I have long admired the beautiful images of Mt. Baker and Mt Shuksan in Washington State’s Cascade Mountains. Earlier this year I finally had the opportunity to photograph them myself.
As I did my pre-trip research, one thing that quickly became clear to me was that a lot of the best locations to photograph Baker and Shuksan require significant hikes. That was a bit of a bummer since long hikes weren’t going to be possible on this trip. So I refocused my efforts on finding locations that didn’t require a lot of hiking.
Fortunately there are two roads (542 and 20) that allow easy access to the mountains and lead you to a wealth of beautiful views of both Baker and Shuksan. After spending a week photographing here from dozens of locations, I’ve narrowed down those spots to the five most photogenic (and easily reached):
From the North: State Road 542 – Mt. Baker Highway
S.R. 542 was created for the single purpose of allowing tourists (including photographers) to visit the Cascades (and leave lots of their dollars behind with the locals). It is on the very northern edge of Washington state (most of it is 10 miles from the Canadian border) and it runs roughly east 57 miles from I-5 near Bellingham all the way to Mt. Baker.
Location #1: Picture Lake
I’ll start with what is often listed as the most photographed location in the state: the iconic view of Mt Shuksan from Picture Lake near the end of S.R. 542.
You can literally drive right up to the lake, walk two minutes and set up your tripod and start shooting. Try to be there near sunset…Shuksan catches afternoon light in a wonderful way so it is a killer sunset spot.
An added bonus is that wildflowers abound in the Cascades from June thru September and photos of Shuksan reflected in the lake with a foreground of colorful wildflowers can be absolutely stunning. Unfortunately, I was there in early October and walked the entire shore without finding a single, straggly flower. Apparently, this area can be ‘loved to death’ by visitors who stray off the walking path and trample the flowers.
Even so, the view was amazing (see photo).
- This is one of the most popular photography locations within 100 miles, so get there early for your sunset shot or you will be shooting over the head of other photographers.
- There is a $5 Parking fee if you are visiting for a single day or you can get an Annual Pass for $30.
- Hwy 542 is usually open 365 days a year to upper Mt. Baker Ski Area lodge at milepost 54.7 (which is at a bit past Picture Lake), so you can shoot from Picture lake all year round.
- There is a nice paved path all around the lake.
- You can get driving directions and more details about Picture Lake here
Location #2 Highwood Lake
I never heard anything about this spot despite all my planning. I found it by accident only a few hundred yards away from Picture Lake while scouting for wildflowers.
Highwood Lake is smaller and the trees on the opposite shoreline partially screen the mountain so it isn’t quite as grand a vista as Picture Lake. Plus Highland has only a narrow road shoulder and a short sloping shore to shoot from so it’s not as ‘user friendly’ as Picture Lake…and there is only a small section of shoreline that features good reflections of the mountain.
So why do I even list it here? Because when I visited its shoreline was lush with wildflowers…unlike Picture Lake. Possibly the reason was simply that the flowers hadn’t been trampled…there isn’t a maintained, easy walking path like Picture Lake so it doesn’t get many visitors.
As I drove here for sunset, I passed a whole crowd of folks at Picture lake and when I pulled up to Highland there was only a single car parked. Unfortunately that car belonged to another photographer and a large group of her friends who were already set up in ‘my’ spot that I had scouted earlier in the day. I was a bit ticked off at myself for not getting their earlier and prayed that they would move….but they stayed firmly rooted until the last of the sun’s red glow faded from the snow atop Shuksan. I worked the ‘less perfect’ spots around them and despite that, the images I captured during that sunset were among the best I captured on my entire trip.
Since Highwood isn’t well-known, here is a map to help you find it.
Location #3: Artist’s Point/Artist’s Ridge
After Picture Lake, continue driving on 542 for less than 3 miles where the road ends at the Artist’s Point parking lot. This is at an elevation of over 5,000′ and you may well find snow there even during the summer.
It certainly absolutely delighted my wife Anita and I during our visit…which immediately led to a mandatory “we’re from Florida so we gotta have a snowball fight!”
The view from the parking lot is pretty impressive, but there are even better vistas from the trails that start here. In my opinion, the best one is Artist’s Point Ridge (see below for more info on where to find the trailhead). This hike is an easy 1.5 miles out-and-back which winds along a ridge with panoramic views of Mt Shuksan to the east and Mt. Baker to the west. It passes a few ice-cold tarns (small ponds sculpted in bedrock by passing glaciers) where you can photograph perfect reflections of Shuksan when the wind is calm.
