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My passion is to explore and discover the beauty of this great country of ours, to capture it, and to share it with you. Often, there’s an interesting story to go along with the photos. On these pages, I share not just beautiful images and video clips, but “the stories behind the pictures.”
During the winter holidays, most of us associate the season with images of bundling up with the kids, playing outside in the snow, then coming back inside with ruddy faces, shedding our very wet outerwear, and drinking hot chocolate.
I have spent the last several winters in Florida, whose residents miss out on all that fun stuff. Fortunately, before moving south I spent some time living in the Rocky Mountains. Mountain winter seasons can be more varied and extreme, but not enough to keep away the skiers and snowboarders that flock to western ski destinations every year.
The higher altitudes are generally better for finding great winter scenery, but the lowlands often reveal nice winter vistas. For instance, if you find open water on a very cold morning at sunrise, there is a good chance you’ll see a photogenic layer of fog over the water, which provides all sorts of photo opportunities. Where there has been heavy morning fog, there is often frost.
One morning early in December 2009, I drove from my house just north of Bozeman west to Big Timber via Interstate 90. I had spent time exploring the Boulder River the previous summer, and hoped for a good photo op somewhere in the National Forest lands south of Big Timber.
The Boulder River access road is Montana Hwy. 298, which follows the river roughly southward from Big Timber. On this particular day, I decided to go beyond the main Boulder valley and explore the East Boulder Road, which crosses the Boulder River and follows one of its tributaries, the East Boulder River, up into the Beartooth Mountains.
I did a lot of driving that day over snowy backroads, and got plenty of exercise taking short hikes from my SUV through deep powdery snow. But midday sunlight is generally not good for capturing scenic landscapes—and to be honest, I didn’t find great winter scenery at that location to begin with. The road I was driving was freshly plowed and graded, which was a nice surprise... so I figured I would follow it past the empty East Boulder USFS campground as far west as I could.
That turned out to be a shorter trip than I expected: A small private mining operation, not shown on my maps, blocked the road with a chain-link fence and a steel gate. I had little choice but to turn around and head back down the East Boulder canyon. The road had obviously been plowed for the benefit of the mining traffic. I was disappointed that my trip was cut short... and the setting sun was now in my eyes, so I was obliged to flip my sunshade down and squint through my windshield.
Then, as I rounded a bend in the road and came in view of Wright Gulch, I was amazed to find something I had barely paid attention to earlier: A tiny, spring-fed creek which coursed down the gulch to join the East Boulder River. Everything within a dozen yards of the creek was covered in thick, crystalline hoarfrost—which was beautifully backlit by the same evening sunlight that had annoyed me while I was driving.
I quickly parked my car, grabbed my camera gear, and hiked up to the “frosty zone”. It appeared that the clear spring water, despite being very cold, had been warm enough to fog up the air on the previous night... and everything the fog touched was now covered with sparkling ice crystals.
So—as often happens—I’d spent an entire day driving to and fro, only to capture my “keeper” images at day’s end. You’ll notice that in the picture of the sun shining through the trees, the sun was barely above the ridgeline in the background.
Capturing the photos was the easy part. The tough part was trying not to mess up the snow anywhere within view of my camera. I figured that a line of boot-prints marching through the foreground of these images would be... well, a distraction.
My boots and jeans, which got soaked while tramping through the snow, were nearly frozen by the time I returned to my SUV. Despite that, I felt warm and content inside while driving toward Big Timber through the darkening canyon. It had been a good day.
In the Rockies, places such as hot springs and waterfalls are often as photogenic in the winter as they are in the summer. The smaller waterfalls freeze solid, while the larger ones continue flowing, hidden from view by a thick shell of icicles.
I had previously explored the winter wonderland in Hyalite Canyon, south of Bozeman, on more than one occasion. To put it as simply as possible, Hyalite features many waterfalls, and its geography makes the upper canyon a popular destination for ice climbers. The Bozeman Ice Festival takes place there annually, early in December.
Ice climbing isn’t for everyone—even those skilled at rock climbing—for obvious reasons. Ice is more brittle and unpredictable than rock. Most climbers take all possible precautions, but no one can predict when a chunk of snowpack might come loose from above and sweep a climber to the bottom of the canyon. Near-death experiences aren’t rare. There are plenty of video clips on YouTube to prove the point.
Happily, if you enjoy photography, hot drinks, and winter hiking as much as I do, the annual Bozeman Ice Festival is rather fun, and not very dangerous.
In January, about a month after exploring the East Boulder valley, I took a day trip from Bozeman up to the Little Belt Mountains in the Lewis and Clark National Forest, by way of US Hwy. 89. As I approached the forest boundary from the south, I noticed that the side roads were popular with local snowmobilers. Within the forest boundary, there are also lots of non-motorized winter activities.
My destination was Memorial Falls Trail 738, which is close to Hwy. 89 and not far from the town of Neihart and Showdown Montana, a small ski area. The Forest Service recommends using the Memorial Falls trail through mid-autumn, but it’s a short trail with a low level of difficulty. Sensible winter hikers, who strap ice cleats onto their boots and use hiking poles, will have no trouble (as long as they stay out of the creek!).
Memorial Falls is not the only waterfall on Trail 738, but it is the largest one, and the one closest to the trailhead. Though I had to pay close attention to where I placed my feet, I had fun poking around the falls, trying to find a good shooting angle. The top of the photo shown here gives the impression that Belt Creek was completely frozen, but in the bottom of the picture, one can see some water trickling over the rocks. As was the case in Wright Gulch, the temperature of the creek bed at this spot stays just above freezing, even when the air temperature plunges toward zero during Montana’s cold winter nights.
My kids grew up long ago, so I’m able to take solo trips to out-of-the-way places in hopes of finding a nice bit of scenery. I realize that most of my readers don’t have that kind of time on their hands, so this blog entry is not so much a travel guide; it’s just an example of what you can find if you plan to travel to a winter resort destination. The Internet is a wonderful thing; I often use it to search for interesting places near my actual destination prior to leaving for a trip. Sometimes, I have a window of time to take a side trip and check out those interesting places. Often, there isn’t much to see... but just as often, I am pleasantly surprised by what I find.
