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A Day Trip To Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument (Washington State) With My Cameras

An afternoon view of the volcano from Johnston Ridge Observatory (Fujifilm GFX 100)

It’s been almost three decades since my last visit to Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. Since moving back to Washington state, I’ve been thinking about a little return trip there to see what has changed in the ensuing years. I figured a May day visit to celebrate 41 years since the volcano’s eruption would be a great opportunity to field test a couple of new cameras (Sony Alpha 1, Fujifilm GFX 100).

It takes four hours to reach the Johnston Ridge Observatory from where I live in central Washington. In my case, it took a little longer, since I stopped at various view areas along the way. There are actually two ways to get to the volcano. There’s the slightly shorter route to Windy Ridge, on the northwestern side of Mt. St. Helens, with a great view of Spirit Lake (the road which is still closed due to snow). And then, there’s the slightly longer route along Spirit Lake Memorial Highway up to the Johnston Ridge Observatory, slightly northeast of the crater.

Hoffstadt Creek Bridge (Fujifilm GFX 100)
Hoffstadt Creek Bridge (Sony a1)

The first view area at which I stopped was the Hoffstadt Bridge area. There are 14 bridges built along the Spirit Lake Memorial Highway leading up to the Johnston Ridge Observatory. This bridge pictured here is the tallest of them and is located at the edge of the blast zone in this area, about 22 miles away from the volcano. The trees and green foiliage you see in the images have grown since Mt. St. Helens’ eruption 41 years ago.

A trail to the side of the Hoffstadt Creek Bridge view area (Fujifilm GFX 100)

After photographing the bridge, I noticed this lovely leading line of a trail creating a yin-yang feel to the scene, with the bare white tree trunks on one side and the heavier, green foliage on the other side. No, I didn’t take the trail, so I don’t know where it ultimately led. I was trying to get closer to the volcano while decent morning light remained.

The scene from Castle Lake View Area (Sony a1)

I stopped at a couple more view areas, including the one above, with a side view of Mt. St. Helens and what I assume is Castle Lake to the center right of the composition. FYI, it’s reaaaalllly windy at this view spot as well as the Elk Rock Viewpoint, a stop before the Castle Lake Viewpoint. I was glad my tripod was heavy but still worried about camera shake because of the wind. I was also glad I had ear flaps to my Tilley hat, otherwise it would have blown off my head and far away.

Noble firs, planted 1983 (Sony a1)

All along the road up to the observatory, there are great stands of trees all about the same height, with signs denoting the type of tree and when they were planted. Most were planted between 1983 and 1986. This stand of noble firs was planted 1983, three years after the eruption.

A morning look at Mt. St. Helens from the Loowit View Area (Fujifilm GFX 100)

The first really good, head-on view of Mt. St. Helens, imo, is at the Loowit View Area, probably a mile – more or less – down from Johnston Ridge Observatory. As you can see from the image above, even at 8 a.m., good morning light doesn’t last very long, as the vista was becoming hazy with a slight blue cast to it. Take a moment to note that contrail in the upper left corner. Every single plane I watched flying over me made a beeline to the mountain. I imagine pilots include this view in their flight plan for the benefit of the plane passengers?

This view area (as well as the observatory area) was totally devoid of the chilly wind I’d experienced on the way up, which was a nice change. No real tripod shake and I didn’t have to worry about my hat flying away.

Where they lay – tree trunks still stripped and bare from the volcano’s blast even 41 years later (Sony a1)

It was interesting to see the growth that’s occurred in 41 years, yet still see very obvious signs of blast devastation. The cliff walls near the top of the image tower over the Toutle River (or what is left of it, after ash and mud spread out, flooded down, and clogged parts of the river.

I think I spent a good 45 minutes there before heading on up to Johnston Ridge Observatory. The observatory is closed, to date, and there are no restrooms or water, but the parking lot and view points are open. The last place for restrooms and water are at Coldwater Lake, some 8 miles back down elevation (or, if you look at a map, further north in distance) from the observatory.

