passing numerous waterfalls to its terminus at the base of a wonderful cataract. here you are surrounded on three sides by steep peaks, cloaked in glaciers with countless waterfalls.

Mount Logan and North Fork Bridge Creek Waterfall, North Cascades National Park

When you can finally pull yourself away, its time to head back down the trail to your camp at  Bridge Creek Camp. The next day we continue our hike back up towards Cascade Pass.

The hike along the Stehekin River Road is in itself fantastic. The river cuts a deep cleft through the cliffs at High Bridge and the confluence with Bridge Creek creates a wondrous series of cataracts and islands.

The next day we again left before sunrise, hoping to beat the heat on our way up to Cascade Pass. We reached Basin Creek with its flown-in foot bridge and were greeted by a nice breeze and perfect skies.


North Cascades Backpacking and Photo Tours

If you would like to visit any of these places with a very small group and learn photography skills at the same time, here is your link!

Horseshoe Basin

Tracing our earlier steps from a few days ago, we hiked up into the valley, but this time not all the way to the mine entrance. I worked on my mostly futile efforts to capture the grandeur of the flowers, spires and waterfalls, and then we headed back down to our packs and continued the slog to Cascade Pass and back to the parking area.

The change in flora as I trudged up the switch backs was enormous. The lower basin on the east side of Cascade Pass is filled with Cottonwood trees and Douglas Fir. A few miles above the trail traverses the mountain side and is bereft of any plants, just crushed rocks and boulders. Then the trail swings south and starts its zigzagging route upwards. Here the path is choked with slide alder.

As the trail approaches the upper basin just below Cascade Pass the temperature dropped considerably. From sunny to misty, the forest was now populated with tall sub-alpine fir and a carpet of evergreen needles covered the trail. It was like we had been transported into a new landscape.

We arrived at the top of Cascade Pass and stopped to re-energize before flying down the switchbacks to our car. Gazing east, down the valley which we had just climbed I marveled at the beauty of the mountains.

And I was already planning a return trip.

Any and all of these images are for sale as prints, canvas wraps and digital downloads! Here is the link to the Gallery.

Sahale Mountain from the Stehekin Valley Trail


Capturing Images of the Milky Way

Bryce Canyon National Park

Bryce Canyon National Park

There is nothing more stunning than a clear image of the Milky Way Galaxy arcing overhead. The Majesty of the Galaxy is on display and you can feel yourself on the outer rim of the immense ring of stars…

By far, the most difficult part of capturing images of the milky way is simply getting there, at the right time!

When To Go

To get a good shot you need to go when there is NO moon in the sky. The moon reflects so much sun back, from the sun, that it washes out the Milky Way. Find a Lunar Calendar, the New Moon is when there is no moon in the sky, and you can get decent shots plus or minus 2 days from the New Moon. So, each month there is a 5 day window for Milky Way shots. The hard part of this, especially in Western Washington, is matching the New Moon with No Clouds!

govan school house hdr

Govan School House, Wilbur, Wa

Astrophotography with a DSLR

As far as capturing images like this goes, the equipment list is rather meager. You need a decent DSLR (a full frame body is best, but not mandatory) a wide angle lens ( 10 to 20mm is best, 24mm is fine) a tripod and a cable release (or electronic shutter release) and that’s really all you need, equipment wise.

Once you get out to your spot and get set up set the camera on manual exposure mode and open your aperture up all the way (use the lowest f/stop number) and then, using the chart here, set your shutter speed.

As for ISO, that is really the only variable. Depending upon your camera I would suggest starting at a relatively low ISO, say, 1,000 and then work your way up, checking the images as you go. Each camera will have its own ISO sweet spot, often its the mid point between the lowest and highest ISO setting on the camera.

One more important item is focus. You must set your lens on Manual Focus. Auto focus will not work at night and so, before you head out, take some time and figure out how to manually set the focus ring on your lens to infinity.

star trails at diablo overlook, north cascades highway

Diablo Overlook, North Cascades Highway

There are several way to do this, one is look up your lens on line, looking for the manual, or advice as to how to set that lens to infinity. Or another way is to sit with your camera (set the aperture open all the way when doing this) and take test shots of something at least 50 feet away and then review the image on your camera, using the zoom function and keep testing until you find that exact spot for your lens where its set for infinity, then make some mark or note or what ever so that when you’re out in the field at night you know where to set it.

