MOUNT ST. HELENS: Fire and Ice

A winter snowshoeing trip to Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, with clear light on a warm day.

Last Sunlight of the Day on Mount St. Helens in WinterThe last light of a clear winter day brings a sculpture of pink and blue to the snows of Mount St. Helens

33 years after the eruption that blew the top off Mount St. Helens, the volcano is quiet, with some visible wisps of smoke and ash coming from the crater. It will probably blow up again, but the next major eruption could be decades or centuries in the future. Nobody knows.

Meanwhile, there are lava fields and pumice plains and cave trails to explore. We have made frequent visits to the popular viewpoints in summer, but we had never ventured to Mount St. Helens in the winter, so we thought it would be a good idea to escape the gray winter clouds of Puget Sound for a day of snowshoeing.

Sun Burning through Fog in Conifer Forest near Mount St. HelensWhen we drove up from the coastal lowlands of Washington, we emerged from the layer of clouds that so often blankets the region in winter; I stopped here to photograph the godbeams streaming through the trees at this place of transition from murk to sun

Lone Pine Cemetery Has No OutletI love signs, so I stopped to photograph this amusing juxtaposition of signs along the route to the trailhead

Blue Glove in Plowed Snowbank at Mount St. HelensAt the parking lot, we saw this colorful glove sticking out of a plowed snowbank; I should have checked to make sure it wasn’t attached to someone

It turned out to be an ideal day in the mountains, with temperatures warm enough that some winter climbers were going shirtless. Not us. And we aren’t climbers–not in the sense of the scores of crampon-and-rope laden men and women we could see as tiny specs moving against the snow, high on the slopes above us. We’ll leave that experience for a younger generation.

We were content with our snowshoe hike to June Lake, a tiny lake fed by a waterfall tucked next to a bouldery lava field part way up the mountain. The first mile of the trail was noisy, as we shared the route with snowmobiles who zipped by at warp speed. Then we diverged, and had a quiet climb to ourselves and other snowshoers.

Waterfall at June Lake at Mount St. HelensTiny June Lake, with its dead trees and waterfall; I ventured out onto the ice to get some photographs and was lucky that I didn’t fall through

Dead Trees along Shore of June Lake at Mount St. HelensReflections in June Lake

Lake Creek near June Lake at Mount St. HelensStream tumbling down the mountain from June Lake

Snow had fallen off the trees in a high wind, so the forest itself didn’t possess the magic of a fresh snowfall, though we did observe some Coyote and Snowshoe Hare tracks. When we went higher, we broke out into the open when we reached June Lake and its waterfall. There we had lunch, with our cheese and crackers and nuts and cookies spread out between us on the snow. An organized group of perhaps a dozen college students was having lunch there as well; except that they were also swirling and sipping Merlot from clear wine glasses.

After lunch, Karen made a snowman, while I snowshoed up a lava field to photograph boulders that were completely covered with snow. It was a glorious afternoon!

Happy Snowman at Mount St. HelensKaren’s happy snowman at June Lake

Shadow of Photographer on Snow at Mount St. HelensLee’s self portrait

The Worm Flows Lava Field Area of Mount St. Helens

Snow-covered Worm Flows, a Lava Flow at Mount St. Helens

Snow-covered Worm Flows, a Lava Flow at Mount St. HelensVolcanic boulders covered with snow, their blue shadows reflecting the blue sky 

Mount St. Helens provided a pleasant winter interlude that day, but on many winter days it is much more of a challenge. Recent climbers have talked of whiteout conditions and 40 mph winds and skiing down a sandpapery surface of pumice-covered snow.

Last Sunlight of the Day on Mount St. Helens in Winter

Last Sunlight of the Day on Mount St. Helens in Winter

Last Sunlight of the Day on Mount St. Helens in WinterLast pink light on the mountain (technically, this is not alpenglow, which occurs after the sun has set)

We started descending the trail in late afternoon. At a place where a vista toward the mountain opened up, we paused, and realized that there was the potential for some great light. The late afternoon light already sculpted the mountain, which was a nice change after the flat light earlier in the day. We decided that it was getting late enough that we might as well stay for the last light on this clear January day. We lingered, and photographed the last magenta light on the mountain as the sun descended. It made for an interesting end to a great day of snowshoeing in the Cascade Mountains, a day that had started with a desire to leave the gray skies of our Puget Sound home and get some sunlight.

After we photographed the last light on the mountain, we snowshoed out by headlamp. Snowmobiles whined by us in the darkness and one snowmobiler gave us a thumbs-up as we paused to let him pass.

