Spring In The Northwest

Standing in stark contrast to its usual reputation, May in the Pacific Northwest is a month when the landscape comes alive with vivid colors
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Sunset over Point of the Arches, Shi Shi Beach, Olympic National Park, Washington.

Trees in mist and seastack, sunset, Ecola State Park, Oregon.

Winters can be long in the Pacific Northwest…or maybe they just seem that way. But every year, in May, we get our payoff after the winter gloom: a glorious spring. For the next two months, flowers seem to bloom in every direction, the landscape takes on almost impossible shades of green, and thousands of waterfalls are at their spray-filled best.

For a landscape photographer, this is often the busiest time of year. Yes, the high mountains are still buried in snow, and the great alpine flower gardens are months away, but even in the lowlands there’s no shortage of things to do. What follows, then, is my own list of Northwest spring hotspots, places that make it onto my calendar every year in May and June, when I would rather be here than anywhere else in the world.

Consider this a road map for a dream trip through a great corner of the country. If the gods—and the weather—are on your side, you could do it all in two weeks. Even better, take longer and discover your own secret places. I’ll look for you on the trail.

Olympic Rain Forest, Washington
A trip to the Hoh River, or any of the other temperate rainforest valleys on the west side of Olympic National Park, is nothing short of a pilgrimage. In May and June, this is a universe of green—twisting vine maples burst with new leaves, carpets of ferns and oxalis cover the forest floor, thick mosses hang from the tree limbs like luxuriant beards, and massive old-growth trees will make you think you’ve stepped into The Lord of the Rings.

One thing to remember here is that timing is everything. Don’t bother coming to the Hoh on a sunny day. Invariably, you’ll make your best images with bright overcast, when soft light fills the forest and banishes the shadows. And don’t worry if it rains—it probably won’t last and soon everything will be covered with beautiful water drops. Whenever you come, bring your polarizing filter, an essential tool for capturing all those luscious greens, and a sturdy tripod.

Rock rose, endemic to the eastern Cascade Mountains, Wenatchee, Washington; Rainbow over the Palouse Falls, Palouse Falls State Park, Washington; Bigleaf maple, Lake Crescent, Olympic National Park, Washington.

Columbia River Gorge, Oregon
If there’s a more prolific, and spectacular, collection of waterfalls anywhere in the world, I’d like to know about it. No less than 77 cataracts, large and small, can be seen along the Oregon side of the gorge alone. Many of these create a neck-craning distraction along busy Interstate 84, but to see the best, park your car and walk; the gorge is filled with an excellent network of trails. One you simply can’t miss travels along Eagle Creek, at its best in late May. A short hike to legendary Punchbowl Falls is only an appetizer to a feast of mind-blowing scenery. Bring a bathing suit and sandals for the Punchbowl—the best view is from the middle of the bone-chilling stream. Not far away, meanwhile, is little-known Oneonta Gorge, a fern-lined slot canyon no more than a few hundred yards long, but with a hidden surprise at the far end: a delicate ribbon of a waterfall. Amazingly, although thousands of people drive past this little gem every day, chances are you’ll have Oneonta to yourself and a family of Steller’s jays. Full disclosure: You’ll get wet hiking in here, too, so don’t forget your Tevas.

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Moss and ferns with vine maple, temperate rain forest, Hoh River Valley, Olympic National Park, Washington.

Painted Hills, Oregon
You’ve almost certainly seen pictures of these color-streaked hills in eastern Oregon, which comprise one of the most striking and unique landforms anywhere in the country. Part of the John Day Fossil Beds, the Painted Hills are multicolored mounds of exposed muds and volcanic ash dating back 40 million years when this area was subtropical. Although a visit here is always rewarding, there’s no better time than late April or early May when, if you’re lucky, the hills will be decorated with lines of yellow Chaenactis flowers. But whenever you come, be sure you stick around until sunset; the late-afternoon light is the best of the day by far. And be especially patient if it’s raining because a passing shower can give you a real prize: a rare desert rainbow.

Shi Shi Beach, Washington
Much of the Washington coastline was included in Olympic National Park, a decision that preserved it as an all-too-rare coastal wilderness. With more than 50 miles of wild beaches and sea-stacks, it’s hard to pick the most spectacular section, but my vote goes to Shi Shi and Point of the Arches. A trip here requires some muddy hiking and primitive beach-camping, but the views will make you forget the effort. To do this trip right, make it coincide with one of the huge spring tides, especially when the extreme lows occur near dawn or dusk. This will give you the best chance to explore the arches and tide pools that are covered at high tide, and photograph the best rock formations that are similarly exposed. One thing to remember, too, is that those extreme tides often accompany a full moon. With great light, and a full moon at dawn, this place will rock your world—it has rocked mine for more than 40 years.

Waterfall and vine maple leaves, Siskiyou Mountains, Oregon.

Lake Crescent, Washington
Most people drive along this 12-mile-long lake surrounded by forested hills on their way to somewhere else. A pity: Crescent is a showpiece of Olympic National Park. Created by an Ice Age landslide, the lake is famous for its clear, blue-green water and old-growth trees. For me, its greatest gift is as a colorful background for the mossy limbs and leaves of the beautiful forests that surround it. There are also waterfalls here and trails galore. Take the hike into 90-foot-high Marymere Falls or explore the stunning Sol Duc Valley just to the west. Also nearby is the mighty Elwha River, which in 2011 will be returned to its natural state with the removal of two obsolete dams. Take the Elwha Trail, photograph this stunning wilderness watershed, and watch a great river being reborn.

Desert Wildflowers, Washington
The Northwest is justly famous for its alpine gardens; in a good year, the flower-filled meadows of Mount Rainier rival any on the planet. But in spring, those meadows are still under several feet of snow. So if you’re craving flowers, head east. In both Washington and Oregon, spring comes earlier in the arid eastern parts of the states. There, the spring bloom may start in March and carry right on through until summer heat really kicks in by mid-July. Every year, I go to the hills and canyons in the eastern Cascades looking for my favorite flowers, the little-known Lewisias and threatened lady’s slipper orchids. I won’t tell you exactly where they are—finding them yourself is half the fun.

Painted Hills Unit, John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Oregon.

Palouse Falls, Washington
It’s a startling sight. After hours of driving through wheat fields and sagebrush scrub, you suddenly stumble onto one of the most spectacular waterfalls in the Northwest—in the middle of the desert. Here, the Palouse River, swollen by spring runoff, plunges into a deep canyon lined with basalt pillars before emptying into the much larger Snake River. It’s a small area, but with big photo potential. A few days here isn’t too much, even though the area is small. Miles from anywhere, you’ll need to camp to be in position to capture sunrises and even better sunsets. But if you’ve come this far, combine your trip to the falls with a visit to famous Steptoe Butte, with its classic views of the Palouse farm country.

Siskiyou Mountains, Oregon
Located along the Oregon-California border, this area isn’t well-known, but it deserves to be. The landscapes aren’t as spectacular as some other parts of the Northwest, but for anyone interested in plants and geology, the region is a gem. Unusual serpentine soils make this a hotspot of plant diversity—a vast number of wildflowers are endemic to this region and found nowhere else. Rare lilies, endangered orchids, even bogs filled with pitcher plants provide endless subjects for the macro photographer.

To see more of Kevin Schafer’s photography, visit www.kevinschafer.com.