On that note, I wish all my readers many pleasant surprises during their travels!
Although I lived in Williston, North Dakota for nearly forty years—from 1969 to 2008—it may seem that I have shared few scenic photos of Williston and Williams County. I hope to remedy that in this post.
The “photo bug” bit me in college, and I’ve been taking photos of North Dakota ever since. In the 1980s and 1990s, I shot photos with a Nikon FE2, an excellent camera body that used 35mm roll film. I still have a few good images from that era, scanned in low resolution, but I didn’t really develop a good photographer’s eye until much later, when digital cameras became affordable. Also, by that time, I was making day trips to the National Grasslands south of the Missouri River, and took fewer pictures close to Williston.
The southern Great Plains is famous for its storms, and for the storm-chasers who follow them with video cameras and other gear. But North Dakota also gets a fair share of photogenic storms in the summer, and I was a bit of a storm-chaser myself. My current home state, Florida, is also stormy, but it’s hard to get a clear view of the horizon because I don’t live on the coast.
North Dakota’s terrain is mostly treeless rolling hills, which makes it easy to chase down a thunderstorm. The one pictured here happened on a warm August evening. I had driven a short way north of Williston to get to a hilltop, from which I took many shots of a storm that was receding to the east as the sun was setting. The lights visible under the clouds are from Carolville, a rural subdivision on County Road 9.
As night approached, I noticed another storm cell coming toward me over the western horizon. It seemed to be a good distance away, perhaps as far as the Montana border, and I hoped it would move toward my hilltop so I wouldn't have to jump into the car and chase it southward. I could see plenty of lightning on the horizon, but could hear no thunder.
As it happened, there was no need to go anywhere; the storm front was moving directly toward Williston. Before long, I was able to get lightning images that filled the frame of my camera. I turned on my camera’s self timer, and set the shutter speed for 10 seconds. By that time, I could hear thunderclaps following the larger bolts of lightning.
I was getting my 10-second image captures at intervals of about 20 seconds, and had just gotten my hundredth exposure when a stiff warm breeze began stirring the grass at my feet. I captured a few more shots, glancing at my car which was parked near the highway 500 feet behind me, and wondering how fast I could sprint back to it with my camera gear in hand.
I was given little time to wonder. A cold, hard gust of wind hit—the outer edge of the storm’s downdraft—and a few large raindrops began to fall. I knew my time was up, scooped up my camera and tripod, and began my sprint to the SUV. By the time I had tossed my gear into the back and jumped into the front of the car, my lungs were burning, the rain was falling harder, and the wind was whipping loose dirt into the air.
Shortly after I slammed the car door shut, all hell broke loose outside. The gusts were now picking up large grains of sand, but the gusty sandblast was soon subdued by the torrential rainfall which followed. Outside my car, it seemed everything was lightning, thunder, and rain. I could feel the SUV sway with each gust of wind.
Meanwhile, my breathing returned to normal. I wiped the raindrops off my eyeglasses, took the camera off the tripod, switched on its preview screen, and examined the results of my evening’s adventure. Happily, as I’d hoped for, several good shots were sprinkled among the other images of dark clouds. The “lit up” images clearly showed the roiling storm clouds and the dense bands of rainfall.
The following month, I started exploring the fall scenery south of the Missouri River, in McKenzie and Billings counties. On Sept. 10, the day of my first fall trip, I left my house before dawn, intending to get to my destination while it was still early in the morning. When I walked out of my front door, the pre-dawn sunlight had set the light wisps of cloud cover on fire, as you can see in this photo. This shot took some quick thinking, because my house in Williston didn’t have a clear view of the horizon.
I remembered the one spot within a mile of my house that did have a clear view eastward; it was where County Road 7 ends at the shoreline of the Little Muddy River. With no other cars on the highway, it only took me a few minutes to get to that spot. The light in the eastern sky remained good for another few minutes, which was a lucky thing. Past experience has taught me that such moments of pre-sunrise and post-sunset flourescent color don’t happen every day—and when they do happen, they only last minutes—so one must act quickly to capture them.
When the glow faded, I took to the road as planned, but the light wisps of cloud began to thicken, and it was pretty much overcast for the remainder of the day. I successfully scouted out some photogenic areas of the Badlands for my next trip. But as I told my family and friends afterward, the pre-dawn photo I captured by the river was my only “keeper” of the day. Had I known beforehand how cloudy it would be that day, I would have returned home and gone back to bed instead of going on a long excursion through the Badlands!
Along the Missouri River, there is rugged terrain similar to the Badlands, featuring eroded clay bluffs with bands of red scoria and streaks of lignite coal. McKenzie County, on the south side of the river, features more of that terrain than Williams County, but the north side of the river does have some of the same scenic shoreline terrain, which hosts a wide variety of wildlife.
A fine example of that terrain is pictured here. This photo was taken during a hike in the bluffs near Hofflund State Game Management Area. If you follow the link or check out the location on Google Maps’ “Earth” view, you’ll see some oil well pads along the riverside and a reddish open pit scoria mine. On one trip to the riverside, I parked my SUV along a nearby public access gravel road and hiked to the spot pictured here, which has a great southeast view past the bluffs and over Lake Sakakawea, the Missouri River reservoir above Garrison Dam.
My favorite time of year for hiking these areas was late in June to early July, depending upon the timing of the spring rains and the arrival of warm weather. In the northern tier states, there isn’t really a spring wildflower season; most of the color happens at the beginning of summer. On June 28, the day this image was captured, it was pretty darn colorful, with all the wildflowers, juniper and cedar foliage, and the grassy hills in the background.
By August, North Dakota typically gets hot and dry, and scenes such as this one lose much of their color and turn brown. By mid-September, though, some of the color returns, as the trees begin changing color and large yellow patches of goldenrod and rabbitbrush make their appearance. There are more wildlfowers to see if there are fall rainshowers, and if the first hard frost doesn’t come early. Such was the case in 2007, when I captured this photo of a bumblebee visiting a goldenrod patch near my house.