That’s it! Then you can leisurely move about, composing shots and have fun (make sure to check your focus ring from time to time, moving your rig about can often change the focus setting!)

As you recompose try different ISO settings and Viola! Nice shots.

liberty bell and the milky from washington pass overlook on the north cascades highway

Washington Pass Overlook, North Cascades Highway


To get decent images you need to get away from the lights of civilization. If you shoot near a city the entire horizon is washed out, no stars, or very faint. Two of my favorite locations are on SR 20, the North Cascades Highway, (which is part of the Cascade Loop). The Diablo Lake Overlook, and the Washington Pass Overlook both have lots of good parking, rest rooms and are user friendly in the dark.

Photo Tours

You might want to come along on a Night Sky Photo Tours. We meet and drive out to some location away from the lights of civilization where we can set up and get clear images of the stars. Drive in Tours are available, as well as Hike in Photo Tours where we visit more remote spots such as Fire Lookouts for our Photo Shoot! You can find out more, and see details and dates here.

Winchester Lookout

Winchester Lookout, Star Trails and the Aurora Borealis

North Cascades Photography – North Cascades Highway

Welcome to North Cascades Photography

Each week we will visit some place in the North Cascades. The best camp sites; day hikes and overnight trips; lookout towers, the best locations for sunrises, sunsets and night sky imaging. Whether you’re into a week long trip, or the best place for a drive-in view, I will cover  the best times to go and How To Tips ranging from How to set exposure for the Milky Way to Where to see Mountain Goats? 

North Cascades Highway

The North Cascades Highway (Highway 20) follows the Skagit River from the Puget Sound deep into the mountains, reaching its highest point at Washington Pass, 100 miles east of I-5, before it drops down to the Methow Valley.

In winter (usually at the end of November) the highway is closed due to heavy snow. The highway is gated on the west side at milepost 134, east of Diablo, and on the east side at milepost 171, 14 miles west of Mazama. Reopening in the spring is usually accomplished by early May.

In Sedro-Woolley the National Park Service and Forest Service share an office, right along the highway. You can stop in for maps and parking passes. They can also give you all sorts of great advice about where to go, current conditions, and all that.

As you head east towards the mountains you’ll pass through Marblemount. If you are planning to camp over night on the North Cascades National Park, you’ll need a permit, and this is the place to get it, the Marblemount Wilderness Information Center. This is also the last town to resupply anything for about 70 miles, so fill up!

The Diablo Lake Overlook (milepost 132) is a wonderful vista point to stop when driving. There are rest rooms and lots of parking. The view is amazing: late afternoon is the best light.

This is also a wonderful location for capturing images of the night sky.

Rainy Pass at 4,833 feet (milepost 157) is where the PCT crosses the North Cascades Highway. There are trailheads on either side of the highway:

  • On the north is the trail head for the Pacific Crest Trail, headed north to Cutthroat Pass and then onto Canada.
  • To the south the parking area is to access the Maple Pass – Lake Ann Loop trail (one of my favorites), and the paved Rainy Lake trail.

Lots more on these trails later!

Washington Pass Overlook (milepost 163) is at the highest point along the highway, at 5,477 feet. There is a paved spur road to parking, restrooms and a pathway to the overlook. Liberty Bell is the massive slab towering above. Sunrise is the time for the best light on the peak.

The long curve of the highway below makes for some sweet shots at night. This is one of the best spots for capturing images of the Milky Way.

The North Cascades Highway is a part of the Cascade Loop Scenic Byway. This 440 mile loop crosses the Cascade Range twice and visits some of the most stunning scenery in the USA. Visit their web site to earn EVERYTHING you need to make your trip a huge success.

You can find out more about Classes, Prints, Photo Tours and more at my web site,

Next Week: Tips on Night Sky Photography