Observation Rock Heaven

Observation and echo rock sit like a pair of horns at the top of spray park.
Reaching the saddle between the peaks is a fantastic photographic excursion that
will take you straight into the peaceful sublime of the high alpine zone. I
recommend doing the hike in late July a week or two after the park service opens
the Wilkerson entrance to the park. The northwest side of Mt. Rainier affords
some of the best views the mountain for sunset. I make it a point to do this
trip once a year to soak in the sights & ensure that I keep myself in shape
for longer excursions.

What to expect if you take the route from Mowich:
The trail drops quickly from the Mowich basin and makes a hardly noticeable
ascent the next 2.5 miles to Eagles Nest Campground (which is a great place to
hike in to Friday night and pitch a tent if you want to avoid the crowds at
Mowich). Point of interest: nestled close to the campsite are two lush streams
in route to the refreshing glacial shower of spray falls. The streams contain
some wonderful moss covered rocks that can yield some very nice images but you
have to get off the trail a bit. I recommend breaking out your tripod and
spending some time in this area before proceeding to the falls.

When accessing Spray Falls be careful as the trail washed out in 2008 and what we are
left with now is a little treacherous (yeah three years and it’s still dicey).
Still this waterfall is amazing so if you are sure footed go take a look. Spray
Falls is best photographed in my opinion in the later part of the day when you
can get soft light falling across it. Of course you are in Washington State so
the sky’s may be high overcast which opens up the rest of the day. I recommend
using a polarizer to control the light on the water, a neutral density filter to
slow down your shutter speed and a warmer give you saturation a little boost. If
the light at the top of the falls is too bright add a graduated ND filter to
balance out your exposure. Lock your tripod in position and start experimenting
with different shutter speeds until you are happy with your results.

The mega flora at this altitude is a mishmash of spruce, douglas fir, western
hemlock and western red cedar (with some alder and vine maple in and around the
boulders below the falls). The sharpest ascent of the trip is just after spray
falls. The path cuts upwards through a series of switchbacks until you reach the
base of spray park meadows (not far really just .5 miles). BTW: If it’s august
don’t linger to long at the rest spot at the base of the falls or you will be
swatting black flies from you ankles and wrists. After you crest the falls the
tree line will start to clump up a give way to stretches of highland meadow made
up of black and green sedges, bear grass and a colorful bouquet of wildflowers.
This terrain lasts for the next 1.8 or so miles as the meadows grow the trees
becomes sparser.

The meadows are a great place to do botanical and
wildlife photography. The cloud blanket that gets hooked on top of the summit
often blocks your view of the peak but hands out great conditions for shooting
flowers. Wildlife frequents this area so keep your eyes on the sides of mother
mountain in late summer (on your left as you move though spray park) to see
deer, mountain goat and if you are really lucky foraging bear. A healthy
population of Marmots and loads of Mini-Bear (chipmunks, ground squirrel and
Pica) live in the meadows. They are accustomed to travelers so as long as you
move slowly the will usually give you some great images. For shots of the
mountain retreat to the northwest side of the meadow and photograph from one of
the little lakes.

Once you reach the triangular rock stacks that mark the cap of Spray park you can pat yourself on the back and have a trail bar. Now
the trail will be shifting into the high alpine part of the mountain. Be careful
not to step on the fragile plant life up in this part of the park. Bring good
boots, sunglasses/sunscreen, a good hat, a space bag (just in case), flashlight,
lots of water and be prepared for loose rocks all the way to echo and
observation rocks. This part of the hike is about 1.5 miles and affords the best
view of the lowlands. A loose system of trails knifes up through several gentle
ridges to the base of two towering rocks. The rocks are split down the middle by
Flett glacier and have their own private lake only visible from within 50 yards
of the rocks themselves. This a great place to have lunch and relax (check out
the cool bent rock in the middle of the 2ndary pool while you are there). Wander
around a bit soak in the sights, have a nap and then find your way back to the
wonderland trail below. WARNING: remember which angle you came up towards the
rock and try to follow it back down…if you wander to for north you can get
stuck on the top side of Echo Cliffs (no way down – several hundred feet high
and you can’t just walk along the cliff to the end and go around due to the
broken edge of the cliff walls). If this happens the best way out is to go back
up towards echo rock and then go down further south (cutting across is easily
twice as difficult – I’ve done both). Just keep watch of where you are and you
should be fine.