A few miles upstream from Hofflund Bay is Whitetail Bay, a popular summertime recreation spot for folks in Williston and Williams County. Lund’s Landing is a small marina, lodge, and restaurant perched on a hillside on the west side of the bay. Jim and Analene Torgerson have managed Lund’s Landing for many years. When I lived in Williston, we would sometimes drive out to their cafe for dinner, and chat with them about what new feature they’d added to the place that season.
One thing the Torgersons did early on was to build many bird nesting boxes on the fenceposts in and around their property; this has attracted a large number of brightly colored bluebirds during the warm season, which are fun to watch. In 2008 I spent an entire morning just taking bird photos, a couple of which I’ve shared here.
Later on, a birder informed me that these were not actually bluebirds, but another species. I’ve entirely forgotten what he said they were, so I cannot pass that information on to you. All I know is that they are birds, that they are blue, and that I enjoyed watching them when I lived in North Dakota!
Before the turn of the century, I had visited one of my favorite places—Glacier National Park— twice with my family. On the last such trip, my son was but a year old, and he has no memory of that summer vacation. A dozen years passed before I was finally able to return to Glacier with my son, who by that time was 14 years old. We made that trip in 2006, and I took the greatest of pleasure in showing him all the scenic places I had discovered during my previous trips.
On July 7, we followed Going-to-the-Sun Road westward to Logan Pass, and I decided to stop at the Lunch Creek cascade to take photos of the waterfall, which has Pollock Mountain for a backdrop. Unlike other scenic points in Glacier, there are no trailheads at Lunch Creek. Undeterred by this, my son bounded over the rocks as I snapped my photos, and was quickly out of sight.
He reappeared in a moment, pointing excitedly toward the massive stone shoulder of Piegan Mountain on the east side of the creek. “Let’s climb that mountain!” he begged.
“There’s no trail,” I objected. I was a bit sore from the previous day’s hike, and was not inclined to stray from the safety of our SUV to blaze a trail through unknown territory. Before long, though, I yielded to his enthusiasm. He was reluctant to take his heavy leather jacket along, but I insisted that was part of the deal.
We followed Lunch Creek, climbing stair-like rocks as the creek splashed down past us. While there was no beaten path as such, I saw red ribbons tied on branches and realized that there was in fact a trail of sorts, and at least a few climbers had been there recently. So with renewed confidence, we scrambled up a series of ledges that led away from the creek and toward the south face of Piegan Mountain. After breaking out of the trees, we could see a couple of climbers in the distance, hiking up toward Pollock Mountain.
Up here there were no more ribbons—just a couple thousand feet of rocks, it seemed. But we continued upward, keeping to the greener patches which provided surer footing than the loose stretches of talus covering much of the slope. Though I was getting a good workout and would normally be sweating, the stiff cold breeze kept things comfortable... but every so often, the breeze would turn into a gust, strong enough to make the eyes water, and plenty strong enough to make me lose my footing. A few times, the gusts forced us to sit down until the wind subsided. My son now understood why I insisted on the leather jacket.
The few evergreens on these slopes are kept short and bushy by the winds. In spite of the rocky terrain and harsh environment, I discovered, Piegan’s slopes are full of tiny wildflowers, in bright primary colors—magentas, yellows, and blues—miniature versions of the wildflowers along the highway.
I was enjoying all this, but we had ascended 1600 feet into thinner air and my son was getting impatient with all the “breathers” his creaky old dad had to take. I’m normally not afraid of heights, but we had climbed up so far that distant snow-capped peaks were coming into view. For some reason, the sight was giving me a mild case of vertigo. “We should head back down,” I counseled. “The fun will be over if these clouds get thicker and it and starts raining.”
In spite of my concern, I was glad to have come up this far. From our vantage point, we could see the peaks of the Livingston Range to the west, and had a much grander view of the valley which sprawls in an emerald carpet from the foot of Reynolds Mountain eastward to St. Mary Lake. No way could we have seen it like this from Going-to-the-Sun Road 1600 feet below us.
This is the best way to see Montana, I realized—getting off the beaten path.
One interesting feature we noticed on the opposite (south) side of the valley was the profile of Heavy Runner Mountain, which resembles the head of a buffalo. The mountain was named after Chief Heavy Runner of the Blackfeet tribe of Native Americans.
We turned back toward the west face of Piegan and made better time on the way down. This time, I picked a route which led west below Pollock Mountain. Once we descended to the snowdrifted headwaters of Lunch Creek, we simply followed the creek down Pollock. My son was not too disappointed that we cut our climb short. “I was starting to get hungry, anyway,” he said. A little farther, he added, in a lower voice: “When I get back to the car, I’m going to tear up that sandwich.”
“Maybe next time you climb a mountain, you’ll bring your munchies,” I laughed. “You’re lucky I brought an extra pack of M&Ms.”
But soon enough, we made our way to the upper falls of the creek, and scrambled down alongside the falls till we were back at our SUV. We wasted no time in digging our lunch out of the cooler. Hungry though we were, I resisted the urge to inhale my sandwich and took small bites while looking at the scenery and resting my tired legs.
“I just realized why they call this ‘Lunch Creek’,” I exclaimed as we ate. Corny, but it seemed funny at the time.
Some years ago, I lived on the east side of the expansive Gallatin River valley in Montana. The Gallatin, Madison, and Jefferson Rivers join at Three Forks, the place where the Missouri River begins its journey northward. All three of the tributary rivers spring from smaller mountain streams in several ranges of the Rocky Mountains, so practically everyone who lives in the lowlands surrounding Three Forks has excellent views of at least two mountain ranges, and sometimes more.
The place where I lived is just northwest of Bozeman, so I had an excellent view of the Gallatin Range to the south, a couple of smaller ranges to the west—and to the east, practically in my back yard, I had a closeup view of the Bridger Range. Naturally, I spent most of my hiking time in the Bridgers, eventually settling into a routine of driving home from work (a 15-minute trip) and hiking in the foothills of the Bridgers before supper (another 15-minute trip). Later on, when I lived in Denver and found that it takes the better part of an hour just to get out of town, I appreciated the convenience I’d enjoyed in my backyard mountain range in Montana!
