Terra Galleria Photography

Quick guide to roadside photography in North Cascades

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A reader wrote to me: “I’m 81 years young and my mobility is some what limited . I’m asking for your help finding photo op shots along route 20 in the North Cascades that are on or close to the road. Again I hope I’m not being nervy and I thank you for any help you can provide.”

I’ve chosen to reply here to this email for a few reasons. National Parks Week is beginning this week-end, so I’d like to inspire anyone to get out and explore our parks. Many entries in this blog give may give the impression that the most inspiring places in the parks are hard to reach, and far from the road. The fact is that they are just the places I write about because they interest me most at this moment. Besides my appetite for unusual experiences, wildness, solitude, and discovery, I’ve already driven almost every park road in the past. One of the characteristics of the US National Park road system is that it was, for the most part, engineered to make many great natural signs accessible to motorists. If you must limit your photography to roadside sights, there are awesome subjects to be found along National Park roads.

North Cascades is an excellent case in point. North Cascades National Park proper is managed as a wilderness without facilities and almost no road access, accessible only to hikers, backpackers and mountaineers. However, there is plenty to see roadside around the park proper, in the larger North Cascades National Park Service Complex. The main thoroughfare through the area is the North Cascades Highway (Washington State Hwy 20), which runs in Ross Lake National Recreation Area. The Cascade River Road branching of highway 20 reaches into North Cascades National Park for only 5 miles, but should not be missed. A worthwhile detour to the north west, the most iconic view of the North Cascades is found at roadside Picture Lake, located in the Mt Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest.

The North Cascades Highway (Washington State Hwy 20)

Due to the low snow year, in 2015 the Washington State Department of Transportation re-opened State Route 20 to all traffic on Friday, April 3, the earliest opening in a decade.

Just before the company town of Newhalem a side road leads to the park visitor center. On the way, you cross a one-way bridge over the Skagit River. In the autumn, fall foliage brightens the shore, and salmon swim upriver.

A short stroll right behind the visitor center leads to a distant view of the Picket Range. You can explore the moss-covered rain forest along a few easy trails there.

Observed from a vertiginous grated bridge along Hwy 20, Gorge Creek Falls cascades 242 feet down a narrow lush gorge. It is best photographed in open shade rather than direct sunlight, which means early morning or late afternoon, since the gorge is south-facing.

Along the highway, watch for reflections in the striking green-turquoise waters of Gorge Lake.

Less than a mile east, after a small tunnel, a unmarked multi-tiered waterfall cascades in a gully which is bordered with trees that turn yellow in autumn. You can park at a pull-out slightly east, on the lake side, and walk back a short distance.

Near a bridge a quarter-mile past the Colonial Creek Campground, you will find a lake-level view. From there, you can photograph either towards the north looking at Diablo Lake or towards the south looking at Thunder Creek. That scene works well with fog and low clouds.

From the roadside Diablo Lake Overlook along Hwy 20, you stand high above Diablo Lake, surrounded by steep forested peaks. My favorite view looks towards the west. At sunrise, a thin layer of fog floated above the lake.

Mid-day light brought best the milky blue color of the lake caused by glacial runoff. In the late afternoon, the view is backlit.

A few miles further east, the Ross Lake Overlook provides a distant view of this long lake. The unusual Ross Lake Resort consists of cabins and bunkhouses built on log floats. You can get to its remote location, you can get there by boat and resort truck.

Outside the national park, my favorite stop is at Washington Pass. A quarter-mile east of Washington Pass Overlook, look also for a tiny lake on the south side of the road. The closest parking spot is on the north side of the road.

Cascade River Road

The first third of Cascade River Road road is paved. Beyond that, a well-graded section, passable by any car, leads past two campgrounds to the Cascade Pass Trailhead, 23 miles from Marblemount. The road typically opens by the end of June, except in heavy snow years. It closes after the first winter snows in October.

On the way, you will several opportunities to photograph the North Fork of the Cascade River flowing through lush old-growth forest. Bigleaf maple adds color accents in the fall.

At the road terminus, the view opens up. The trailhead to Cascade Pass is one of the most beautiful trailheads you’ll see. Look for a hanging glacier, and tall waterfalls descending like ribbons from ridges below jagged peaks.

Picture Lake

Near the end of Mt Baker Highway (Washington state Hwy 542), on the west side of the park, a one-way loop circles a pond aptly known as Picture Lake. Because of the nearby ski area, the road is open year-round. The mountain reflected in the pond is Mount Shuksan, sometimes said to be the most photographed mountain in North America. The boundary of North Cascades National Park was specifically drawn to include Mount Shuksan, which lies four miles away. This most iconic scene can be successfully photographed at any time of the day and in a range of conditions, however, mid-afternoon to sunset provides the most balanced light.

In one of the most rugged and wild parks in the continental US, even if you are not ready to climb over steep passes, you can find excellent views from the more developed and accessible areas of North Cascades National Park Service Complex!

See more images of North Cascades.

4 Comments

  1. Hal Cuirry says:

    I can’t thank you enough for the information and the fantastic images . I’m sure your advice will add greatly to the trip. Hal C

  2. BogdanT says:

    This article makes me want to go there. Great photos!

  3. Obucu says:

    They are really spectacular natural landscapes. I love to travel the to such places. Thank you for this great article.

  4. Tony Buckley says:

    Blimey! Terrific advice and outstanding photography. This visiting Brit will be going across the North Cascades road next month and shall be looking out for the locations you’ve suggested. Thanks for the help!

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