Happy Travels – All The Best,
Jeff

Exploring the Tatoosh

Early dawn photograph of Mount Rainier from the crest of the Tatoosh range
Dawn view of Mount Rainier from the crest of the Tatoosh

The large outline of Mount Rainier stretches above the clouds at 5 a.m. The air
is crisp and clear. I watch a ghostly fog 400 feet below me rise and fall
against the flowery crest of the Tatoosh. Still yawning I shake off the dew from
my tripod, cargo shorts and flex my tingly fingertips. It’s mid July and I’ve
been backpacking through tatoosh for the past two days. My intentions to enjoy
the sites along the trail and conserve enough space on my remaining flash cards
to capture sunrise on Pinnacle Peak this morning. Had I seen any of the resident
mountain goats while out on Plumber Peak I’m sure my flash cards would have been
in danger of being full. As it is I’ve left myself just enough room to be able
to justify a private moment of satisfaction while I crunch down what remains of
my granola bar.

After tying the laces of my boots I look around at my
surroundings. The clouds have formed a long white bank seated in the four mile
trough between the Tatoosh range and Mt Rainier. Paradise lodge and the knot of
trailheads heading up to Camp Muir are all but lost in the big lump of mist. The
mountain spikes up out of the cloud bank and fills the entire horizon. After a
few moments of contemplation I spot a shadowy meadow encasing a nearby ledge .
The ledge is thick enough to provide a level vantage point and dotted profusely
with corn lilies and spiking bear grass. I lumber past a smattering of dark
spruce and highland sedges and take up residency on the ledge. Once in place I
recheck my batteries, setup my tripod, adjusted my iso, and take a light
reading. I then set my f-stop, ss and set the camera auto timer. All is well
provided I don’t fog my cool lens with body heat or worse yet a cloudy blast of
hiker breath. Time to soak in the stunning sight, spend a little time in silent
wonder and mentally prepare.

The huge outline of Mt. Rainier fills up
most of my viewfinder on my 14mm isometric lens. I don’t mind. I’m here for the
panorama and to be honest, the conditions are better than I could have ever
hoped for. If you look westward several of the lesser peaks of the Tatoosh are
just peeking up out of the cloud belt. It will take at least 3-4 landscape shots
stitched together to capture the magnitude of the scene. As the sun tips the
horizon and light beams break against pinnacle peak I snap my shutter on queue
and continue to do so until my flash cards are full.

The Tatoosh is
without doubt one of the best places to explore on Mount Rainier for easy
access, wildlife encounters and mind blowing views. It is home to several well
known photographic hideaways and an assortment of small tarns that make the
region a virtual treasure chest. You will usually encounter around 10-30 people
on a weekend visit. They are an assortment of day hikers, campers, photographers
and nature lovers. Just remember that the trick to the Tatoosh is being an early
bird (like 4:30 a.m. early). Everyone else is just going for the hike. On rare
occasions sunset can turn into something special but usually the light is rather
mundane. On the other hand the botanical show you will find among the lush
fields on this jagged little range abutting Mt. Rainier N.P. is top notch.
Around 9-10 a.m. when most hikers start showing up you can shift your focus from
landscapes to marmots, goats and flowering plants. Mountain lupine, avalanche
lilies, shooting stars, queens cup, bunchberry, pink & white mountain
heather, blueberries, black and Sitka sedges, bear grass, mosses, lichens and
indian paintbrush just to name a few. These highland trails while easy to access
are not well maintained so it’s a good idea to bring a well marked map, plenty
of water and a compass.