A fringe benefit of my Bridger Mountain hikes was the timing, normally at the end of the day, when the deer and elk come down from the mountains to graze in the valley. At that time, there are also lots of interesting colors and patterns in the sky. To top it all off, I gained several hundred feet of elevation driving to the trailhead, allowing me a better view of the mountains across the Gallatin Valley.
For example, I had an outstanding view of the Spanish Peaks from the gravel road near a Forest Service trailhead one evening, which is pictured here. You’ll notice that the foothills in the center background drop down to form a gap. That gap is where the Gallatin River flows out of the mountains. It’s 22 miles from that spot to the northeast side of the valley, where my car was parked, so the Spanish Peaks look small compared to the dissipating storm clouds hovering over the valley in this photo.
Due to my closeness to the Bridger Range, I didn’t hike as much in the Gallatin Range or the Spanish Peaks, but I made enough treks to get great views of the Spanish Peaks on a few occasions.
During the first such trip, my destination was Hidden Lake in the Gallatin Range. There is a broad windswept ridge encircling Hidden Lake, on the west side. There is no trail up the steep slope from the lake to the ridge, but since the elevation gain was only 800 feet, I figured it was worth a try. After much climbing, puffing, and panting, I reached my destination, at an elevation of 9770 feet—high enough to get great views of the Gallatin Range. Looking east, I could see all the way across the Gallatin Range to Windy Pass. Looking west, I was pleasantly surprised at the closeup view I had of the Spanish Peaks, which are visible in the “selfie” I’ve posted here.
The high peaks are part of the Lee Metcalf National Wilderness Area, which only permits non-mechanized access within its boundaries. Surrounding the wilderness is the Custer Gallatin National Forest and private land, which offer access to the Spanish Peaks via several trailheads and a few short, unpaved Forest Service roads. Many visitors from Bozeman and the Gallatin Valley are familiar with the Spanish Creek Road, which leads to the Spanish Creek trailhead just north of the wilderness boundary.
The Spanish Creek access road is easily found on the west side of US Highway 191, where Spanish Creek empties into the Gallatin River. The access road more or less follows the creek upstream, and crosses Ted Turner’s well-known Flying D Ranch. Most ranchers have their land posted, but the Flying D has gone all out, making sure every hundred yards of fenceline is marked with the red signs pictured here. When I lived in Montana, it seemed like an amusing example of overkill; but considering the notoriety of Ted Turner and the popularity of the route, I understand the necessity of a well-marked fence. If you happen to visit the Spanish Peaks via this route, you’ll know you’re approaching National Forest land when the route turns south toward the mountains and you stop seeing the red signs everywhere.
The website at this link has a good interactive map of the Spanish Creek trailhead (indicated by the green marker on the map) and some helpful information about the trails which one can choose to hike.
I have yet to hike the South Fork trail all the way to Mirror Lake, but those who make the trek can expect to see something like this Google Maps view, or better, depending upon the weather and the time of day. I hiked the Spanish Creek trail, but didn’t arrive at the trailhead till late morning. I realized that getting to Mirror Lake—for me, at least—would require hitting the trail at first light.
Next, I did some virtual exploring of the Spanish Peaks on Google Earth, with the idea of finding a photogenic spot during the early dawn or pre-sunset hours. The ridge I had visited in 2008 is a good spot for a dawn photo, depending of course on how the sky looks in the morning; but the only practical way to hike from Hidden Lake at dawn is to camp there overnight. Some local folks do camp and fish at Hidden Lakes...but lacking a camping partner, I decided instead to do an evening hike at a different location.
Once again, I opted to explore a high elevation ridge with a good view across the canyon toward the peaks. The ridge I chose can be accessed by the Cherry Creeks Trail from the Spanish Creek trailhead. The trail starts just north of the parking lot, and heads north, away from the mountains, for the first half-mile. It leads far enough north that—once again—one can see the “private property” signs, instructing hikers sternly to keep to the trail. After that, there is a switchback and the route turns south, then west.
Since the trail crosses the ridge I wanted to explore, it gains elevation fairly quickly; about 800 feet in the first mile, and then it descends on the other side of the ridge in a southwesterly direction. But since I wanted to keep to the high side of the ridge, I left the trail just before the descent and began bushwhacking my way south along the top of the ridge. Fortunately, it’s an easy bushwhack; as long as one keeps to the west side of the forested portion of the ridge, the only bushes to whack are sparse patches of sagebrush, and even those patches dwindle as the ridge gradually rises, gaining 300 feet of elevation in a little over a mile.
The sun was beginning to set by the time I reached 7300 feet. I decided I was as close to my target as I was going to get, and set up my camera and tripod to capture a series of sunset panoramas, one of which is shown here.
The open subalpine meadow I ended up in was in its peak wildflower season, and since I’m a sucker for wildflowers, I kept taking pictures till the last rays of sunlight faded from the peaks around me.
After the adrenaline rush of capturing images began to fade, I quickly realized I hadn’t made adequate preparations for night hiking. I should, at the very least, have brought a LED headlamp with me; a canister of bear spray and a hoodie should have been in my backpack as well.
I looked at my map and considered my options. I could have returned the way I had come, but knew the trail would be shrouded in darkness under the tree cover, by the time I found it again. I glanced down at the fairly steep east slope of the ridge. It looked to be a formidable scramble—dropping a thousand feet in a third of a mile—but I knew that I the Spanish Creek trail at the bottom would be easy to find, if there was any light remaining at all. So down I went, keeping to the trees for safety’s sake (when I lose my footing, young tree limbs come in very handy). Bushwhacking this route was more challenging than my earlier trek. Gravity was on my side now, but I had to contend with large rocks, fallen logs—and, of course, bushes. My “plan B” worked out, fortunately, and I found the Spanish Creeks Trail where I expected it to be. Darkness was falling fast by this time, so I covered the remaining distance to the parking lot as fast as my tired legs would go. All told, the return trip to my SUV was one mile—under half the distance I’d covered on the way up—and I was grateful for that. As it was, there was barely enough light for me to pick out my car from the other vehicles parked along the road!