Karen Rentz with Headlamp at Mount St. HelensKaren reaching the parking lot by headlamp

Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is administered by Gifford Pinchot National Forest. Go to Mount St. Helens for more information. The Washington Trails Association has a trail description and map for this hike; go to June Lake Snowshoe.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to (just ask me to email you a small version of a particular photograph you like if you can’t find it on the site; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website.

COLUMBIA RIVER GORGE: Eagle Creek Trail to Punchbowl Falls

The Eagle Creek Trail in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area leads to Punchbowl Falls, among the most beautiful waterfalls in North America. This post is a brief description of the trail.

Punchbowl Falls, with clear mountain water in deep pools below the falls

“Gray skies, smiling at me …” 

Irving Berlin certainly didn’t pen these lyrics; his song was all about transforming gray skies and gray moods into blue skies.  But to a photographer in the temperate rain forests of the USA’s Pacific Northwest, gray skies bring the dark forests to visual life, eliminating the harsh contrast of sun and shade that can wash out the highlights of a landscape and deepen the shadows. Clouds fill in the shadows and tone down the bright spots, lending visual harmony.

With a favorable forecast of gray skies and little rain, we set our alarm for 4:30 a.m. for the July 1 drive from Puget Sound to the Columbia River Gorge, located east of Portland, Oregon. Coffee and Egg McMuffins got us to the trailhead by 9:00 a.m.; a bit later and we would have had to park half-a-mile from the trailhead–oh, the horror of having to walk more than absolutely necessary!

The Eagle Creek Trail was created about a century ago. At that time, the Columbia River Highway was being built to link eastern and western Oregon, and to provide newly driving tourists access to some of the sweetest waterfalls found anywhere. The (now) Historic Columbia River Highway was built to be a beautiful and scenic route; with gentle curves and graceful concrete railings, it is among the most beautiful roads ever built. Much of it was later abandoned when the more efficient (meaning faster) water level route was built through the Columbia River Gorge, and I can testify that I-84, as the new route is known, is efficient at getting us to trailheads in a timely manner, albeit with far less grace than the old curving road. There are still some drivable sections of the old highway, and other sections have become walking and biking trails.

Trail blasted into basalt a century ago; note the cable along the cliff for gripping during bad weather

Like the road, the Eagle Creek Trail was built to exacting and graceful standards. Our hike took us two miles to Punchbowl Falls, winding along cliffs and ascending some 400 vertical feet. To make the trail accessible to the urban hikers of a century ago, the trail’s planners and builders blasted part of the route from basalt cliffs. Mosses and ferns and trees now cover the scars of the blasting, making it appear as if the trail had always been there. In at least one part of the cliff-hugging trail, there is a cable along the cliff to hang onto when conditions get icy and dicey, as they frequently do in the winter months. On our hike, however, the weather was Goldilocks-perfect for a hike: not too cold in the canyon and not too hot while hiking. Just right!

The trail winds through forests of old conifers and maples, with plenty of dripping moss hanging from the sprawling branches of Vine Maples.  Then, in drier habitats, the hike passes through miniature oak savannahs of the sort we have seen in northern California, with grass and sun-loving wildflowers beneath the oaks.

Looking downstream from near the top of the falls, where Eagle Creek scours a gorge

The hike has its own sound track, so iPods are not needed. Waterfalls roar with continuous thunder, while feeder creeks add a tinkling melody. In the trees, Hermit Thrushes sing the avian heart-tugging equivalent of Barber’s Adagio for Strings, while Pacific Wrens continually perfect their too-long-and-complex-for-AM-radio songs. Conversations of delighted waterfall-watching families add to the feeling of being in a place that has been special to generations of Oregonians.

Upon reaching the Punchbowl Falls overlook, we were disappointed that so much vegetation has grown up that the falls are largely obscured (hey Forest Service: you’re supposed to be the experts at cutting trees … get with the program and do some selective trimming!). I crept down a precarious path leading to the top of the falls and got an unobstructed view downstream into the canyon below the falls, and was able to see much of the plunge pool formed by the waterfall–which gives Punchbowl Falls its name.

Classic view of Punchbowl Falls; visitors have arranged rocks to make a small jetty so that people can go out into the stream for this view

After a two mile hike to the falls with its owner, this retriever wisely chose to cool off by immediately plopping into the cold creek

Then we backtracked to the side trail leading to Lower Punchbowl Falls, and here found the classic and unobstructed view of Punchbowl Falls. I tugged on waders and fly-fishing boots and proceeded to take the split underwater and above water photographs you see here. We spent a long time on the gravel beach here, luxuriating in one of those Garden of Eden places where nature has outdone herself.