In your face (iPhone 11 Pro)

It was after 9 a.m. by the time I reached the Johnston Ridge Observatory. The volcano was in my face as I walked up the paved rampway.

Morning view of Mt. St. Helens at Johnston Ridge Observatory (Sony a1)

As you can see from the image above, the atmosphere around Mt. St. Helens was hazy and had quite the blue cast to it. Regardless of lighting conditions, to see up close this volcano and the devastated area around it is truly impressive.

All that remains (Sony a1)

There is a paved walkway in both directions from the observatory’s main view area, so I walked up to this view of what remains of trees that were 150 feet tall. These blasted stumps are what is left of trees blown by the power of the eruption back to the valley you see in the background.

Mountain goat (Sony a1)

Before I left to head toward Longview and attempt an early check in, I walked the paved trail in the other direction from the image of the blasted trees. Lo and behold, right there on the hillside where the observatory building stood was a trio of mountain goats. I’d been given a heads up by a local photographer that I might see elk, so I’d attached my Sony a1 to my 100-400mm lens. I did see elk along the route to Spirit Lake Memorial Highway (aka Hwy 504), but they weren’t in the national monument proper and I was trying to get to the volcano while there was still decent morning light. I’d switched out lenses while photographing at Loowit View Area, so I had my 24-105mm lens attached, with which I ultimately had to make do for the photos I captured of the mountain goats. This image has been cropped from the original and it was the only one showing this goat’s front end (rather than the butt ends of the other two goats on the hill).

I was able to get early check in for my reservation at the Quality Inn & Suites in Longview, a little over an hour’s drive away from the observatory. In retrospect, I wish I would have stayed at the Comfort Inn, right next to the Three Rivers Mall and closer to places for take out options. The hotel at which I stayed is in Longview’s industrial section and is a bit dated. My room had cracks in the sink and the toilet, plus my room’s door wouldn’t automatically lock after shutting. Thankfully, that issue was fixed promptly, or else I would have asked for a different room. The hotel staff was very friendly, which was a plus to an otherwise meh hotel stay. I only stayed one night, so the room was fine enough.

Late afternoon view from the Loowit View Area (Fujifilm GFX 100)
A lava dome and steam vents (Sony a1)

I returned to Mt. St. Helens later in the afternoon and the lighting was considerably better. I also noticed steam rising from a couple of vents in the lava dome that I had not detected early that morning. That was pretty cool.

Mountain goats and volcanic scenery (Sony a1)

I made my way from the Loowit View Area back up to the observatory (see image at the very top of this post). Once again, as I was getting ready to return to my vehicle, I saw the same three mountain goats I’d spotted earlier that morning. And of course, my Sony still had the 24-105mm lens on it. The goats were closer to the paved walkway, but I didn’t want to get too near as one of the three was rather aggressive and I sure as heck didn’t want to be on the receiving end. So, I did what any good photographer would do with a wide-angle lens on their camera instead of a telephoto lens (left back in the car): I made the wildlife a part of my landscape scene.

What did I think of my cameras? I love them both! That GFX 100 is the landscape camera of my dreams, although I sure wish they had a wider selection of lenses. Fujifilm apparently figured the GFX 100 would be used only for portraiture and architecture. That’s probably true for what the current majority of photographers who own this camera use it. But with the advent of the GFX 100s, I would imagine there are a great many more landscape photographers out there who will use this medium format for their work. Hopefully, the people at Fujifilm will take note and create more lenses.

The Sony a1 is an exceptional camera, as is the rest of its line. This one combines the resolution I like for my landscapes, along with a shutter frame rate (up to 30 fps) perfect for wildlife and sports photography. I’m hoping to get more wildlife action from this camera during an upcoming visit to Kings Canyon, Sequoia, and Yosemite national parks. Yes, I’ll be keeping a long lens attached to this particular camera during that trip.