The lesson was not lost on me, and the next time I planned a sunset hike in the Custer Gallatin National Forest, I made sure to bring a LED headlamp. I also chose a trail where mountain biking is allowed; having the bike with me made the next return trip a breeze. I’m happy to report that after the evening I spent above Spanish Creek, I haven’t put myself at risk due to lack of foresight (not very much risk, at least). I’m a bit older now, and I’m as enthusiastic about capturing a beautiful image as I’ve ever been—but I seem to have lost my appetite for struggling up or down a steep route with no trail.
US Highway 212 from Red Lodge, Montana to the northeast entrance to Yellowstone National Park is a scenic byway called the Beartooth Scenic Highway. Though I enjoyed my first visit to Red Lodge and the Rock Creek valley at the end of 1991, I was unable to explore Beartooth Pass because it’s only open for traffic during the summer months. During that first visit, I got my first ski lesson at Red Lodge Mountain, which had a healthy covering of snow, but Beartooth Pass, at its elevation of nearly 11,000 feet, is literally buried in snow until the rotary plows make their annual early summer trip to clear Highway 212.
Those of my friends from North Dakota who visited Beartooth Pass had nothing but praise for the scenery, so by the turn of the century I decided to make the first of my two visits to northern Wyoming via Highway 212. On both visits, my son and I stopped at Rock Creek Vista to get our first good view of Beartooth Pass, which lies just above and beyond the deep Rock Creek valley pictured here. It should be obvious that the snapshot of the two of us is a vintage photo; we may not have changed much inside, but on the outside we both look much older now!
Our next trip was made some years later, in 2007. By that time I had acquired a Nikon digital camera, some more photography experience, and a couple dozen pounds. My son had likewise grown; he was on the verge of surpassing his dad in height, and of getting his driver’s license.
We overnighted at Red Lodge on June 21, 2007, and took to the road early the next morning. As we had done on our previous trip at the turn of the century, we parked awhile at Rock Creek Vista. I was not happy with the view at the parking lot, though, and wanted a higher vantage point. Back then, drone-mounted cameras were a rarity—handmade, for the most part, difficult to fly, and very expensive. Therefore, we took to the short trail leading north from the parking lot, then bushwhacked uphill a bit to the west until we found the weathered tree trunk pictured here. I was much more pleased with the view from this place, and my son indulged me enough to sit on the log so I could take a couple of pictures of him. I captured more images after he jumped off the log, one of which is displayed here.
This place obviously has sentimental value for me, but the photo is also popular with many other viewers because of its excellent view of the Rock Creek valley, which stretches behind Rock Creek Vista for miles—all the way to the Montana-Wyoming border below the summit of Beartooth Pass.
The distance to the state line was not far, as the crow flies, but those without wings must take a series of switchbacks with hairpin curves to reach the summit. About a half hour after departing Rock Creek Vista, we found ourselves at a scenic overlook of Twin Lakes, which is pictured here.
This part of Highway 212 is just south of the Montana-Wyoming border, which runs roughly in line with the far side of the most distant lake in this photo. You’ll note that trees surround the shores of Twin Lakes, but our vantage point was about 900 feet higher in elevation—already well above the treeline. We didn’t have the Google Earth smartphone app back in 2007, so my son gauged the drop from our ledge to Twin Lakes by tossing rocks into the closest lake.
Depending upon the timing of one’s visit, travelers will see wildflowers in the treeless alpine meadows sloping up gently toward the summit of Beartooth Pass. We had arrived too early in the summer to see wildflowers at the summit, though; there were still large snowbanks along the highway, the remnants of deeply-piled drifts left by snowplows a month earlier. My son and I cannot resist throwing summer snow at one another; it’ usually a perfect consistency for making really hard, icy snowballs. I enjoy the sport, even if the high altitude makes my head hurt as it did that morning.
The Beartooth Plateau, and nearby Hellroaring Plateau, though rugged, are great places to visit during the summer months. With the area’s many alpine lakes, the plateau country draws anglers, hikers, and campers from all over the country—but never so many that one feels crowded. In this remote section of the Rockies, there is space enough for everyone who cares to come. That is due in part to the fact that the 1475-square-mile Absaroka-Beartooth National Wilderness Area lies only a few miles north of the highway. Some of the finest scenery in the Rockies can be found there. In the national wilderness, mechanized travel—even by mountain bike—is prohibited. Visitors are obliged to ride hoofed critters instead—or hoof it themselves.
Even if you’re a casual day hiker like me, you’ll enjoy splendid views of alpine lakes and snow-capped mountain ranges right from Highway 212. As one drives west and the elevation begins to drop, trees soon return to the landscape. There are several scenic landmarks to visit along the route, such as Beartooth Lake and the adjoining campground, and Beartooth Butte.
A little farther westward, there is a pullout on the side of the highway for folks who want to stop and visit Lake Creek Falls, which is pictured here during the high water season. If camping near the cascades of Lake Creek seems appealing to you, there is a campground downhill from the waterfall, on Crandall Road.
Lake Creek is one of the tributaries of the upper Yellowstone River, and by this time my son and I were not far from Cooke City, a small tourist town, and the “Silver Gate” entrance to Yellowstone National Park. My son expressed an interest in seeing Old Faithful geyser before heading to the motel I had booked in Bozeman, Montana. Although I knew that would be a longer drive than traveling north on US Highway 89, I was happy to let my son pick the route and go south on Highway 89 instead. I even let him take the wheel of our SUV; at that time, he was still learning how to drive, and I looked forward to taking a snooze in the passenger seat.
As it happened, he ended up driving many miles that day, and was beginning to show his impatience as the afternoon wore on. Part of the problem was the lack of scenery. I explained that in 1998, a few years before he was born, forest fires had burned over 30 percent of Yellowstone National Park. The forest had regenerated, as forests do. The new stands of lodgepole pines were healthier and denser... but mile after mile of densely-packed young evergreen trees is monotonous, as scenery goes.
