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The Cascade Mountains of Washington State form a north-south backbone extending from the Canadian border in the north to the Columbia River in the south. An hour’s drive from the Seattle area brings one to the first of many access points into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, a 360,000-acre preserve of mountain streams, alpine lakes, deep evergreen forests and snow-covered peaks. Fifty miles from the Seattle-Tacoma region on Interstate 90, you’ll find the Denny Creek area, with a well-maintained five-mile trail that follows streams and lush mountain meadows to Melakwa Lake. Another trailhead nearby leads to Granite Mountain and more alpine and subalpine lakes.
The Washington Cascades are notorious for receiving large amounts of snow during winter storms, yet warm summer temperatures encourage hikers to start in early morning. Photographers ascending Granite Mountain or nearby peaks often will find that warm temperatures at lower altitudes give way to bone-chilling winds on the upper ridges. Be well prepared for rapidly changing mountain weather.
When deep new snow closes the Denny Creek road near the I-90 exit, a short one- to two-mile walk by foot or snowshoes brings one to the streams and canyons. But warm winter storms also can bring freezing rain. On those days, explore the higher altitudes above Snoqualmie Pass. The area typically receives two or three cold spells, with temperatures dipping to near zero, bringing photo ops with ice at Franklin Falls and Franklin Creek (the South Fork of the Snoqualmie River) and along Denny Creek. Granite Mountain and nearby peaks make for fine winter photography, but require basic mountaineering skills using an ice axe and sometimes crampons.
With heavy snowfalls and easy accessibility, there are endless, ever-changing scenes of newly fallen snow, with streams flowing through the drifts and ice formations. Cold weather brings dramatic ice sculptures in the deep canyon below Franklin Falls (some parts aren’t accessible without a rappel rope). For the adventurous, the upper reaches of Granite Mountain offer exquisite wind-sculpted snow formations.
There are some challenges, though. Setting up and waiting for the light can soon bring freezing feet and fingers. It’s usually possible to hike along most of these trails on foot, but snowshoes can make travel easier. And the upper reaches of the higher peaks pose avalanche danger after heavy snow, and only those with mountaineering experience should venture far.
The extreme contrast between light and dark areas can be especially difficult when the sun is out. On a winter day likely to be cursed by bright sunlight, it’s best to start early. A polarizing filter is essential. For scenes of snow, water and foliage, I rely mostly on a Canon 24-105mm zoom. A macro lens can be a great tool. In deep snow, one’s tripod can sink uselessly into the powder; attach cut-open tennis balls to the tripod feet in order to keep your equipment stable.
My favorite season in these mountains is winter. Many times each winter, the entire mountain region is blanketed by up to two feet of new snow, creating elegant formations. And the cold spells promise ice formations near Franklin Falls and Denny Creek—both less than an hour’s walk from the car.
Contact: Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, North Bend Ranger District, www.fs.fed.us/r6/mbs/about/snrd.shtml, (425) 888-1421.
To fully explore an area, visualize its potential and choose the right moments to snap the shutter, you may need to be there for at least two or three days, perhaps longer. Instead of booking a room at a nearby hotel, which isn’t always so nearby, why not travel the way nature intended—in a comfortable RV. Contact: Go Rving, www.gorving.com.