Becky and the volcano – yup, there was no wind so my hat stayed on my head

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Filed under Fujifilm GFX 100, Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, Photography, Sony a1, Travel, Washington State

Mt. St. Helens And The Fujifilm GFX 100

A Late Afternoon View From The Loowit View Area, Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument (Washington)

May marks the 41st anniversary of the eruption of Mt. St. Helens (May 18, 1980). I first visited this volcano about 10 years after its eruption. The devastation was obvious. It would be 30 years before seeing this area again. While there has been much growth in the area (including stands of trees planted 3-6 years after the eruption), the devastation is still obvious.

I had recently purchased the Fujifilm GFX 100 and desparately wanted to get out to test this medium format camera. A return trip to Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument was just the ticket. It’s about 4 hours’ drive from where I live, and even leaving at 3 a.m. didn’t get me up there in time for sunrise shots. Once I arrived, I did spend all morning there and about an hour or two of late afternoon. I can tell you that early mornings (before 9 a.m.) and late afternoons (5 p.m. and after) are the best times for good lighting, because starting at 8 a.m., things start to get a little hazy and a blue cast to the atmosphere begins to settle in prior to harsh light for the remainder of the day. Doesn’t really matter, though, since this mountain (or what remains of a once conical, snowcapped mountain with an elevation of 9,677 ft [2,950m]) is picturesque nonetheless.

I only have two lenses for the GFX 100, and both of them are prime wide-angles (wide and wider). So the close up shots I achieved while there were captured with a different camera, about which I’ll write later.

The GFX 100 is easy to work with. It still takes a little hunting in the menu to find what I need, but as I wrote in a previous post, the menu is much easier to walk through than my Sony menus. The only thing I had a problem with was the auto power-off setting, and it wasn’t so much a problem as the fact that I assumed it would be like my Sony cameras, where I depress the button and the camera comes back to life. Not so with the GFX 100. I kept pressing the shutter button and nothing would happen. It wasn’t until I turned the camera button from the On position to Off and then back On again that the camera came to life. Needless to say, I changed the settings and the camera remains completely on now. I know it’s a drain on the battery life, but even with that, I was able to shoot through the entire day without needing to change to the spare batteries (the GFX 100 takes two batteries).

As long as you check the weather reports to pick out a decent day for visiting this national monument, May is a great time. I could count on two hands the number of people I encountered, and that was at a safe distance. Not many people were there early in the morning or late in the afternoon. It is a bit of a drive off of Interstate 5 (about an hour). There aren’t that many hiking trails around there, and Johnston Ridge Observatory is not open – well, the building is not open, nor are the restrooms, but you can still drive up there, park, and walk around. The nearest restrooms are accessed at the Coldwater Lake parking area, 8 miles away from the observatory. The main hiking trail (Boundary Trail) which starts at the observatory still has quite a bit of snow on it in places – deep enough for snowshoes. I had them in my vehicle but didn’t feel like putting them on and taking them off multiple times just to cross over the snowy parts. IMO, the two best view areas for really seeing this volcano are the Loowit View Area (the photo above was captured there) and Johnston Ridge Observatory area.

If you go visit, make sure you take a telephoto lens with you. I’d brought along my Sony 100-400mm lens but left it in the car and naturally, I came across a trio of mountain goats grazing around the observatory area. Sigh.

Copyright Rebecca L. Latson, all rights reserved.

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Filed under Fujifilm GFX 100, Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, Photography, Travel, Washington State

April Showers Bring May Flowers Part II

Here’s another spring (and summer and maybe even fall) flower you’ll see in quite a few national parks: Indian paintbrush (aka scarlet paintbrush, magenta paintbrush, pumice paintbrush, etc. etc.). Here’s an interesting little fact that you would have picked up if you’d read my National Parks Quiz and Trivia Piece #28: the paintbrush flower is quite opportunistic, digging its roots into neighboring plants to steal their nutrients. This plant, therefore, is hemiparasitic – it has chlorophyll, so it doesn’t get all of its nutrition from other plants.

The next time you are out in a park, or even when you look alongside the road and you spy a paintbrush flower, look around to see if there are other flowers nearby. You’ll usually (not always, but usually) see Indian, scarlet, magenta, or pumice paintbrush quite close to other flowers and plants.