The other issue is the fact that Yellowstone National Park is not as mountainous as many folks believe it to be. In most of the park, one literally “can’t see the forest for the trees.” If one wants a grand sweeping view of the park, one has to visit the Mount Washburn overlook, or head into the backcountry. Yellowstone Lake and the surrounding access highway are at a relatively low elevation, located in the ancient caldera of the Yellowstone supervolcano. The park is rich in wildlife and other features that justify its popularity. It just doesn’t offer the same alpine views as the ones we’d seen on Highway 212 earlier that day.
Yellowstone is more renowned for its volcanic geology, which created the Grand Prismatic Spring and Yellowstone’s other hot springs and geysers. My son, intent on reaching our destination, was not inclined to spend time at the other geologic features—not when we were so close to Old Faithful. But we were delayed anyway, by the 20-minute traffic jam on the highway north of the geyser. There is a reason such places are called tourist “traps”! Though we were way out West, the highway and parking conditions resembled those of Disney World.
Happily, we did arrive, parked our SUV near Old Faithful Lodge, and walked a short distance to find a good viewing spot behind the barrier railing. We only had to wait a few more minutes before the geyser erupted. It was a better than average performance, and I was impressed to see so many tons of water defying gravity and shooting upward. I haven’t done the math, but I do know it takes a lot of underground heat and pressure to make that happen. My son, on the other hand, was underwhelmed, and muttered: “I can’t believe we drove all this way to see that!”
“Don’t be so glum, chum,” I chuckled, pointing to Old Faithful Lodge. “A large ice cream cone should make our trip worthwhile.” It did, at least, for me.
We took to the road once more, and watched a large herd of elk graze along the Madison River just before leaving the park at West Yellowstone. I could write many blog entries about Yellowstone National Park’s geology, or its wildlife—but what we had enjoyed best that day, by far, was our adventure along the Beartooth Scenic Highway.
Visitors to southern Montana, traveling westward via Interstate 90, get their first sight of the Rocky Mountains while driving over the foothills of the Beartooth Range, which extends south into Wyoming. As one travels farther west, the Interstate roughly follows the south bank of the Yellowstone River. Approaching the town of Big Timber, one can see a small but high mountain range off to the north, as well as a small green sign alongside the highway which reads “Crazy Mountains”. During summer trips to the Rockies, when our family passed that sign, I could never pass up the opportunity to tell a bad joke about it, usually something like “The Crazy Mountains: You’d have to be crazy to go there!” Although that is obviously not true, it is true that most visitors—eager to see the Yellowstone area to the south—rarely detour northward at Big Timber to investigate the Crazy Mountains.
To make amends for those bad jokes of years past, I decided to share the highlights of the Crazies in this post. These are things I learned while exploring the highways and back roads between Bozeman, Livingston, and Big Timber.
The Yellowstone District of the Custer Gallatin National Forest includes much of this area. The Gallatin Range stretches northward from the boundary of Yellowstone National Park to Bozeman Pass. Continuing north from the pass on gravel Forest Service roads, one can explore the Bangtail Mountains. The Bangtails are a small range—lacking major streams and lakes—but they also lack restrictions on motorized traffic, making them a favored weekend destination for many local campers and hikers. And they also offer great views of the Crazy Mountains and the Shields River valley. While exploring the Bangtails one summer evening in June, I was lucky enough find one such viewpoint and capture the pre-sunset view of the Crazy Mountains displayed above.
On subsequent visits to the Crazies, I ventured farther from Bozeman, traveling up US Hwy. 89 from Livingston to the Shields River Road, which leads eastward to several Forest Service spur roads, as well as motorized and non-motorized mountain trails. Most of the trails to the alpine lakes at the base of the high peaks in the Crazy Mountains are non-motorized, but are popular hiking and horseback routes.
My favorite part of the Crazy Mountains is Big Timber Creek Falls, which is accessed from Interstate 90 from Big Timber north via US Hwy. 191 to Big Timber Canyon Road. It’s a great destination for a day trip; though the Forest Service access road makes for a long and rough drive to the Big Timber Creek trailhead and Halfmoon Campground, once you arrive you’ll find the hike to the waterfall short and pleasant.
Big Timber Creek Falls is actually a chain of waterfalls and smaller cascades that begins about a quarter mile upstream from Halfmoon Campground. The elevation of the creek drops about 350 feet in that section, creating a stretch of whitewater rapids which then plunge down more steeply into a series of pools. The actual “Big Timber Creek Falls” is generally considered to be the steep drop into the largest pool, which is pictured here.
I returned to the falls a few weeks later with my son, who enjoyed exploring all the twists and turns of Big Timber Creek almost as much as I did. However, it’s just as possible that he has fonder memories of the campfire we made and the cheddarwurst and s’mores which followed our hike. At that time, he was still a teenager with a healthy appetite. Now that I think about it, I remember having my fair share of campfire-roasted cheddarwurst also.
Some time later, I showed my son and a few of my friends some YouTube clips of Big Timber Creek, which had been shared by adventurers who’d kayaked down the quarter mile of whitewater at the height of the spring runoff. Some kayakers get a rush from the narrowness and steepness of the large drop pictured here. The less fortunate ones just get banged up. Before you can conquer the mountain, you gotta respect the mountain. As you may know already, I learned that by getting my own share of bumps and bruises... and I found out how easily that can happen without the aid of a kayak.
I captured the photos shown here, as well as some video footage I included in “Montana Panoramas”, on my first vist to the falls; the idea was to spend the second visit sharing the experience with my son, and not being distracted by camera angles, focal points, and such. I’m happy to report that strategy worked as intended.
There are several images I captured at the creek which I liked enough to print. One of those is the photo of the shooting stars displayed here, with the waterfall slightly out of focus in the background. Shooting stars are small, brightly colored wildflowers that tend to flourish in places that are constantly damp—such as rocky, mossy ledges alongside waterfalls, or spring seeps as I mentioned in an earlier blog post.
Getting back to where I started this tale: Big Timber isn’t a place most people can get to quickly, despite the fact that it’s located on Interstate 90... but if you do find yourself in that part of the country with a day or two to spare, you’d be crazy not to visit the Crazy Mountains!