River rocks line the bottom of Eagle Creek; the first time I saw a photograph of this falls, some 40+ years ago, the photo showed a fly fisherman working the plunge pool below the falls

A lovely flower of the oak openings variously known as Herald of Summer or Farewell to Spring; the genus name is Clarkia

Seep Monkey Flower thrives in wet soils found near springs and seeps along the trail

Aleutian Maidenhair Fern thrives along the dark, moist cliffs of Eagle Creek

Water drips onto the stream surface from cliffs high above; Lady Fern and Aleutian Maidenhair love the moist, dark habitat along the cliffs

Diamond Fairyfan, another species of Clarkia, blooms along the Eagle Creek Trail

Green reflections in a very green place

Downstream edge of the plunge pool below Punchbowl Falls

Split view of the rocky stream bottom and Punchbowl Falls

Trail Notes:

Check the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area website for current information about rules, regulations, and fees.

Gorge trailheads are frequent locations of vehicle break-ins by gangs and other assorted thugs. One photographer I know had his van emptied of $10,000 in photo equipment in a few minutes; I also heard from family about a young couple visiting from out-of-state who had their rental car broken into. Be forewarned not to leave anything of value in the car.

Weather conditions here are variable; have layers of clothing and sturdy hiking shoes.

For more information:

Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

Historic Columbia River Highway

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to (just ask if you see a particular photograph you like; my website is not up to date) 

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

BRIDAL VEIL FALLS: Peace and Thunder

A blog entry discussing the emotional impact of different exposures upon pictures of waterfalls.

Spring runoff rages over Bridal Veil Falls

Waterfalls are often portrayed by photographers as peaceful places; we use long exposures that smooth out the rough water, lending a serene look that is entirely appropriate to a contemplative subject. That is what I expected to do when I approached Bridal Veil Falls (located on a side trail about a half mile long) along the trail to Lake Serene in Washington’s Cascade Range. But the thundering, drenching, roaring waterfall that greeted me and my companions was anything but serene. I quickly decided to embrace the nature of the subject rather than fight it, and worked my mind and camera quickly to capture the tumultuous nature of the falls. Using a high ISO of 400 enabled me to use extremely fast shutter speeds with the polarizing filter that I used to darken the blue sky. The sky was scattered with fast-moving clouds, and I urged my companions to “wait for the light” with me. It worked. The last pictures were the best, showing the waterfall above me, as if emerging from the tattered clouds in the sky above.

Then, satisfied, we hiked farther along the trail, soon coming upon a lower part of Bridal Vell Falls. The lower falls were better served by the contemplative approach, since much of the area was in the shade and quite dark. I used exposures of up to half a second, which rendered the water as smooth and soft. In this area we also enjoyed watching an American Dipper carrying food to its hidden young, and listened to the impossibly melodious and endless song of the utterly tiny and inconspicuous Winter Wren.

After that, we trudged up the rest of the 2,000 vertical feet we needed to climb to reach Lake Serene. The lake, located in a beautiful cirque below Mount Index, was a glacial blue-green color and was dramatic in its own right. We ate lunch and photographed the lake, sharing this early summer hike with perhaps 150 other hikers out for the first mountain hike of the year. Lake Serene is a dramatic mountain lake at a low elevation, making it a popular hike with Seattlites. For me, the highlight was the waterfall, with its Yin-Yang of moods, but it felt good to be out on the trail–despite the weak ankle I sprained (again) on the way down. As I photographed the peaceful lower falls in late afternoon light, I commiserated with a young man who had also sprained his ankle and was soaking it in the frigid meltwaters of the waterfall’s plunge pool. Rough trail, satisfying day.

The sun illuminated the tumbling water from behind

The more peaceful drop of the lower falls, with a long exposure

An extremely short exposure “freezes” the water drops

A longer exposure shows streaks of water

I had to frequently wipe the spray off my camera and lens

A small flow in the deep shade required a long exposure

A chaos of fast-falling water, with ferns & other leaves clinging to cliff

A detail of the lower falls, where I saw an American Dipper

After the falls, we visited Lake Serene, in its cirque below Mount Index

Grace of an old tree at the outlet to Lake Serene

The hike to Bridal Veil Falls and Lake Serene is described by the Washington Trails Association.

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website