Oh, and if you are interested in looking at that wildflower quiz, then click on the image above.

Copyright Rebecca L. Latson, all rights reserved.

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Filed under flowers, National Parks, Photography

National Parks Quiz and Trivia #28 – The Spring Wildflower Edition

Blooming claret cup cactus in Big Bend National Park (Texas)

It’s time to test your knowledge with my latest quiz and trivia piece published in today’s edition of the National Parks Traveler. It’s all about spring wildflowers in the national park system. See just how much you know and maybe learn something new.

To take the quiz, click on the image above. After you’ve finished with the quiz, take a look at the other articles in today’s edition of the Traveler, while you are at it.

Copyright Rebecca L. Latson, all rights reserved.

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Filed under flowers, National Parks, National Parks Quiz, National Parks Traveler, Photography

Steps Up The Trail

A leading line shot, Flood of Fire Trail, Foree Area, Sheep Rock Unit, John Day Fossil Beds National Monument

It’s Saturday, folks! Or does it matter? For the past year, the days have all run together and I’m glad I have a calendar (a real paper one, no less) to which I can refer and find out what day it actually is ;).

This photo is looking up the very short .4-mile round trip Flood of Fire Trail in the Foree Area of the Sheep Rock Unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, in Oregon. It was the last trip I made pre-pandemic, before things shut down. Not the last trip I made during the entire year, mind you, but the last regular trip I made prior to Covid.

Anyway, if you are ever looking for a nice little road trip to make, a trip to any of the three units within this national monument will allow you to stretch your legs, since the few trails in each of the units are short. I really wish there were more, longer trails, but I have a feeling that perhaps, national monuments don’t get quite the love (or money) that national parks get. Then again, national monuments probably don’t get the visitor headaches that national parks get – or do they?

Last year, I saw a post, either on Facebook or Instagram, by this national monument asking that people park responsibily in the Painted Hills Unit. Apparently there was a crowding issue, brought on by people wanting to get out and away from Covid for a little bit. Many of those people were probably the kind who are only accustomed to water parks or theme parks, and a trip to an actual, outdoor, in-the-wild-type park unit is a new experience for them – an experience for which they don’t know how to practice the Leave No Trace etiquette.

But, I digress. Central Oregon is a place of winding roads, slower driving (so as not to hit the cattle ranging freely), stunning geology, awesome landscapes for your camera, but few large towns or gas stations. If you prepare accordingly, it’s a great excuse for a road trip.

Copyright Rebecca L. Latson, all rights reserved.

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Filed under John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, National Parks, Oregon, Photography, Sony Alpha a7r IV, Travel

Fun Fact Friday 3-12-2021

Velvet Landscape, Painted Hills Unit
Folds Of Velvet – A Telephoto Landscape

Here;s a wide-angle and a telephoto shot of the same area in the Painted Hills Unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, located in east-central Oregon. The telephoto image focuses more on those beautiful folds of maroon and olive hills, which was the objective with the telephoto shot. This is also to prove you can get some really nice telephoto landscapes, too. Telephotos are not just for wildlife, birds, and sports.

It’s #FunFactFriday , so here’s some interesting facts about this national monument located in Oregon. There are three units in this national monument, and each unit is about an hour’s drive from any other of the two units (the roads are winding so it’s important to drive the actual speed limit). The monument, as a whole, contains fossils of plants and animals that date back as far as 44 million years. The varigated colors of the hills denote periods of climate change, between wetter and drier periods. The darker colors of the hills represent wetter atmospheres, in which water oxidized (rusted) the iron minerals within the soils.

Copyright Rebecca L. Latson, all rights reserved.

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Filed under John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, National Parks, Oregon, Photography, telephoto lens, Travel

It’s Fun Fact Friday 11-27-2020

Our neighbor to the North sure has some pretty national parks of its own, don’t you think? And since it’s #FunFactFriday here are some pieces of trivia about Banff National Park:

Banff National Park was Canada’s first national park. The mountains in this park are believed to be between 45 and 120 million years old. Before Europeans came into the region, this area had been inhabited by the Peigen, Kootenay, Stoney, and Kainai aboriginal peoples, to name a few.