During my 2014 visit to the Pacific Northwest, I knew I would have to save at least a few days to visit the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Some of the country’s most picturesque waterfalls are located near the Columbia River, on the Oregon side. If you haven’t had the pleasure of traveling the area but are interested in doing so, I recommend downloading this brochure about the Columbia River Highway.
The area displayed in the map shown here is perhaps a half hour’s drive east of Portland on Interstate 84, depending upon which exit you choose. Multnomah Falls, roughly in the center of the map, was by far the most visited of the Columbia Gorge waterfalls prior to the Eagle Creek fire in 2017. If you look up “Multnomah Falls” on Google Images, you’ll quickly see why. Besides being photogenic, the hike to the Multnomah viewpoint is relatively short.
After the Eagle Creek fire, the foliage surrounding Multomah Falls was blackened. Erosion and fallen trees forced the closure of the Multomah visitor’s area, and many of the other trails as well.
If you want to visit the Columbia River Gorge, please check this website first, to learn which areas have re-opened to the public.
In 2014, I explored the waterfalls in Oneonta Gorge on the south side of Highway 30. Officially, there are four waterfalls along Oneonta Gorge Trail #424; the best one is Triple Falls, which is an easy-to-moderate hike for young-at-heart guys like myself. There’s a bridge that spans the creek above the falls, which is a nice touch for a waterfall scene. However, the falls themselves are definitely the main attraction.
Those wanting to see Columbia River Gorge waterfalls at their greenest should probably visit them in May and June, when water flow volumes are higher. Unless the midsummer season is wet, the green moss one expects to find dries out and becomes yellow or brown. I learned this firsthand, since my visit was late in July.
Luckily, it was not hard to turn back the calendar a month by playing with the hue/saturation settings in my computer. That fixed the color of the moss, but didn’t create more water in the image. I had to work with the water that was there to begin with. While editing this photo, I added brightness to the water to make it stand out, while darkening the surrounding foliage to exaggerate the effect and to draw the viewer’s attention to the waterfall.
Photographer’s update, April 2018: Following a period of drought on the West Coast, the dense foliage in the region dried out, enabling the Eagle Creek fire to scour Oneonta Gorge in 2017. It was then susceptible to the erosion and mudslides that ensued the following winter, and the Oneonta Gorge Trail was closed in 2018.
By the 2020s, when new and different types of vegetation have become established, the view in this photo will be just as green, but very much altered. From this overlook, the view of the creek will be unobstructed to well past the footbridge, due to the absence of trees. There will be more wildflowers and berry bushes for a few decades, until new tree growth begins to shade the gorge once again. The beauty of Nature is eternal, but ever-changing. We can capture beautiful images and video at this location for the rest of our lives, but this snapshot of time from July 2014 will never have a “Take 2”!
The rock formation over which the water drops has an interesting diagonal pattern, which will be more visible in the early 2020s if the bottom of this pool is not still clogged with fallen trees. I would have liked to get to the bottom of the gorge for a closer view; in fact, a few adventurous souls have done just that, and returned with nice low-angle pictures of Triple Falls. The alteration of Oneonta Gorge by mudslides may make access to the bottom easier, but in 2014 the gorge was steep and slippery. I didn’t attempt it. I’m a casual hiker, not a rock climber!
There were perhaps a dozen hikers between the overlook from which I shot this picture and the footbridge in the background. The trail on either end of the bridge allows easy access to the creek—so easy, in fact, that many of us explored the rocky creek bed under the big mossy log on the right side of the creek, as well as the pools just to the left of the log. It was actually great fun, but at the height of the spring runoff, poking around the water might not have been as safe. A creek surging over its banks is a wonderful thing to watch... but only from a distance. Something to keep in mind if you have kids with you. While raising my family, my kids were more agile than I was—and I usually slipped into the drink once per vacation. That’s one way to teach your kids caution, but I can’t recommend it!
In autumn, warm red and yellow colors begin to appear in the green foliage, and some of the trails in the Columbia Gorge look especially nice. Regardless of the season, though, I recommend hiking the waterfall trails when the sky is overcast—or perhaps near dawn or dusk—because patchy sunlight usually causes headaches for photographers using tripods and slow shutter speeds.
In my 2014 summer travels, one of the places I was fortunate enough to visit is the Mount Baker Scenic Byway, which is located in Washington just south of the Boundary Mountains on the border of British Columbia. The Byway, which is part of WA State Hwy. 542, can be accessed from the west via Interstate 5. It takes about an hour to travel from the interstate to the Glacier visitor center. From there, the Byway winds eastward through the upper Nooksack River valley. Eventually, the route turns more southward, and runs past Picture Lake to Artist Point. As their names imply, these scenic spots have inspired many an artist and photographer to travel the Scenic Byway for great views of Mount Baker, the northernmost volcano of the Cascade Range, and Mount Shuksan, which is craggier and bears no resemblance to its neighbor to the south.
By August, summer hikers can hike any number of trails leading from Artist Point or Picture Lake through places such as Heather Meadows, to discover great views of Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan. If the snows recede early, one can enjoy summer scenery as early as July.
In 2014, toward the end of July, I checked into the Inn at Mount Baker about midday, and headed eagerly up the valley. The snowy season had persisted longer that year, which made for nice waterfalls, but the meadow trails leading to Mount Baker were still covered with snow. Though I saw no flowers in Heather Meadows on that trip, I did discover wonderful views of Mount Shuksan from the loop road. Artist Point is also a great vantage point from which to view the Boundary Mountains to the north.
I had already consulted the Internet about when the sun would set on that clear evening in northwest Washington, so I followed the Byway back down from Artist Point to Picture Lake and Highwood Lake. The west shores of both lakes offer great sunset views of Mount Shuksan, and—if the air is calm—a beautiful reflection as well.
I parked near Highwood Lake, and was a bit surprised that there were not mobs of other photographers around the lake, lined up elbow-to-elbow to get a clear view of the sunset alpenglow on the peak of Shuksan. But I was soon wondering whether I ought to hang around myself, because the wind was stirring the surface of the lake—not much, but enough to ruin the “mirror reflection” effect I’d hoped to see. The breeze persisted as the orange-gold glow of the setting sun appeared on the mountainside, then began to retreat upward, giving way to the shadow of the mountains behind me. Another photographer parked close by, in the meantime, and began taking photos of the glowing peak facing us.