I was fascinated with the tarns (I think I just like saying the name…tarn, Tarn, TARN…so cool). The area around the tarns is often muddy from melting snow and not particularly attractive so you might have to work a bit to find good compositions.
Since Shuksan is to the east, the light is wonderful in the late afternoon. And it truly shines at sunset when the summit glows orange.
After a bit of looking, I finally found one small attractive bush by a tarn and was able to get a shot by lowering my tripod to a spot only a few inches over the rocky soil. A full rising moon made a nice accent as well:
I spent a couple of hours on the trail photographing Shuksan but I also scouted for locations that would work for the next morning’s sunrise shots of Baker. The next day I was up at 4am and heading back on 542. The parking lot was nearly empty (it fills up often during the day when the weather is nice). I hiked to my furthest pre-scouted location and waited on the sun.
Suddenly, I didn’t have to wait anymore:
Since the glow on the summit is short-lived, I quickly snapped a series of shots then hustled down the trail to my next pre-scouted location and did it again.
I only had time to shoot from three spots before the glow faded…but that was a glorious ten minutes!
Although Baker is the star here during the morning, I did try some shots of Shuksan but with the sun rising right over it the direct light washed out the colors and the wide dynamic range made things challenging:
- The last few miles of 542 (just past picture lake) closes after the first significant snowfall (usually October) and usually doesn’t reopen until June. So unless you are willing to strap on snowshoes, you will want to visit during the summer.
- There is a $5 Parking fee if you are visiting for a single day or you can get an Annual Pass for $30.
- This location works for both sunrise and sunset since Shuksan is to your east (catches nice sunset light) and Baker is to the west (sunrise light)
- The parking often lot fills up during the day, but you shouldn’t have problems finding a spot at dawn or dusk.
- The trailhead for Artists Ridge is at the edge of the parking lot to the right of the bathrooms (as you stand facing the bathrooms with your back to the parking lot). The first part of the trail is paved but it quickly splits and becomes a dirt path. Take a left where the trail forks. After that the trail will take you to Huskan Ridge where it dead ends and you return the same way. Here is a link with more info about this trail.
From the South: State Road 20 (North Cascades Highway)
About a half hour south of 542 (on the way to Seattle via I-5) you run into S.R. 20 which actually crosses the Cascades (Note that it does close between late November and mid December and reopens usually by early May). From there it is about another hour to Lake Baker which has my last two recommended spots to photograph Mt. Baker (see map below).
Location #4: Lake Baker Boat Ramp
The first location is near a public boat ramp and park operated by PSE (Puget Sound Energy). This is next to the Kulshan Campground (which might be easier to find on your GPS). As you drive east on SR 20 look for Baker Lake Road, which will be on your left (north) about 24 miles from I-5. Take Baker Lake about 15.5 miles and look for signs on the right for the Boat Ramp and/or Kulshan RV park. Take that road all the way to the boat ramp and park at the lot there.
There are nice views of Shuksan to the north and great views of Mt. Baker to the northeast. The problem with this spot is finding a decent foreground. Many of the views are marred by docks/causeways plus most of the shoreline is nothing more than gravel with little native vegetation.
After a bit of scouting I think the best spot to photograph here is along a long a large gravel berm that you can see to the left as you stand in the parking lot (see map below).
The berm is blocked for cars. However, if you walk down the hill to the berm you can stroll on top of it (east) and it will provide this view of Mt. Baker:
This is a good morning shot while Baker is lit up by the sunrise. You can shoot from the top of the berm and get a nice reflection and if you are lucky, there might be wildflowers growing on the slope of the berm that you can use for foreground.
Although you can also see Shuksan from this spot, I found that finding a decent foreground clear of obstructions was impossible. Hopefully you will have more luck.
Location #5: Boulder Creek.
If you head back to Baker Lake Road and turn north (right), you will come to my last spot in less than 3 miles (just past the Boulder Creek Campground). A well-marked bridge crosses over Boulder Stream. There is room to park just past the bridge on the right. There is a walkway along the bridge that provides this view of Mt. Baker:
If you don’t mind scrambling a bit, you can get down to the river (from the riverbank near where you parked). Then walk back up the river a bit past the bridge and you can find some nice river-level compositions.
If you have extra time, there are more photo worthy locations further east on SR 20 (Diablo Lake, Maple Pass, Washington Pass, etc.)…but I’ll save those for a future blog.
Hopefully you found the info in this blog helpful for your trip to Washington’s Cascades…have a great time!