This image was captured off of the Icefields Parkway, while on my way from Banff National Park into Jasper National Park. Even in April, when it’s spring in the lower elevations, it’s still winter in the higher elevations of the mountains.

Copyright Rebecca L. Latson, all rights reserved.

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Filed under Banff National Park, Canada, Fun Fact Friday, National Parks, Photography, Travel

Photography In The National Parks: Back In Business Again

Forest Magic in the lower elevations

My photo article has been published on the National Parks Traveler. Usually, my columns are published a little closer to the end of the month, but this one is different in that it deals with what you might see if you happen to visit Mount Rainier National Park anytime soon, since it’s reopened the road from the Nisqually entrance to Paradise.

To read the article, click on the image above.

As for this photo – the rain was pelting down as I got out of the car with my camera. I captured this image handheld because it was a pain to get out the tripod and set it up in the downpour. Even my camera’s rain protection was beginning to get saturated, and my bangs were plastered to my forehead. Yes, I did wear a rainjacket but didn’t pull the hood over my head because water kept dropping from the hood onto the camera. It was a mess and I was lucky to get this shot.

This was using my Nikon D850 and 24-120 lens. This is the lens that I won’t ever use again because out of all the shots I took with it, only this and one other image turned out. I’d read about problems with this lens but didn’t think it would happen to me. I guess sort of like people thinking coronavirus won’t happen to them. I *thought* everything was hunky dory after doing some lens calibration, but apparently not. Live and learn. Better to have this happen with a nearby park trip than next month’s Crater Lake trip.

Copyright Rebecca L. Latson, all rights reserved.

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Filed under Mount Rainier National Park, Mt. Rainier National Park, National Parks, National Parks Traveler, Photography, Photography In The National Parks, Travel, Travel and Photography, Washington State

It’s Fun Fact Friday 2/21/2020!

The View Along Lost Mine Trail - 14mm

The view along the Lost Mine Trail, Big Bend National Park, in Texas

Hey folks, it’s Fun Fact Friday! Here are some interesting facts for you about Big Bend National Park, in Texas.

  • There are over 60 species of cactus, 450 species of birds, 1,200 plant species, and 3,600 insect species found in this national park.
  • The name Big Bend comes from a bend in the Rio Grande River, which runs along the park boundary.
  • In 2012, the park was named an International Dark Sky Park, which means it’s awesome for star gazing.

I first visited this national park in 2013 and made 4 more trips there before moving out of Texas. I visited during the winter and spring, when the temperatures were at their most ambient. Late spring was awesome for blooming cactus. And, speaking of visiting, Big Bend is entering it’s busy season, so if you are planning to travel there anytime soon, you’d probably better have alternate lodging plans in case you can’t find an available campsite, according to an article published in today’s edition of the National Parks Traveler.

To read more of that article, click on the image at the top of this post.

Strawberry Pitaya Bloom

A strawberry pitaya bloom, Big Bend National Park, in Texas

Copyright Rebecca L. Latson, all rights reserved.

 

 

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Filed under Big Bend, Big Bend National Park, Canon, flowers, Fun Fact Friday, Landscape, National Parks, National Parks Traveler, Photography, Seasons, Spring, Texas, Travel, winter

Dawn Along The Seashore

Dawn Along The Seashore

How about a nice, peaceful, beach scene colored by the blush of “rosy-fingered dawn” to start your weekend? I have a feeling dawn won’t be as pretty where I live – it’s been overcast with a low cloud ceiling for the past few days.

Padre Island National Seashore in Texas is a great place to watch the sun rise. I got there at dark-thirty a.m. and just watched the play of colors over the sky and Gulf of Mexico, as the shore birds pattered along the water’s edge looking for breakfast.

Copyright Rebecca L. Latson, all rights reserved.

 

 

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Filed under 1DX, birds, Canon, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM, Canon Lens, National Parks, nature, Padre Island National Seashore, Photography, Seasons, Spring, sunrise, Texas, Travel