Autumn is a favorite time for photographing in the Pacific Northwest. There are so many places to capture fall colors but nothing quite compares to photographing Mount Rainier in autumn. The Pacific Northwest and Mount Rainier make the perfect combination of elements needed for stunning images of fall photography. Not only is Mt Rainier known for its larger than life size but it picturesque lakes, waterfalls, meadows, and tundra. Although it varies year to year I find the best time for fall colors is the last week of September to Mid-October. But the color usually lasts until the first week of November when the snow first starts. Check fall reports on the Internet and the Mt Rainier website for more up to date information. There are two main areas to visit when going to Mt Rainier, which are the Paradise side and the Sunrise side. Both have excellent fall color and a host of different aspects to photograph. In my experience the fall colors start a few weeks earlier on the Sunrise side. The best places to photograph on the Sunrise side are Yakima Peak, Emmons Glacier (Silver Forest Trail), and the Tipsoo Lake area. Take time to explore around Tipsoo Lake especially the Naches Peak trail and both the Upper and Lower Tipsoo surrounding lakes. Early morning around Tipsoo Lake usually has a host of colors and mist that make for excellent atmospheric images. When photographing in late September the stunning sunrises make for great fall conditions. In terms of the foliage high elevation red huckleberry and larch is what you can expect to find on Mt Rainer. The other types of foliage you see are cottonwoods, willows, elderberry, aspen, tamarack (western larch) and deciduous trees. Although there are several types of foliage to shoot in autumn on Mt Rainier my personal favorite is the Red Huckleberry. The red is visually very impactful and always sticks out above other fall foliage. Look to incorporate the red huckleberry when combining it with areas of water like lakes and ponds that mirror the color of red. The red huckleberry is the first sign of fall color followed by larches, which tend to occur at the later stages of autumn.
When it comes to photographing on the Paradise side of Mount Rainier I always like to start off looking for fall colors at the Paradise Inn which has a great view of the mountain and the best displays of fall color right at the visitor center. Heading up the pathway to Myrtle Falls the views only getting better as well the color. Look to incorporate waterfalls as well as the mountain when making your way up the mountain from the Paradise side. Although the hike can be somewhat strenuous the hike is worth it. If you keep along the paths they converge into the Paradise Valley where the mountain is in full view but also if you turn 180 degrees away from the mountain you get grand views of the Tatoosh range. The Tatoosh Range looks best at sunset. The Paradise Meadows also makes a great sunset spot when the weather looks active and the clouds are moving in. Sometimes the clouds move over Mt Rainier making it impossible to see but the action on the Tatoosh Range gets color. So in essence it’s your safest bet if you are looking to capture some fall colors on the mountain.
If you continue up the hill past Myrtle Falls you will eventually reach the Mazama Ridge. It’s my favorite area to see the mountain and fall color. With wide-open meadows of fall color and full views of the mountain it makes for an excellent combination. The total hike in and out from the Mazama Ridge is about 4 miles but there are several areas to stop along the way for fall colors. If you like to shoot reflection images of the mountain you can’t do better than both the Reflection Lakes and Bench Lake areas. I always make an annual stop at these lakes early in the morning to capture both atmospheric mist and fall colors.
Another favorite of mine for great views of the mountain is the hike up to Pinnacle Peak saddle and the surrounding areas. There are great views of Mount Adams as well from up here. The hike is short but steep. Once at the saddle I explore around the area for good compositions and color.
The hikes around the lake also present many possibilities to shoot more intimate shots of autumn. If you are looking to capture images of fall color and forest scenes then head into the Grove Of Patriarchs. Many short hikes in this forest provide stunning forest views of the tall trees and fall colors. To get really creative try photographing really low to the ground and look straight up with the camera and shoot fall colors and the trees together. With so many places to photograph on Mt Rainier you always have many options available.
If you are lucky enough to live close to the mountain September is a great time to watch the mountain for unusual weather activity. Because the elevation of Mt Rainier is so high it creates its own weather system. So your chances of seeing unusual weather patterns like lenticular cloud buildup is quite possible. In layman terms lenticular clouds are those clouds that look like UFO’s in the sky but are caused by encounters with obstructions in the sky like very high mountain peaks. Known also as “wave clouds” they make for very interesting patterns and when combined with fall colors make for ideal conditions. In autumn I check the webcams quite often looking for a buildup of these clouds as it takes often several hours to buildup. The Paradise Valley makes for one of the best spots to see this unique weather pattern. The other place that I will often head to if I see these weather patterns is along the Silver Forest Trail, which is about .5 of a mile from the parking lot at the Sunrise Visitor Center.
With so many options on Mt Rainier to photograph as well as the diversity of colors it makes for the perfect place to photograph. Combine all of the elements of unusual weather, stunning sunrises, and atmospheric conditions and Mt Rainier makes for the perfect autumn spot to photograph.
Kevin McNeal is a landscape photographer who resides in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. He focuses on grand colorful landscapes that reflect the most unique places on earth. Capturing moments of magic light and transferring this on print, images behold a combination of perseverance, patience, and dedication to capture the images in ways unseen before. The stories of how these images are rendered come across in the feelings the images convey.