When the bright orange glow disappeared from all but the highest peak of Mount Shuksan, it was replaced with a deep magenta-red color, caused by the surface air between the disappearing sun and the peak. Miraculously, the breeze went away in the same moment, and I began shooting, capturing images as long as I possibly could—which was only a minute, if that. But it was enough. The other photographer and I congratulated each other, then parted ways as twilight fell over the mountains.
I returned to the bed and breakfast I’d checked into earlier that day. The accommodations were splendid, with huge picture windows facing Mount Baker and the Nooksack River Valley. I thought how great it would be if I could get a bit higher up the foothills of the Boundary Mountains, so I could capture more of the river in the scene. I expressed my wish to Charlene, my friendly innkeeper, asking her if there was any possibility of hiking uphill from the Inn. She said there wasn’t a trail, but that I could try hiking up a logging road that can be accessed from the highway, about a mile to the east.
The following day, I was in no rush to leave; Charlene served up an excellent breakfast to me and to the four other guests staying at the Inn. I knew what kind of image I hoped to capture already, and that it would have to be done in the last half-hour of daylight. But I did take the time to find the logging road. The gate at the highway was open, and in a couple of minutes I was able to drive to a perfect vantage point.
When I’m not on photo safari, I deal with city traffic almost daily, and am in the habit of starting for my destination 15 minutes earlier than necessary in case of unexpected traffic problems. I had, however, gotten a bit complacent in the Nooksack River valley, and in the evening I was late getting to the logging road. There I found an unexpected traffic problem: The gate was now locked, which meant I would have to park my SUV at the gate and hike to the spot I’d picked out earlier.
I don’t think I’ve hiked up a hill as fast and as urgently as I did that evening, either before or since that trip! I prayed I’d have time enough to get the shot by the time I arrived, knowing that rainy weather would move in the following day and hang around for a while. If I missed my Mount Baker sunset that evening, I would get no second try on that year’s trip.
Divine Providence was gracious to me that evening, though, and I arrived at the chosen spot, with burning lungs and leg muscles, and with a couple of minutes to spare. I couldn’t see every bend of the Nooksack River from there, but enough of it was visible to make the composition work. When the sun was higher, the light on the mountain and the sky beyond was relatively flat, but I liked how it played over the treetops in the valley below my chosen hilltop. Finally, as the sun dropped closer to the Pacific, miles away to the west, the atmospheric haze did its thing, bathing Mount Baker and the eastern horizon in a warm red glow.
The show was over in a few more minutes. Satisfied, I packed my gear and headed back down the logging road. This time, however, I kept my pace slow, wanting to take in all the sights and sounds of that cool evening in the mountains of northern Washington... it kind of made up for the unnecessary anxiety I’d put myself through not long before.
Nearly two years passed before I made up my mind to share the Mount Baker picture on my website and to write this blog entry. The sunset photo was as nice as I could hope to get, but by the spring of 2016 I decided to add the light I had seen on the Nooksack River before sunset. That required a good deal of “light painting” in Photoshop, something a bit out of my comfort zone... my painting skills are a bit rough. Despite that, I’m pleased that the image you see posted here is the image I remember from an evening two summers ago.
Sadly, The Inn at Mount Baker is no longer in business; the owners are now in their late seventies, and are enjoying a well-deserved retirement. Fortunately, I expect that the Mount Baker Scenic Byway—with its network of spur roads and Forest Service trails—will be a special place for visitors to Washington state for many years to come.
Some of my favorite trails are in Colorado’s Roaring Fork Valley and the Maroon Bells-Snowmass National Wilderness Area. Most of the action is centered around the town of Aspen, a well-known hotspot for tourism in the Rockies. I’ve lodged at Aspen a couple of times in my travels, but actually prefer the accommodations at Snowmass Village, which lies nearby at the base of Snowmass Mountain. Snowmass is much quieter after the sun goes down, compared to Aspen—which appeals to many folks my age. In 2015, I decided to lodge at Snowmass Village once more, then do some exploring in the mountains southwest of the Village.
One can get views of the surrounding mountains by way of Snowmass Ski Resort’s main lift, which operates during the summer hiking season. From the lift, one can hike to the summit and enjoy any number of views. Hikers can also access the White River National Forest between Snowmass and Mount Daly via the East Snowmass Trail. Another scenic route is the Brush Creek Trail. The trailhead is located south of Aspen, instead of Snowmass—but it leads to Buttermilk Ski Area and continues west to Snowmass.
The morning I captured the panoramic image of Mount Daly shown below, I was exploring Divide Drive, one of the spur roads which provide access to private homes just west of Snowmass Village. In such areas, it’s often tough to get a clear shot of the scenery from the road. But I was lucky in this particular case; the meadow pictured below lies right alongside Divide Drive.
In fact, as I explored all the spur roads leading from Brush Creek Road, I found similar slopes, mostly at elevations of 9000 feet, filled with bright balsam flowers and clumps of lupine. I enjoy hiking anywhere where I can find this kind of color—but even if you can’t hike, the Forest Service access roads around Snowmass are an enjoyable drive. Of course, the drive to Maroon Lake, south of Aspen, offers better access to wide-open views, and is therefore more popular.
I hiked up the Maroon-Snowmass Trail a bit that morning, but due to a late summer season, there wasn’t colorful scenery closer to the peaks; it was still too cold. You may notice that the foothills in the right half of the panorama hadn’t quite greened up at the time of my visit.
For the more adventurous, there are several photogenic lakes and mountain ranges located beyond Mount Daly, in the national wilderness. Backcountry skiers love the snowy areas that remain on the peaks till July. Personally, I prefer hiking high altitude trails in August, when trail conditions are better and where one can easily find wildflowers on sunny moist slopes.
I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to explore Colorado’s high country so many times. And though my narratives may seem intended for those who want to explore the Rockies themselves, my wish is that these pictures bring a bit of color into your life, whether or not you’re able to travel to the mountains yourself!